When it comes to Flight Safety...use your outdoor voice... and resist the dark side.
I joined the Air Force in 1984 as an Air Traffic Control Assistant (Private). My initial Trade Qualification Training (TQ 3) was conducted at the Transport Canada Training Institute in Cornwall. Throughout the course it was stressed to all students that “Flight Safety is Everyone’s Business”, especially those of us who were directly involved in flying operations. Following my course in Cornwall, I was posted to CFB Lahr in West Germany. One bright sunny day in Lahr, I was sitting in the Control Tower chatting with the Captain who was the on-duty Tower Controller. It was a quiet day and we were happy to hear that an American Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt was inbound for some practise approaches. After a few touch-and-go’s, the Tower Controller asked the pilot if he would like to make a few runs on the strafing panels we had set up on the airfield between the taxiways. The pilot paused for a moment and then said, “we don’t usually do this as a single-ship, but... sure.” At this point, the A-10 was just in the overshoot and had broken out of the circuit to set up for his run on the targets. It was at this point that something tweaked in my brain and I said to the controller that I thought the pilot understood this to be a live firing range, not a dry-run practice range. “Not to worry”, said the controller, “these guys come here all the time.” By this time the A-10 pilot had completed his checks and was re-joining the circuit for his “strafing run.” The terminology he used convinced me to repeat to the controller that I believed the pilot understood this to be a live range and that I thought he was going to fire his 30mm canon as soon as he was in position. Again, the controller assured me that these guys came to Lahr all the time and this was routine. As the pilot turned on final, he transmitted “Turning final for the gun-run on the strafing panels.” “Sir!” I yelled... at which point the controller grabbed the microphone and declared “Be advised, this is a dry range only,” resulting in the A-10 pilot pulling up abruptly and turning away from the airfield. The ensuing conversation with the pilot who, as it turned out, was just recently posted to Germany and had never been to Lahr before, confirmed that he had, in fact, believed he was cleared for live firing and was preparing to actually fire on the strafing panels.
I tell this story to stress a point. At the time of this incident, I was a very new member of the Air Force and the most junior member of Lahr ATC. After expressing my initial concern to the controller, I was somewhat apprehensive to reiterate that I thought the A-10 pilot believed this to be a live range. My apprehension to speak up was a result of the significant difference in rank between a Private and a Captain and the fact that he was obviously much more experienced than I was. But, I felt that the consequences of an A-10 tearing up the infield with a 30mm canon far outweighed the controller’s ire I would have had to suffer had I been wrong.
In another incident involving a civilian airline, a very experienced pilot noticed a significant accumulation of snow on the wing of a taxiing aircraft on which he was a passenger. Though he was concerned about the amount of snow on the wing he was sure the crew must have been aware of it and decided not to bring it to their attention as he felt his comments might insult their professionalism. Unfortunately for all involved, the accumulation of snow, unbeknownst to the crew, was excessive and after take-off the plane was unable to climb, even with the application of full power. The aircraft crashed a short distance from the end of the runway resulting in numerous fatalities.
Members of the Canadian Forces (all members, not just those in the Air Force) are in a unique position in that they are frequently in and around aircraft and in aircraft hangars to a much greater extent than the majority of civilians would normally be. As a result, they can sometimes find themselves in a position where they see something that just doesn’t look right. A nut or bolt on the floor or something that looks out of place or unusual should never be disregarded. If it doesn’t look right, there is a good chance that it isn’t. Never take for granted that someone must have already seen what you see and that it must be okay. Bring it to the attention of someone who works on the aircraft and don’t feel intimidated if you are not aircrew or ground crew yourself; your actions may avert a serious incident or accident.
As stated by the Chief of the Air Staff and the Commander of 1 Canadian Air Division in previous articles, this is a time in Air Force history when the ops tempo is greater than it has been for more than 50 years. We are involved in operations all around the world and, as a relatively small Air Force, the loss of even a small number of our personnel or aircraft can have a significant effect on our ability to succeed in our missions. Flying operations carry a certain degree of inherent risk and no one should ever pass up the opportunity to reduce that risk if he or she is in a position to do so. As the Army and Navy frequently rely on the Air Force for support in the successful completion of their missions, it is imperative that everyone take on Flight Safety as a personal responsibility and voice any concern or observation without delay. Not doing so could potentially result in catastrophe.
The Flight Safety crest, which almost everyone is familiar with, has two sides; the white side represents accident prevention accomplished through education and the promotion of an honest and open Flight Safety culture that encourages early reporting of flight safety concerns in hopes of avoiding significant incidents or accidents. The dark side of the crest represents accident investigation; something we would all like to avoid. Some members of the CF may feel that they are not qualified to make observations about Flight Safety as it is not their area of expertise. My advice is that it is always better to say something than to say nothing. At worse, saying something and being wrong might lead to slight embarrassment; conversely, saying nothing could result in significant injury and/or loss of life... maybe even your own.
So, if you take away only one thing from this article it should be that, as far as Flight Safety is concerned, speaking up and being wrong far outweighs keeping quiet and allowing a preventable accident to take place. Flight Safety and mission accomplishment go hand in hand during peacetime and wartime ops alike. Flight Safety is everyone’s responsibility, just like mission accomplishment is everyone’s responsibility; so never think that you are not qualified to speak up or to point out something that doesn’t seem right. Avoid the dark side of the Flight Safety crest and join the fight to reduce the need for accident investigations to the lowest level possible. And don’t worry about the members of the DFS investigation team... in the unlikely event that accidents are eliminated altogether, we can always find other interesting jobs!