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When a leader is a shit leader



In January of 2016 I was the Specialist Section Chief in the 311th AMU at Holloman Air Force Base. On this particular morning I was at the morning meeting and our production prospects that day looked grim. There were several broken fliers and it looked like we might be dropping some lines.

However, as a Section Chief I had many other issues that required my attention and the production effort just wasn’t my wheel house.

I was in a unique position. Previously, I was a Production Superintendent but became disenfranchised with the production environment and requested to move back to being a section chief.  Remarkably, my AMU Chief listened to my concerns and granted my request. However every so often I would be asked to fill in as a Pro Super and my opinion was still sought when it came to production theory and experience.

So on this day I spent my time working on manning, leave, discipline and mentoring; pretty typical Section Chief stuff. The day went by relatively quickly and before I knew it, it was time to go home. On my way out I swung by the production office and I saw AMU leadership discussing the nights priorities with the swing shift Super, MSgt Hoehne.

As I was leaving the building I passed by the AMU OIC’s office and he called me in. Our OIC, Captain Griffin, was prior enlisted and had a very good mindset for leadership. He recognized that taking care of your people and earning their trust was the cornerstone of any successful organization. Unfortunately, our OIC was in an exceptionally toxic environment for junior officers.

Our Squadron Chief, Chief Fraley, seemed to find genuine glee in tormenting everyone that served under him. I always got the distinct impression that he had been bullied for most of his career, if not his life, and now that he was a Chief he seemed to be punishing everyone for his own misery. His preferred method was to micromanage, and demand his subordinates micromanage as well. Believe me when I tell you, I have lots more to say about this one. But I digress.

As I was headed out my OIC called me into his office to ask my opinion on something. He began “Do you think we need to go to 12s?” Now if you’re a seasoned military aircraft maintainer it might seem strange that the OIC would be asking this question at 1700 as the jets are still landing. Let me explain…

Maintainer manning has been in a severe shortage for at least 5 years. Less reported is that maintainer experience is in even worse shape. Because manning and experience is low and the operational tempo is high [yes, even in training] maintainers have been working a lot of hours over the years. It’s taken its toll on people.

The solution at Holloman to this overworked personnel problem is that for anyone to work beyond 10 hours, supervision has to get approval from their squadron commander. Now this idea seems good on the surface but let me explain why it doesn't.

Previously, the expediter would look at what they had for maintenance and keep a 'late crew' to finish up the remaining aircraft. Now before I go further, I understand that as manpower and experience dwindles the late crew eventually turns into the entire shift, and it happens every day. However an expediters job is to 'clear his plate' and recently it has taken all of his resources to clear his plate because ‘failure is not an option’.  So when you remove the ability for the expediter to keep people past 10 hours, more and more work gets carried over every night. As this work piles up, 12s are all but assured. In a functioning unit, the expediter will rotate late and early crews. If someone stays 12s, they get cut back another night in the week at 4 or 6 hours. It’s a give and take and most swing shifters prefer this system.

Now, in creeps the micromanagement. It’s assumed that expediters are abusing their personnel and overworking them. This of course ignores the mission requirements, squadron policies that increase menial tasks and an aging fleet. If you believe your expediter is legitimately abusing people by mismanaging their time and causing 12s. Fire him. But the reality is, those 12s translate into MC jets and prevent dropped lines. Expediters LOVE to cut people back. It makes them the hero. But if the commanders are scrutinizing and micromanaging everything and want to know anytime a jet isn’t ready, you’re going to drive 12s.

So back to the fix. Now the commander has to approve 12s. Our commander at the time was Lt Col Martin and I heard him say on numerous occasions we could call him at night to get approval. But that was much like when the SECAF tells an Airman at an all call to ‘email me if you have any questions I’d be glad to help’ which really means, ‘don’t fucking email me because a Colonel is going to filter that shit and I’ll never see it’. So the generally understood rule was you would decide if you needed permission for 12 hour shifts before the commander went home. In some more extreme cases you could coordinate later but usually no later than around 8 PM.

