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Research Questions

  1. What is the full range of possible causes for proficiency problems among AFE personnel?
  2. What actions can ACC take to increase proficiency in the AFE specialty?
  3. Which actions should ACC focus on first to remedy the problems?

The Air Force Aircrew Flight Equipment (AFE) specialty — created in 2008 as a merger of two previously distinct career fields, Aircrew Life Support and Survival Equipment — plays a crucial role in ensuring the safety of aircraft pilots, other aircrew, and special warfare operators via training and by engaging in maintenance, inspection, repair, and adjustment, of aircrew flight equipment, such as flight helmets, parachutes, and safety rafts. However, despite career field and Air Combat Command (ACC) leadership attention, proficiency of airmen in this career field has generally declined.

ACC/Flight Operations Division (A3T) asked RAND Project AIR FORCE to investigate the causes for the decline in AFE proficiency and develop courses of action to mitigate the issue. The effort focused on collecting and analyzing subject-matter experts' viewpoints, insights, and suggestions for addressing the proficiency issues, which were gathered from interviews with a wide range of AFE personnel from eight Air Force bases.

Key Findings

  • Participants talked about the career field being less proficient than the ideal. In only two discussions did a participant say there were no proficiency concerns.

Participants described a number of drivers of the proficiency problems currently affecting the career field

  • There were various training problems, such as on-the-job training not meeting training needs, problems with the structure and curriculum used in initial skills training, issues with technical orders, and inexperienced trainers.
  • The high volume of tasks, including its impact on skill degradation and on a high operations tempo, posed a problem.
  • Leadership issues, such as inexperienced noncommissioned officers in charge, superintendents who are too junior or who are missing important depth of technical expertise in the area where they are leading, and a lack of officer advocacy for the career field, posed problems.
  • Other problems included other personnel-related issues, such as morale and lack of experience.


  • Reduce the training burden and skill gap resulting from moving personnel across broad types of mission design series (MDS) (e.g., moving personnel from heavies to fighters) by limiting these moves in the short term and shredding the career field by MDS grouping in the long term. This will require additional manpower, and promotion opportunities may need to be protected if they are affected by reduced moves.
  • Reduce the training burden and resulting skill gap from shop moves (i.e., moving personnel from one shop to another) by developing a formal strategy for them and changing the Career Field Education and Training Plan requirement that forces such moves. In the longer run, increase manpower to account for the additional training time that is needed when shop moves occur (i.e., account for these moves with corresponding increases in Air Force Manpower Analysis Agency [AFMAA] manpower requirements).
  • Change how training is managed and resourced. Formalize and resource on-the-job training and use key subject-matter experts (including former AFE personnel who have retired, separated, or are now civilians) for training the workforce at all levels to reinfuse the depth of knowledge that has been lost over time.
  • Set up noncommissioned officers in charge and superintendents to succeed by assigning them to sections and flights in alignment with their recent MDS experience, teaching them AFE-specific planning skills, and developing them as AFE leaders prior to entering these positions. Additional manpower (i.e., increases to AFMAA manpower requirements) will likely be needed to cover gaps during turnover.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by Air Combat Command, Directorate of Air and Space Operations and conducted by the Manpower, Personnel, and Training Program within RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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