'SHOW 'EM WHAT RIGHT LOOKS LIKE' - Commander talks about successfully bringing airpower to fight while reducing risk to life, limb

  • Published
  • By Tim Barela
  • Torch Magazine
He’s responsible for the well-being of more than 60,000 command members and nearly 300,000 students each year — many of them teenagers who still feel bulletproof. And the cold reality is that at some points during his reign, he will lose Airmen under his command … not to war, but to preventable mishaps.

That’s enough to keep anyone up late at night.

But Lt. Gen. Darryl Roberson, who took over as the Air Education and Training Command commander in late July, doesn’t shrink from that challenge. He believes the command can reduce mishaps and fatalities.

While there’s no magical formula, he does believe there are some simple solutions. In November, he discussed some of those issues with Torch.

Q: AETC is unique in that we get most Airmen in the infancy of their Air Force careers. How do you go about instilling solid risk management principles in them?

A: It’s important when we take Airmen off the street that we start them off on the right foot and show ‘em what right looks like. They are joining the Air Force, and this is a military organization that requires discipline and requires us to do things a certain way to be successful to bring airpower to the fight. We have to show them what the expectations are — what the standards are — from the very beginning. Then they have to understand that if they don’t follow the standards what the implications or repercussions are. They need to know they will be held accountable. If we demonstrate and teach you the right way to do things, then I think 99 percent of our Airmen are going to do the right thing, the right way, the first time.

Q: What do you think is the best way to reach the high-risk group, ages 17-25, to prevent mishaps and instill risk management into their professional development and personal lifestyles?

A: We need to focus in on what they are doing. It’s a combination of everyone working together — from peers and their wingmen all the way through their first-line supervisors and highest-level commanders. We have to constantly evaluate how our youngest Airmen are learning, how they accept information and how to get the message across to them. And every generation is different. So it’s actually fun in many ways to try to make sure we’re staying in tune with how best to message our youngest Airmen. Safety is one of those things that needs to be constantly talked about. Even though some Airmen, especially the younger ones, don’t necessarily want to hear the repetition, safety really is our effort to try to take care of them. And caring for our Airmen is one of our basic priorities.

Q: What safety violations or issues drive you crazy?

A: Tech order compliance concerns me. If after an accident we find out that folks were not following tech orders, that’s a big deal to me. It shows that we have lost a little bit of our discipline; that we perhaps weren’t paying attention and focused as critically as we needed to be. Our operations put lives on the line every day; so it’s really important that we follow the tech orders and we do the operations the way we know how.

Another concern of mine is motorcycles. The thing that gets me about two-wheeled vehicles compared to four-wheeled is that in many of the cases in which someone was either killed or paralyzed for life, they were doing nothing wrong. They were wearing the proper equipment. They were obeying the traffic laws. They weren’t doing anything unusual. And yet they got taken out. Because there is less protection, riding motorcycles, especially in a city or a congested environment, is very risky business.

And, last but not least, texting while driving gets my attention. Every time I get out on the road I see people swerving. Then I see them on their phones texting or talking. We need to get this under control as it has become one of our most dangerous activities.

Q: As a commander, what types of mishaps have you witnessed or reviewed that stick out in your mind?

A: The ones I remember the most and the ones that are the most tragic for me are the ones that could have been prevented if just one link in the mishap chain had been broken. It’s the fact that nobody stepped up to break one of those links before the actual huge tragedy happened that makes it even worse. I lost an F-4 flight commander in training back in the early 1980s. It was a night mission out over the water; the weather was bad. We really didn’t need to be out there. The training was not so important that we had to be out there doing it in those conditions.

We ended up losing two people in an F-4 crash over the Gulf of Mexico.

To get the mission done, they ended up compromising in a couple of areas they shouldn’t have. And the supervisors knew about it but didn’t stop it. Really unfortunate stuff. If we have leadership that accepts less than doing it the right way then we’re compromising and putting everyone involved at risk.

Q: What are your “keys to success” for commanders and first-line supervisors regarding the execution of a safety and mishap prevention program?

A: Keys to success are discipline, enforcing the standards, having a strong risk assessment program, holding people accountable and the ability for everybody to be able to call a knock-it-off. Even the youngest, lowest-ranking Airman should feel empowered to be able to say, “OK, stop. This is not right. We’re going to hurt somebody or break something.” We are in the Air Force, and any military requires discipline to be successful. So we need to have the discipline to execute what we know works and to call a knock-it-off when things aren’t going right.

Q: If you had the last word before an Airman departed for leave or had a chance to give some last tidbits of advice, what would you say?

A: Do the risk assessment. Think about what you’re going to do and kind of mentally chair fly what you’re going to do. How far of a drive do you have? Should you break it up into a couple of days travel? Do you know the route? What’s the safest way to go? What’s the weather look like? After you’ve done the assessment and selected a plan that reduces the risk, stick to your plan. Avoid last-minute changes. I speak from experience because I was in a hurry to get home for the holidays when I was young too.

Q: The Air Force is rapidly changing. With sequestration budget cuts and reduced manning, do you believe we are putting ourselves at more risk for mishaps? If so, how can we mitigate this risk as we try to adapt to this “new reality” while continuing at a high ops tempo?

A: Well the reality is we are the smallest Air Force that we’ve ever been in our history. And nothing really has come off the plate. So operations continue the way they were when we had a lot more Airmen. We have had to adapt to that situation. Because of this change, it actually makes our safety program even more important. Safety is not only critical for saving lives, limbs and resources, it’s mission imperative. Now more than ever, we can’t afford to lose even a single Airman to a preventable mishap because the impact on the mission is devastating.

I know we’re short on people. We’re short on time. We’re short on resources. But none of that should drive us to the point that we’re compromising on these operations that need to be done. Doing it right the first time is critical.
Please don’t ever feel so pressured to get something done for mission accomplishment that it’s going to compromise someone’s life. There is no training event that occurs in AETC that is more important than the lives of the people doing it.