Leadership Lessons: Compliance - the life you save could be your own

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Rudolf Kuehne
  • 319th Air Base Wing Chief of Safety
In August 2000, the Air Force lost an F-16 when it crashed in a field near the town of Tulia, Texas. The Air Force convened an accident investigation board to look into the reason for the crash. It was determined that crash occurred because the pilot violated flight directives by performing unauthorized aerobatic maneuvers. The field the F-16 crashed in belonged to the father-in-law of the pilot and the crash happened while the pilot was putting on an aerobatic display. That display cost the pilot his life. In June 1994, a B-52 crashed while practicing for an airshow; its crew of four was lost in the crash. The accident investigation board discovered that the pilot of this aircraft had a long history of violating Air Force regulations concerning flight standards and discipline by routinely pushing the B-52 beyond its operational limits. What is worse is that senior leaders within his wing knew of the pilot's transgressions and did nothing to stop him.

Over the last year as the 319th ABW'S Chief of Safety, I have had the not so pleasant opportunity to read the results of investigation boards and attend briefings describing how many of our fellow Airmen died in mishaps. Like the aircraft incidents mentioned above, many of these mishaps were the result of flagrant violations of Air Force rules. Two specific incidents stand out in my mind, in one an Airman died after he fell from a roof. Despite clear guidance, neither the victim nor his co-worker wore the required fall protection; it is very likely he would have lived if he had. In the other incident, an Airman died when he and his motorcycle collided with a deer. This Airman was not speeding nor was he riding in a particularly reckless manner, but he knowingly wore a helmet that was not certified or meant for actual motorcycle use. Would he have survived if he had a proper helmet? There is no way of knowing, but considering his only real injuries were to his head it is quite possible he would have lived.

The deaths of these Airmen could have been prevented had they followed the simple rules and regulations set up by the Air Force. Leadership and the wingmen also bear some responsibility. In each of the above incidents somebody knew, or should have known, what these Airmen were doing. For example, the motorcycle rider told his friends numerous times that he did not want to wear a helmet because he didn't want to live in a vegetative state should he get in an accident. These comments should have raised the suspicion of his friends and wingmen. The point is that the Air Force has lost too many Airmen because they took unnecessary risks or violated public laws for no reason.

On May 23, the Air Force begins its annual Critical Days of Summer safety campaign. This year's theme is "Risk: Double Checks not Second Thoughts." Our goal is to reduce, if not eliminate, mishaps caused by Airmen taking unnecessary risks or violating easy to follow public laws. The reason we chose this theme is simple, in the last five summers Air Mobility Command lost 10 Airmen due to preventable mishaps. All of them were involved vehicle crashes caused by either speed or alcohol; sometimes both. In other words, these deaths were preventable had the victims followed some very simple and well-known rules.

I challenge every Airman to evaluate and re-evaluate the risks you take. Ask yourself these simple questions: is what I am doing right? Does it violate a rule, regulation or law? Is my life worth [fill in the activity]? I further challenge leaders to talk your Airmen about the risks they take or plan to take. Review your work processes to see if your Airmen are taking unnecessary risks to get the job done. Finally, visit your Airmen while they are performing their duties to make sure they have the required resources and abide by Air Force safety standards and other rules. Every Airman is important to our mission and every Airman is worth saving. Remember the life you save may be your own.