For the Colombian Air Force, 2016 was its best year in terms of operational safety. This is the first year since 1933 that there were no accidents of any kind and no loss of human life or aircraft.
More than 67,000 flight hours were flown while successfully meeting the highest levels of operational safety in all of the missions assigned throughout Colombia and around the world. There were 63,338 operations covering 59 different missions and no crashes that could be categorized as an accident — quite a rare statistic among the air forces of the world, and a point of pride for Colombia.
The sheer magnitude of this fact led Diálogo to look at what they did to achieve it. At the Operational Safety Directorate of the Colombian Air Force, we met with Colonel Jaime Andrés Betancur Londoño, its director and a passionate air force pilot, aviation administrator, and specialist in defense, security, command and general staff duties.
Lieutenant Colonel Janeth Castellanos, assistant director of Personnel for the Colombian Air Force; Lieutenant Colonel Alejandro Duarte, assistant director of Accident Investigation, and Lieutenant Colonel Luis Fernando Giraldo, assistant director of Safety, were also present at the meeting.
Diálogo: Zero accidents since 1933, the year that reliable statistics were first gathered. How did you achieve it?
Colonel Jaime Andrés Betancur Londoño: Safety is an ongoing evolution of improvement. We have managed to structure a safety system that factors in all of the variables that play into the process of carrying out an operation. In today’s Colombian Air Force, safety is the result of a carefully orchestrated system that leaves nothing to chance. Our job is to carefully study, investigate, process, and integrate into all of our bases anything that goes wrong, no matter how major or minor it may be.
Lieutenant Colonel Alejandro Duarte: Every day, there is something here that needs improvement; because we fly every day, and something may go wrong. Even in a successful operation, there may be some factor that allows us to identify a risk that could have gotten out of hand.
Lieutenant Colonel Luis Fernando Giraldo: We focus on finding that risk and minimizing it. We work on creating a risk environment that allows us to avoid risk or reduce as much as possible. We want to be strong on hazard prevention, not accident investigation.
Diálogo: Was there a particular situation that led to working with a safety system?
Col. Betancur: We can’t really speak of a precise moment. That would be disavowing how this institution thought about safety in the past as well. Each commander thinks about keeping his people safe, keeping the airplanes ready and intact. The Colombian Air Force has been around for 97 years. Not a single day has gone by that we haven’t thought about safety. Safety is a chain, and each link in that chain is just as important as the next. And those links are prevention, investigation, control, etc.
Lieutenant Colonel Janeth Castellanos: It’s not the result of any one practice in particular, but the combination of many practices taken together as an evolving body of experience. Each time, we get better at calibrating the system.
Diálogo: How does this work from inside the safety system?
Col. Betancur: With concrete tasks, goals, responsibilities, and mechanisms for measurement. We are still refining the process, but it has already become clearer to us that this is not just limited to fostering a culture. Culture is important, but it doesn’t mean much if it’s not tied to an orchestrated system.
We have a laboratory that is the veritable ‘jewel in the crown.’ It’s the first of its kind in Colombia and the second such lab in Latin America. The lab has the technology and the professionals to enable us to continually evaluate the data on the basis of hazard prevention, which is what lies at the heart of the matter and is the goal for the safety system that we have developed.
Diálogo: A great structure in the service of safety. How many personnel are there behind every pilot?
Col. Betancur: The entire force. A very large team that encompasses those in charge of maintenance, logistics, safety, and psychology. The ratio is 10 to 1. Currently, we have 1,000 pilots.
We don’t miss a single detail. Not a single technical, logistical, or maintenance detail, let alone the human element.
Lt. Col. Castellanos: The pilot’s well-being is our responsibility. We make sure that the pilot is functioning at 100 percent so that his performance will not impact safety. All of our personnel responsible for safety receive training on risk management. The human element plays a role in errors 80 percent of the time. When events happen because of flawed decision-making, we do exercises that lead to proper decisions.
Training is another one of those tools in our safety system that makes the difference when meeting the needs of operating an air force like Colombia’s, which is one of the most heavily used in the region, with a wide variety of planes and fleets — 43 different types of aircraft, numbering close to 400 planes.
Diálogo: Is training ongoing?
Col. Betancur: Yes, it’s ongoing training, and not just for pilots. The entire chain of operations gets constant training. The Colombian Air Force has made a considerable effort to improve crew training. We send the largest number of people into flight simulators at the best academies and in the best air forces around the world. That is done at considerable cost, but it’s a necessary expense.
The Operational Safety Headquarters of the Colombian Air Force runs campaigns at every base, promoting safety from the standpoint of hazard prevention. Three of these campaigns illustrate the forcefulness of this message:
The “21-Días” (21 Days) campaign was geared towards getting people to adopt safety habits within those 21 days, to avoid making mistakes, or mistakes serious enough to cause an accident.
With the “Volver a lo básico” (Getting Back to Basics) campaign, we were looking for staff to go back to basic principles, to the fundamentals that they learned back in school.
Another campaign, Safe Star, focused on the safe firing of engines. It drew attention to the importance of doing things right and doing them safely from the start. Eyes on the task, mind on the task – from the first moment.
Lt. Col. Duarte: To the extent that I can foster a climate of safety in my daily life, even down to my family life, I am creating a safe environment, and that has a decisive effect on what we do in the Air Force.
Col. Betancur: The commander of the Air Force and the Inspector General adopted the posture to call on us to defy the statistics. In the process, we learned that we have to make those statistics work for us; that we cannot just wait for things to happen. We have to make things happen, and we have to ensure that they are beneficial. That’s why we talk of ongoing improvement and constant effort, tirelessly doing things right, and always better than before.
Now the looming challenge for our group is what comes next. Everyone feels a huge sense of satisfaction for what they have achieved, and they are anxious to keep up the good results. But they also know that this is what they have been trained for, and what they are dedicated to - to respond to the Air Force and to the nation, continuing to operate with zero accidents, no loss of life, and all of the aircraft kept intact, for at least another 83 years.