The e-mail we received here at Flying from Col. Sid "Scroll" Mayeux, chief of aviation safety at the United States Air Force Safety Center, was a little hard to believe. "Last year (Fiscal Year 2009)," Mayeux's e-mail read, "was the USAF's safest year in aviation safety, with 17 Class A Aviation Flight Mishaps for a 0.8 rate per 100,000 flying hours."
One might think that the job of attaining a level of safety like that, given the Air Force's high-flying, high-tech fleet of aircraft, was an impossible task, and I would have been right there with you. Somehow, though, the Air Force seems to have hit upon a formula for safety that last year approached perfection.
Air Force Safety in Context Before you can fully appreciate just how remarkable an achievement the Air Force's safety record is, you have to understand just what it means.
For starters, it is important to define what constitutes a Class A Mishap. Just as the NTSB and FAA have their specific definitions of what constitutes an accident versus an incident, so does the Air Force. The bar for an event falling into the Class A category is surprisingly low: It's any accident in which there's a fatality, permanent disabling injury, destruction of an Air Force aircraft or property damage of $1 million or more. That repair-cost figure is going up soon to keep pace with the rising costs of repairs. You can hit that figure, one investigator commented to me, by putting a healthy gouge in the paint of an F-22 radome. So, while some of the accidents that get listed as a Class A Mishap are high-speed crashes resulting in loss of life, others aren't much more than glorified fender benders. By civilian standards, the rate might be even lower.
Just how good a rate is 0.8 per 100,000 flight hours? It's, in a word, remarkable. The rate compares favorably with the fatal accident rate for general aviation, which is around 1.17 per 100,000 hours. Remember, most of the Air Force's Class A Mishaps don't involve fatalities, and many of them don't involve injuries.
The more pertinent figure from GA, the overall accident rate, in 2008 was 7.1 per 100,000 hours, which is approximately nine times that of the Air Force's mark. In fact, the Air Force's safety record for 2009 compared favorably with every segment of civil aviation in the United States (based on 2008 figures) except for the scheduled airlines. Scheduled Part 121 flying, as one would hope, is considerably safer. Then again, the airlines aren't flying high-speed, low-level training missions through mountainous terrain.
While 2009 was the safest year on record for the Air Force, the trend of safety is not new. Since the early part of the new century, accident rates have been lower, substantially lower, than historic trends have been.
As recently as 1980, there were 84 Class A Mishaps with 74 aircraft destroyed and 94 fatalities. It used to be far worse than that. In 1950, shortly after the Air Force as we know it was born, there were 1,744 Class A Mishaps, with 665 aircraft destroyed and 781 lives lost. None of these figures, it's important to point out, involved combat actions. So in that respect, at least, you can compare different years and different segments of aviation and still have the numbers make sense.
It's no secret that a lot of the safety gains over the past few decades have been due to improvements with equipment — there are only three piston-powered aircraft remaining in the main fleet: the Diamond DA40 (T-52), the Cessa 172 (T-41) and the Cessna 150 (T-51) — so the move to, effectively, an all-turbine fleet has to count for a lot.
It doesn't, however, account for everything. The Air Force fleet is varied and contains a number of platforms that might qualify, at least in theory, as antiques, including the C-130, the U-2 and the B-52, all of which have been in active service for around 55 years.
So, how does the Air Force do it? I was convinced that there must be some kind of secret to its success, and I wanted to find out what it was.
The Safety Center
As the name suggests, the Safety Center is in charge of Air Force safety. Toward that end, the Center creates safety policy, provides guidance on implementing it and practices oversight during the whole process, which is never-ending.