Realities and cost of missile field rollovers

  • Published
  • By Col. Omar Colbert and Todd Strickler
  • 20th Air Force Safety

Whether or not you’ve thought about it from this perspective, driving a vehicle from point A to point B is one of the most important things that a team member of the 20th Air Force does every day.  That could be from the base to a Missile Alert Facility or a Launch Facility, or as simple as getting to the base in the morning from your home.

Unintentional injuries are the number one cause of death for people age 1-44 in the United States and vehicular accidents rank as the highest category in this group.  In Wyoming in January alone, there were 14 motor vehicle fatalities.  Without the proper training, preparation, and focus, driving can quickly become the deadliest thing you do every day.  We are trained very well to turn wrenches, pull alert, or recapture an LF from a hostile force, but we sometimes fail to treat driving as a key component to accomplishing our daily mission.

As an item of special emphasis for driving safety, I want to take a moment to address Government Motor Vehicle rollovers.  This subject is very important to the 20 AF Commander along with your leadership and members of the Numbered Air Force and Wing Safety offices, not from the aspect of negative metrics, but more significantly, we are concerned that one day someone may needlessly lose their life during a rollover.  Here are some interesting facts compiled from the last five years of rollovers within 20 AF:

- Mishap investigations found excessive speed was a factor in more than 75% of rollovers

- The leading causes of rollovers (after speed) are overcorrection and distracted driving

- Two-thirds of rollovers involved High-Mobility Multi-Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWVs)

- More than 80% of rollovers occurred on clear and green roads

- Statistics don’t point to a “worst timeframe” (multiple months had several rollovers)

Overcorrection is a significant factor sometimes due to lack of time behind the wheel, but this reaction is often introduced by excessive speed for conditions.  When you start to go off the road, human nature is to try to get the vehicle back onto the road in the correct lane of travel.  Once headed off-road, speed and inertia may cause tires to get caught on surfaces/obstacles, which causes the vehicle to roll.  In these instances, we train Airmen dispatching to the field to drive vehicles into the ditch and gradually bring the vehicle to a stop before attempting a recovery to the road surface. 

Distracted driving is increasingly becoming an issue for vehicle operators.  Cell phones, gadgets in the vehicle, eating, etc. should not be used or occur while the vehicle is in motion.  Hand-held cell phone use is prohibited on the installation.  This includes texting and placing a phone call on speaker while holding the cell phone (sorry…that is not hands-free).  Off installation, all drivers must comply with applicable federal, state, local and host nation laws that are more stringent.

Too often we find excessive speed to be a factor in a staggering number of rollovers in the missile field.  Regardless of the rationale, there is no acceptable reason for unnecessarily putting your life and the lives of your fellow Airmen at risk.  Your life is more valuable than an ICBM and is even worth risking the ire of the Team Chief for delaying LF entry.  Slow down and survive, especially on gravel/unfinished surface roads.  Also, the role of the safety observer is crucial in identifying situations, precursors, and behaviors which could possibly result in a vehicle rollover.  If you know your co-worker is not following published speed limits or didn’t get enough sleep the night before driving, it is your duty to intervene.

Arriving safely is a big part of the 20 AF mission; you cannot win the war if you do not even show up for the battle.  Twentieth Air Force drives close to 20-million miles every year.  It is important to the Nation, your leaders and coworkers, and especially to your families that you exercise discipline and care while operating vehicles over such a distance.  Aviators must carefully plan and execute the flight to safely arrive onsite to do the mission…getting there is a big part of being able to employ the weapon system.  Missile field drivers hold a similar responsibility to carefully and deliberately execute the “driving” portion of their daily tasks in order to complete the wing mission.  It requires great preparation and focus, along with adhering to our standards and core values.  In our operating environment, one rollover is too many, and we had 10 in FY22.  As stated, it’s not about the metrics, but no commander wants to have to tell your family you are not ever coming home again due to a preventable rollover.  Please do your part to help make driving in the missile fields safer for drivers and passengers.

Col. Omar Colbert is the 20 AF Chief of Safety and Todd Strickler is the 20 AF Occupational Safety and Health Manager.