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Safety Culture and Readiness

An F-15E takes off from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina.

An F-15E takes off from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina.

JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. --

So there I was … a flight commander working as the squadron operations supervisor at 5 o'clock in the morning. It was a beautiful day for flying and we had 12 morning sorties scheduled with an additional 10 queued up for the afternoon. The first two four-ships of the day were back in the vault briefing up a 4v4 flight-lead upgrade ride and the two remaining two-ships were briefing for their morning basic fighter maneuvers sorties. I was checking the weather and notices to Airmen in order to get ready for the pilots to step to the aircraft when my maintenance production supervisor, or "Pro Super," walked in to give me the bird brief. His shoulders were slumped, his head was down, and in all honesty he looked like he had just suffered a brutal beatdown in a state championship wrestling match.

"Sir," he said, "we have four jets available."

My first reaction was total disbelief mixed with frustration. At the time, we had 24 jets in the squadron and my Pro Super had just informed me that only four out of 24 were mission ready. The remaining 20 jets were non-mission capable. How was this even possible?! I honestly had to ask him to repeat what he had just said. Again, utterly defeated, he calmly and quietly repeated, "Sir, we have four jets."

It was at that moment I realized that maintenance had done everything they could and had simply been unable to deliver. I took a deep breath, told him to stand by and immediately picked up the phone to my squadron director of operations, better known as our DO.

"Sir," I said, "maintenance is hard broke. We only have four jets available for the 12-turn-10 that we have scheduled, and there is a fairly good bet that at least one of them will ground abort before reaching the arming area. Recommend we cancel flying for the day and give them a chance to recover." My DO's response was simple and straightforward: "We’re not giving them an ops cancel; fly what we got."

By the end of the day, we had flown a total of six out of 22 scheduled sorties and maintenance was still hurting. Fast-forward 15 years to 2018, and take a look at this recent email from an ACC squadron commander to his team:

"I have decided to cancel First Go tomorrow.

This is not a weather forecast-based decision, but it is a weather informed one. Maintenance currently has only six healthy jets, with 32 of their personnel still off station. Many of you probably noticed today that crew chiefs were not quite ready to catch you at your spot when you were back, forms were incorrect, jets weren’t quite ready to go when you arrived, etc. These signs are leading indicators of potentially worse problems if we do not make a course correction. Let me be clear that this is NOT a spear at our AMU. Our maintainers work incredibly hard — their spectacular performance at our recent TDY bears testament to that — but they are truly stretched thin right now and aircraft break rates today only made their problem more challenging.

Additionally, we all just watched the CSAF video about flight discipline and airmanship. Basically, getting back to basics. We all are pressing hard on learning tactics and we should, but from observing recent upgrades and checkrides, I would say we all — myself 100% included — could stand to benefit from taking some time to refresh our basic systems and procedural knowledge. As much as I can’t afford to lose a jet, the thought of losing any one of you is what keeps me awake at night.

That being said, since tomorrow’s forecast is not great, and giving Maintenance time now to catch their breath and fix broken jets instead of pressing hard to prep what healthy ones we have to fly greatly benefits them, I have decided to cancel. I want all of you to understand why I made this decision.

As you all know, our squadron is more than just operations but ops and maintenance, and I believe this is what’s best for the whole unit. Our entire team crushed it at our recent TDY, and I couldn’t be more proud of both the maintenance and ops effort. Soon we will deploy together, and you will experience what One Team One Fight truly means when we do.

Please use the extra time tomorrow to focus on the basics and refresh yourselves on some GK you probably haven’t looked at in a while. Feel free to stop by my office and study with me if you like :) If anyone has any questions or concerns, please let me know."

As you compare and contrast these two examples, take a minute and ask yourself the following questions:

1) Which squadron has a more effective safety culture?

2) What criteria would you use to define an effective squadron safety culture?

As Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein stated in his recent safety video, the only way to maintain a perfect safety record is to stop flying and "that is not on the table." As such, we will have to accept risk. In order to manage that risk, safety must become much more than just a compilation of Air Force instructions and programs. Instead, safety must become a mission-focused culture that begins with proactive leadership and permeates throughout the entire squadron.

First, an effective safety culture maintains a laser focus on the overall mission and health of the squadron. It understands that the loss of a single Airman or aircraft reduces the overall readiness of the squadron. Our squadron commander does an outstanding job of establishing a mission-focused safety culture by reinforcing a sense of teamwork. He clearly creates a sense of ownership in the overall success of the squadron by stating "Our squadron is more than just operations, but ops and maintenance, and I believe this is what’s best for the whole unit." He then goes on to reinforce the mission by stating "Soon we will deploy together, and you will experience what One Team One Fight truly means." Finally, at the end of his letter he states "As much as I can’t afford to lose a jet, the thought of losing any one of you is what keeps me up at night."

Second, in order to ensure squadron readiness, a missionfocused safety culture proactively identifies potential hazards by maintaining situational awareness of key indicators that could lead to a mishap. What are some of the potential hazards and indicators identified by our squadron commander?

Potential Hazards
- Ops tempo due to recent TDY
- Unscheduled maintenance due to high aircraft break rates
- Poor weather forecast
 
Maintenance Indicators
- Only six healthy jets
- 32 maintainers still off-station
- Crew chiefs not quite ready
- Forms not quite right
- Jets not quite ready
 
Ops Indicators
- Performance on recent upgrade rides and checkrides
 

Third, a mission-focused safety culture is disciplined. It identifies innovative solutions to mitigate the risks that we DO have to take without accepting shortcuts or risks that we DO NOT have to take. In order to address the maintenance indicators our squadron commander decides that "Giving maintenance time now to catch their breath and fix broken jets instead of pressing hard to prep what healthy ones we have to fly greatly benefits them." He then addresses the ops indicators by stating "We all – myself 100% included – could stand to benefit from taking some time to refresh our basic systems and procedural knowledge."

Finally, a mission-focused safety culture must be internalized by every member, at every level of the squadron. Whether you are a brand new three-level working the flight line or a seasoned aviator, you contribute to your squadron safety culture by understanding the mission, proactively identifying hazards, avoiding unnecessary risks and mitigating the risks that are necessary. Readiness = Airmen + the systems that they operate. If we skip a step in the tech order and break a jet, we lose a portion of the total available combat power that our squadron brings to the fight. If we fail to utilize appropriate safety gear and injure an Airman, we again lose a portion of our overall readiness. This culture applies to off-duty activities as well. If we lose a single Airman to a motorcycle accident, it hurts the entire team. If you wait until the last week to begin training for a fitness test and injure yourself, it prevents you from contributing to the mission.

I would like to thank the 4th Fighter Wing Commander, Colonel Donn Yates, and the squadron commander who wrote this email to his team, Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Bell, for the opportunity to share this with the rest of the ACC team.

Fly Safe! – Grit

*If you would like to share a story about the safety culture in your unit for consideration in "The Combat Edge," ACC's safety magazine, email acc.thecombatedge@us.af.mil or call 757-764-8846.

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