Category Archives: Leadership

Snack-O (Part-Duo)

Yesterday I discussed why my first additional duty in the Air Force, being a Snack-O, turned out to be one of the most important duties at the squadron level. And, being “So Good they can’t Ignore You” at this job was a stage setter for my career and in understanding leadership.

But the irony is that Snack-O isn’t just a Lieutenant Job. Ten years later, as a major, I landed my first staff position at the Pentagon. In a typical pilot career, the pilot spends about two years in training programs followed by a three year assignment in a front-line or combat role. After that, historically, the pilot would then be assigned an “ALFA” tour (ATC, LIFT, FAC, or ALO). The acronym meant return as an instructor pilot, fly as a forward air controller or work as an air logistics officer for the Army. A few lucky souls were allowed to stay flying combat jets and would compete to attend fighter weapons school.

After your ALFA tour you would return as a senior Captain to the combat squadron in positions of mid-level leadership. When promoted to major, you might attend a year-long University level program at one of the Command schools. For me, I attended Air Force Air Command and Staff College to broaden my perspective beyond flying and was then sent to the staff at the Pentagon.

My first job at the Pentagon was Foreign Military Sales in the Saudi Arabia division. I was responsible for supporting the “Peace Sun IX” program which had sold the Saudi Arabian Air Force 72 F-15E aircraft and all of the other support, logistical and combat equipment.

As the youngest field grade officer and only pilot, my division director (Colonel McIntosh) asked me to join him one early morning at the Coffee machine.

“Major Powell, when I arrived this morning, there was no coffee ready.” the Colonel said matter-of-factly.

“Sir, I don’t drink coffee,” realizing my mouth was quicker than my brain.

“Major Powell, I don’t think I asked you if you drink coffee; let me show you how to make coffee right so it is ready in the morning so we can get right to work.” – he noted in perfect slow intonation.

He then opened the Foldger’s Can, grabbed the coffee spoon and said; “Now watch me carefully … one, two, three, four scoops.” As he put FIVE scoops in the filter.

I looked at him and he stared at me. Got it, I noted he put five scoops and then I responded “I get it, you put four scoops in the filter.”

He said, “Lucky (my callsign), you are a fast learner! And, now that you are oriented, fill the Snack-Bar.”

“Yes sir, and understood I had another opportunity to shine as the division Snack-O.”

Cheers – Pierre

Pierre Powell


One of the ironies of Air Force officership is the constant cycle between being in a position of leadership or being the Snack bar officer (Snack-O). Which job is more important? Snack-O. I could write a book, everything I learned about leadership I learned as a Snack-O.

During pilot training, on one of the first days I wasn’t scheduled to fly, an old gnarly Captain told me to get up and fill the snack bar. I looked a little perplexed. “Hey, I’m focused on learning to fly these jets and you want me to stock sodas?” I quietly thought. “Go to the exchange and buy an assortment of sodas, coffee, candy bars and other snacks to fill the bar, and work with the other Lieutenants to collect the funds to do this,” he snarked. We learned quickly to manage this little enterprise quickly building a small profit. The extra money was used to purchase Friday beer or going away gifts.

After repeating this in the next three training squadrons, I noticed every program I attended had a stocked snack bar. People needed ready access food for combat readiness.

But, it wasn’t until 2-years later after completing my initial mission qualification where the previously youngest Lt came over and handed me the cash box. Dagnabit, I’m a 25-year-old fighting machine and my alternate yet primary job is to fill the snack bar, again? Luckily, Doc Watson arrived at the same time so he was my “Co-Snack-O.”

Ok – I took it on the chin, I knew that soon the next Lieutenant would arrive and take over the coke hauling. But there was no next Lieutenant.

Soon thereafter, we received notice that our squadron would be closing in 18 months, and the pipeline of new pilots was empty. No more Lieutenants young guys coming to Zweibrucken. The older Lt’s looked to me with pitty and thankfulness and requests for chocolate bars. I would be the final squadron Snack-O.

So, it was my job to buy drinks and snacks, fill the vault and squadron snack-bar, tally the “chit-sheets,” buy and sell T-shirts, mugs, and track and collect monthly penalties and dues from about 80 officers. Sounds easy? Nope! If you want to hear pilots whine, it always had to do with unstocked sundries or their favorite alternative Soda in the bar. My God, if “Ho-Hos” were out of stock, I’d be scheduled for instrument practice approaches, or be conveniently left off of the schedule. I quickly understood what quid-pro-quo meant. If I got scheduled for a junky flight, the scheduler’s favorite “Fresca” might not make it into the fridge, and who likes warm Fresca!