So because of this top-down help the people with micromanagement mentality, we were forced to decide at 5 PM if we thought we would need to keep our people 12 hours. I can’t adequately express how truly ignorant the idea of preemptively deciding a 12 hours shift before jets are recovered from the second sortie.

So I stated that I was not in production and I wasn’t intimately familiar with the current maintenance effort. I could only speak on what we were briefed at the 0700 meeting. I did say that sometimes 12 hour shifts are necessary to catch up.

This is the part where it went sideways. Captain Griffin directed day shift to report at 0200 to begin their 12 hour shift. Remember, day shift had been coming in at 0600 for the last few weeks. I protested and explained that we should keep swing shift until 0200, day shift will report at 0600 and begin their 12 hour shift then. However, my OIC pointed out that with my plan there would be no maintenance in the 4 hour gap. It was decided that avionics, E&E, crew chiefs and engines would come in.

In the end he decided day shift should report to 0200 to start their shift. So at 1730 I began calling my day shift personnel to make them aware of their new report time. I spent the next hour making contact with them, with the last person contacted around 1830. Because of the report time, most of my personnel would need to wake up at 0100. In an ideal situation of falling asleep within 30 minutes of notification, and waking up at 0100, that gives my entire day shift a maximum of 6 hours of sleep.

Now, who can really fall asleep at 1900 on command? Well I tried and failed miserably. I went to bed at 1930 when I got home. Jumped in bed and waited for sleep. At around 2330 I decided to just head into work early because I couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t required to be there, but I wasn’t going to make my guys go in to work and I come in at the normal 0600.

So I arrived at work at about 0100. I spoke to swing shift to get an idea of what was going on. Most of swing shift was hanging out and wrapping up IMDS. Makes sense as it was nearing the end of their own 12 hour shift.

At around 0130 I went into production to get the scoop. MSgt Hoehne was there and I asked him where the day shift expediter was. He replied the day shift expediter would be in around 0530.

Huh!?

So we called in all of day shift specialists without an expediter to direct their maintenance. I was enraged;b ut at this point it was too late. So I figured I’d play expediter until the day shift one came in.

So I sat down with MSgt Hoehne and got a turnover. We had a FLCS impound to work, an engine to install and a few odds and ends. So I went to roll call and the shift began.

I met up with TSgt Leck, SSgt Tijerina and SSgt Rice in support as they were soldering the advanced mode switch which had become a trending maintenance action due to a recent upgrade. I wanted to see the process so I could provide insights and details to leadership in the future.

After about half an hour I saw SSgt Rice looked really rough. I asked her how much sleep she got and she replied none. Initially I misunderstood none as in ‘very little’ so I asked again how much. She replied ‘zero’

Huh.. that’s not good. I told her I also didn’t get any sleep. TSgt Leck spoke up and said he didn’t get any sleep either. SSgt Tijerina agreed.

Huh.. that’s not good. Now I started to realize that there was a real possibility the entire shift was severely sleep deprived and beginning a 12 hour shift. Performing complex maintenance tasks and working around running aircraft during launches.

So I asked SSgt Tijerina to go and talk to everyone on shift and find out how much sleep everyone got. He returned awhile later with the tally. Of the 12 people, 4 had gotten zero sleep, 3 had gotten an hour or less. The remaining was a mix between 2 and 3 hours of sleep. The average sleep for the entire shift was an hour 45 minutes.

It could be my own judgment was impaired by my own lack of sleep, by this time it was around 0400 so I had been up about 23 hours; but I was really concerned that all the ingredients were in place for one of those terrible maintenance mishaps we learn about or read in an NTSB report. Where people wonder ‘How the fuck did they not do something?!’

Knowing I may not be thinking straight I reached out to another maintenance leader overseas. In this instance the time difference was fortuitous. I gave them the scenario and explained my concerns. They agreed that the decision to bring people in was poorly planned and also agreed that there was a very real danger because of it.

