EDITOR'S NOTE: This article, originally published Dec. 21, was updated the next day with new information from the Air Force.
An Air Force-wide review has found 17 bases with running or walking tracks that were too long, and the service is promising to make things right for airmen who wrongly failed their physical fitness tests as a result of the mismeasurements.
In a Wednesday interview at the Pentagon, Brig. Gen. Brian Kelly, director of military force management policy, called the number of mismeasured tracks "very surprising."
"Our airmen work hard for fitness and readiness," Kelly said. "So we owe them a 100-percent credible and capable system when we're dealing with fitness. ... Even if it's only one airman [affected], it's still wrong. We want it right for everybody."
The Air Force initially said 19 bases had tracks that were too long before correcting itself on Dec. 22. The tracks at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada and Scott Air Force Base in Illinois were, respectively, 63 feet too short and 9 feet too short, the Air Force said. The original release said Nellis and Scott's tracks were too long.
The Air Force launched its review in October after announcing that the outdoor running track at Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas and the indoor running track at Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts were, respectively, 85 feet and 360 feet too long for the 1.5-mile run. As a result, 59 airmen at those bases wrongly failed their fitness tests, the Air Force said in October.
Kelly said that the Air Force has already started trying to fix things for those 59 affected airmen, and will do the same for an unknown number of airmen affected at the other 15 bases with too-long tracks. First, he said, the Air Force is going back and fixing fitness scores in their records to reflect that they should have passed the test. The Air Force will then see if those failed fitness tests produced ripple effects that further penalized the airmen, Kelly said.
This is important, because a failed fitness test can have serious consequences for an airman. It could result in being passed over during promotion time, and even end his or her career. Until last year, an airman who hadn't passed the PT test and met standards by the time his performance report closed would have received a mandatory referral on his performance report. Such referrals can be potential career-killers, because they can make an airman vulnerable to separation by a quality force review board.
Even after the Air Force announced in June 2015 that failures no longer meant automatic referrals, they still have serious potential effects. A failing airman's commander still has the option of giving him a referral report if he didn't meet standards by his closeout date.
"These things follow people through their career," Kelly said. "Potentially, they could have gotten an adverse evaluation, or an evaluation could have been marked down or had an adverse impact. And if it was to such an extent on the fitness, they could even been discharged.
"The goal is to give every airman who's impacted a chance to be remedied and made whole," Kelly said
The Air Force is now contacting potentially affected airmen through their chains of command to alert them to the problem, Kelly said. Those airmen will be given the opportunity to have their report corrected, and to appeal any promotion or other personnel decision that may have stemmed from that improper test failure.
Kelly said it's up to the Air Force — and not the affected airmen — to reach out and start the process for fixing the problem, which will likely take months.
"We owe it to them to say, 'Hey, we've identified your score during this time frame was affected by this improper track measurement, and we're contacting you to give you an opportunity and show you the process by which we can help you get this corrected,' " Kelly said.
Service officials already know of one airman who was wrongly discharged after failing his PT test at Goodfellow's mf the mismeasured tracks. That airman — and any others whose careers were improperly ended — will be contacted by the Air Force Personnel Center and given the opportunity to rejoin the service, with back pay, if he wants to, Kelly said.
Airmen who failed fitness tests and were subsequently passed over for promotion will also have their cases reviewed, Kelly said. If their records are amended by the Board for Correction of Military Records, he said, enlisted airmen could be reconsidered as part of the supplemental promotion process, and officers could have a special board review their non-selection. If a board discovers an airman should have been promoted, his promotion will be back-dated and he will receive back pay, Kelly said.
If a wrongly discharged airman chooses not to rejoin the service, it's unclear whether he would be eligible to receive back pay. Kelly said the Board for Correction of Military Records has wide latitude to choose how to make someone whole in these situations, and could choose to do so.
It is possible that some affected airmen's records might not be corrected in time for the 2017 promotion boards. If an airman is passed over next year as a result, Kelly said he can be reconsidered during the supplemental process.
The Air Force will not correct the records of airmen who failed other portions of the fitness test in addition to the run.
The Goodfellow track was last measured accurately in 2010, and the Hanscom track was last accurately measured in 2008, according to the service. Since then, lane adjustments were made to the Goodfellow track and construction was done on the Hanscom track, which affected their length. But they were not re-measured afterwards, which caused the faulty track lengths.
Kelly said the Air Force is taking steps to make sure these problems don't happen again. The Air Force has, until now, required bases to measure and certify their tracks once and keep the certifications on file. But the Air Force Instruction on this issue has been updated to require bases to re-measure and re-certify a track any time there is construction or modifications made to it, as well as every time a new commander takes charge of an installation.
The Air Force is still trying to figure out how long its been since the tracks at the other 17 bases were accurately measured, and therefore how many airmen might have been affected. He said he did not have an estimate on the total number of airmen affected by the track-length discrepancy at all 19 bases, but said it will likely be more than 100.
The length of the mismeasurements varies considerably. Hanscom's track — which turned out to be 360 feet over by the time an airman finished running the required 1.5 miles — is the most egregious example. The track at Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait is 264 feet too long by the time an airman finishes running enough laps to complete 1.5 miles. And an indoor track at Osan Air Base in South Korea was 120 feet too long.
But some tracks were barely over the requirements. The running tracks at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona and Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands ended up being two feet over, which Kelly said is unlikely to affect PT results for any airmen.
There were also 16 bases with tracks that were too short, and these are also being corrected. Airmen who ran those too-short tracks and passed their tests — even though they might have failed on a properly measured track — will not have their fitness scores adjusted, Kelly said. In all, 31 bases had mismeasured tracks, although some bases had at least two different tracks that were either too long or too short.
Officials at all 114 Air Force installations reviewed their tracks, Kelly said. Most bases reported their findings by the end of October, as the Air Force originally ordered. But about 10 bases, including Kunsan, missed that deadline due to high operational tempo, Kelly said.
The list of 17 bases with tracks that were too long can be found here.
Stephen Losey covers leadership and personnel issues as the senior reporter for Air Force Times. He comes from an Air Force family, and his investigative reports have won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover Air Force operations against the Islamic State.