Category Archives: Leadership

Ejection Seat Training

A major question of leadership is “Can Leadership Be Taught?” This question stems from the idea that initially, anything that is taught may only be understood in the mind.    And our mind is a “meaning-making machine” so it immediately starts by trying to understand new ideas by creating associations with things it thinks it understands.   Thus, learning something new – like flying an aircraft, without previous or worse, different associations, is difficult.   

Being playfully Socratic is to ask “whether something that exists only in the mind actually exists at all?”   I only pull this thread because until I experience something physically or emotionally in combination with the intellectual, does it become understood within me.    Therefore, I have found that teaching leadership, or anything else, requires the student to experience it themselves.    So, NO, leadership cannot be taught, it must be learned.   Brian Johnson expresses his learning philosophy in the statement “Theory to Practice to Mastery.”   Thus it is the practice and the work toward mastery that takes us to learning.

A major question of leadership is “Can Leadership Be Taught?” This question stems from the idea that initially, anything that is taught may only be understood in the mind.    And our mind is a “meaning-making machine” so it immediately starts by trying to understand new ideas by creating associations with things it thinks it understands.   Thus, learning something new – like flying an aircraft, without previous or worse, different associations, is difficult.   

Whether purposeful or not, the Air Force has developed its flight training around these ideas.   Each phase begins in the classroom, where we are taught an aspect of training.   We learn physiology, weather, aircraft systems, normal and emergency procedures, “contact” flying, instruments, formation training, etc.  But then, it is taken out of the classroom.

For example, we are taught ejection procedures; a really important subject for a really dangerous moment.   Something that, through thousands of practice iterations, it is deeply ingrained in my subconscious.   Something I was fortunate to ever have had to execute; but have many friends who have.

The boldface for ejection in the T-37 was “handles pull, triggers squeeze.”   Seems like a relatively benign statement; but if you were in an unrecoverable spin, where a second of delay might mean death, it is important.       

When I was training in the RF-4C, a student put the jet out of control and delayed ejection.   The backseat WSO initiated the ejection late; because of the ejection sequence, he was saved but the pilot was lost.
In a similar example, one of my good friends was landing an RF-4C with a broken hydraulic line to an aileron, making the aircraft roll unstable.     As he approached the runway threshold, he unconsciously added the normal small inputs to stabilize the aircraft and it began to roll wildly.   The WSO was quick to see a diminishing window of opportunity and successfully ejected himself and the pilot as the aircraft tumbled down the runway.    The pilot, “Ironman,”  left the aircraft a few feet above the ground, basically ejecting sideways with his parachute blooming horizontally as it set him on the ground.  The legend (and we made it a legendary bar story) is that the WSO ran over to him so quickly, that he was laying on the ground in the fetal position, still trying to fly the non-existent aircraft; with his legs moving as if he was running a sprint.   Thank God the WSO had the capacity and training to eject them within a nano-second of opportunity.  

In order to obtain this capacity, we had to do more than simply be taught to eject.

Back to pilot training, before we could initiate the ejection boldface, you had to get into an ejection position, to avoid breaking your back or hitting your feet during the 20 Gs you would feel being propelled out of the aircraft, yell  “bailout, bailout, bailout”  and pull the handles.
Then, the life-support trainers would sit you into a mock cockpit and you would practice “ejecting.”    This unique seat was special as it would shoot you up a hydraulic pole about six feet to ensure you experienced the first moments of a real ejection (at a much lesser actual G-loading).   Doing this scares the bejeezus out of you, so you capture the lesson quickly, avoiding the need to do it twice.   

Next, they hang you in an ejection harness as if you were floating in a parachute.   The trainers take you through a sequence I remember today.   “Helmet check, Mask (off), Viser (up), Risers (confirm), Seat-Kit (pull) [check the raft as well], 4-line (execute), steer (to safe landing location) prepare for PLF (parachute landing fall), look to the horizon and execute.    And there were a set of procedures for trees, powerlines, water, etc.    Once landed, there is another entire set of activities based on peacetime training or combat ejection.     Mostly, “drink your water” and take a breath.

Back to pilot training, after sitting in the harness, they would send you outside where you practice your PLF into “pea” gravel.   You started by falling into it, then you jump off a one-foot platform and work yourself up to three feet.     Finally, they would re-harness you to a rope and parachute where a jeep would pull you airborne so you could practice your landing.    Although very serious, we would laugh as each student would strive to provide a meaningful antic to outdo the previous one.    I remember K+10 splitting his legs into a set of splits, as that became drinking lore for the rest of UPT.   

So the Air Force recognized that learning takes place beyond the mind.    And even though I went through ejection seat training in 1988, almost 35 years ago, and certified annually, I never used it; but know it viscerally!  

“Their Finest Hour”

As I permanently changed stations (PCS’d) to England, I was met by an old RF-4C Phantom friend who had transitioned into the F-15 a few years before me. “Spike” as we called him had successfully leaped missions as well as aircraft. He was my sponsor and eventually qualified as an instructor pilot in his first tour with the F-15, which was a significant achievement coming from Reconnaissance. Spike later left active duty to fly F-15s in the Air National Guard.

