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Remembering the 'sacred trust' -- do the right thing

  • Published
  • By By Lt. Col. Raymond E. Briggs Jr.
  • 380th Expeditionary Maintenance Group deputy commander
Marshall McLuhan once said, "Professionalism is environmental. Amateurism is anti-environmental. Professionalism merges the individual into patterns of total environment. Amateurism seeks the development of the total awareness of the individual and the critical awareness of the ground rules of society. The amateur can afford to lose."

On the flightline, there is a seldom-spoken yet sacred trust between the women and men that fly in the machines and the women and men that maintain them. The immediate risks to life and mission accomplishment cultivate a high-stakes environment that forces the utmost levels of workplace discipline and professional compliance. All work is accomplished to exacting standards driven by a library full of aircraft technical orders. Unyielding measures are in place to account for every element. Every tool has a unique identification number etched on it, every rag is counted, as well as every rivet, nut, bolt, and washer used for repairs.

Trust, but verify. Not only is everything counted by the individual who performed the task, there is a second inspector who re-checks every detail before the panels are closed again. Even closing the panel is checked and rechecked in accordance with technical orders. The only place where you find a higher level of control is in an operating room at the hospital.

You would not want to be the patient that wakes up after surgery only to find that the doctor is missing some sponges and now you need to go back to surgery to make sure they were not left behind. Likewise, you would not want to be on an airline bound from New York to Los Angeles only to find out that the mechanic left a flashlight in the mechanical portions of the landing gear or flight controls. Just thinking about that will make your heart rate go up the next time you fly.

Hyper-sensitivity to tool accountability and following technical manuals ensures safe and airworthy aircraft. Not only is everything counted, but it is also documented. The aircraft forms have to be documented for every maintenance and servicing action that has been completed. The rules for how to document aircraft maintenance also meet rigorous standards and are contained in three separate technical orders and AFIs. Finally, the aircraft and forms are reviewed by a highly experienced senior NCO who approves the aircraft for flight by signing the exceptional release, or ER. All maintenance actions are actually documented twice, once in the paper aircraft forms, and once in the electronic Maintenance Information System. Paper and electronic systems are forced to stay synced up as part of the ER process. There is an old adage, if it is not documented, then it never happened.

However, there is more to aircraft maintenance than just tool accountability, following technical orders and documenting everything. The relentless beat of the filling the air tasking order demands an immediacy and intensity that results in the ultimate high-pressure endeavor. The aircraft has to be ready the minute the crew steps to the jet. It has to be safe, it has to be documented correctly, it has to be configured for the specific mission and it has to be on time.

The ER and crew show is the formal transfer of the aircraft from the maintainer to the operator. The pilot, engineer, air battle manager, or boom operator can look the crew chief in the eye and know that they have a safe, mission-capable jet.

Interestingly, the aircraft commander has ultimate legal responsibility for the airworthiness of the machine. The aircraft commander determines airworthiness by reviewing the aircraft forms and trusting that maintenance has followed every technical order, counted every item and documented everything correctly. There are few places in our Air Force where such a formal transfer of responsibility with such ultimate consequences happens with such incredible regularity...and it is all based on trust.

The combination of exacting standards for discipline while working to the unrelenting tempo of the ATO demands the highest levels of professionalism. Maintainers cannot afford to be amateurs. More importantly, all Airmen share some form of this sacred trust.

From the security forces personnel working 24 hours a day, seven days a week to keep us safe to force support providing beds and meals; civil engineering providing the dorm for the bed to go inside; communications with our telephones and computers; logisticians taking care of parts, transportation, and vehicles; contracting buying our stuff; staff agencies keeping it all running; and our medical personnel taking care of the human weapons system. We trust each other to exacting standards, to be on time and to be professionals.

To put another way, the U.S. Air Force cannot afford to have amateurs, particularly in a deployed environment. So the next time you are feeling the sneaking urge to cut corners or take an unsafe shortcut, think to yourself, "Would I want the person who just fixed the airplane that will take me home to cut corners?"

I'm sure you will do the right thing.