Rising Safety

Dec. 22, 2014

The Air Force called Fiscal 2014 its best ever in flight safety, with the fewest aircraft lost to in-flight accidents. This record, which spanned from Oct. 1, 2013, to Sept. 30, 2014, came in spite of flying the oldest aircraft in the service’s history and two-plus decades of near-continuous combat. A high number of fatalities dimmed the achievement, however.

Although there were 24 Class A, or major aviation mishaps, in Fiscal 2014—including aviation ground accidents—only two manned aircraft were destroyed. (A Class A mishap results in a fatality, a permanent or total disability, or $2 million or more in damage.)

Yet, 10 airmen died: four in the crash of an HH-60G Pave Hawk in England, one in an F-15C Eagle that crashed in Virginia, one in an incident that caused no aircraft damage, and four who died when a contractor-flown DHC-8-202 Prospector crashed in Colombia during a nighttime drug interdiction mission in October 2013.

Overall, that was a sharp drop from the 35 Class A aviation mishaps in Fiscal 2013—with 19 manned aircraft lost—and well below the 10-year average of 21.7 Class A mishaps. But the loss of life was only one below the 11 airmen who died in Fiscal 2013 and higher than the average of 7.7 fatalities over the last 10 years.

Was the record low number of air mishaps due to the service flying far less last year—because of groundings and flying hour cuts compelled by the budget sequester? USAF’s initial announcement conspicuously lacked the Class A mishap rate that measures accidents per 100,000 flying hours.

However, in response to a query, the Air Force Safety Center said the preliminary mishap rate, as of Sept. 29 (with two days left in the fiscal year), was .44 per 100,000 hours. That compares favorably to a 1.13 rate in Fiscal 2013 and an average over the previous 10 years of 1.09.

The final mishap rate was to be released in early November, a spokesman said. Air Force safety chief Maj. Gen. Kurt F. Neubauer said the current state of Air Force safety is “excellent.” But he added, “I think we can always do better.”

Aviation “is an inherently dangerous business, but we can get our numbers even lower when airmen increase their focus on accomplishing the mission safely,” he said.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III echoed that view in a statement welcoming the announcement of the 2014 safety record. “Our commitment to safety has been part of the Air Force fabric from Day One. Our goal is always to keep getting better at it.”

In what may be a preview of the future, half the Class A aviation mishaps last year involved remotely piloted aircraft. The 12 RPA mishaps in Fiscal 2014 matched the 2013 total.

Last year also had the fewest on-the-job ground mishaps, with three airmen fatally injured in work-related incidents. The number of airmen killed in off-duty accidents also was down from recent years, although the 42 fatalities, most from motor vehicle crashes, are still far higher than Air Force safety officials are willing to accept.

“The most dangerous thing an airman does is get in his vehicle,” and ground safety staffs from the Secretary’s office to the wings “are actively engaged with airmen through training and awareness campaigns to mitigate that threat,” Neubauer told Air Force Magazine.

Unfortunately, this fiscal year has started off poorly. An F-15D was destroyed in a crash near RAF Lakenheath, UK, two F-16s went down in separate accidents, a third was damaged in a midair collision over Kansas, and an MQ-9 Reaper was damaged in a hard landing in Niger, all in the first six weeks of the fiscal year. Three pilots escaped major injuries, and another was killed.

In off-duty incidents, however, four airmen and an Air Force contract employee at Kadena AB, Japan, were killed. The number of off-duty vehicle accidents in October was not available.

Neubauer said Fiscal 2014 “saw the fewest aviation mishaps in the history of the Air Force, which is a huge accomplishment by our airmen. We feel the low numbers came from leadership involvement, a proactive stance to risk management, and attention to detail at all levels.”

Mark Gunzinger, a retired Air Force colonel and command pilot who is now a national security analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, noted, “If you don’t fly, the chances are you’re not going to have an accident in an aircraft.” On the other hand, “not flying for a period of time increases the chance of an accident when you do get to fly. So the fact that the accident rate was down, much lower, is a testament to the effort of the Air Force leadership to keep their people flying safely and to get the most critical training events accomplished.”

The Air Force’s mishap rate compares favorably to the other services’ aviation safety records.

