By SUSAN GUREVITZ, a frequent contributor who lives in Philadelphia
Remember that 1986 movie Top Gun with Tom Cruise as Maverick, Anthony Edwards as his sidekick Goose, and other soon-to-be TV and movie stars? These elite jet fighter pilots got their jollies competing with one another, doing all sorts of air antics to impress Kelly McGillis and their flight instructor, and taking all sorts of risks no pilot in his right mind would attempt today because he'd be tossed out faster than you can say "F-14 Tomcat."
But Top Gun isn't a U.S. Navy aviation priority anymore. Teaching safety skills and instructing aspiring and advanced pilots how to spot and avoid possible hazards have been the priority since the mid-1990s, when the Navy's Operational Risk Management (ORM) program was created to gain control of potential or actual mishaps.
"Your first steps on base and during your first hour on base as an ensign, you learn about aviation safety," says Captain Brad Robinson, director of the School of Aviation Safety at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla.
In fact, teaching risk management skills is critical to all Navy personnel, including the Marines, as well as the Army and Air Force. The Army's safety program, called Composite Risk Management, and the Air Force's Air Force Safety Center at Kirtland Air Force Base, south of Albuqueque, N.M., are focused on organizational risk, explains Commander Allen McCoy, ORM division head, at the Naval Safety Center at Naval Station Norfolk, in Norfolk, Va.
The mantras of all the military are basically the same: Think about what you are doing before you do it. But the Navy's emphasis on individual risk is the key difference, Navy officers say.
"The Secretary of the Navy has made it clear that we need to embrace risk management in all we do, including the civilian workforce," says McCoy. "With our risk management principles, everyone has to understand his or her role in managing risk whether they are on- or off-duty. It's part of the planning process."
That's putting it mildly. Ask anyone in the Navy, and risk management will probably emerge as the pinnacle of all training and learning, beginning with the Aviation Preflight Indoctrination. The Navy's constantly planning any and every aspect of safety you can think of, and then some. "You learn it first," says McCoy. "Our intent is to provide structure and the mechanism to make informed risk decisions so you can understand the consequences."
To do that, the Navy has developed several principles and steps to follow so aviators and sailors can learn how to identify and anticipate risk before anything goes wrong. The guiding roots of risk management are what McCoy says are the four principles of applying ORM. They are:
1. Accept risk when the benefit is greater than the risk. Risk is inherent in the nature of military action. Leaders who are in the risk-taking business must be top-quality risk managers. Risk is usually proportional to gain. You cannot eliminate all risk.
2. Accept no unnecessary risk. An unnecessary risk is any risk that, if taken, will not contribute meaningfully to mission accomplishment. Leaders who accept unnecessary risks are gambling with the lives of their Marines or airmen--for nothing. The gambler doesn't know what will happen; the risk-managing leader can reasonably predict what the outcome will be.
3. Anticipate and manage risks by planning. Risks are more easily controlled when identified in planning because more time, assets and options are available to deal with the risk. It improves efficiency and saves money if ORM is integrated early in the planning process. If risk controls are tacked on as an afterthought in training or in combat, they will probably fail. Proper prior planning prevents poor performance.
4. Make risk decisions at the right level. The leader directly responsible for the operation makes risk decisions. If risk is greater than the benefit, goes beyond the commander's stated intent or help is needed to implement controls, communicate with higher authority.
The Web site of the Naval Safety Center, which oversees the entire safety system, contains every bit of safety information imaginable, from ORM statistics to instruction materials for every naval division, from best practices to mishap checklists. It probably includes more safety knowledge and advice than five quality control Web sites put together.
The site is sprinkled with all types of directives, too, such as "Mission Readiness Through Operational Safety," which introduces the site's School of Aviation Safety. In a feature called "Friday Funnies," the Naval Safety Center's Web editors take a lighter approach to teaching airmen and sailors risk management lessons through stories of silly or "gee whiz" mishaps that easily could have been avoided.
Like the Marine who was cleaning his gun, thought it wasn't loaded and was locked, and didn't know how he accidentally pulled the trigger--unfortunately, you know what happened. The editor calls the feature, "Tales of risk mismanagement on-duty and off-duty."
Note that the Navy doesn't describe these mistakes or calamities as accidents. As Robinson explains it, the Navy prefers to use the term "mishap" because, by definition, you can't do anything to prevent accidents. That's why they're called accidents. "The way we look at it, all mishaps are preventable," says Robinson.
When a mishap does occur, the pilot has to fill out any number of forms, detailing what happened, depending on the type of mishap. As McCoy points out, aviation has its unique set of challenges, so pilots must have the ability after their flight to "objectively look at mishaps in the wardroom, pick it apart to find the basis for it (the mishap) and understand what happened."