More than once, the Squadron Commander (the revered flying God) would bring me to his office for a 30-minute lecture on how my job was more important than his. happy flyers are fed flyers. I got the point.

So, for 18 months I managed the squadron slush fund. I learned how to manage a spreadsheet and the politics of sundries. When we were sent to Desert Storm, my job persisted. While not flying or planning combat missions, I was driving the crew van loading up “Turkish” Coke Light.

I think it is important to mention that the other Lieutenants had my back. Every fighter squadron has a key organization called the LPA (Lieutenant Protection Agency). The LPA had enough power collectively (like a Union) to ensure that none of us were individually abused. And when it came to issues like cleaning the bar on Saturday morning (after an overly rowdy Friday night) they would meet and clean everything together. If a LT had a bad day, we would rally in support. The LPA rocked.

Being a Snack-O was incredibly important. I was connected to the deepest motivations of every member of the squadron. I had political leverage through power over sustenance. I executed experiments like providing apples to improve the squadron’s well being. The apples rotted and I think I was blanket-partied for wasting space in the refrigerator.

I didn’t understand this until much later in my career (another post).

But simply, in the words of Cal Newport after they make you Snack-O: “Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You.” The most menial job can be the most meaningful and memorable.

As a side – my son is a second Lieutenant in Florida as a Nuclear Physicist. He does nuclear treaty monitoring (and other stuff he can’t tell me). So as a scientist and physicist, do you want to know the first alternate duty?

He is his squadron’s Morale and Welfare Officer, otherwise known in the fighter business as the Snack-O!

There I Was… A Moment – The Hale Bopp Comet

As you may have noticed in these stories, that during my military career (and before), I was driven with an intense focus and commitment to flying jets and military officership. This was often to the detriment of “the moment”. As a kid, I probably had Attention Deficit Disorder, but I used it well. I had purpose and was always focused on the next most important thing, and when that thing required waiting, I got anxious or impatient. My wife would say not much has changed, but I use a Mantra I recite in the car …“I am Calm, Patient, and Kind;” and occasionally, I am.

But the moment was in April 1997. I was bored. I had been given the task of being a training aid or “red-air adversary” to support a combat mission upgrade at night. The fighter weapons school instructor briefed us of his mission parameters and we were released to discuss our “red-air” tactics. He was upgrading a young Lieutenant on his first night mission.

We launched. We flew up the East Side of the Air Combat Range over the North Sea. There was little ship activity in the water making it hard to see the horizon. The North Sea at night is eery, being cold and dark. We set up into our holding formation while the instructor and his Lieutenant wingman were getting into position in the west. Over the radio, the instructor called “Fight’s on”.

We turned toward the “good” guys and presented them with a formation to decipher. They did well and our flight realized we were all targeted. “Good Job Lieutenant – I thought, although sarcastically.” This was easy for him, so at a pre-calculated distance, we all maneuvered (aggressively). I don’t remember the specific tactic we executed. All I know is that I executed a “hard” turn to break their radar lock. Then I climbed vertically to about 50,000 feet. Based on the training parameters, that is all that I was allowed to do. I rolled-out and leveled-off and returned to training mode… “
This sucks!”

But then I had the moment. I looked up, and in the dark moonless sky, and at the edge of the Atmosphere, I saw the billions of stars lighting up the sky like it was daylight. Constellations abound with the Milky Way stripped from horizon to horizon; no visual pollution from below… I heard my radar warning receive light up, I was being targeted, fine; I was focused on something else.

There it was, the Hale Bopp Comet; enter our sky for a few months before returning to its 2000 year orbit. And at this altitude and in this darkness it was streaking loud; with a six-inch tail as I imagined seeing pieces of a meteor falling out from within. I have never seen anything so clearly or so visible. I sat in awe. How was I to be given this moment? A moment I have and will never be able to recreate.

A moment that lasted a moment.

Then – “Bandit at 50,000’, you’re dead.” “Three’s Dead” I pushed into the radio. I gently turned the aircraft toward the East and descended to rejoin the “bad” guys as we reset for the next tactic.

Years after the Air Force, I spent months creating a personal purpose statement to help me find purpose again. Part of that statement includes the words “Revel in God’s Majesty.”

And, for one moment, I did.