Housed in a modern, unremarkable office building at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the Safety Center houses 160 workers, many of them civilians — many of them, in fact, are retired Air Force pilots. Heading the center is Maj. Gen. Fred Roggero, a career mobility pilot who also served as the Air Force's chief of integrated marketing earlier in the 2000s. The team he has at the Safety Center is impressive, and the wealth of aviation knowledge is humbling. For instance, the person running the projector during the introductory briefing, Randy Rushworth, is a retired, decorated Air Force bomber pilot with thousands of hours in B-52s, B-1s and B-2s and an expert on these and other aircraft at the center. During my daylong visit there, I met a 2,000-hour pilot in remotely piloted aircraft, a flight surgeon who flies in the CV-22 Osprey, a pair of recorder analysts who have worked on some of the most high-profile accidents in recent military history and a structural engineer who is among the foremost experts in the world on aging aircraft.
Investigating accidents is a central job of the Safety Center, and its Aviation Safety Division's experts provide on-site and remote assistance and consultation to safety investigators looking into accidents that might have been caused by structural, powerplant and/or electronics problems. This is a tall order considering the number and variety of aircraft in the fleet, which is composed of everything from Diamond DA40 piston single trainers to vertical takeoff and landing Ospreys to the most advanced fighter in the world, the supersonic, thrust-vectoring F-22 Raptor.
One of the most fascinating places to visit at the Safety Center is the office of the Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard (BASH) program. The Air Force's awareness of the hazards that birds present to aircraft is not new. The Air Force put together the BASH program back in the mid-1970s, and it has been a part of the Safety Center for longer than 15 years. The need for action is clear. During a 23-year period starting in 1985, there has been an average of nearly 3,500 bird and wildlife strikes per year on Air Force aircraft. The overall cost associated with strikes during that period is $817,817,683, or more than eight-tenths of a billion dollars.
There have been some high-profile losses too. Three airmen were killed when a B-1 bomber went down in Colorado in 1987 after a bird struck the wing's leading edge, leading to the loss of fuel and hydraulic lines and, subsequently, control of the airplane. In 1995, 24 airmen lost their lives when an E-3 went down shortly after takeoff from Elmendorf, Alaska, after its engines ingested a number of Canadian geese. In the early 2000s, four jet fighters — two F-16s, an F-15 and an F-22 — were lost over a short period of time, all from bird strikes.
In response to the hazards, the BASH program has developed a number of tools that pilots and mission planners can use to minimize the risk. Keeping birds away from airfields is key to the effort, but the BASH team has also helped to develop a number of other tools, including a worldwide Air Force bird-strike database, creating a computerized low-level Bird Avoidance Model (BAM), which shows where birds are likely to be before a given mission is flown, and the Avian Hazard Advisory System (AHAS), which combines Nexrad radar, weather information and thermal activity along with historical bird migration patterns and soaring data to provide near-real-time bird hazard advisories. (BAM and AHAS are both available to civilian pilots too, at usahas.com/bam.) A new tool that shows great promise is bird detection radar (BDR), which is installed in a small trailer and can be easily towed from location to location to provide radar detection of birds up to 7,000 feet agl and at a range of up to eight miles. When there is a strike, the team uses feather and even DNA analysis to pinpoint the species of bird, which then goes into the database.
Located in another corner of the Safety Center is the Mishap Analysis and Animation Lab. When the recorder or recorders are recovered from a crash, the analysis team goes into action, extracting the memory from the recorder to keep it. And because the fleet is so varied in age and description, the recorder's team needs to be able to work with many different kinds of hardware of many different vintages. Even reading the data can be a challenge. The lab has on more than one occasion had to buy vintage computers on eBay in order to run data extraction programs written in the early days of PCs. Still, its success rate is remarkable in being able to extract data from even very badly damaged and burned recorders. That data, needless to say, is often the key to understanding what went wrong in an otherwise baffling accident.
A Different Kind of Investigation
When an Air Force aircraft goes down, the process of responding to that accident is different in many respects from what it is in the civilian world, and the Safety Center is involved every step of the way, either directly or indirectly, from first response until the book is closed on the accident.