I wanted to fly; it was in me to fly; I dreamed about it.
That is why I joined the Air Force in college via Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC).
Being selected to fly is not an easy process. Even if you are flying drones, you are still vetted through a very thorough process.
First, you must have the intellectual aptitude. You must also pass many medical examinations and then get through the year-plus of actual training.
In other words, you must be smart enough, physically fit and tough enough to fly. Not everyone can do that, so I was elated when I qualified to fly.
I had a few scares, but I made it. I was selected to be an Air Battle Manager with a job in command and control.
I maintained command of fighters, bombers, tankers and many other different military assets in the area of operations. It is a job that requires listening to multiple radios, looking at a radar screen and coordinating with other agencies simultaneously. It was fun and challenging.
When I started flying, the first thing I learned was how to mission plan. I learned what my responsibilities were to the crew and the mission.
We are taught to do our job the right way. Never cut corners, and if something doesn’t seem right, say something.
As a crew, we spend hours mission planning every minute of the flight. After landing, we spend hours debriefing the mission, looking at all the errors made and discussing how we can do better for the next mission. All flight crews on any flight platform are required to do so.
I was blessed to be part of a combat crew on the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and the E-8 Joint Surveillance Targeting Attack System (JSTARS).
The rules were the same; we are all encouraged to say something to stop the team from making a mistake. It doesn’t matter if you are the lowest ranking or least-experienced “crew dog” on the jet. Everyone has a voice, and they are encouraged to use it.
Unfortunately, mistakes still happen despite all the training we receive. It is an unfortunate, but inevitable, part of the job.
After reports emerged about the Aug. 29 drone strike in Afghanistan that killed innocent civilians, many began asking, “How could this happen?”
As a retired combat aviator, I wanted to share a perspective on this tragic accident.
For the record, I am not speaking on behalf of the Department of Defense or the United States Air Force, or any of the fighting forces of the United States.
Combat is not as simple as it seems on the big screen. It is extremely complex and requires a lot of personnel, resources and countless hours of training to get it right.
Even so, we get it wrong more than I can say. Some mistakes should not happen, but they do. No matter how hard or how well we train, something can and will go wrong, and someone or something pays the price for the error.
None of my brothers and sisters in the profession want that burden on their minds. When we join the military, our instructors teach us to do our job exceptionally well. In my 15 years of flying, no one ever felt good about getting it wrong. That attitude doesn’t go far in the military.
We have something called a Theater Air-Ground System (TAGS) used to maintain control and situational awareness of military aircraft doing missions. There is an entire system in place to help make sure that military aircraft is tasked and accounted for when flying missions.
No military aircraft is flying without hundreds of people knowing and tracking. Their mission is well known.
Near the end of my career, I worked in an Air and Space Operations Center (AOC), which is the nerve center for all air operations happening. With thousands of flights day and night, 24-hours-a day there are hundreds of people making sure that missions are getting done.
If there was a mission that went wrong, it was briefed to the 3-star general in charge of all air operations. That general had to brief his boss, a 4-star general in charge of the entire theater of operations. No situation was a simple, “Whoops! We messed up.”
There are many processes in place. We have rules of engagement that all crews must know and adhere to. Investigations tend to be incredibly thorough. When they are done, we make sure we understand why something happened.
With the data, we make changes to ensure that those mistakes are minimized. Note that I didn’t say eliminated.
The lessons learned are shared throughout the theater. The Air Force makes sure that aircrew learns from others’ mistakes.
I can’t tell you how many times I was sitting in a large auditorium learning about a crew that made a critical error and cost the taxpayers a jet.
You never wanted to hear that the crew lost their lives. The worst was hearing about innocent lives lost. You listen intently, and you take away what you can so that you don’t make the same mistakes.
Anyone with good sense knows that it could have been them. We all can think of a situation while flying that could have been bad if somehow the chain of events hadn’t been broken and the mistakes corrected so that the mission was successful.
So how did the Aug. 29 events happen?
I can’t answer that, but I can tell you that the U.S. military will learn from this tragedy.
They will ensure that all their personnel learn from it, and they will push to ensure people are trained better.
No one sleeps well knowing that they had a hand in what happened to those innocent Afghans.
Retired from the U.S. Air Force in 2015, Nash is currently a Masters of Divinity student at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology and a high school Air Force JROTC instructor. Along with his wife, Nash launched a nonprofit Autism Faith Network in 2016. He is serving as an Ernest C. Hynds Jr. intern for the fall 2021 semester.