And mark it with an “S.” Aircraft assigned to Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (HX) 21 and the United States Naval Test Pilot School (USNTPS) will get a slightly different paint scheme this year. Each aircraft in the squadrons’ fleets will receive the safety “S” marking as part of their honors for earning the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Aviation Safety Award for 2020.
Like a varsity letter on a high school letterman’s jacket, this marking means something, and something special. It’s a badge of honor. The CNO’s Aviation Safety Award recognizes Navy and Marine Corps squadrons for excellence in aviation safety by maintaining Class A mishap-free safety records throughout the fiscal year, and making contributions to the Naval Aviation Safety Program.
“Flying is inherently dangerous, but what our teams do, day-in and day-out in developmental and operational testing, pushing aircraft to their limits; that increases the risk exponentially,” said Col. Richard Marigliano, Commodore Naval Test Wing Atlantic, “For our teams to successfully operate within that level of risk with zero Class A mishaps, deserves the recognition they’ve received with this award.”
Aviation mishaps are classified in five categories (A, B, C, D, and E) based on cost of, or damage to, human life, and cost of damage to the aircraft. A Class A mishap is when the pilot or crew suffers death, or permanent and total disability. An aircraft suffering complete destruction or more than $2.5 million in damage also qualifies as a Class A mishap. Class B mishaps are accidents in which a crew member faces permanent partial disability, or three or more people are sent to the hospital. Accidents are also classified as Class B mishaps when damage to the aircraft is between $600,000 and $2.5 million. Class C mishaps occur when injury results in loss of time from work beyond the day of the event or when aircraft damage is between $60,000 and $600,000. A Class D mishap is when there is an injury not categorized in classes A through C, and/or damage to aircraft costing $25,000 or more, but less than $60,000. Class E is the most recent classification and includes all damage costs not reflected in the other classifications.
“The mishap classification parameters seem steep,” said Chief Warrant Officer 1st Class 02 Orlando Suazo, HX-21 maintenance officer, “but when working with aircraft that cost nearly $100 million and more, and that have parts that cost $2 million or more, it’s easier to have a Class A mishap than those outside of aviation would think.”
In FY20, HX-21’s fleet flew nearly 3,000 hours in 36 different aircraft, and performed more than 8,000 hours of ground test. Over the past 34 years HX-21 has amassed more than 130,000 Class A mishap-free hours. The HX-21 Maintenance Department consists of more than 500 contract maintainers, and support personnel, maintaining 12 different Type/Model/Series Aircraft in four separate hangars.
“Our greatest strength is the experience and professionalism that each maintenance technician brings to the table,” Suazo said. “Avoidance of Class A mishaps is more than just ready aircraft — it’s about people; the health, personal safety, confidence, and expertise of our pilots, aircrew, maintainers, and so many others that never climb aboard an aircraft.”
Earning the “S” marking on the aircraft takes more than just mishap avoidance. It requires a culture of safety inclusive of everyone in the Command. The HX-21 Safety Management System was recognized by the Naval Safety Center and School of Aviation Safety for its effectiveness. That system includes inspections and surveys to assess the safety culture of the squadron as recognized by each member; the Human Factors Council (which continued to meet virtually throughout the COVID-19 pandemic) meets quarterly to review the wellness, both mental and physical, of all personnel in a flight status; periodic Facebook live discussions create a forum that has proven beneficial for discussing best practices; and the promulgation of fleet hazardous reports and safety investigation reports that increase awareness and inform mitigation strategies.
“Successfully navigating the incredible challenges and obstacles presented by the COVID-19 pandemic while executing critical rotary wing and tilt-rotor test events is a testament to the effort that each and every member of our team puts forth on a daily basis,” said Cmdr. Dan Short, Commanding Officer HX-21. “This award validates those efforts.”
Likewise, USNTPS has weathered its share of challenges and obstacles through the COVID-19 pandemic. The innovation, creativity, and expertise of the staff was tested and they rose to the challenge, finding effective ways to keep each class on-track for an on-time graduation.
“Due to the initial reduction in operations, the curriculum was reorganized, realigned, and rescheduled in order to provide the students sufficient time to meet the requirements necessary for graduation,” said USNTPS Commanding Officer Lt. Col. Rory Feely. “Class 158 graduated on-time, Class 159 will graduate this summer, and Class 160 started their studies right on schedule.”
A global pandemic is far from the only concern in ensuring the safety of personnel and aircraft in an environment where even highly experienced pilots are doing something they’ve never done before.
“The USNTPS syllabus necessitates that students fly aircraft in which they have little or no experience,” said Feely, “practicing flight test maneuvers to which they have just been introduced, leaving them in a flight-hour region with the highest probability of mishap.”
Even so, USNTPS has flown almost 77,000 hours over 12 years without a Class A mishap. Transforming operation aviators and engineers into flight test professionals is no risk-free task. Processes and methods to assess hazards and mitigate risk must endure.
The school’s Safety Management System is designed for a positive safety culture within the command. Use of the Flight Information and Scheduling Tracking system allows leadership immediate notification of any incident, and provides an ability to see trends based on aircraft or incident type. This information is discussed with students, staff, and maintenance in a transparent manner, increasing awareness for all.
Additionally, school leadership spent time examining the impact of staff and student fatigue on performance. In collaboration with the Safety Department and Flight Surgeon, the pre-flight checklist was revised to capture this factor; allowing the Command to plan for and allocate resources differently during periods of high work and stress minimizing the risk of a fatigue-related incident.
“It takes dedicated, experienced individuals to make a safety program work,” said Col. Marigliano. “At TPS, Lt. Cmdr. Mark Hargrove and Barbara Gordon; at HX-21, Lt. Trey Wheeler, and Doug Dickens, their leadership, focus, and persistence each day inspires everyone around them to excellence in safety, so that they can continue their important tasks supporting our nation’s warfighters.”