More than a decade after the Air Force developed its specialty in flight crew aircraft, the field suffers from a lack of expertise. A new report from Rand Corp. offers some ideas to fix the problem.
AFE (Aircrew Flight Equipment) employees are key to protecting airmen at altitude and overseeing the maintenance of flight helmets, parachutes, safety rafts and other equipment that people such as pilots and special war aviators need for their daily missions. The career path was formed in 2008 through the merger of two previous professional fields, life support crew and survival equipment.
“Despite the attention of the profession and the leadership of Air Combat Command,” wrote Rand researchers, “aviators’ competence in this profession has generally declined.”
Research published March 17th von Rand – a federally funded think tank with a specialized department that handles research inquiries from the Air Force – noted that lackluster AFE training is at the heart of the problem. Airmen are also too thinly removed from operations to improve, and without an experienced cadre of responsible airmen, the profession is low in terms of competence and morale.
When asked how well AFE employees do their work, airmen from eight bases stated that their overall competence was around 60 percent.
“Together we can do everything, but we cannot do it independently,” an aviator told the researchers, according to the report. “Think of any programs like [hazardous material], Supply, inventory, nobody can do that. All that stuff and the need to make equipment and train – nobody can do it all. “
At the time of the interviews, the participants were stationed at Barksdale Air Force Base, La. Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz .; Fort Wayne Air National Guard Base, Ind .; Hurlburt Field, Fla .; Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va .; Robins AFB, Ga .; Sheppard AFB, Texas; and Travis AFB, Calif.
Air Combat Command has reported AFE issues for further investigation since at least 2013. Problems with AFE’s safety-related work have resulted in units restricting flying in recent years, according to the report, and inspections continue to create new problems. The service continued to ground aircraft due to AFE issues even as the research team completed its project, the report said.
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Rand made four recommendations that ranged from expanding the workforce to better career planning. About 90 percent of funded AFE jobs are filled, the center noted, but said the workforce may continue to be understaffed if additional unfunded positions are also vacant.
First, the report said, the Air Force should assign AFE employees to the same type of aircraft for extended periods of time, rather than moving employees between different airframes such as combat aircraft and mobility aircraft. Done right, it can reduce the time spent on training to learn about new platforms and build skills in each area.
The researchers suggested devising a formal strategy for moving troops between AFE stores to manage these job changes, rather than continuing to rely on the current plan, which forces Airmen to hop between multiple teams on a base .
“Advertising opportunities may need to be protected if they are affected by reduced movement,” the researchers said. “In the longer term, increase the workforce to account for the additional training time required to move businesses.”
Rand added that the service should manage training and manage resources differently. It requires the involvement of experts such as retired AFE specialists who can provide insights that Airmen may not have received in the classroom or during their limited experience.
The report also recommended that the Air Force could deploy responsible NCOs and superintendents more effectively by assigning them jobs that match their recent work with a particular type of aircraft, providing planning skills for the AFE area, and doing more work than AFE- Develop leaders.
“The Air Force needs to take steps to establish more effective advocacy for the occupation – one of the few occupations that are only intended for careers in the Air Force,” wrote Rand. “One way to do this could be to develop a select group of officials with AFE-specific expertise and experience and provide them with identifiers for specific experience.”
This could build a corps of advocates on the officer side to drive long-term investments in AFE above the local level.
“Who has the big picture?” Asked Rand. “The professional field needs someone who takes over the functional leadership – not just organizationally, but who has this professional field on the radar and is able to master the organizational challenges that are necessary to support real and significant changes.”