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Pioneer pilot shows mitigated risk brings substantial rewards

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SAN ANTONIO — An aviator’s life is all about risk and risk management.

Vernice “FlyGirl” Armour, America’s first African-American female pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps, emerged to the “Danger Zone” theme song of the 1986 movie “Top Gun” to discuss the risks inherent in her work as a combat pilot during the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc.’s awards luncheon Monday at its annual conference in San Antonio.

“We are always mitigating risk,” she said. “When I looked up the definition, it’s intentionally exposing yourself to uncertainty.

That’s crazy, right. We can gain or lose something of value — that’s why you take the risk.

It doesn’t mean we don’t do it if there is a risk. It’s how do we mitigate the risk. In aviation, if we didn’t do anything because of the risk, we’re not going into combat. But the lives of the men and women on the ground were at risk if we didn’t go out and support them.”

Ms. Armour told a story of a mission in which her attack helicopter division was sent to support ground troops who had been pinned down north of a cemetery in Iraq but only had about 20 minutes of fuel to execute an attack and return to base, with one missile left on the aircraft — a missile that “was known to be unreliable in close proximity to our troops.”

“That was on-the-go risk management — where are we, how much fuel do we have, where do we have to go, what do we have to take out the enemy and to deliver a safe mission and get back home?” she said.

The number one reason the mission was successful was not leadership or communication — it was because of the division’s flight plan, she said.

“Contingency upon contingency upon contingency,” she said.

“Even when we are flying into the unknown, the unforeseen — because no plan survives contact with the enemy — we still had contingencies. We had the flight plan that gave us the opportunity to flex and adapt.”

Ms. Armour urged the audience to listen when their guts tell them to take a risk.

“The key is the voice you can’t shake,” she said. “It’s the voice that you know is absolutely true. We play a huge role in our organizations because when we don’t take the risk, we can become a Blockbuster. We can become a Kodak.”

She said she is often asked whether she encountered challenges and obstacles in becoming a combat pilot.

“Of course, I had challenges and obstacles,” she said. “Everybody has challenges and obstacles. The absolute key, folks, is to acknowledge the obstacles. Don’t give them power.”

Ms. Armour urged RIMS members to take networking to the next level.

“Don’t just take a card,” she said. “Make the connection.” RIMS also presented its annual risk management industry awards at the luncheon.

The Harry and Dorothy Goodell Award, named for the first RIMS president and given to a person who has furthered the goals of RIMS and the risk management profession, was presented to Ward Ching, managing director of Aon Global Risk Consulting, Western Region in San Francisco.

Mr. Ching is an “out-of-the-box thinker” whose culture-of-safety program saved Safeway Inc. millions in workers compensation costs, said Robert Cartwright Jr., Exton, Pennsylvania-based safety and health manager at Bridgestone Retail Operations L.L.C. and 2018 RIMS president. Mr. Ching was previously Safeway’s vice president of risk management operations.

Lindsey Harris, risk manager for Dollar Tree Stores Inc. based in Norfolk, Virginia, and Jack Mennenga, manager of corporate risk management for Country Financial, based in Bloomington, Illinois, were given the RIMS Rising Star Award.

Berry Griffin Jr., the 1979 RIMS president, was inducted into the Risk Management Hall of Fame.