Air Force maintenance mishaps are rising. Can a worksheet fix it?

Air Force maintenance mishaps are rising. Can a worksheet fix it?

How is your personal stress? How much sleep did you get last night? Do you need to use hazardous materials or chemicals to complete your next task, and how is the lighting in the workspace?

Those are just some of the questions that Air Education and Training Command wants its aircraft maintainers to answer on a new worksheet it rolled out in February.

The two-page questionnaire is intended to help determine how safe an airman’s work environment — and their mental state — may be before starting any high-risk maintenance work, ranging from hoisting and towing an aircraft to checking landing gears or loading munitions.

Maintenance-related mishaps, including “preventable” accidents during engine checks and while towing aircraft, have cost AETC more than $50 million since September 2018, the command said in February. But fiscal year 2023 saw an “alarming spike” in those accidents, prompting the training branch to look for new ways to enforce its safety precautions.

Overall, the Air Force recorded 75 major non-combat mishaps during FY23, including 21 that occurred during ground maintenance — nearly double the maintenance incidents of the previous year, according to Air Force Safety Center data obtained by Air Force Times. Figures were current as of April 1.

AETC recorded a total of 11 Class A and Class B mishaps in FY23, most of which occurred in flight. Three took place during ground maintenance, including two separate incidents in which F-35 jets sucked foreign objects into their engines, and one instance in which an F-16′s engine erupted in flames while being checked.

In comparison, AETC logged one Class A ground operations accident in FY22 and zero in FY21, Air Force safety data shows.

Class A accidents involve a death or permanent total disability, destruction of a military aircraft, damages of more than $2.5 million, or a combination of those criteria. Class B mishaps cause between $600,000 and $2.5 million in damages, a permanent partial disability, inpatient hospitalization of three or more personnel.

While the Air Force said no one was directly injured in AETC’s worst maintenance mishaps, they can lead to serious injury.

For instance, in February 2023, a contractor working on an Air Combat Command-owned T-38A Talon at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, was crushed when the jet collapsed on him while he was lubricating the aircraft’s landing gear, leaving him with multiple broken bones. An Air Force investigation found the unnamed man had removed a safety pin that allowed the landing gear to retract without other precautions in place.

Ground mishaps within AETC “really clued us in to realize that we needed to foster a stronger risk-management and safety mindset in the maintenance community,” Col. Will Phillips, the command’s safety director, told Air Force Times.

How it works

AETC’s new questionnaire is similar to the checklist completed by fighter crews in preflight briefings to tally mission risks and will create “a more standardized, repeatable process” to measure factors that could contribute to an accident before starting a potentially dangerous task, Phillips said.

AETC maintainers “perform tasks that risk their own health and welfare, and they also risk aircraft damage when they have to do these tasks everyday, but their tasks are mission-essential,” Phillips said.

The command’s approximately 7,600 active duty and civilian maintainers will use the worksheet, which takes about 10 minutes to complete. It does not yet apply to contractors, though Phillips said that’s being considered.

The paperwork is to be completed by each person before starting a new task. If the same task is being performed throughout the day, like towing aircraft, it only needs to be completed once. However, if a factor changes that can increase risk, like weather, maintainers are required to complete a new worksheet.

The tool is also not intended to replace a departmental “knock-it-off” instruction intended to empower personnel from stopping a task they feel is too risky.

“This process equips personnel and supervisors to objectively assess risk and alert leadership when task, human, and environmental factors may accumulate to create an unacceptable level of risk,” instructions accompanying the worksheet said.

Scores in each area — human, environmental and task risks — are separately tallied; the team lead should be briefed on each, with a focus on how to mitigate them. A “moderate” score in any area requires approval to proceed from a flight, section chief or expeditor; a “high” score requires the OK from a production superintendent.

“The concept is, once you have a team of people and they put together an understanding of what their aggregate risk is, if it rises to a certain level, then they elevate that to their supervisor and their supervisor can then look at say, ‘OK, can I swap a person? Can we push this to the day shift? Can we add another person to the crew that’s more experienced?’” Phillips said. “‘What are those measures I can take to buy down risk?’”

The worksheets can be thrown out at the end of a shift, but must be kept if a mishap occurs.

Phillips said some maintenance units are keeping the sheets anyway to “get a better finger on the pulse of the data at a more macro level.” The information can help units track trends, including where resources — or a lack of them — could be driving risk in an already stretched-thin maintainer community that has struggled to keep up with aging aircraft and a high operational tempo.

The sheet could also become a tool to help units connect struggling airmen with support services.

“Will this form encourage leaders to have a better understanding of what’s going on with their folks? The answer to that is we hope so,” Phillips said.

While some may feel the added paperwork amounts to micromanaging or even policing airmen, Phillips said that’s not the intent. But the command is conscious of that perspective as it seeks honest answers. That’s why AETC expects an initial question about alcohol consumption in the last 24 hours to change to something more generally related to health.

“We can meet them in the middle” by asking less specific questions, Phillips said, “and still achieve the baseline objective of a good assessment.”

The command expects to tweak the questionnaire as it receives feedback and will eventually release a new form.

It’s almost impossible to know how many potential accidents may be avoided. But thanks to the worksheet, Phillips said he hopes to hear from units about instances when maintainers flagged risks and stopped upcoming work as a result. AETC plans to share the results of its initiative with the other major commands.

“If it canceled a sortie, I would love to know about that so we can begin to understand,” Phillips said. “Maybe a point value needed to be adjusted. Maybe we need to include something else, or maybe we need to remove something from the form.”

“We’re trying to find that balance between risk and mission,” he said.

Courtney Mabeus-Brown is the senior reporter at Air Force Times. She is an award-winning journalist who previously covered the military for Navy Times and The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., where she first set foot on an aircraft carrier. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and more.

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