Flight safety: A complex task

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — The flight line is a very dangerous place: There are an infinite number of disastrous events that can happen when you least expect them. 

As a newly assigned 75 ABW Flight Safety noncommissioned officer, I have quickly learned that safety and mishap prevention are critical. 

In the flight safety world, our biggest focuses are: Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard, Foreign Object Damage, Airfield Construction Zones, Mid-Air Collision Avoidance, and Safe Aviation practices.

The BASH program has huge safety implications for our flying mission. There are thousands of native and migratory birds and animals that transit Hill Air Force Base each day. In 2014, there were 78,480 observed bird sightings, and our Flight Safety team scared approximately 8,021 of them away from the runway. 

When a bird hits an aircraft, it can cause millions of dollars in damage, and even potentially cause fatalities. In fiscal year 2014, the cost to taxpayers for bird strikes alone was $55,110,586. Since 1992, the Air Force has lost 15 aircraft and 25 aircrew members due to bird-related mishaps. It’s hard to believe something so small can cause so much mayhem. 

To mitigate this risk, our installation has partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services to control the bird/wildlife population here. We have two full-time technicians, also called “bird guys,” who monitor and control the bird/wildlife hazard around our airfield. Their vigilance and hard work maintain a safe flying environment and save lives daily. 

The Foreign Object Damage program is also major tasking for our office. FOD damage contributes to some of the most costly mishaps involving our aircraft. Foreign Object Damage is any damage attributed to a foreign object that can be expressed in physical or economic terms. In addition, it may or may not degrade the product’s required safety or performance characteristics. 

In 2014, FOD contributed to $113,329 in loss for Hill Air Force Base. Every week, 75th Flight Safety tag-teams with the Base FOD Manager and Quality Assurance representatives to drive around the airfield looking for FOD. We are checking for anything on the ramp or airfield that poses a threat to our aircraft, no matter how small. Examples would be screws or bolts from an aircraft ladder, or a wrench from a tool kit. 

FOD has a tendency to be in hard-to-see areas, so it requires everyone to remain vigilant. Supervisors who have operational flight line experience can provide invaluable training to teach their new troops the “ins and outs” of FOD detection. In fact, recently during a FOD drive, we found a lug nut that fell off a sweeper truck. If we had not promptly removed it, an aircraft engine might have sucked it up, causing millions in damage. 

Airfield construction is another vital focus. The flight line is constantly in flux — it is always being expanded, renovated and repaired to ensure a safe work environment. 75th Flight Safety performs periodic spot inspections of these work sites to verify compliance with Air Force directed procedures.

Most of the construction is accomplished by contractor civilians who, in many cases, are working on the airfield for the very first time. Thus, that inexperience can lead to mishaps; however, complacency and overconfidence amongst our experienced workers can, too. Therefore, we must always remain cautious and be willing to correct deficiencies at all levels. It mainly comes down to being a good Wingman and helping each other stay on the right track. 

The Mid-Air Collision Avoidance program is another critical undertaking. The intent of this MACA is to educate civilian pilots on our military operations at Hill AFB, along the Wasatch Front and around the Utah Test and Training Range. This safety campaign helps avoid midair collisions and educates Utah pilots on the services the military and civilian air traffic controllers can provide to general aviation. The safety message is disseminated through annual visits to various Utah airports to speak to pilots and maintenance support personnel. 

Last year, Flight Safety visited four surrounding airports, including Logan, Ogden, Salt Lake City and Provo, with a total of 107 pilots in attendance. The main topics of discussion were local procedures at Hill AFB, seeing and avoiding other aircraft, Federal Aviation Administration training materials, accident-avoidance tactics, past accident statistics, Talk and Squawk, Notice to Airmen, Temporary Flight Restrictions, lights-out operations in military operations areas, wake turbulence, air traffic control services, etc. Not only do these presentations help save lives, they also help preserve our strong local relationships and further boost our community’s confidence in what we do.

Our last focus, which basically covers everything in between, is Safe Aviation practices. While this may cover a large breadth of activities, it mainly boils down to doing things safely. Telling someone to “be safe” is not always enough. Each organization must foster a strong safety culture, institute policies, enforce the rules and police one another. 

Although 75th Flight Safety is tasked with enforcing rules for all flying operations at Hill, it is imperative all players participate and comply. We work closely with the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings, the 514th Flight Test Squadron, and the Ogden Air Logistics Complex, performing spot checks at any given time. It is truly a Team Hill effort and this synergy has made Hill one of the safest airfields in all of Air Force Material Command. 

In fact, in 2013 and 2014, Hill was recognized with the Air Force Material Command’s “Flight Safety of the Year” awards. 

I have quickly learned that alertness and awareness are critical to aviation safety. It’s a team effort, so if one element fails, it puts the entire mission at risk. Whether a longtime veteran at Hill AFB or a new Airman straight out of tech school, all flight line personnel must do his or her part to keep our mission 100 percent effective and safe.