On his base's pristine flight line, where F-16s blast into the sky every few minutes, Maj. Jeff "Roach" Rochelle recounts advice he once got from a legendary fighter ace who was also the Air Force's top safety officer: "He told me, 'It takes a fox to catch a fox.' "
As the safety officer for Shaw Air Force Base, the goal Major Rochelle chases is to keep scores of sleek fighters accident-free. It's a crucial one, because Shaw AFB is the command center for American air power in the Mideast. His task is one he's well prepared for: Five years ago he was part of the elite Thunderbirds demonstration team and flew adrenaline-inducing stunts at air shows worldwide.
Rochelle's mission - and air safety throughout today's military - has come under intense scrutiny with a series of recent crashes and mishaps, including the loss of a Navy F-14 Tomcat off the coast of Virginia last week.
These accidents aside, the Air Force is becoming ever safer - even in a period of grinding overseas duties. In fiscal year 1997, which ended Sept. 30, it had its second-fewest number of major accidents ever and one of its five best years for mishaps per 100,000 flying hours.
Clusters of crashes, Rochelle says, invariably draw media attention. "Anytime we lose an airplane, or a dedicated professional, that's big," he says. But the reporting may not always reflect long-term trends.
Flying combat aircraft - streaking 500 miles an hour, pulling five and six "Gs" while practicing combat maneuvers - is inherently risky.
Recently, the military ordered a mandatory standdown in the wake of the accidents, which included the crash of a B-1 bomber, an F-117A Stealth Fighter, a C-141 cargo plane, and Navy and Marine Corps F-18s. During the standdown, the commander of the 20th Fighter Wing, based at Shaw, observed that the Air Force practices "risk management" and has learned to focus on safety factors it can control.
Safety with magnets
The service's obsessive safety focus is perhaps best symbolized by the way it guards its flight lines, where Air Force personnel must have a special pass to walk, and only certain kinds of vehicles can drive. Many Air Force service vehicles are equipped with powerful magnets on the bottom to pick up tiny pieces of metal that could tear up an engine and cause a crash.
To further minimize the risks, Rochelle says, he wants to act as "an honest broker" between ground crews, pilots, and senior officers at his base.
As an independent officer who reports to the Wing's commander, he observes pilots, ground crews, and anyone else involved in the flight process.
Like a newspaper's ombudsman, he is free of political constraints within the organization and can prod anyone on the base toward better safety.
He frequently checks his computer for incident reports from mishaps around the world, hoping to pick up important clues.
Before each flight, he makes sure that pilots read an update on their airplane's maintenance records, which tells them if the radar has recently been repaired or an engine has been serviced - so they can watch those components more carefully.
"If your car was taken care of this way," Rochelle says, "it would last 30 years."
Leaving the '70s behind
It was not always this way. During the Vietnam War, American pilots were shot down at an alarming rate, leading the services to establish specialized fighter-training programs.
Then, the poor postwar morale and a period of lean budgets led to an alarming safety rate in the late 1970s. In the 20 years since, the Air Force has made a steady and dramatic improvement, cutting its major mishap rate in half while cutting the total number of mishaps by two-thirds.
The key to the dramatic improvement may well have been Gen. Bill Creech, the man who took over the Air Force's tactical command at its lowpoint.
One of his innovations was assigning maintenance crew chiefs to individual planes - giving them responsibility for the upkeep and safety of the aircraft. Today the crew chief's name is actually printed on the side of the plane. With such clear-cut responsibility established, safety skyrocketed.
For Rochelle, the improvement is gratifying, though he knows he must always be vigilant.
"We take a look at every part of our mission - we look at everything we do," he says, an accident report from another base flashing on his computer screen.
"It's simple risk management."