The most visible of these training facilities is the Crash Lab, situated on a 29-acre expanse of desert a short drive from the Safety Center. It is here that aspiring Air Force safety investigators go to apply the skills they've learned in the classroom to a real-world accident site. Spread out over the Crash Lab site are wrecks of 10 Air Force aircraft that went down under various scenarios. Students learn how to secure the site and then look for clues, analyzing the fire patterns and distribution of the wreckage as well as examining the engines for signs of whether they were developing power or not when the crash took place.
Most of the learning takes place in more traditional classrooms, however, and they are busy places. The Safety Center offers 110 three-week classes each year, training around 1,300 personnel, most of them Air Force personnel but many of them from the services of our allies. Students learn safety principles and the fundamentals of investigations and prevention. All courses are intended to prepare them to serve actively as flight safety officers, safety board presidents or interim board members, among other positions. It's a big job, and an important one, because the investigative process is distributed across the Air Force community and positions turn over regularly when personnel leave the Air Force or move on to other positions.
While training is a critical part of its mission, the Safety Center can hope to have direct contact with only a few thousand airmen a year, so it actively gets the word out in a number of ways, including through its award-winning quarterly publication Wingman. A recent issue featured articles on configuration management for pilots, using operational safety management principles at home, and reducing automotive accidents — yes, the Safety Center is tasked with improving Air Force safety for every airman and every airman's family members. The Safety Center, in case you were wondering, is also on Facebook. Times have changed.
Underscoring the fact that the Air Force sees safety as a complex web of interactions, technologies, information and attitudes is the Human Factors Division, which is integrally involved in every aspect of the Safety Center. Headed by Lt. Col. Karen Heupel, the Human Factors Division has a broad range of responsibilities, everything from assisting in investigations to determining what human factors entered into an event — Heupel, like everyone at the center, is convinced that human factors are at the core of every investigation. Human Factors has on-staff psychologists, aviation physiologists, flight surgeons — Heupel herself is a flight surgeon — and egress specialists. Even the accident investigation process is subjected to human factors analysis. There is the rule of five "whys." When looking at the cause of a mishap, you ask why that factor happened. When you identify that "why," you again ask why. "If you don't get to five 'whys,'" Heupel says, "you're not looking closely enough."
The Air Force employs the most cutting-edge flying technologies in the world, some of which surely haven't been heard about. At the same time, it employs new technologies in order to improve safety. Some of those, like GPS, were developed for the military and today play a major role in the civil aviation segment. Its bird avoidance radar, night-vision goggles, head-up displays, foreign object damage (FOD) radar and aging aircraft structural analysis techniques are just a few examples of how Air Force initiatives have provided new tools to make flying safer. Likewise, the Air Force employs successful strategies developed in civil aviation, as in its MFOQA (military flight operations quality assurance), a military version of a successful airline/FAA program to enhance safety.
New technologies, however, bring new challenges. The Safety Center is in charge of mishap investigation, policy and procedures for remotely piloted aircraft (RPA). The dramatic growth of RPAs in the fleet has raised some interesting questions. For instance, when an RPA crashes, let's say in Afghanistan, where is the accident site? Is it where the vehicle crashed? Or is it in Nevada, where the remotely based pilots were flying it? Or is it where the close-in pilots had taken control at the airfield in Afghanistan? The answer the Air Force has come up with is yes to all of the above, so investigations into RPA losses are complex, to say the least.
Every Airman a Safety Officer
I went to Albuquerque to discover the secret of how the Air Force has achieved such a remarkable safety record. I came away understanding that there is no secret. It takes a commitment to safety and all that that implies from the top down.
Every person I met at the Safety Center seemed to believe that safety is a dynamic, ongoing process that requires everyone involved to take an active role in the safety process. And it has worked. The results are quantifiable. While it's unrealistic to expect that general aviation can cut accidents to the level the Air Force has attained, there's surely much we can learn, starting with the belief that safety requires hard work, a good look in the mirror and the belief that one person can make a difference. The results of those attitudes have paid off for the Air Force, and its safety success can be measured not only in dollars and cents, but also, and far more importantly, in fewer lives lost.
To learn more about the USAF Safety Center, visit www.afsc.af.mil.