To the casual eye, this may not look like much.
To a C-17 crew member, it’s an image that screams “WTF?!”
This photo, one of several taken during a recent 2-ship spouse orientation event at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, appears to depict a clear breach of safety. When the cargo door is open, no one should be moving around in the cargo compartment without either donning a parachute or attaching to a safety harness. Certainly, no one should be doing a handstand in the cargo compartment … not even on the ground while the aircraft is stationary and certainly not in flight while the doors are open.
Air Force Instruction 11-2C-17 vol. 3:
“19.5. Safety Equipment.
19.5.2. All occupants of the cargo compartment will either wear a parachute or an attached restraint harness, or be seated with a seat belt fastened before a troop door and/or the cargo door and ramp is opened.”
It’s an insistence reiterated throughout C-17 guidance, in passages routinely visited by both pilots and loadmasters. And yet, another photo from the same event shows an equally unsettling violation, with an unharnessed spouse standing within a few meters of an open cargo door during flight operations with her back turned. Behind her, a loadmaster gazes in the other direction.
I can tell you from direct experience that this is not just a little bit jacked up, but a significant breach of flight discipline. Safeguards are required when doors are opened for reasons as obvious as they are potentially catastrophic. All it takes is a pocket of turbulent air or an unplanned pitch-up at an inopportune moment to create deadly consequences. The C-17 history books are dotted with incidents where safety harnesses have saved lives.
Particularly disturbing is the report that several McChord squadron commanders were directly involved in this event. Even more concerning is a report that at least one loadmaster involved protested the unsecured movement of spouses with the doors open and was “overruled.” I place that word in quotes because if it actually happened as it has been reported, the person doing the “overruling” had no authority to do so, and should have been ignored.
This just underscores the critical importance of making flights like these exercises in strict compliance and crystal communication (or, as aircrews label it, strong Crew Resource Management). There is an elevated risk of “showboating” … and there are people aboard who might not realize when they’re endangering themselves. This raises vigilance and assertiveness thresholds for the crew.
There should have been enough briefing, mental rehearsal, and pre-coordination among all involved to preclude any tangled wires in real time, especially with respect to core safety issues. Whenever someone said “and then we’re going to let a spouse do a handstand while the doors are opened” … the response — from everyone else — should have been “no … we’re not going to do that.”
I’m told most of the crewmembers involved were given what’s called a “Q3/1” as a result of this incident. This means they were disqualified (likely in the area of Safety/Judgment) but instantly re-qualified, the gesture serving the purposes of putting them on a sort of informal probation while documenting the breach.
Some are privately (and not-so-privately) questioning whether that goes far enough, especially where involved commanders are concerned. It’s a fair question. Commanders own safety and standardization programs. They set and enforce standards, holding not only combat readiness but lives and careers in the balance. They need credibility to command effectively. If their own mistakes are too cheaply forgiven, credibility withers. They must set the example, even and especially when it comes to owning mistakes.
Should spouse flights be happening at all in this resource environment? Are our crews getting all of the training they need such that we have the resources to spare on events like this? These are always fair questions, but especially in light of incidents such as this one.
When I was in the C-17 business, something like this would have been automatically reported to the 18th Air Force commander (at least by any wing commander interested in self-preservation). Assuming Lt. Gen. Sam Cox is aware of this, the question is what, if anything, he will do to address it.
Judging by the number of interested parties who have reached out in the last few days, one thing is for certain: the crew force is watching.
Update @ 27/1050 EST: JQP has learned from direct participants that the unsecured movements of spouses with the doors open were actually pre-planned, as a means of allowing spouses to circulate through the flight deck. The handstand depicted above was a spontaneous act by one of those circulating spouses, according to one source. It is also said that while the crews managed to talk themselves into believing this was an acceptable plan, they recognized at some point that they had broken the rules and self-identified after landing, with one involved commander suggesting he be the first to receive any discipline. If true, this is reassuring. However, other issues have been raised in the course of a discussion that continues.
Some have questioned whether the events pictured actually occurred in flight. That has been confirmed by multiple sources, including some directly involved. This additional photo makes it more clear …
… as does this video, which, while grainy, also shows a ramp being lowered in improper configuration. You can actually hear someone explain the necessity to re-configure as the ramp is raised. And yes, it appears one of the passengers stands up momentarily while the door is open.
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