Haussermann, Eric


Some of you may feel Operational Risk Management, more commonly referred to as “ORM”, is just another dirty three letter “word”…Does anyone remember TQM? This can happen even with the best of programs when they are mandated with little understanding. However, ORM is simply applying common sense to whatever challenge you face. Over the years, ORM for aviators has typically been a patchwork of unit procedures and vague command guidance. Often our leaders weren’t exactly sure what it was, but they knew it was supposed to be good. So they would say something like, “go do some of that ORM stuff.” Of course, directing everyone to use ORM without putting down a foundation of understanding can be counterproductive. If people are really going to get on board the “risk management” train they have to be convinced it will actually improve their lives and the way we do business.


By now, I suspect everyone in the Air Force is familiar with the ORM acronym. Risk management is a natural component of daily life. Every time we cook a meal, walk down the street, ride a bike, drive our car, participate in sports, watch television, purchase a product or decide where to live we are choosing the best course of action for a specific given situation. Our professional life mirrors our personal life when it comes to ORM with one exception: the military has detailed regulatory risk management procedures in place to help ensure standardized decision making within the organization.

When it comes to aviation, ORM is not a new concept. All Technical Orders, Instructions, Checklists and Publications currently in use are, by definition, ORM documents. For example, the steps for starting an aircraft engine have been evaluated using “decision-making tools” and determined to be the “best course of action” prior to Tech Order and Checklist inclusion. The point here is that a certain level of ORM has already been applied and integrated into almost every existing aspect of flight operations.


We all have a little voice inside our head telling us, “that doesn’t look right,” asking “is this smart?” or, in some cases, telling us, “This is stupid!” Some call this instinct or “the pinch.” In our personal lives we usually have the correct answer or safest course of action stored in our memory. The fact we have survived up to this point indicates most of the time we make the proper risk management decisions. However, faced with the complex, technical and frequently hostile environment associated with aviation, the decision-making voice in our head needs some help. We rely on regulations, training and other external sources much more heavily to answer the, “Is this smart?” question. Due to the severe consequences associated with aviation mishaps, each person involved with flight operations should make use of every available risk management device.


The official Air Force ORM process is designed to minimize risks in order to reduce mishaps, preserve assets, and safeguard individual health and welfare. The scientific approach to ORM entails using various tested objective analytical methods to determine the risk level of one specific event or one specific set of circumstances. Since this system is not practical in military aviation considering the unlimited number of variables and the hundreds of missions we must fly daily, the Air Force uses what I refer to as Generalized ORM.

If someone had to analyze the possible risks for every specific set of conditions (or each mission task) before receiving approval to launch, the Air Force would have to park all of its aircraft. Generalized ORM gives qualified individuals the ability to rate risk in a timely manner using their expert judgment in combination with certain preexisting, objective and regulated parameters. Let’s look at an example:

Takeoff Example: KC-10A takeoff with the following conditions: 600,000-pound gross weight, 9,000-foot runway length, 1,500-foot pressure altitude, 28-degree Fahrenheit temperature, calm winds, visibility 1 mile, snowing, no precision approach available, 2,000-foot obstacle located along the departure flight path 6 miles from the departure end of runway and a departure time of 0100 local.

A pilot may judge the above example as risky but acceptable based on regulations and their experience and judgment. But now throw in a crosswind of 40 knots and regulatory risk management steps in preventing departure.

Today, the most common practice is to use ORM as a reminder to follow established procedures. This is not the wrong way to utilize ORM but it is incomplete. Current directives are very good at detailing the proper procedure for carrying out specific tasks, both individually and in groups (for example; correct operation of wing flaps and slats and when to use wing flaps and slats during takeoff, departure, approach and landing). Existing guidance can be less helpful when it comes to choosing the best course of action.

We can all reference the regulatory methodology for approved operations but where do we find the optimum, risk-managed procedure? The answer: No where! Since no two events or missions are exactly alike, you will rarely get a documented optimum solution. Often, the best you will get as an aviation professional is to have access to the knowledge, training and tools to help us arrive at the best decision possible given the constraints inherent to our mission. Fortunately, ORM is a great resource that can help us more closely approach the “optimum” solution.


Can the current aviation risk management process possibly get any better? Absolutely! Ours is not a static profession. However, for any new aviation ORM program to improve the way we do business, certain conditions must be met:

1. It must be standardized.

A MODERATE risk factor ORM worksheet score for high terrain must be equivalent for a C-17 flying into Afghanistan, a KC-135 recovering into Alaska or a C-21 flying into Colorado.

2. It must be understood.

One regulation and one worksheet covering all aircraft in the command will ensure both the TACC Commander, the Aircraft Commander in the field, and everyone in between are using the same criteria and ORM language.

3. It must be supported.

Without demonstrated support at the command level any ORM program will fail.

4. The acceptance of risk must be shared.

When all levels of leadership share responsibility for successful mission accomplishment, true institutionalized risk management will become an embedded part of the command culture.

The best use for new ORM procedures will be as guidance and assistance for ensuring missions are planned and executed using this risksharing concept. A hypothetical triple air refueling C-17 sortie non-stop from the U.S. East Coast to Korea, with a night vision goggle tactical approach, may be legal and efficient but is it the smart thing to do? Perhaps resources are scarce and delivery time is critical thus making the high risk nature of the mission unavoidable. If this is true then the appropriate level of leadership needs to evaluate the risk and share responsibility for the mission. Perhaps, due to risk sharing directives, leadership will determine the hazard level does not warrant the benefit and choose to mitigate the situation by landing the aircraft at a stage location in Japan and then have a rested crew fly the short leg to the final destination.


Historically, the burden for safe and intelligent flight decisions has rested primarily with the crew. Make no mistake; the crew remains our last line of defense against accepting unreasonable risk. Although every aviator rightly has the authority to call “Safety of Flight,” it frequently conflicts with our can-do attitude and goal-oriented personalities. The possibility of missions with unnecessary risk being flown without change is very high when the approval decision rests with individuals trained to get the job done no matter what the conditions. Mandating a shared risk policy includes the tasking authority, planners, and appropriate leadership, will reduce the pressure on crews and decrease operating hazards. The Air Force does a great job of getting the mission done under difficult and challenging conditions. Properly utilized, ORM will provide an extra layer of protection for all of our valuable resources.

The bottom line is ORM, when properly applied, will enable everyone in the Air Force to work smarter and safer. Improving on our tried-and-true methods of flying airplanes will require conviction in the philosophy of shared risk between all organizational levels…and that starts with you!

Copyright Superintendent of Documents, Military Airlift Command May/Jun 2006

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