Risk vs. Reward

  • Published
  • By CAPT. J. DOTY
  • 9th Airlift Squadron
We had been tasked to redeploy a company of troops who had been deployed for well over a year. They and their families were told they would be together for Thanksgiving this year. We were proud of this mission and didn't want to let our guys down. We were up against the wire and any significant delay would put that mission in severe jeopardy. Unfortunately, the winds were not in our favor and a storm system was bringing isolated showers and high winds to the region over and around the airfield. The forecast indicated that the system might not let up for two days. The pressure was on to find a window and make the mission happen. We were going to have to lean way forward on this one. 

"Man, those guys are going to be upset," I said to myself, as I watched the seconds tick by, signaling that our time was up. The entire crew was frustrated. We were all willing to wait as long as it would take for the winds to die down so we could take off. The frustration started six hours earlier. 

We mission-planned as normal. The winds were right at limits for a wet runway. We knew it would be close, but thought a hole was sure to open up in the next four or even six hours. We decided to continue and hold at the approach end, so long as the winds were close. The tower was calling a nearly direct crosswind with gusts that were just out of our limits for a wet runway. We were so close that a 10-degree wind change or gusts that were one knot slower would have permitted a takeoff. For four hours, the co-pilot persistently queried the tower for wind updates every few minutes. The frustration mounted as a different type of aircraft received takeoff clearance. Eventually, the other C-5 crews gave up and reset their crew rest, but we were determined to do everything we could to move the mission. 

Finally, the tower called the winds in limits, and we wasted no time taking the runway. In position, the tower cleared us for takeoff and stated the winds again. They were back out of limits. Frustration building, we resumed our position at the hold line. The runway was nearly dry, but a few areas around a repaired portion of the runway still had too much moisture to consider the entire runway dry. We continued to wait for hours past our scheduled departure time. The entire crew wanted to go all the way to six hours past scheduled departure, and that's what we did, keeping a close eye on the weather for any chance of takeoff. As we neared the six-hour mark, the winds were approaching 37 knots. There would be no chance of takeoff, but the crew would have stayed longer, if the rules had allowed it.  

All of us know the rules governing takeoff. Why are they so restrictive? If the rules were just a little less restrictive, we would have taken off that day, and we probably would have been fine. What harm could one knot do with the proper control inputs? What damage could a little moisture cause on a part of the runway that we might not even use? Our augmented crew was well-rested with a daylight takeoff, and even if we waited a few more hours, we still had plenty of time to make a landing at our destination within the flight duty period. So is it really necessary to call it quits when we pull duty days just as long? Yes. These rules are written to prevent a mishap. While they may seem too restrictive, they are intended to provide a margin of safety between our crews and Murphy. We made the safe call that day.  

You may find yourself in a situation where the rules are not so clear. The regulations cannot cover every conceivable contingency. Ultimately, the goal is to weigh risk versus reward. If the reward for taking a great risk is small, then even a thorough practice of the ORM process may not be enough to sufficiently mitigate the risk. That's where your judgment must be used to analyze the pros and cons of the task. Let's apply this to the previous example. 

One obvious pro would be getting the troops home on time. The crew would also complete the mission with no delay. The airplane could be turned to another mission. The most glaring con is the potential for a mishap on takeoff. If we were having small pockets of winds within limits, a legal takeoff may have been possible. But would the risk of a changing wind condition and the potential for a mishap on takeoff be too much risk? If this had been the case, and we made an uneventful takeoff, most of us would think not. But what would crews think if this were the case and the situation ended in a mishap? Many would think that the crew took on too much risk. That's the advantage of hindsight. 

Another factor is pressure to complete the mission. Who wants to be the one crew member who holds a crew back when everyone else is eager and ready to execute the mission? The willingness of our people to hack the mission in adverse conditions is part of what makes our Air Force the best in the world, but knowing when to "knock it off" is even more valuable. Anyone can throw caution to the wind and attempt the mission. Understanding how to recognize risk, analyze solutions and apply them is what enables our crews to hack the mission daily. 

One of our best tools for mitigating risk is the operational risk management process. We've all heard the six steps of ORM: identify the hazard, assess the risk, analyze risk control measures, make control decisions, implement controls, and supervise and review. Using the process doesn't have to be difficult. It may be as simple as taking a momentary step back and looking at other available options for completing the task at hand. In many cases, the entire six-step process may only take a few minutes. 

We're all faced with difficult or ambiguous situations at one time or another in our careers. Using the ORM process and good judgment is what allows us to make it to the next one.