The Navy reported a Fiscal 2014 Class A mishap rate of 1.69, with 14 accidents. That was a jump from the previous year’s rate of .48 and four mishaps, and higher than the 10-year average of .88.

The Marine Corps’ rate for Fiscal 2014, with fewer total flight hours than the Navy, was 1.94, with five mishaps. It was an improvement over the Fiscal 2013 rate of 3.20 and eight mishaps and better than the 10-year average of 2.09.

The two naval services reported a total of six killed in air accidents in Fiscal 2014.

In Army aviation, where most flying hours are accrued in helicopters, the reported Class A rate was 1.49, with 16 flight or flight-related mishaps and five deaths. That was an increase over Fiscal 2013’s rate of .81 with nine mishaps, but down from the previous year’s eight deaths.

The Army operates a large number of remotely piloted aircraft of all sizes and reported 38 total mishaps involving RPAs, including seven Class As.

What Of The Old Fleet

There is growing concern about whether the geriatric Air Force fleet—at an average age of 26.2—now the oldest in its history—could affect flight safety.

“Airplanes are falling apart,” Welsh told the Air Force Association’s Air & Space Conference in September. Citing a B-1B fire caused by a broken oil flange and the grounding of half the F-16Ds for cracked canopy sills, Welsh said, too many accidents “are happening because our fleets are too old.”

Neubauer, however, did not see the aging force as a safety issue. “The same airworthiness standards are applied to our entire fleet,” he said. “All our aircraft run through a rigorous inspection and maintenance process to ensure we’re executing the mission as safely as possible.”

He also credited the maintenance airmen as “the best in the world at keeping aircrew safety and mission focus at the forefront.”

Gunzinger, who flew the Cold War-vintage B-52 Stratofortress, endorsed that view, while conceding there is a valid concern “that we’re now operating not just the oldest but the smallest combat air force that the USAF ever operated. That will, more than likely, lead to mishaps, broken equipment, and so forth, … which is exactly why the Air Force is pushing so hard to modernize its force.”

But the low accident rate was “a credit to how well the Air Force maintains its older equipment,” he said.

The safety chief said he sees “no evidence” that the budget cuts from sequestration have had an impact on aircrew safety. “Their focus on doing the job right, when issues like sequestration are looming over them, is a tribute to their professionalism,” he said.

He also discounted any effect from continuing combat, saying, “Combat missions are where all our safety training pays off. … As contingencies arise around the globe, we’re involved with commanders to ensure the mission is accomplished.”

In addition to his role as safety chief, Neubauer is commander of the Air Force Safety Center at Kirtland AFB, N.M. There he is responsible for developing, executing, and evaluating Air Force programs for aviation, ground, weapons, space, and systems mishap prevention and nuclear surety programs. He also directs research in safety awareness and mishap prevention, oversees mishap investigations, evaluates corrective actions, and ensures implementation.

In information provided to Air Force Magazine, center officials said, “The growing use of proactive safety data and the AF-wide adoption of the Safety Management System were key to the FY14 safety success.”

The center officials emphasized the importance of the “voluntary reporting systems,” including the Aviation Safety Action Program, in which airmen “voluntarily reported hazards and errors while completing the mission.” ASAP reporting increased 38 percent in Fiscal 2014, the officials said, aided by reports from eight additional aircraft types, or “mission design series (MDS).”

Reports from those added MDS communities “is evidence more airmen want to share lessons learned,” they said.

The use of the ASAP program, flight data analysis, Military Flight Operations Quality Assurance, a peer-to-peer cockpit observation program, the Line Operations Safety Audit, and “a concerted effort by Air Force senior leadership to focus on appropriate risk acceptance at the right levels led to the lowest loss rate in Air Force manned aviation.”

Data Driven Decisions

Reflecting the growing role of RPAs, the center reported progress in standardizing RPA safety processes to match that of manned aviation. That requires consideration of variables such as the RPAs’ ability to fly up to 24 hours, using “a fleet of controllers instead of one,” and the controllers’ need to “work through problems, such as weather and mechanical issues, from 2,000 to 3,000 miles away.”

The center’s information stressed the value of involving everyone, from Headquarters Air Force level down, and a “leadership focus on discipline and compliance” to demonstrate support for safety programs.

