Does the organizational chart affect flight test safety?

At first glance, the question may seem trivial, but I believe the varied experience of our readers, of members of our societies, will prove that it is a complicated and nuanced topic that includes many difficult questions. Some of the questions will sting and may even stab, but I think we must ask them.

Members of the SETP, SFTE, and AIAA explored this question during its symposium held 1 March at the Doolittle Conference Center in Niceville, Florida. Panelists discussed their experience with the 96th Test Wing, Edwards AFB, foreign exchange, Air Force Research Laboratory, and civilian organizations that interact with the FAA in both 14 CFR Part 23 and Part 25. One strength of the panel was an incredible breadth of experience, which included remotely piloted aircraft, Navy strike aircraft, TPS “school house” leadership, small UAS, rotorcraft and VTOL, transport aircraft, biz jets, advanced light jets, NBAA, SETP, SFTE, and AIAA.

We would like to continue research on this question in a future edition of the flight test news, and in particular, I would like to ask industry executives and senior leaders to participate. Some organizations have a Vice President for Safety. If that describes you, would you be willing to reply with a letter to the editor?

The US Air Force has a Chief of Wing Safety that reports to the Wing Commander. Is that the right chain of command? Some MAJCOMs require that the Safety Chief be a candidate for squadron command, but frequently these tours are one year or less, which is, according to popular literature, barely long enough to learn the job, much less affect change or build any significant momentum. The trend in civilian flight test is to retain safety personnel for a longer period. These are all aspects of the “structure” of the “organization.”

It is an infrequently discussed—but probably widely held—opinion that the organizational chart for the Light Attack Experiment was a significant cause of the tragic loss of the Super Tucano A-29 in June 2018 at Holloman AFB.

Some organizations, like Gulfstream, have changed their structure following flight test accidents. Others have not. Will the US Air Force adapt their organizational structure following this latest mishap? I would ask the question, if I could figure out who to ask. Similar questions that we might raise include the topic the Workshop intends to address: Safety Management Systems. Will the FAA (Certification section) require SMS for flight test organizations? Military readers may be surprised to learn that it is not required nor is it widely adopted, though this last statement is a qualitative opinion, but military readers should also point out that there is no similar system in defense flight safety.1

Should there be? These are questions we’ve discussed among ourselves at length, and each Committee member would even ask in person, face-to face, if given the opportunity, but who among us should be asking these hard questions? That’s a question worth discussing more.

  1. Update: The US Navy has SMS in place. Read more here.

Related: Flight Test Safety Fact, 19-05

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