So at 0600 when the AMU Chief and his assistant SMSgt Ridgway came in I brought the situation to their attention. I was direct in my concerns; that there were people beyond exhaustion and I was worried there could be a potentially fatal mishap today.

Ridgway’s very first response was ‘why didn’t they sleep?!’

It’s the type of question you expect from someone who is not a human being and doesn’t understand our physiology. Surely, he must understand the nuances of sleep right?

I told him that I was less concerned with how the process failed at this moment and much more concerned with our current situation; which evaluating the process wouldn’t solve. Sure, we could review what went wrong in a day or two, but right now, at this moment we needed to address our current situation as it was presented: We have a crew on shift that is beyond exhaustion and there are some pretty serious risks that requires an objective evaluation in order to mitigate those risks.

Ridgway said he would get with production and tell them to cut back who they could.

If you’ve read this far, you’re already aware of the critical manning environment we were operating in which was exacerbated by an ever growing pilot shortage. I knew and he knew the cut backs wouldn’t happen.

I was frustrated that leaders were so willing to disregard what I thought was a critical safety problem.

So at the 0700 meeting (and my 26 hour mark) I brought it to Captain Griffin’s attention at the end of the meeting.

He seemed shocked and concerned; the exact response the information should’ve solicited. I wasn’t crazy. This was a problem. He asked for the sleep data I had collected and asked what I thought should be done. I said I would like to release all the individuals that had an hour or less of sleep.


Now he made the wrong choice the day before. It could be argued that the broken 12-hour process fueled his incorrect choice, but ultimately it was his decision and his responsibility. However this morning he was faced with a decision: roll the dice and keep the people, or slash his day shift manning and answer to leadership above him if he lacked the maintenance resources to meet the mission for the day.

He recognized that yes it was indeed a dangerous situation and he accepted responsibility for his mistake. We immediately released all personnel with less than an hour of sleep. We verified they would be good to drive home, those that weren’t got rides or carpooled.

Now, I don’t know if anything would’ve happened that day. But I had that feeling. I knew I was in one of those Swiss cheese diagrams and all the holes were lining up. We just needed to turn one and we might be able to stop a mishap before it happens. All I needed was someone to have some courage and willingness to make the hard and right decision. Luckily Captain Griffin was willing to accept some flak for releasing his people because it was the right thing to do. It’s a shame neither of the enlisted leaders in the AMU had the courage to do the same.

Weeks later I talked to SMSgt Ridgway about it. Below is the audio of the conversation.

Now I’ll give a caveat: Yes I knew it was being recorded, and he did not. It is perfectly legal in the state of New Mexico. Also, because I knew it was being recorded naturally I was cognizant of what I said. He wasn’t afforded the same luxury. Now I believe (based on many, many non-recorded arguments I’ve had) that I probably would say the same things that I said here, regardless of the recording. But Ridgway did not know it was being recorded so what you’re going to here is his honest, unfiltered opinion.




Now you’ll notice a few things:

Ridgway seemed only concerned with not getting in trouble. Multiple times he stated ‘I can’t get in trouble as long as I follow the AFI’

He still seemed to have no earthly idea how the human body works.

To me it was plainly obvious that he was willing to risk his people’s safety or lives for the sake of simple convenience; the convenience of not having to answer for a dropped training line.

We weren’t fighting the Taliban, or Al Qaeda. We weren’t supporting special forces fighting Boko Haram in AFRICOM. We were flying regular training missions; the kind that get cancelled because of a cross wind. Or the kind that don’t advance the student in the syllabus because he didn’t study tactics properly. So those same lines that drop because of chance or bad luck, he wasn’t willing to risk those lines to take care of his people.

Now don’t get me wrong, if we were in a real combat situation that required immediate sortie production to give support to friendly forces on the ground I don’t think I would’ve lobbied to send anyone home. It just wouldn’t make sense. But in a training scenario, when is it ever worth risking someone’s life?