In Fiscal 2014, more than 57,000 airmen gave safety feedback directly to their commanders, and the center provided 427 one-on-one safety interviews with commanders. The airmen’s opinions were analyzed in detail and every written comment was reviewed and provided to the writer’s commander.

Neubauer cited the value of the Air Force Safety Automated System, the service’s sole mishap reporting system, in providing “data in an unprecedented way for mishap reduction in 2014.” Air Force actions on safety in 2014 “were based on AFSAS data, including thousands of queries and automated reports that revealed new insights and perspective into the 15,387 mishap reports and their findings, recommendations, and associated data. Data-driven decisions [are] the key.”

The AFSAS is an example of how the service “is capitalizing on technology to transform safety in the 21st century,” the Safety Center said. “For example, aviation risk management processes are maturing, proactive hazard identification protects the reduced number of more costly assets, and more people are connected electronically so everyone will soon be able to report a hazard electronically.”

To cover all aspects of Air Force safety, the center has several divisions in addition to the aviation component. Those include the Weapons Safety Division, setting policy for nuclear surety and safety for the development and use of all nuclear, conventional, and directed energy systems; a Space Safety Division, responsible for the assured safe access to space through oversight of launch, range, orbital, and end-of-life programs; a Human Factors Division with experts on operations, medicine, physiology, psychology, and behavioral science, all focused on the human element in mishap prevention; and the Analysis and Integration Division, responsible for the AFSAS.

A key component is the Ground Safety Division, managing on- and off-duty safety programs. This covers operations, occupational, sports, recreation, and traffic activities. “It oversees integration of Air Force safety inspections and policy, in conjunction with the Air Force inspector general, as well as integration of risk management processes in on- and off-duty activities,” the center’s website explains.

Ground safety programs obviously are important because they involve far more personnel than aviation.

Neubauer said the ground safety staffs “have made extensive efforts” in the on-duty area to reduce injuries due to falls and vehicles backing up. All the major commands participated in a review of and emphasis on the hazards of falling, last year, and a new emphasis on job safety training was initiated to address “the inherent hazards in backing government and specialty vehicles.”

“Risk management advisors at every level are responsible to commanders to monitor RM processes required by majcom- or wing-level policy,” he said. “Risk management, when applied to every activity, increases alertness, mitigates hazards, and prevents mishaps.”

Those efforts apparently contributed to a drop from seven on-duty fatalities in Fiscal 2013 to three last year, the lowest in 10 years. The drop in off-duty fatalities was not as great, down from 47 to 42.

Two of the on-duty deaths were in combat support and training activities and the third was in a government vehicle accident.

Of the 42 off-duty ground fatalities, 29 involved private motor vehicles, the leading cause of off-duty deaths, including 15 in four-wheel vehicles and 13 in motorcycles.

The Army and Marine Corps have attributed a recent jump in off-duty deaths to risky behavior by troops recently returned from combat, a fact supported by a 2012 study by the United Services Automobile Association, the insurer for many military members. Many of those fatalities were in motorcycle accidents.

Neubauer said that study showed the Air Force had the lowest increase in such incidents, and “our own mishap analysis also shows little correlation between deployments and an increased number of accidents compared to the general population.”

“When returning from deployment, airmen attend Airmen Resiliency Training, which covers post-deployment and reintegration focused on home and family, work, and substance abuse,” the safety chief said.

The Air Force also operated a motorcycle safety program that trained 9,160 airmen over the last three years, 3,370 last year alone.

Bill Parsons, the Air Force chief of ground safety, attributed a drop from 34 off-duty vehicle fatalities in 2013 to 28 last year to that training, “increased commander involvement,” and other ground safety efforts. “But we must redouble our efforts. One life lost is one too many,” Parson said in an Air Force news release.

In October, the Ground Safety office announced the “Quest for Zero” campaign, to focus on risk management and on-duty safety. “The campaign is designed for every airman, in all career fields, to raise awareness of the hazards they face every day, at work and at home,” the Safety Center said in its announcement.

Otto Kreisher is a Washington, D.C.-based military affairs reporter and regular contributor to Air Force Magazine. From August to November 2014, he also served as this magazine’s senior correspondent. His most recent feature article was “Air Base Defense” in the July 2014 issue.