He says that 80 percent of all mishaps are caused by human error. "That's part of risk management--awareness."
An essential aspect of ORM--trainees (plus all experienced sailors and pilots) are expected to learn important lessons from mishaps--how to prevent them.
Mishaps range from the landing gear not automatically dropping down like it's supposed to, which can happen with the older training planes and require the pilot to override the automatic system and manually release the landing gear, to the most serious--a Class-A mishap that could cause total destruction of the aircraft or other naval property, permanent disability or even death.
"Unfortunately, it happens more often than we'd like," says McCoy about mishaps, which occur at the rate of about two per 100 noncombat-related missions.
As explained by Air Force Capt. Cedric Harper, the safety representative for the aviation section at the Aviation School of Safety in Pensacola, which includes instruction for the Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard, "Infractions that do not result in damage or loss of life are dealt with on a case-by-case basis. The punishment is decided by the commander and can be expected to match the severity of the infraction."
For example, did the pilot exercise the correct risk management principles prior to the flight? Causes for a mishap could simply be the weather (you didn't check the weather report). Bird activity is a factor, known as BASH--Bird Activity Strike Hazard. There's a Web site, and Harper says bird activity can actually change by the hour, especially during migration season. Or there's whether a different airfield is conducting an exercise that could interfere with yours, known as NOTAMS--Notice to Airmen.
The military person responsible for the infraction could be stationed on a ship or might even be off-duty, perhaps driving recklessly through traffic. But the military expects its personnel to exercise risk management principles 24 hours a day, seven days a week, no matter where they are.
Should the mishap result in serious damage or death, it can usually result in an Accident Investigation Board (AIB) and/or a Safety Investigations Board (SIB), according to Harper. The boards not only look at why it happened but also how it could have been prevented--the earmark of every mishap to use it as a teaching tool.
"The results of the investigations can assign cause and/or liability," says Harper.
The Navy doesn't like to talk about what types of punishment might be doled out--a lot depends on your rank and the severity of the infraction.
For example, are you in aviation training or are you a veteran pilot who has already earned his wings? In the most severe situations, the Navy might take back the pilot's wings so he can no longer fly. Worse yet, pilots might even face dismissal. Those still in flight training must go through the chain of command, answering questions and explaining what happened and why, and risk being "pink sheeted," which goes into your training file.
If you can't answer questions and haven't memorized emergency procedures, for example, your mishap is labeled a "fail flight." After you complete your training, that could affect where you ultimately will be assigned and whether it's what you want--fighter jets on aircraft carriers, maritime surveillance propeller planes or helicopters.
FROM DAY ONE
Throughout training, the aviation students are graded based upon their ORM knowledge, their comprehensive understanding of their training airplane and classroom tests. They also have to be prepared to answer the Question of the Day. If they don't know it?
"They'll end up with a fail flight, will be downgraded if they have no clue and will be pink sheeted," says Harper. "Fortunately, it doesn't happen very often."
And that's why serious pilots are also serious students, and they're the ones you'd want flying those multimillion-dollar airplanes.
"It's a pretty straightforward system," says an ensign in the aviation pipeline. "The better your grades are, the better chance you get what you want."
The training is intense, focused upon teaching the students several methods for thinking about ORM principles and applying them at the proper time so they become instinctive and second nature.
For example, prior to a mission, the pilots are briefed by the instructor who gives them a list of maneuvers they have to complete.
They'll discuss risk management issues and identify special hazards any flight might have and what you should do if there is an actual emergency during flight.
The pilots must assess the risk, using a system known as the "Five Steps of Performing ORM." They are:
--Identify the hazards.
--Assess the hazards.
--Make the risk decisions.
--Implement the controls.
--Supervise (make sure the controls are carried out).
This briefing could take as long as an hour for a flight that might last only an hour. When the pilots return from the flight, depending upon the flight's success, the debriefing could take from just five minutes to up to an hour or so.
Assistant Safety Officer Stephen Latrell, who's based at the Aviation Safety Center in Pensacola, worked in quality assurance at IBM before joining the Navy in a civilian role in 1993. In the corporate world, he says, the safety emphasis was on reducing insurance claims.
"We never heard of anything like ORM," he says. "We had to go through training, but no one paid any attention to that training," he says. But since he's joined the Navy, Latrell says, "I have never seen (safety) taken so seriously."
He believes the Navy's rank structure is what distinguishes the ORM from the safety and risk management that exists in the corporate world. It's not just a management role.
"Everyone has a hand in saving somebody's butt," he says.
October 15, 2008
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