WASHINGTON --- Air Force units across all levels of command are addressing the issues identified by an Air Force-wide operational safety review, initiated this spring by the Air Force Chief of Staff.
“The review proved tremendously helpful as we continue to seek both high levels of safety with intense and realistic training,” said Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David L. Goldfein. “As air superiority is not an American birthright, our training must continue to be challenging and meaningful. But I also want commanders to have the decision authority to determine how far to push,” he said.
Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson agrees.
"We lean forward every day to get the mission done – it’s what we do – but we must also know when risks associated with leaning forward outweigh the benefit," she said. "Gen. Goldfein and I will continue to empower leaders to take care of their people as we build the ready force we need."
Air Force safety officials said the review identified several factors that require commanders’ continued focus. The Air Force disseminated the findings to the field and flying and maintenance leaders at every level are addressing the issues and using the findings to inform their decisions.
The review pointed to several potential safety risks: Stress posed by high operations tempos; a lack of time to properly focus on flying basics; mission activities and training; the pressure to accept risk; cultural tendencies to always execute the mission; decreased aircraft availability; and the potential for complacency during routine tasks.
"We're taking necessary steps to ensure our Airmen operate as safely as possible in an inherently dangerous business," Goldfein said.
Goldfein recounted a story from Operation Desert Storm in 1991 that he said helps calibrate his approach to training and safety.
“On my first combat mission in Desert Storm as a captain and F-16 (Fighting Falcon) flight commander, we crossed into enemy territory and the first thing we saw was anti-aircraft fire. Then we had a few surface-air-missiles launched at us. Then an F-15 (Eagle) shot down a MiG-29 and I watched it descend and hit the desert and explode,” he said.
“I’ll never forget that moment in combat. I realized that nothing I was seeing was new. It was the same formation, the same radio calls, the same threats, just real this time. I realized at that moment that I can do this. I had trained for it and it was just like Red Flag,” he said.
Whether flying fighters, bombers, tankers or engaged in high-tempo ground operations of weapons loading or aircraft maintenance, Goldfein said he wants all Airmen to train so realistically that their preparation, experience and discipline protects them and the mission in both peace and in combat.
With this mindset, Air Force leadership provided wing commanders with focus areas to facilitate safety review discussions. The review examined leadership and supervision engagements; training; mission planning, briefings and debriefings; risk management; flightline operations; experience in the force; and fundamental focus.
According to Maj. Gen. John Rauch, Jr., Air Force Chief of Safety and Commander of the Air Force Safety Center, the Air Force sought to help commanders identify gaps and seams in each focus area. Commanders then provided feedback through each major command, to ensure senior leaders were aware of concerns across the force.
The Air Force has already initiated efforts to address some of the concerns, to include adding support capabilities back into the squadron, reducing additional duties, enhancing information processes for aircrew mission planning, and reducing staff requirements.
"This review gave commanders the opportunity and time to focus on ensuring operations were safe by identifying hazards that could lead to mishaps," Rauch said. "Our commander-led forums identified our Airmen’s unique concerns.”
Safety statistics in the past decade show Air Force Class A and B aviation mishaps trended downward. However, the manned aviation mishap rate increased since the beginning of fiscal year 2018.
"So, I want to train hard and I want commanders to push themselves and their Airmen to achieve high levels of readiness. Sometimes the right answer is knock it off ... sometimes it is push it up,” Goldfein said. “Confidence in the air, safety on the ground and in the air, it’s commander business.”
He also said that anyone on the team, no matter the rank or experience, can make that safety call without fear of reprisal. The safety review reinforced that message and continued to help integrate safety into the Air Force culture.
This review is an example, Rauch said, of Airmen taking care of Airmen to ensure operational safety and operational effectiveness.