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When to knock it off?

The mission was briefed as a 2 v 2 Dissimilar Air Combat Tactics (DACT) mission with two F-16 Falcons versus Fighting Falcons versus two F-15 Eagles. Flying against dissimilar assets is an outstanding, although all too often rare, occurrence. As pilots, we look forward to the chance to practice flying against the fighting tactics of other weapons systems because it is such a great training opportunity. It also helps to break up the pattern of training with the same people and platforms every day. I use the term "pattern" cautiously because what happens in the air is never exactly what was anticipated during the briefing on the ground; this is especially true during any form of air combat training. But flexibility has always been a reality in all successful airpower operations, and any training like DACT that challenges pilots to respond to unknowns not only adds value, but excitement to the mission. Unfortunately, these unforeseen changes also add an element of risk that you must manage.

My wingman was on an upgrade ride as part of his mission qualification training. I covered fallout options as part of the coordination brief. If one of the Eagles fell out, we would still run the sortie as briefed with one bogey instead of two. The upgrade would be ineffective since the syllabus required two bogeys, but at least my wingman would get some practice at using the radar and executing basic tactics. Other briefed fallout options included my wingman aborting sympathetically if I fell out and me becoming red air for the Eagles if my wingman fell out. This last option would give the F-15s a chance to practice their own blue air tactics.

Ground operations were uneventful all the way up until we got to the end of the runway. My wingman's jet sprung a fuel leak in the arming area so I decided on the three-ship option with me as red air for the Eagles. The players acknowledged the change on the radio and we took to the runway for departure. After I got airborne, I received the call that the F-15 wingman had aborted on the runway. So much for the kind of effective training I had planned on and briefed. Now what was I to do?

The two of us who had gotten airborne continued out to the area while I spent the transit time trying to decide what we could do to get some training accomplished. I considered my options: 1 v 1 intercepts, Basic Fighter Maneuvers (BFM), or maybe just clear the Eagle off to fly on his own while I practiced Advanced Handling Characteristics or AHC and then some instrument approaches. To most fighter pilots, BFM would certainly have been the mission of choice. We don't get to do that much of it, especially against dissimilar assets. Dog-fighting gives us the best opportunity to test our short range fighting skills. The only problem was that I had not covered this option in the coordination brief.

Air Force Instructions (AFIs) prevent us from flying a mission that has not been briefed. Current guidance does not prohibit accomplishing an airborne briefing of an alternate mission and many pilots would argue that such a briefing sufficiently satisfies the regulations in circumstances like mine. After all, I had briefed the training rules on the ground; all I needed to do now was brief how we would conduct the fight setups. But the decision wasn't that easy.

There was a lot to consider. What were our experience levels? Were our procedures similar enough to effectively brief the mission in the air? How much training were we going to get? In essence, I was conducting a risk assessment right there in the cockpit. I was using Operational Risk Management (ORM) concepts without even realizing it. It seemed that the periodic ORM education I had received was paying some dividends.

AFT 90-901, Operational Risk Management, defines ORM as a "continuous, systematic decision-making tool involving six steps:"

1. Identify the hazards

2. Assess the risk

3. Analyze risk control measures

4. Make control decisions

5. Implement risk controls

6. Supervise and review

While I was not formally documenting each step of the process, I was focusing on the ORM components that applied to my particular scenario. These included making risk decisions at the appropriate level and accepting the risk when benefits outweigh the costs.

Operational commanders do a great job trying to define and minimize risk by implementing AFIs and providing checklists, airfield procedures, and unit standards that address most situations. These guidelines are based on the experiences of pilots that have gone before us. We can be confident as to how we should respond because the decisions have already been made at the appropriate level. That said, all risks are not necessarily unacceptable simply because they haven't been managed in the regulations. In these instances, the judgment and discipline developed in our flight training can help us make sound decisions. Just beware that whenever we have to start thinking about the "what ifs" that have not already been considered and addressed by those in command, we are probably moving closer to the line of taking unnecessary risk.

Accepting the risk when the benefits outweigh the costs sounds simple, but it may not be. Sometimes the benefits are obvious. For example, risking your life to fly into a combat zone and drop a bomb, which will win the war and save thousands of lives, can be an easy decision. Deciding whether you are going to fly an unplanned training scenario without a thorough brief may not be such a no-brainer. What are the real benefits of flying a mission without pre-coordination? What is the added risk of briefing in the air versus on the ground?

All risk management efforts are aimed at keeping us from crossing the line of unnecessary risk. To approach that line, yet not cross it, is not as easy as it sounds in a business like flying jets, which is inherently risky. The task is further complicated as changing mission demands and increased combat capabilities continuously press us to squeeze more and more syllabus and continuation training requirements (e.g., night vision goggles) from the daily flying schedule. As a result, it is easy to get into a mindset that we must maximize training on every mission.

The pressure of increased training demands is making it more important to wisely decide when enough is enough. In many scenarios the aircraft commander or flight lead alone must make the call on whether added risks outweigh potential benefits, making those risks unnecessary. That is exactly what I had to do while I flew to the working area with an F-15 in trail. On this particular sortie, I decided it was time to call it a day and resolved to make up for lost training at another time.

I learned a valuable lesson that day Thinking through the "what ifs" on the ground during the planning and briefing phases will usually result in easier decisions than ones made in the air at 350 knots. Taking the time, you need before you get to step time will also improve the quality of the decisions you make in most situations. I cannot stress this enough. Nonetheless, there will be times -- whether due to short plan/brief times or just unconsidered events -- when we are required to make real-time mission decisions using cockpit ORM. It is at these times that flight leads and aircraft commanders earn their titles. When this does happen, keep the following in mind. I've never met a squadron commander who faulted anyone for making a conservative decision when it made sense at the time. One non-effective training

sortie is not that big a deal. Losing one or more aircraft and/or pilots in training is something we cannot afford.
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Author:Abair, Michael A., II
Publication:Combat Edge
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2002
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