Graham Ernst, a former Black Hawk pilot and current Department of the Army civilian participating in the Army Fellows Program at the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center, stands for a photo outside the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence Headquarters building Oct. 21, 2021.
Graham Ernst, a former Black Hawk pilot and current Department of the Army civilian participating in the Army Fellows Program at the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center, stands for a photo outside the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence Headquarters building Oct. 21, 2021. (Photo Credit: Kelly Morris) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT RUCKER, Ala. — The U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence Aviation Branch Safety Office welcomes the opportunity to host Graham Ernst, a Department of the Army civilian participating in the Army Fellows Program, for a chance to see the emphasis the USAACE places on safety at Fort Rucker and in Army Aviation.

Ernst, a former UH-60 Black Hawk pilot, is assigned to the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center as a safety and occupational health specialist, with the added bonus of rotating through other on-post safety offices.

“The big thing is just a different lens on organization functions. Each organization has a different scope, and this provides him an opportunity to look through a two-star (general’s) lens and see what our initiatives and taskings are. It also allows him to see doctrinally how it’s integrated and reviewed before published,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Joshua McCurry, the USAACE aviation branch safety officer.

Army fellows enter the program as a GS-07, and advance to GS-11 in two years after completing required distributed learning coursework, resident training, university training, and developmental assignments. The final phase is a year of on-the-job training.

Ernst said as an aviation officer he was in the habit of being proactive and inserting himself into Army mechanisms, but as a fellow he has to “take a step back and learn.”

“I have most of my knowledge in aviation operations and an aviation-specific field. I had to twist the way I’m thinking more into the safety perspective,” Ernst said. “It’s interesting and challenging. Safety is such a large and diverse field.”

Usually people would start the learning at the smallest organization and work their way up, but Ernst is starting at the top, at the “highest institutional level,” he said of the CRC.

Training at other on-post safety entities provides a broader picture of Army safety.

“Working with the garrison safety office you start to see a lot of the training hit the road — training, principles, techniques, you get to really see their functional area,” Ernst said.

Spending a month at the Aviation Branch Safety Office at USAACE headquarters, Ernst gets an inside look at how the office advises the command and staff, develops doctrine and policies, and reviews Programs of Instruction as they foster a culture of safety.

“We’ve given him quite a few POI’s. We give him guidance and say, ‘hey, we’re looking for risk management integration into this, making sure they are citing correct up to date publications’, and we kinda just turn him loose on it and then we go back and do an AAR on what was done and show him different intricacies of how this stuff is implemented and uploaded to the various organizations such as (the Directorate of Training and Doctrine), G3, or the CRC,” said McCurry.

With hundreds of aircraft launches per day, Fort Rucker flies approximately 25 percent of the Army’s total flying hour program. The ABSO is responsible for reviewing courses and lesson plans for safety, and also accident investigations, McCurry explained.

The office provides safety management oversight for the Survival Evasion Resistance Escape training at Fort Rucker, and also ensures hundreds of facilities are inspected annually.

Located in the heart of the Deep South, heat-related injuries are a priority item for the office. Back in May, the ABSO had an industrial ice machine installed on the installation to provide a more robust capability to combat heat injuries through use of ice sheets and Arm Immersion Cooling System. Every unit is assigned a code, so people can drive up with their coolers to get filtered water and ice from a machine that can produce 250 20 lb. bags of ice per day.

The office also sponsors the annual Motorcycle Mentorship Ride to foster esprit de corps while also focusing on proactive risk mitigation measures. More senior riders pair up with younger riders, promote riding fundamentals, and address training opportunities and any hazards in the local area, all while having some fun.

Although the ABSO is a small team, they have a reach that goes beyond Fort Rucker to include the 128th Aviation Brigade at Fort Eustis, Va., and 2-13th Aviation Regiment at Fort Huachuca, Ariz.

The ABSO aims to provide fellows like Ernst every available opportunity to learn, which may include about procedures to protect maintenance personnel, and any available Department of Transportation and FAA training sessions, according to Jerry Mosley, safety specialist and accident investigator at ABSO.

“What I like is for him to ‘right seat’ whatever my job is for the day, for him to see what’s going on,” Mosley said. “Any training that I can get for him while he’s over here that’s going to help, and anything we’re involved in on a daily routine …. That will give him a better idea of what it’s like once he becomes a safety and occupational health manager,” Mosley said.

The ABSO team said they appreciate a mutually-beneficial opportunity to mentor future leaders.

“All of us will eventually be replaced and it’s good to share your knowledge and impart wisdom and lessons learned on individuals,” McCurry said. “It also allows us to re-center so we can get back to the basics and make sure we are up and relevant with the latest processes and techniques.”

“We’re glad to have them any time they’re available for us to work with them,” Mosley said. “We both get a valuable experience from it — we learn from fellows, and they learn from us.”

For now, Ernst said his goal is to finish the CP-12 Program and advance in the career path as a Safety and Occupational Health manger, and that requires getting out of his comfort zone and pursuing opportunities that arise.

“As fellows we have to seek out the knowledge,” Ernst said. “You have to seek it out while it presents itself, otherwise it’s a lost opportunity. There’s so much out there, and I’m trying to gather it all in.”

Learn more about Career Program 12 at