A couple of feet and a half a second. These may seem like insignificant measurements, but when combined with fatigue, a couple of feet almost cost me my career and that half a second almost ended my life.
There was a time when I was an enlisted aircraft electrical and environmental systems specialist and was part of the 19th Aircraft Maintenance Unit at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. In the summer of 2008, while I was assigned to work in the support section, my supervisor and I were tasked to move much of the equipment from one hangar to another because of renovations.
We had a tight deadline and the NCO I was working for was determined to complete the task during our shift that night, even if it meant working more than 12 hours. That night wore on and turned into morning and I knew it would not be long before the recently set sun would peak up again over the mountains.
Things were going well for the first few hours. I remember gawking at Elmendorf's very first F-22 Raptor that had arrived only days before, as I hauled load after load of pallets and equipment across the hangar floor. I felt privileged to be able to get up close to this jet named after a Jurassic Park antagonist that all manner of military and civilian men and women of rank and position had been flocking to the base to see.
Then, unexpectedly, I got a closer look than I ever hoped for.
I wasn't sure how I deviated so far off my well-established path down the centerline of the hangar. However, I was sure I saw the half-ton of palletized equipment I was backing into the hangar pass less than a yard from the nose tip of the $150 million pride of the base.
I didn't say a word to anyone about it at the time. All I could do was imagine what my fate would have been if I had destroyed the pointy end of that beautiful fighter jet. The thought made me sick to my stomach. My line number for staff sergeant -- gone. My future in the Air Force -- shot.
Can you imagine being "that Airman" who smashed up Elmendorf's first F-22?
If I had still managed to promote and apply for officer training school, I can picture the conversation at the officer accessioning board going something like this: “and next up is a Sergeant David Liapis ... wait, I know that name from somewhere. Oh, yeah, he's the guy that cost the Air Force millions of dollars because he was an idiot -- next applicant.”
As you might have guessed, fatigue was the main contributing factor in the previously related incident; however, I was not the only one suffering from too much work and too little rest that night.
My supervisor was stacking some pallets with a forklift as I guided him forward. I'm not sure how I ended up between a moving pallet and a wall, but I did. I gave the hand signal for the sergeant to stop, but he didn't. I managed to squeeze out of that tight spot just in time to avoid having the pallet pin me against the wall at my midsection. He was too tired and didn't react quickly enough to my signal — again it was fatigue.
Military safety programs are not new. All the right rules and guidelines existed that night as they had for years prior and have for years since. We just got so wrapped up in what we were doing that we failed to consider and put into practice what we had been taught and what common sense told us.
We knew better, but the mission needed to be accomplished — or did it? Did it really all have to be done that night?
It's true, getting the job done is what we are all about; however, we need to make appropriate risk assessments and ensure we'll be here to take on the next mission. Our line of work has inherent risks, but most can be easily mitigated.
The goal, rather the quest, is for zero — zero fatalities, mishaps, dollars spent to repair or replace needlessly damaged resources. That night, failure to appropriately address fatigue almost cost me a whole lot ... times two.