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Human factor is primary cause of aviation mishaps

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Feb. 13, 2004) -- The "human factor" is the primary cause of military aircraft mishaps.

That testimony by Air Force Chief of Safety Maj. Gen. Kenneth W. Hess came as part of a congressional hearing on military aviation safety, Feb. 11, where safety directors from all four service branches testified before the House Armed Services Committee.

The general told committee members that "task saturation" is one example of how the human factor can be responsible for mishaps.

"Task saturation is a big deal in some of these mishaps," General Hess said. "As the situation becomes critical and the aviator (starts) to load-shed, they can get themselves (in) trouble. Anything we can do to bring up the situational awareness in the machine itself will help prevent that kind (of) misprioritization."

General Hess said developmental technology, such as the tactile vest, improvements in the types of information being brought into cockpits, and better ground-based training are all going to help the Air Force deal with the human factor.

"Our simulation technology has moved from very mechanical, in-the-box kinds of simulators to distributed training where you are bringing many different elements, General Hess said. (As a result) you are able to experience a lot of concentrated work before you ever get into the cockpit. I think that will (help) with the (issue of) task saturation."

In May 2003, the secretary of defense challenged the military services to reduce the number of mishaps by 50 percent over two years. General Hess said the Air Force is ready to accept the challenge.

"Over the past 10 years the Air Force has lost more than 300 airmen and nearly 250 aircraft valued at about $11 billion," General Hess said. "These aviation accidents could have been prevented. The Air Force fully endorses Secretary (Donald) Rumsfeld's 50-percent reduction goal as a beginning."

The general said that a 10-year analysis of Air Force aviation mishaps revealed three areas where the service will focus its safety improvement efforts: controlled flight into terrain; power plant failures, and; mid-air collisions and loss of control in flight.

He also said that improvements in safety must start at the lowest level.

"We realize that real change starts at the grass-roots level," General Hess said. "Commanders and supervisors, the leaders, are accountable for safety practices and must take action to reduce the rates. Clearly, safety must be a priority for everyone."

Despite multiple questions, the Air Force and other service safety representatives maintained that aging aircraft fleets are not a cause of aviation mishaps. General Hess said all aircraft are held to the same standards of airworthiness and that even the oldest aircraft in the Air Force fleet, the KC-135 Stratotanker, has an extremely low mishap rate of about .35 per 100,000 hours of flight time.

But the general also explained to committee members that asking whether an aircraft is safe despite its age and asking if it is cost-effective to continue maintaining such an aircraft yields different answers.

"The Air Force is going to maintain the flight safety standards of that airplane at whatever cost is required to keep it safe as long as it is in the inventory," General Hess said. "The flight safety standards will not be compromised.

However, the general said, when comparing the cost benefit of taking an aging KC-135 to the maintenance depot to how much useful life is left in the machine, one can draw a different conclusion.

While aviation safety was the primary focus of the congressional hearing, General Hess did tell committee members that mishaps on the ground, particularly those involving automobiles, are more problematic to the Air Force than aviation-related mishaps.

"We work the motor vehicle problem as hard, or harder, because each of the services is affected more by the slaughter on our nation's highways than we are by problems we confront on the aviation side," General Hess said.