On August 27, 2014, an F-15C from the 104th Fighter Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard went down near Deerfield Valley, VA. Sadly, the pilot was killed in the crash. There are a lot of unknowns at this point and many questions remain to be answered over the coming days – was it caused by an aircraft malfunction? was it a result of a physiological issue such as hypoxia? This isn’t the first time we have lost a military aircraft, and it will likely not be the last. So how does the Air Force (I’m using that term broadly to include the Air National Guard) deal with such a loss?
First and foremost, support is immediately provided to the family. The initial notification is always the most difficult. The responsibility lies with the Squadron Commander to personally notify the family. It is most certainly a solemn occasion, and he or she brings with them a strong support network when breaking the news to the family. The spouses’ network – a social organization in which pilot spouses provide each other with mutual support (wingman concept!) – springs into action to ensure the family’s needs are immediately met while they deal with the tragedy. The other pilots in the squadron (aka “the bros”) also go to work raising money and garnering additional support from the community to try to minimize the burden placed upon those who have lost their loved one. The fighter community is a close-knit community. The loss of one pilot is not taken lightly and is never forgotten.
Organizations like the Red River Valley Fighter Pilot’s Association (aka: The River Rats) see to it that families are taken care of well after the tragedy. The River Rats provide financial support to the families to help with the funeral costs. They also ensure the kids are taken care of in the form of scholarships and other assistance as they get older. Family support is an on-going endeavor by the unit and several organizations.
Once the family’s needs are cared for, the investigations begin. There are two investigations that will take place. The first is the Safety Investigation Board (SIB) comprised of a group of safety experts from various aviation fields. There is usually a pilot representative, a maintenance representative, and a medical representative in addition to any other personnel the convening official deems necessary. The point of the Safety Investigation is to gather data, pinpoint critical safety factors, and provide solutions to ensure this type of accident does not happen again. The findings of a safety investigation do not typically result in punitive action against those who may be at fault – the investigation’s sole purpose to preclude future safety incidents.
The Accident Investigation Board (AIB), on the other hand, is convened to determine cause and where the fault of the mishap lies. The AIB is comprised of a different set of professionals (typically from similar career fields as the SIB), many of whom may not have a safety background. Pilot actions come under scrutiny, maintenance actions are looked at under the proverbial microscope, and anyone else involved in getting the mishap mission airborne is looked at for probable cause. Pilots have lost their wings due to findings from AIBs and maintainers have been demoted or fired.
The intent of these two investigations is quite different, but in the end they are both initiated to ensure a clear way ahead. The Air Force’s air safety record has improved over the years because we are not afraid to take a good, hard look at why accidents happen. We don’t pull punches. Just like the debrief of a training mission, we learn from our mistakes and we get better. It is becoming even more important for the future viability of the organization that we implement lessons learned from the past. Aircraft are becoming more and more expensive, and the number of qualified pilots decrease over time. We simply cannot afford to lose personnel or aircraft.
Life is a precious asset. Not a single human life should ever be wasted or treated as insignificant. Combat aviators understand this as they must take the lives of the enemy in order to preserve an even greater number of lives. It is never taken lightly. Preserving the lives of our brothers and sisters in arms is priority number one in the training environment. The loss of an aviator in training is never in vain – we will strive to pull the good from the bad situation to save lives in the future.
To my brothers in the 131st Fighter Squadron and their families: We all stand with the pilot’s family and we stand with you in this time of tragedy. He will never be forgotten!
Note: As of this posting, the MA Air National Guard has not officially released the name of the pilot, therefore his name is not divulged here. We will be providing an update as to how you can support the family of the deceased once further information is available. Please stay tuned and help out if you can!