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Lethal fighting team boasts safety

Lt. Col. Dave Kossler, commander of the 27th Fighter Wing Safety Office, talks about winning the Colombian Award, given to the office with the best flying safety program in the United States Air Force. (Staff photo by Eric Kluth)

CANNON AIR FORCE BASE — Cannon’s 27th Fighter Wing added another award in February to its increasing stack: the Colombian trophy, given each year to the base rated best in the Air Force for safety.

The nomination documentation submitted by Cannon Air Force Base cited a long list of accomplishments, including flying 15,239 sorties with 20,940 hours in the air without a single crash, serious injury, or property damage incident over $1 million. According to the documentation, about a fifth of that activity was during warfare or homeland security operations, and included 1,200 combat missions from a Kuwaiti air base just 40 miles away from the combat zone that dropped 912,500 pounds of bombs and other explosives onto Iraqi targets.

“There was no damage to the aircraft whatsoever at any time,” said Lt. Col. David Kossler, head of the Wing Safety Office at Cannon. “There were a couple of planes that were shot at, but not one of them was hit.”

Kossler said having an entire fighter squadron come back from warfare without a scratch is a major accomplishment that can be credited to flying skill as well as the ability of maintenance personnel to quickly inspect and repair planes flying repeated combat missions. However, Kossler said the Wing Safety Office isn’t just responsible for safety in combat — it exists to help everyone from the pilots to the maintenance crews to the staff back home at the base make their own operations as safe as possible in situations ranging from workplace hazards to car and motorcycle crashes by airmen.

“My job at the Wing Safety Office is largely to assist the commanders in executing a safe program,” Kossler said. “That is what drives our incident rate down, for major issues, to zero.”

Cannon officials dub their base the “world’s most lethal warfighting team,” and military operations with jet aircraft and high explosives are by definition dangerous. However, Kossler said that as military technology has improved, the Air Force has been forced to turn its attention from problems with munitions and airplanes to problems that have little to do with warfighting.

“There has been a huge emphasis on safety,” Kossler said. “The concern is that with our safety record, over the last 10, 20, 30 years, we have done tremendous things. We have few major incidents at work, but we continue to kill people in off-duty mishaps, primarily motorcycle and vehicle crashes.”

Kossler said people who manage to safely handle multi-million dollar airplanes and missiles that destroyed Iraqi palaces sometimes need to be reminded of things they should have learned in high school driver’s education classes.

“For our active-duty military members, it doesn’t matter if you are on or off base; you are required to use your seat belt,” Kossler said.

Master Sgt. Robert Zahnley said he enjoys working in the safety office. It’s not a position where most people stay long-term, but it is one where people learn skills they can apply in their primary career field.

“This is a position that you move into as you gain experience in your military career. When I go back on the flight line, I will know whether people have been doing the right thing,” Zahnley said. “I’ve learned a lot from different people and different safety organizations and need the knowledge that I wouldn’t have heard of if I just stayed on the flight line.”

Comments like that are what Kossler said he likes to hear.

“I like making an impact,” Kossler said. “In the safety world that’s sometimes hard to do. We got better in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, and the temptation is to say you can’t make any more improvements. That’s not true, and our award shows we figured out some more ways we can improve.”