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Eielson safety office stays ahead of the curve during Red Flag 21-3

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Ryan Smith, 354th Fighter Wing flight safety non-commissioned officer, poses for a photo Aug. 24, 2021, on the flightline at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Smith is among the safety professionals tasked with keeping personnel and aircraft safe during RED FLAG-Alaska 21-3. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Christian Conrad)

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Ryan Smith, 354th Fighter Wing flight safety non-commissioned officer, poses for a photo Aug. 24, 2021, on the flightline at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Smith is among the safety professionals tasked with keeping personnel and aircraft safe during RED FLAG-Alaska 21-3. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Christian Conrad)

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Ryan Smith, 354th Fighter Wing flight safety non-commissioned officer, displays a bump cap prototype Aug. 24, 2021, at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The bump cap, a thin plastic covering designed to fit inside authorized baseball-style tactical caps, aids in keeping maintainers safe from head injuries during the performance of their duties. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Christian Conrad)

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Ryan Smith, 354th Fighter Wing flight safety non-commissioned officer, displays a bump cap prototype Aug. 24, 2021, at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The bump cap, a thin plastic covering designed to fit inside authorized baseball-style tactical caps, aids in keeping maintainers safe from head injuries during the performance of their duties. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Christian Conrad)

Scott Coerver, U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife biologist, surveys the flightline for wildlife activity Aug. 24, 2021, at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. As a member of the U.S. Air Force’s Bird/wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard program, Coerver routinely inspects the flightline to redirect wildlife that may present a hazard to aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Christian Conrad)

Scott Coerver, U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife biologist, surveys the flightline for wildlife activity Aug. 24, 2021, at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. As a member of the U.S. Air Force’s Bird/wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard program, Coerver routinely inspects the flightline to redirect wildlife that may present a hazard to aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Christian Conrad)

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska --

As the philosopher, The Notorious B.I.G., wrote, “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.”

But what if instead of money, it was a flightline full of fifth-generation fighter aircraft from the U.S. Air Force? Enter the Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, safety office.

“During RED FLAG-Alaska, Eielson’s operations tempo goes from a drizzle to a downpour,” said Master Sgt. Ryan Smith, 354th Fighter Wing flight safety non-commissioned officer. “With more aircraft taking off, the margin for aircraft mishaps widens, so the already important work we do to mitigate hazards becomes all the more vital with the increase in airfield ops.”

While there may never be an all-encompassing antidote to aircraft mishaps, the experts in the safety office, currently in the throes of the 210 daily take-offs that is RED FLAG-Alaska 21-3, may have a balm in case of future aviation misadventures: the technological wizardry of fifth-generation fighter aircraft safety metrics.

“Where fourth-generation fighter aircraft would require us to download individual flight parameters to diagnose safety issues, the fifth-generation aircraft automatically give us access to the entirety of the flight operations, from specific actions taken by the pilot to more exact measurements like the amount of oxygen breathed in by the pilots, down to the millisecond,” said Master Sgt. Randall Vander Woude, 354th FW flight safety non-commissioned officer. “It serves to take the guesswork out of finding the root causes of safety issues and mitigating them in the future.”

When any aircraft takes off, it really is a matter of life and death, so the time it takes to diagnose a potential safety issue before that same aircraft goes up again can be crucial to the safety of Air Force personnel, Vander Woude said.

While the safety of aircraft and pilots are a paramount concern during RF-A, which sees an array of fighter jets from the U.S. Air Force’s inventory engage in simulated air combat, another source of worry during the exercise is just off the flightline.

“Ask any maintainer to take their cover off and you’re almost sure to see a few cuts and scratches on their head,” said Smith. “Working in the kind of environments our maintainers do, it’s common to collect a few head injuries.”

Smith, who before joining the safety office was a maintainer himself, knows all too well the dangers of working in the kind of enclosed spaces that often become hazardous without proper safety measures.

“I try to keep a pretty full head of hair to cover up some of my scars,” he laughed. “But luckily, because of people coming forward with those kinds of injuries, the Air Force has been able to step back and discover ways to keep our maintainers safe.”

The solution? Bump caps. The thin plastic shells are designed to fit inside a maintainer’s baseball-style tactical cap, and according to Smith, have been proven to cut down on the sorts of injuries the safety office used to contend with.

“When a maintainer is injured, it can become a manning issue,” he said. “Not only that, but injuries can rack up a sizable bill the Air Force has to pay. The bump caps are a cheap solution to a common and, in some cases, costly issue for the Air Force.”
For Smith and Vander Woude, what the new safety measures have in common is their origins—an effect of Airmen coming forward with solutions to problems they face.

“There’s often this idea that reporting a safety issue is going to mean a mountain of paperwork to be filled out,” said Smith. “But in actuality, it’s a painless process that can help change your shop and possibly even the Air Force as a whole for the better. So much of our own safety is in our own hands. We just can’t be afraid to be proactive and speak up.”

Red Flag-Alaska 21-3 concludes Aug. 27, 2021.