So if you listened to the audio you hear Ridgway talk about the reg. The reg. The reg. So what is the reg? What does the guidance say. He was probably referring to 21-101 which states:

1.14.3. Commanders and supervisors will provide a rest period after each shift. (T-1). A rest period is a block of time that gives a person the opportunity for 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep in a 24-hour period.

So reading that you can see where Ridgway was coming from. However, regulations aren’t a shield to protect those without morality. They establish rules and guidelines. But if a human being is at risk because of that regulation it is perfectly reasonable and appropriate to go above and beyond the minimum requirement in the regulation to protect them from harm.

Of course he could’ve just kept reading the AFI…

                1.14.6. Commanders and supervisors will ensure individuals are afforded adequate duty rest periods and breaks to prevent fatigue or thermal injury. (T-1). Stop anyone if fatigue may jeopardize safety. In all cases, Aircraft Commanders (AC)/supervisors ensure aircraft maintenance personnel are not required to perform duty when they have reached the point of physical or mental fatigue rendering them incapable of performing their assigned duties safely and reliably.

Now I’m pretty fucking biased to myself. But that appears to read like the exact situation we were presented.

Coincidentally two weeks after this incident I was abruptly removed from the section.  I guess being ethical but difficult is unpalatable for a shit leader.

The morals of the story. Stripes don’t equal character. If you’re hiding behind a regulation to fuck over your people, you certainly don’t deserve to lead your people.


Comments

  1. You had TJ polling for the sleep numbers, solid way to make sure you get accurate unfluffed numbers.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This of course ignores the fact I personally polled the 4 people I was working with at the time, and the average sleep time for the 4 of us was .5 hours.

      TJ actually brought back information that raised the average to 1.75 hours.

      However, this information is immaterial. Because at the time Ridgway didn't know where the data had come from so he had no reason to doubt it. At no time was the accuracy questioned either in that days discussions or the lengthy conversation days later.

      The entire focus was on Ridgway's attempt to lay blame for his personnel not sleeping on command and justifying risking their safety for training sorties.

      If you're going to hang your hat on TJ's dishonesty in order to excuse Ridgway's behavior let me be the first to congratulate you on your impending promotion to E-9.

      Delete
    2. Actually, I count TJ as a friend. Sorry if that didn't come across >_>

      Delete
    3. To expound, given the opportunity to show just how hard the air force is fucking someone, TJ is one of the best options for pure unadulterated fact.

      Delete
  2. I really enjoyed where he stated that we ARE just robots. Really put's into perspective how some leadership view's maintainers. At some point you can't just look at us as a disposable commodity, we're humans too.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'm about a year late, but thanks for this post. Daily stress from continuously having to make similar arguments means I don't sleep much... slowly working through your blog to pass the time and see what I can learn

    ReplyDelete
  4. I found myself in a similar situation as an APG section chief at Tyndall. We had a schedule where swings was supposed to come in on days Saturday to launch out jets for TDY after working Friday night. I told production I wouldn't have anyone come in less than 10 hours after they left work. Swings ended up working a 12 Friday (surprise) and supervsion lost their minds when we didn't have enough crew chiefs to launch jets out Saturday.

    ReplyDelete
  5. SMSgt Dennis LeskovecAugust 18, 2019 at 11:51 AM

    This is unfortunately how we operate in the maintenance arena. The difference HERE is that you did the right thing by placing your people over the mission, which if I may add, started the shift in culture with strong maintenance leadership. The balance in training and readiness will forever be the discussion. Which is more is more important? I know that the 81% is std for many legacy aircraft, so if we fall below that point, when do we take a knee on flying? We will need a strong maintenance leader to have that discussion with the wg king. Continue to build the young maintenance officers around you, to understand the impacts of their every decision. They will soon become those strong headed MXG/CCs that we so desire to back his Amn.

    ReplyDelete

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