Staying safe in the real world

RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- It's no secret. We're flying some old airplanes.

In fact, aging airplanes continue to consume much of our attention. We are currently replacing the wing boxes on our C-130s, first delivered in 1956. Late last year, we grounded our F-15Cs, first delivered in 1974, after one literally broke apart in the sky. And more recently, we have focused on the T-38, which was first delivered in 1961.

In April, two AETC pilots died in a T-38 crash at Columbus AFB. The investigation board performed a thorough analysis of the wreckage, and we now know that the cause was a broken part -- a lever in the wing. The lever broke as the airplane taxied, and this caused the flight controls to be ineffective on takeoff. This is the first time this part is known to have failed.

As soon as he found out about the levers, my predecessor, General Bill Looney, directed a halt in flying to allow inspection of every lever in the fleet. If a lever was cracked, or even if it had a nick, gouge, or scratch, our team replaced it.

But we didn't stop there. We learned that the lever suffers high stress when flight controls are moved on the ground with no power, so we stopped this practice. In addition, our T-38 pilots paused to study the accident and the malfunction. We have also teamed up with Air Force Materiel Command to take two important steps. First, we studied the levers in depth to react to the original problem. More importantly, we are being proactive by disassembling multiple aircraft to look for additional parts that may develop similar problems.

Because there is a very small chance that these levers may fail at some unspecified time in the future, AFMC is manufacturing new, stronger levers for all T-38s. As soon as these are available, we will install them.

Some people will ask, "Why don't we stop flying until these levers are ready?" It's a good question, and we did consider this. After a full discussion with commanders, flight engineers, maintenance experts, and instructor pilots, we decided that continuing to fly was the right thing to do. In making this decision, we weighed the risk of flying with that of not flying -- including the loss of pilot proficiency. Arriving at this decision was not easy, but the experience taught us important lessons about staying safe in the real world.

Safety is critical, but if we wanted to be perfectly safe, we would never fly. In fact, we wouldn't travel in our cars, play sports, or walk to the park. In all of these activities, there is a small chance that an accident will happen. Even though we know this, we seldom think twice about driving to work, playing basketball, or walking down the street. We all accept risk in order to live our lives.

And in the Air Force, we must accept some risk in order to accomplish our mission. The T-38 is a very safe airplane to fly. You have my word that if I learn of information to the contrary, we will stop flying immediately. In the meantime, we will accept the inherent risks of flying to accomplish the mission of producing pilots.

Accepting that risk, however, does not relieve us of the responsibility to be proactive. Just as we are tearing T-38s apart looking for other parts that could break, we should all look around our shops and seek out areas where our people are at risk.

When we find a dangerous situation, or one finds us, we must pause to consider our options. We should learn as much as we can and seek inputs from all levels. After taking time to think, commanders and supervisors should implement the safety measures that best minimize the risk to our people while allowing us to accomplish our mission. They should explain the problem and the plan of action to their people. After this, everyone should monitor the situation as they get back to work.

We can never drive risk to zero. We can, however, continuously strive to make our workplaces and processes safer. As Airmen, we have come a long way. My grandfather used to tell us how he participated in too many funeral processions when he attended pilot training in 1919. Since then, Airmen have been tremendously successful in reducing risk while training and fighting in the air.

Now it is our turn.