Women in Aviation: Sustaining mission excellence

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Hundreds of aviators from around the world have descended upon Reno, Nevada, for the 2011 Women in Aviation, International Conference. Pilots, mechanics, engineers and aviation enthusiasts alike are all taking part in this year’s conference devoted to the themes “Inspire, Enthuse, Innovate.” We look forward to bringing you daily updates from the conference, as Coast Guard aviators share their stories with those in the aviation field and learn from those with whom they share the skies.

Rear Adm. Abel
Rear Adm. Daniel Abel, Deputy Director of Operations at U.S. Northern Command, participates in a round of "speed mentoring" at the Women In Aviation, International Conference. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Kelly Parker.

In the complex and competitive field of aviation, the motivation to always better oneself is an important factor in mission success, but can also sustain excellence in performance and the desire for a long career in flight.

One Coast Guard senior leader who is doing his part to motivate and enthuse Coast Guard aviators is Rear Adm. Daniel Abel, Deputy Director of Operations at U.S. Northern Command. In an interview at the Women In Aviation, International Conference, Abel shared his perspectives on keeping our aviators safe, encouraging them to be their best, the role of women in our service and the future of Coast Guard aviation.

Coast Guard Compass: We all heard Adm. Papp talk about how the loss of our people is unacceptable in his State of the Coast Guard address. He made protecting our aviators a command priority. As a senior leader, what is your role in ensuring the safety of our flight crews? And how can those at hangar level be part of the solution?

Aviation Maintenance Technician Bowser
Aviation Maintenance Technician Third Class Molly Bowser is one of the many female aircrew members in the Coast Guard. As an AMT she is constantly learning about the aircraft and its components. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer First Class CC Clayton.

Rear Adm. Daniel Abel: Our community has seen the loss of 16 shipmates in two years and this just cannot happen. We have done investigations into these, with some of them still pending, and at the flag level we looked for themes and common causes. Together, looking at all seven investigations, you can see trends. The four trends that emerged are complacency, rate of change in the Coast Guard, in both aviation and the organization, individual proficiency and aviation professionalism.

Knowing this, you can see that three of the four are at the individual level to fix. There is something you, a Coast Guard aviator, can do about it. You never know if the mission you are on is going to be your ‘super bowl’ or ‘Olympic moment’ where you will be challenged and have to be at the top of your game. At the end of the day, it goes back to Semper Paratus, being always ready, and it is up to the senior leaders both on the hangar deck and in the wardroom to foster the proper environment.

Compass: We have seen a lot of changes in the aviation community along with new assets and upgrades. The face of our aviation program is continually changing. Where do you see Coast Guard aviation 25 years from now?

Abel: Getting your qualification in an aircraft means just the start of the journey and learning your trade. This is where an aviator gets a license to practice, but that is only the start. Throughout your career, the aircraft will change. Procedures change. Air stations change. Because of these changes we must always be learning. If I ever hear someone say they are an expert, it concerns me because this indicates to me that they believe they have acquired all the knowledge they need and that is just not possible. By thinking you know everything the learning process is stopped.

In the Coast Guard of the future, some things will change and some will remain the same. The hardware will become more automated and the equipment we will have will be much more capable. But like any tool, it has got to be in the right hands. The skill sets that served us in 1790 will still serve us in 2090. It’s how you manage crews and how you manage risks. When I fly, I tell my crews the most important call you are going to make is the call not to take off or return to base because the risks outweigh the gains. And that is what will not change in the Coast Guard. We need brave and heroic people who are making life and death decisions on a daily basis.

Compass: The aviation field has been dominated by men and the consensus is that there are too few women in the community as a whole. What role can all members of the Coast Guard aviation play in supporting women within the community?

Ocean Sentry and Jayhawk
The Coast Guard's newest aircraft, the Ocean Sentry, flies with a newly re-engined HH-65 above Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf. With new technology and new assets, aviators must always be learning and becoming masters of their trade. U.S. Coast Guard photo by PAC Tom Sperduto.

Abel: There are organizational issues and cultural issues that we need to deal with. Part of it is we, at the senior level, can’t fix things unless we know about them. And that is the benefit of venues like this. At the conference last year, one of the things we heard about is the inconsistency in grounding policy related to pregnancy. Within a year, we have been able to garner senior level attention and assign a standardization flight surgeon to this issue. The flight surgeon briefed the draft policy today, at this year’s conference, and was able to receive feedback on the way ahead.

Another issue is berthing on ships. That’s an organizational issue. If a woman wants to move up in her career, both officer and enlisted, she needs to deploy, and right now it is a challenge at times to get them shipboard deployment experience. This is the 21st century and we need to address these things.

Going forward, the cultural issues will be a little more demanding, but we can work there too. When I told people I was coming here, they asked ‘Why are you going to a women in aviation thing? Why does it matter to you?’ but the truth is, the Coast Guard needs our best Americans, both male and female, in the cockpit and in the cabin and maintaining aircraft. When its dark at night and you are on night vision goggles, you don’t care who is there with you, you just need the confidence in your crewmates.

Check back with Coast Guard Compass tomorrow for continuing coverage of the 2011 Women in Aviation, International Conference.

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