Does this Deployed Tanker Squadron Have a Safety Problem?

A pilot from the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron prepares to take off in a KC-135 Stratotanker in support of an Operation Inherent Resolve mission over Iraq Oct 6, 2016. The KC-135 provides the core aerial refueling capability for the U.S. Air Force and has excelled in this role for more than 50 years. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Douglas Ellis/Released)

Air Force flight crews have been subjected to a crushing operational tempo for as long as anyone can remember. Things that were formerly considered “war story” extremes, like flying several consecutive max duty days, have become the expectation. Crew rest, once regarded an unassailable pillar, has become negotiable. C2 agencies treat it like a speed bump rather than the assumed and unquestioned limitation it is supposed to be.

This mentality has descended from the ivory towers and infected squadrons at the tactical level. As a C-17 aircraft commander while still on active duty, I found myself too often correcting schedulers and even operations officers on the rules. The pressure on mission necessity has been testing the strength of our safety culture for a long time.

Operational Risks Management (ORM) is the process we’ve baked into our system to give squadrons a tool for risk control. With ORM, squadrons engage in a deliberate analysis of the factors impacting every mission during planning, and assess those risk factors against the necessity of a given mission. When risk is unduly high, controls are put in place to mitigate and make a mission executable. In extreme cases, a mission is scrubbed until risks have subsided.

Operators also have a say — indeed the final say. When the call for execution comes, the aircraft commander assesses the circumstances to “sense check” the squadron’s planning ORM. This includes evaluating the readiness of each crewmember — including himself — to perform the mission. If someone is not ready to go, they are replaced with someone who is ready. If a full crew cannot be assembled, the mission is delayed, cancelled, or handed off to an auxiliary crew.

One of the cardinal rules of command is to never, ever openly question the safety judgements of aircraft commanders, even when they seem on the surface to be overly conservative. Even if you suspect a crew used ORM to shirk, you must not say that. If a particular aircraft commander seems to be exploiting his ORM latitude to have more time off or avoid tough missions, you compile the evidence and conduct a discreet and private discussion with that individual, expressing your concerns and expectations. What you never do is feed even the vaguest notion that refusing a mission for ORM is frowned upon.

There’s a good reason for this. When crews perceive they’ll be disfavored for calling ORM, a new and gravely insidious risk is introduced: they’ll execute missions they shouldn’t for the sake of staying in the good graces of the chain of command. The Air Force, let’s not forget, is a vertical power structure, and maintaining the favor of the empowered is a powerful incentive to understate or subtly discount risks.

With the scene set, let’s consider the photo below, sent to JQP by sources currently deployed with the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron. According to those sources, one of the squadron’s crews refused a mission due to elevated risk — specifically because they’d been given the mission on short notice without the opportunity for sufficient rest. Given the crew was collectively exhausted, the aircraft commander reportedly did not feel the mission was safe, and refused to execute without mitigation. Here’s what reportedly followed:

Maybe the comments were meant in jest. Maybe there is missing context. Maybe the whole thing is a hoax, though the sources sharing the information insist it is all too real, and every bit as distressing as it appears. Trying to pry any sort of confirmation out of Al Udeid is like conversing with a mime … lots of gyrations to distract from silence.

Taken at face value, this demonstrates at least two things: that the squadron has a toxic safety culture, and that the Operations Group Commander is at least partially responsible for reinforcing it. This is precisely the sort of cultural sickness that is driving people to leave the Air Force, creating a death spiral of understaffing in its most critical roles.

Gen. Dave Goldfein and his staff seem earnest about righting the ship. But in the past week, we’ve had a 3-star put 50,000 airmen on lockdown in their quarters because of a single suspected DUI, a task force suggesting we simply cut pilot training in half to solve our problems, and now this manifestation that operations squadrons continue trying to do much more than they ought.

It’s about time for some of that decisive leadership we’ve been touting … less talk and more concrete action. A good start would be to publicly correct the instances of official buffoonery mentioned above, and to publicly address the apparently grave situation in the tanker squadron at Al Udeid.

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