Managing the Transitions in Aviation Operations
COL. JASON MILLER
U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center
Fort Rucker, Alabama
We’ve all heard that there’s no such thing as a “routine mission” in Army Aviation. Time and again, mishap investigations have proven this to be true. The devil is often in the transitions before and after the primary mission. The paragraphs below detail the most common findings in recent Class A aviation mishap investigations.
Risk-Common Operating Picture (R-COP): While mishap units might have an RCOP on file, investigations show they often failed to identify several key factors that increased mission risk. Missed factors include operational environment (dust/sand/terrain), fighter management and currency in night vision system training. Exclusion of these considerations means the mission briefing officer (MBO) and approval authority miss critical information in determining proper crew selection for mission success. Units should regularly scrub their R-COPs and make sure they cover all factors affecting unit operations, whether for training or in combat conditions.
Aircrew Training Program (ATP): Investigations often find that the unit was inadequately managing its ATP. Left unchecked by leadership, “small” deviations from standard can quickly turn “normalized.” Commanders and their standardization staff, including the aviation safety officer, must review their ATPs regularly and monitor the health of the program by conducting no-notice evaluations and commander fly-alongs, sitting in on MBO briefings, and taking a direct role in developing unit training to ensure it meets the standard.
MBO Training: It can be argued that MBO training is the final defense in mishap prevention, but investigations show deficiencies in some training programs. The mission brief is the last opportunity for a risk check prior to the crew’s departure, and MBOs must know the right questions to ask and fully understand crew requirements for the specific mission at hand. Commanders at all levels have a stake in designing and validating their MBO training program and should conduct periodic reviews to ensure it remains on target.
Staff Planning: Investigations are revealing the absence of key staff officers (to include the safety officer) in mission planning and a lack of detail in the Deliberate Risk Assessment Worksheet. Ensuring the right emphasis is placed on the planning process allows units to war-game hazards and contingencies and implement controls before mission execution. Leaders must treat the DRAW and R-COP as living, evolving documents, not a paperwork drill, and ensure the correct experts are part of the planning process. Furthermore, through intent and mission command, subordinates must be empowered to make dynamic risk decisions when conditions, environment and missions change to ensure successful mission execution.
Crew Complacency: Complacency is a natural byproduct of all the above — standards deviations, inadequate planning and training, and insufficient risk management. Leaders and aviators alike should routinely self-check to ensure they aren’t becoming complacent both in and out of the aircraft. Additionally, complacency can have a dramatic effect on one of the most important aspects of successful mission execution, and that is crew coordination. Everyone must understand the dangers of becoming too comfortable in such a risky profession.
Rehearsals: Just as on the ground side of operations, aviation mishap investigations are increasingly uncovering a lack of pre-mission rehearsals. Rehearsals give crews an opportunity to address hazards before, during and after the principal operation and can help identify small glitches that could lead to a catastrophic event. Standardizing rehearsals prior to each flight gives commanders a prime opportunity to implement controls and drive risk down to acceptable levels. It will also train subordinates and build our professional bench on what “right” looks like.
As you can see, each failure within the system ultimately cascades to the mishap. Implementing controls, following SOPs, maintaining standards, conducting comprehensive training and planning appropriately with the correct personnel (i.e., standardization instructors and aviation safety officers) while standardizing pre-mission rehearsals will go a long way toward safe mission accomplishment.
Readiness Through Safety!