Army Aviation

Looking Forward, Looking Back

How the Army Addressed the 4th Quarter Class A Aviation Accident Spike / By COL Ronald Ells and LTC Randy James: Last year, we reported that FY19 had the fewest fatalities on record, and while we cannot boast the same for FY20, the Aviation Branch remained tenacious in its approach to Aviation safety. FY20 was the safest year in Army Aviation history in both the total number of Class A mishaps (6) and the Class A mishap rate per 100K flying hours (0.63), a 50% reduction in one year alone. FY16-20 is the safest five-year period in Army Aviation history with an average Class A mishap rate of 0.93 per 100K flying hours and continues the downward trend in Aviation mishap rates overall. These accomplishments remained consistent as we navigated the uncertainties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic while still executing over 90% of our flying hours (almost 93% of the five-year average). However, we must remain vigilant in our approach to Aviation safety and remain cognizant of the risks.

Leaders of 5th Battalion, 101st Combat Aviation Brigade “Wings of Destiny,” 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and the Latvian Mechanized Infantry Brigade conduct air mission briefs during field exercise Silver Arrow, Sept. 28, 2020, Adazi, Latvia.

We must remember that the difference between a Class A and Class C mishap is inches and seconds. The total number of Class A-C mishaps can be predictive of the health of our safety programs. As we continue operations in FY21, we have become more aggressive in our flying hour programs and flight profiles resulting in some alarming trends. First, through January, we have had a total of 10 fatalities which is equal to or more than each of the past five years’ annual totals. Additionally, our total number of Class A through Class C mishaps for the 1st Quarter of FY21 is almost twice as many as each of the past two years. These trends are alarming as three quarters remain in this fiscal year, one of which is the 4th Quarter. However, I am confident we have the right leaders in place to attack and reverse these trends.

Risk Management in a COVID Environment

During this very month last year, the Army experienced myriad challenges as COVID-19 struck the nation and impacted operations from training to combat. These challenges forced leaders at all echelons to cast a more critical eye on operations when it came to risk management with the emphasis on continuing operations in a COVID environment. Leaders were more mindful of crew selection, mission profiles, weather, etc., and took a more holistic approach to risk management to ensure the overall safety of our Soldiers. By the very nature of reacting to one major risk factor, the overall risk management process receives a critical eye, and all risks are assessed more in depth. This forced a reassessment that resulted in a substantial reduction in Class A mishaps, specifically manifested during the 4th Quarter.

During the beginning of FY20, the Combat Readiness Center (CRC) identified a significant, dangerous trend in Aviation Class A mishaps known as the 4th Quarter Spike. From FY15-19, Army Aviation experienced 40% of Class A mishaps (21 of 53) during the 4th Quarter with August responsible for half of those mishaps. However, during FY20, Army Aviation suffered only one Class A mishap during the 4th Quarter when the previous two years each had five Class A mishaps. Additionally, the only Class A mishap last year was during August, solidifying August as the most dangerous month of the year to fly. Astoundingly, while still flying almost 50% of last year’s hours during the second half of the year, the August mishap was the only Class A that occurred while flying in a COVID environment with increased scrutiny of risks. Said another way, Army Aviation had five Class A mishaps during the first five and half months of the year but only one for the last six and a half. This drastic reduction in mishaps is directly attributable to leadership’s increased vigilance in risk management through awareness and mitigations of the multitude of risks facing our Aviators and Soldiers today.

Focusing on the 4th Quarter Spike

While there were many successes last year in mishap prevention, FY21 is not as promising and requires a return to the risk mitigation practices taken over the second half of last year. Some of these practices include proactive training for challenging environmental conditions, deliberate selection and certification of mission briefing officers (MBOs) and mission approval authorities, holistic crew selection processes, and planning/managing leader transitions, among others. While no one practice is a panacea to remove all risk, combining approaches creates a synergy of risk mitigation actions that in turn provide for safer organizations. The one theme that weaves its way through all these actions is direct leader involvement at the appropriate level to develop a culture inclusive of safety while taking a prudent risk. As mentioned above, the critical eye applied to all these practices during the last six months of FY20 due to COVID and focus on the 4th Quarter Spike resulted in significantly safer organizations.

Finally, the USACRC remains steadfast in its role of leading Army-wide loss prevention efforts and continues to provide information, awareness, and recommendations to help organizations improve risk management. As part of enduring efforts here at the CRC, we have numerous tools to help leaders at all echelons in the execution of a first-class safety program. We aggressively disseminate information on the latest mishaps and trends via direct email distribution to Aviation safety officers, information campaigns, various periodicals including Flightfax, Risk Management Magazine and this magazine, social media platforms, and through information on the USACRC home page Additionally, we are prepared to come to your organizations and brief the most current Aviation Safety Brief to promote continued dialogue with the field. As the USACRC, we ensure that for every mishap, we determine what happened, why it happened and how, to prevent it from happening again. “Our goal remains the same – to get in front of mishaps through predictive analysis and drive them to zero”.

Winning matters! Readiness Through Safety!

COL Ronald Ells is the deputy commander, and LTC Randy James is chief of the Aviation Division, Directorate of Assessments and Prevention, U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center, Ft. Rucker, AL.