Military Aviation: Risky Business
As future business leaders, we study the potential risks associated with various projects and firms. In business, the
idea of “risk” carries a certain connotation, typically associated with profit maximization via strategic planning. Risk is
characterized with respect to the financial well-being of a firm and is often spoken of in terms of investment in various
growth opportunities. Terms such as “interest rate risk” or “risk of default” come to mind. Some might be surprised to
learn that the military aviation community also makes extensive use of risk analysis frameworks while conducting daily
business, albeit in a slightly modified form.
There are obvious risks associated with direct combat, but risk analysis and mitigation are also employed on a daily
basis while conducting “routine” training and operations. While serving as a Marine Corps Flight Officer, my fellow
Marines and I were required to conduct a risk assessment of potential aviation hazards and draft mitigation measures in
order to address them prior to taking off in our jets. We used a framework called Operational Risk Management (ORM).
ORM is employed throughout the United States Department of Defense and is especially prevalent within the aviation
community. ORM was (and still is) a required portion of every flight brief, regardless of how benign the
flight environment may seem.
The ORM framework consists of 5 steps: 1) Identify Hazards 2) Assess Hazards 3) Make Risk Decisions 4) Implement
Controls and 5) Supervise. Hazards are defined as anything that has the potential to cause damage or bodily harm, up to
and including loss of life. One example of a hazard for a “routine” training flight was a “birdstrike,” typically encountered
during takeoff or low-level flying (Step 1). For mitigation, we would access an online database that carried real-time and
historical information about bird activity around airfields and low-level training routes (Step 2). We could then make a
decision to climb to higher altitudes for areas on the training route with higher levels of bird activity (Steps 3 and 4).
Lastly, we would monitor the situation in real-time during the flight and make time-critical decisions if necessary in case
of an emergency (Step 5). Routine flights would also brief emergencies such as out-of-control flight (spins), loss of
radio/communications, mid-air collision during formation flying, unresponsive flight controls, and loss-of-consciousness
due to G-forces.
Some people chuckle at the idea of a bird being a hazard to a jet aircraft. I admit, it may sound a bit specious at first. I
often bring up the case of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, and his rescue of US Airways Flight 1549 in January 2009.
The airplane’s engines had been disabled and Captain Sullenberger, through exceptional air work, brought the aircraft to
a water landing on the Hudson River, saving the lives of all aboard. The culprit in the engine failures? A flock of geese.
It is often said that aviators’ operating manuals are “written in blood.” Such aphorisms underscore the necessity of
risk management in military aviation, a view that business leaders can certainly appreciate as well. Both professions
require a healthy appreciation for and understanding of the nature of risk. Whether analyzing the investment risk on a
$50 million growth opportunity, or the risks associated with flying and employing a $50 million jet aircraft, the ante is