'Be Brilliant in the Basics' - Safety commander discusses how to deal with tough times

  • Published
  • By Tim Barela
  • Torch Magazine
Multiple sexual assault incidents, academic cheating accusations, sequestration, less money, and people worrying about whether or not they will have a job tomorrow are all adding stress to a force already being stretched by a high volume of deployments. Since increased stress and distractions are known to contribute to increased mishaps, the Air Force's chief of safety has his hands full in trying to ensure these distractions don't turn into more people getting hurt or equipment getting destroyed.

Torch magazine recently sat down with Maj. Gen. Kurt Neubauer, who serves as both the Air Force's chief of safety in Washington D.C. and the commander of the Air Force Safety Center at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., to discuss some of the safety issues facing him during his first year in office.

Q: The Air Force chief of staff has expressed concern with an increase in mishaps that indicate lack of compliance and decision making as causal. On the flying side of the house, how are we addressing these concerns in such areas as flight discipline?

A: Each major command commander is going from tooth to tail looking at these exact issues. Really -- whether flight, ground or weapons safety -- it comes down to a reinforcement of being brilliant in the basics. Whether it's a seasoned pilot or the youngest Airman on the flight line, anyone can make an error. And if the error is not caught fast enough, it can tumble into something catastrophic. Regardless of how experienced an Airman may be, regardless of what the phase of flight or maintenance work it is, there are certain rules of the road that must be abided by -- not only from the standpoint of being able to effectively execute the mission, but also from the standpoint of being able to execute it safely. That structural integrity of mission accomplishment and safety is all one piece. Safety isn't a sideshow ... it's an integral part of performance. We have to balance the scale of risk and reward. Even though we know we are going to be executing a risky mission or task, we have to continuously offset that risk with equipment, training and habit patterns.

Q: On the ground side, what steps are we taking to encourage Airmen to obey rules established to help keep them safe (i.e., speed limits, wearing helmets, strapping on seat belts, no texting and driving, no drinking and driving, etc.)?

A: When it comes to ground mishaps, leaders have to be present -- involved and interested in what their subordinates are doing, not only their on-the-job duties but also regarding what they are doing with their off-duty time as well. What are their hobbies and interests? What are their long-term goals? Are they enamored with extreme sports? We have to make each Airman understand how important they are. Without Airmen, you don't get airpower. So they have to not only train hard and work hard, but when they play hard, they have to do it smartly and make those right risk-versus-reward decisions so they can come back safely after their leave or long weekend and be ready to get after it again.

Q: When it comes to safety, what is the Air Force's biggest strength?

A: Whether ground, flight or weapons safety, our Air Force is doing a good job overall. You see that success by virtue of the fact that we're in a very high-risk business, whether it's in the air, on the ground or in the weapons storage area; yet, regardless of where we work or what we are doing, the number of mishaps, although not yet at zero, are much lower if you look at them in the context of the sheer number of operations we have going on worldwide. This success is a testament to the discipline of our Airmen, discipline of purpose, discipline of method, use of tech data, and abiding by our standards and practices. It's a testament to how we teach and train our Airmen both in professional military education and on the job. And, finally, it's a testament to the discipline of doing things the right way the first time.

Q: How do we continue to improve upon our strengths and reverse any negative trends in the areas that challenge us?

A: It's going to take repetition. If you use the gym as an analogy, it's about sets and repetitions. In the gym, it's three to five sets, three to five reps, three to five times a week. That's how you stay fit and build strength. Using that same philosophy, we have to continue to remind Airmen, regardless if they are new or the most seasoned Airman in the squadron, about good habit patterns and safety practices three to five times a day, three to five times a week. We have to get them to the point that they are thinking about it as a matter of habit. Because when they are thinking about it, they talk about it. Their actions will soon reflect those discussions. Those actions become habit patterns. Those habit patterns forge our destiny. And that destiny means mission success. So it's not only the initial training of showing Airmen what to do and how to do it, but then going back periodically and rechecking and refreshing that to ensure we are staying on task, strengthening and building solid habits.

Q: Each year Air Education and Training Command basically teaches "young pedestrians" how to aviate and graduates tens of thousands of basic trainees -- mostly teenagers -- who think they are bulletproof. What do you think is the best way to reach this group to prevent mishaps and instill risk management into their professional development and lifestyles?

A: They need to hear it not only from leadership, but peer to peer. Airman-to-Airman videos (like the ones produced at the safety center) are priceless. Because when an Airman in his or her young 20s hears from another Airman in his or her young 20s, I think that is incredibly valuable. For example, "This is what happened to me, this is the mistake I made and this is the lesson I learned" ... a lesson we can all learn from. Peer-to-peer feedback helps them to understand there are other Airmen out there who are dealing with the same choices, the same dilemmas, the same challenges. They are just in a different location. And you can learn from their mistakes before you make the same error.

Q: What types of mishaps trouble you the most?

A: Any preventable mishap is troubling. First of all, our country invests a tremendous amount in our Airmen and our equipment. So whenever we lose an Airman, bend metal or break equipment, it's a huge loss for our Air Force and for our country. And perhaps most importantly, there's the effect of that loss on family, friends and co-workers. The real challenge is how to reach zero mishaps ... that's the goal we're shooting for ... a quest for zero. It's a very elusive quest and although we may not see it soon, I think with consistent reinforcement of good habits and understanding how to offset the risks we must take, we will make good headway.

Q: What mishaps have you witnessed or reviewed that stick out in your mind?

A: There have been several. Any loss of an Airman is tragic. But the mishaps that were clearly preventable either through better decision making or by ensuring compliance with our established methods and guidance ... those are the ones I find most troubling. The real tragedy, though, is not just the loss of the Airman or the equipment, it's the second and third order effects that happen as a result of the mishap -- how it affects the families, how it affects the squadron. I have dealt with grieving family members, and there is nothing you can do for those folks to fill the hole in their heart after losing a loved one. That's why I'm passionate about the quest for zero. This is personal for me ... this is part of our Air Force family business.

Q: If there were a single thing people could do or a single bit of advice you could give that would save the most lives, what would it be?

A: Be fit, be ready and be able to do your mission. And on any given day, if you're not fit, ready or able for your mission, be man or woman enough to fess up and tell your leadership that today is not your day. Take the time to recharge, refit and reinvigĀ¬orate, and then reattack that mission the following day. Don't try to force things -- it's not worth the risk.