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On flight safety.

After three years leading the Flight Safety program here and at USAFE, I reflect back on the scores of aviation mishaps of all categories that have transpired; and, as I leave the full-time flight safety staff returning to fly airplanes for my seventh flying assignment, I wanted to attempt to roll up 20 years of my personal reflections on flight safety. While researching the subject, I came across a fascinating look at the topic written in 1914. That's right, NINETEEN FOURTEEN. I was floored at how such insightful observations, gained from a mere 11 years of powered flight, still resonate so clearly today. Since they were written in the seminal days of aviation, and still bear such relevance today, I don't think it's a stretch to call these eternal truths of flight safety. Now, to be clear, this book was written a century ago ... so believe it or not, they actually debated the merits of having seatbelts in airplanes. Still, it's so eloquently written, and so thought-provoking, that I thought I'd fold some of those very early observations into a few nuggets of completely unoriginal wisdom you hopefully find applicable today. With that in mind, let's take a look at what was said back in the early days of fabric wings and open cockpits.



Nugget #1: There's no mistake you can't make. On my 3rd sortie in the Flight Screening Program (FSP) in the T-3, I was re-entering the traffic pattern, and had the instructor not taken the airplane, I would have flown right into another T-3 already established on downwind. I never would've thought in a million years how it is possible to look directly at another airplane but not see it. I later learned the phenomenon was caused precisely because of our collision course: there was no line-of-sight movement. The airplane was getting bigger, but was stationary on my canopy. In retrospect, it was a great lesson to learn very early on and has stuck with me to this day. Our mishap statistics support this nugget... we have crews with all levels of experience which make what would be considered "basic" mistakes of failing to SEE AND AVOID. So, if I find myself reading mishap reports, and falling into the trap of thinking: 'that could never happen to me,' I think back to that day 22 years ago and it helps me guard against complacency and overconfidence. Mr. Hamel said: "It is the simplest thing in the world to fly an aero plane after a fashion--to fly well is quite another matter--and the chief difficulty is that of resisting every temptation to become momentarily careless." R 3-4.

Nugget #2: Sweat the small stuff. Looking back at the recent mishaps in 2015, virtually all occurred in what should have been fairly benign, low threat, administrative phases of flight. One may expect the "varsity level" Large Force Exercises (LFEs) like Red Flag or Northern Edge to drive mishap stats, but it's simply not the case. Pilots need to take the time to review the admin performance, and that of their flight members, to ensure strict adherence to the admin standards set forth in their operational procedures. I know time is precious and you've got plenty "more important" tactical things to debrief. Don't overlook the mistakes on "small stuff"; share them with others. Said Hamel: "Every pilot could relate, out of his experience, a number of what might have been serious incidents caused by small and absurd oversights." R 49

Nugget #3: You are ultimately accountable. No one knows how you feel except you. Make sure you're healthy, rested, and fit to fly; and take a knee if you're not. If your jet is not "full-up" based on your mission requirements, call the red-ball and get it fixed. Or, if it's still not happening, call the ground abort and step to the spare. Mr. Hamel said: "It requires moral courage to decline to fly in fulfilment of a promise, but flying being an occupation in which a trivial cause may have a serious effect, moral courage is one of the necessary parts of an aviator's character. Yet many a man, feeling slightly out of condition himself, or discovering that his motor is running weakly, attempts a flight in the hope that the human or the mechanical engine, as the case may be, will recover after a few minutes in the air." R 54 Nugget #4: Study previous mishaps. The first books I read when I got to pilot training were the "Road to Wings." In doing so, I learned the most common pitfalls encountered by others in their journey to earn the coveted Air Force wings of silver. Squadron flight safety officers should pull some mishaps out of the Safety database and teach the squadron on a recurring basis. Otherwise, after a couple years, the valuable lessons learned are relegated to the dustbin of history; and there is no greater disservice to the sacrifice of those upon whose shoulders we stand than to forget their final instruction to us. On this topic, Mr. Hamel has this to say: "By far the greater number of aero plane accidents are due to precisely the same circumstances that have caused previous accidents. A distressing feature of these accidents is the evidence they afford of the unwillingness, or the inability, of many pilots to profit from the experiences and mistakes of others." R 48

Nugget #5: You're not a test pilot*. The average age of the Air Force fleet is 27 years ... so almost all of us are flying airplanes with known flight characteristics, fully developed technical orders and Dash-ls, and pages and pages of TTR The entirety of these documents describes a thoroughly understood flight envelope, within which pilots enjoy significant safety margins to accomplish their assigned mission. Yet to this day, we receive reports of aircrew whose discipline breaks down and they try something 'new' with their airplane or demand aircraft performance that very clearly lies well outside the envelope. When one displays lack of knowledge of their aircraft operating limits, or worse, breaks the rules, your only hope now is to get lucky. Don't be the guy to start a bar fight between your jet, Bernoulli, and Newton. Next time you consider trying something in your airplane simply because you can't find any rule prohibiting it, or are curious to see what may happen, remember this: "Of flying, far more even than golf or anything else, it may be said that the Golden Rule is 'Do Not Press The Game.'


Nugget #6: Fight like you train. This is the 2nd half of possibly the most famous cliche in the AF. It implies that in combat, you're only as effective as the applied sum of your preceding training. While true, there's a deeper meaning that speaks directly to safety in combat. Unfortunately, there have been several recent mishaps caused by aircrew accepting unnecessary risk during contingency ops. Mistakenly, ATO lines carry, for some, a misplaced connotation of "anything goes." Nothing could be further from the truth. It is for this very reason we take so much pride in striving for perfection during our training ... so that we can achieve perfection during combat, come home as heroes, and regale each other with tall tales of intrepidity. Remember, if we bend an airplane, we're doing the enemy's job for him. If your Spidey senses are filling you with doubt and you think you need to bend the rules to accomplish your mission, tell someone. You're angst is probably well-placed, and you may be accepting more risk than the man wants you to. In almost all scenarios there are ways of getting the mission done another way.


Nugget #7: Keep a student's mentality. I'll never forget my first non-gradesheet sortie as a CMR wingman. There was a brief moment of awesomeness when I thought I'd finally "arrived." I very quickly received a welcome dose of reality. I didn't know squat. My learning was just getting started ... and in fact, our learning should never stop. A student is always curious, knows as much about his airplane and mission as he can; and most importantly, he's exquisitely conscious of the fact he doesn't know it all. Far from it. In fact, the more the true student learns, the more he realizes he needs to know. Students are aware of their capacity to err, and are more willing to accept critical feedback. If you find yourself bristling in the debrief, check your attitude. Listen to what's being said and understand the point being made. Even if you are correct, you can still learn from what the other guy said. To my chagrin, I've sometimes lost sight of this important quality during my flying career. Thankfully I've had both students and bosses who've helped me refocus my priorities. According to Hamel, "Clearly the conquest of the air means the evolution of a type of soldier far more highly educated and finely organized than the world has yet seen ... scientific, cool, calculating, and self-sacrificing." R 288.

As early as 1914, Hamel even engaged in deep philosophic discourses as to the very nature of mishaps: "Theoretically, every flying accident is preventable, but, in practice, it has been unavoidable in the nature of things that numerous accidents have occurred." However, he clearly believed, as I do, that we all should strive for the day where all mishaps are prevented. Indeed, Hamel cites another aviation pioneer, Henry Farman, who said: "It will be so safe that we shall hear no more of the need to carry parachutes or other safety devices, for the contingency of having to abandon the machine in the air will seem an absurdity to contemplate."

Fly safe and I'll see you at the Ops desk.

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Author:Borchelt, Donald
Publication:Combat Edge
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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