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NEWS | March 4, 2024

Ground-breaking risk management initiative seeks to reduce aircraft maintenance mishaps

By AETC Safety Directorate Air Education and Training Command

Since September 2018, aircraft maintenance-related mishaps cost the Air Education and Training Command more than $50 million. These mishaps happened during high-risk maintenance tasks, including engine operational checks and aircraft towing. Fiscal Year 2023 saw an alarming spike in these preventable mishaps, prompting the AETC commander to direct multiple initiatives designed to enhance operational risk management (ORM) in aircraft maintenance units.

As part of this effort, AETC Safety, in coordination with aircraft maintenance experts, developed a standardized aircraft maintenance ORM process to provide maintainers with a tool to assess and elevate risks before accomplishing high-risk maintenance tasks. Similar to the risk assessments undertaken by all Air Force aviators before each sortie, maintainers will now be equipped with a practical tool to capture and mitigate risk before performing a critical maintenance task.

Additionally, the initiative promises to deliver aircraft maintenance supervisors and commanders a more comprehensive understanding of the risks inherent to maintenance operations their units perform. Air Force Instruction 1-2, “Commander’s Responsibilities,” charges commanders to “apply good risk management, accept risk and manage resources.” Until now, there has been no consistent tool in maintenance to specify when leaders should be informed, nor was there any way to quantify the risk they need to assume or mitigate.

“As with any change, we expect a number of questions and concerns. Some maintainers might be concerned that the worksheet serves as a micromanagement tool … a way for leadership to look over their shoulders while they work,” said Col. Will Phillips, director of AETC Safety. “However, the worksheet actually empowers maintainers. We want to arm our maintainers with a tangible assessment of the risks they encounter, rather than just a gut feel. Just like with ORM in flying operations, aircraft maintenance risks vary from day to day based on the humans involved, the tasks to be performed and the environment. We’ve given pilots and aircrew tools to help them properly balance risk/reward for every sortie, but some of our youngest Airmen lack those same tools to undertake high-risk maintenance operations. The worksheet is designed to equip our Airmen to capture risk and then take measures to mitigate it before someone gets hurt or an aircraft gets damaged.”

The worksheet also provides a way to ensure all maintenance personnel obtain the training, qualification and certification for any task they are assigned to do, Phillips said.

“Given persistent resource challenges and the importance of our mission, our maintainers are under a lot of pressure to generate aircraft,” he said. “These new safety measures will ensure they have the training and know-how before accomplishing each critical task.”

Phillips stressed that these mishap prevention initiatives are still a “work in progress.”

“We fully expect and encourage feedback from our maintenance and safety professionals throughout the command, which we will use to tweak the ORM process and evolve the worksheet into an even more effective tool,” he said.

While still in its infancy, the project has the potential to set a Department of the Air Force-wide precedent by spreading a long-standing best practice in flight operations into aircraft maintenance, Phillips pointed out. To that end, AETC Safety is in coordination with the Air Force Safety Center to share the initiative, along with lessons learned, at the Senior Safety Advisory Council in April, where the Air Force Chief of Safety and Directors of Safety from around the DAF will be in attendance.

“In my over two decades of Air Force maintenance experience, I have never seen a formalized risk management plan for maintenance operations,” said Toby Stroud, AETC’s Flight and Space Safety manager. “I look forward to a future where Airmen are equipped with risk management tools to further solidify the protection and preservation of the mission.”