Because of my multiple pit stops along the way, I was an “older” Captain when I arrived at the 493 FS “Grim Reapers;” and without any F-15 experience, so I had to “begin again”. The mission of the F-15C was to protect other aircraft and our combat forces from air attacks from the enemy. It is a mission in which we have been so successful, no soldier since Korea has died at the hands of an enemy fighter. So successful, that in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Iraqi forces buried their aircraft rather than launch them against our pilots… In later strategic education, the instructors would emphasize that Air Superiority (which extends to Space) is the first and most essential requirement for successful military operations. As you can imagine, if your can choose when and where you want to attack your enemy and your enemy cannot attack you from the air, it is a great advantage. To close, often in Afghanistan and Iraq, ground troops would call for a show of force. And rather than actually drop bombs, our fighters would make multiple low and loud fly-bys, often dispersing the enemy without having to physically engage them.

Back at Lakenheath, as an older captain, I had to learn this completely new mission. Luckily, having taught fighter fundamentals in the AT-38, I had a strong theoretical knowledge of flying fighter combat. I had just learned it without the maneuvering capability or advanced radar of the F-15.

So, of course, being the newest pilot to the “party” I got to assigned what my peers, now the most experienced flight leads and instructors, did not have time to do; or basically what no one else wanted to do. My first assigned job was to plan the base Battle of Britain party.

For some years, the US Air Force in England had decided to organize a party with “The Few”, those pilots from 1940 that protected England from German Air Attacks. By dissuading the German plans and shooting down over 1000 German aircraft, prevented a potential “blitzkrieg” land invasion from Germany. This seminal example of Air Superiority cemented that flying-philosophical truism I described above.

The importance of “the Few,” those pilots who resiliently altered Hitler’s plans to drive England to the peace table, protected London from “The Blitz” and thwarted Operation Sea Lion, an amphibious plan to invade; was the first failure of Nazi operations and set forth their ultimate defeat. Their heroism was captured in Winston Churchill’s speech in June 1940, referring the the military’s “finest hour” and later, in August, noting “Never, in the field of human conflict, was so much owed by so many to so few.”

The history of this US Air Force and Royal Air Force gathering went back many years to the RAF base “Alcombery” where friends having flown RF-4Cs there had extolled. But, after the major base realignment and closure activity in 1990, the party moved to RAF Lakenheath; home of our only fighter wing in England. And, as the only Air Superiority squadron on the base, we were tasked to provide the project officer. This POC to plan, organize, and equip this activity. Luckily, “Joust” had run a very successful party the year before, so I was handed a complete after-action book and he was still hanging around to provide additional advice and moral support.

Fortunately, there was a British Civilian from the British Battle of Britain society that worked as the communication conduit to these elder “few”. He helped us organize the date and coordinate with them. I should note that in 1996, many of them were in their late 80s and early 90s; but still eager to enjoy attending this party.

For us, we gathered support from the other fighter squadrons and support organizations around the base. As tradition dictated, we commissioned a painting by a local artist to depict one of the battle’s key moments. After agreement about the painting, we would print a limited number of prints (about 70) and then sell them to members of the Air Force. To enhance the sales, when the British pilots ultimately arrived, their first activity was to sign the prints. We had about 70 Battle of Britain pilots in attendance, so you could imagine the exceptional value of these signatures. As the organizer, I personally paid the painting commission and was provided the original painting with the signatures on the mat.

At this event, I got associated with these 70 exceptional pilots, many of who were famous for their battle heroics and were covered with numerous medals and awards. One of the men I met was named Paddy Bathropp, who provided me a signed copy of his memoir. Paddy was ultimately shot down over Germany and ended up in confinement. He was at a Stalag camp and spent 180 days in solitary confinement for helping build tunnels out of the camp. From that, after the war, he became a primary advisor for filming “The Great Escape” with Steve McQueen. He told me that in actuality, unlike the movie, they tunneled themselves right into the latrine, where they had to wait for hours before they could escape.

Another activity that came from the event was to learn that nine US pilots had flown in the Battle of Britain. They made their way to England through various means and either flew with the Polish, Canadian or English forces. Because of American neutrality, they had to make arrangements to remain US citizens; which initially prevented them from flying. At this event, we had the idea to rename seven of the Visiting Officer Quarters rooms after each of these pilots. We also had a memorial service at the flight line where we had a Spitfire demonstration by the official RAF memorial team.

The party was fantastic, with all of the attendees hobnobbing with these great pilots. And, what I discovered, is that age doesn’t dissuade the pilot – “once a fighter pilot – always a fighter pilot.” These men flirted with our wives, sang flying songs and drank us under the table. I had rented a room on the base and remember having to haul myself out of the club, while most of the old pilots were going full-steam as I basically hobbled to the VOQ. I remember watching the oldest attendee, a 92-year old frail pilot who arrived in a wheelchair; but as the event continued, he had mustered the strength to prop himself onto the bar, standing with his other singing brothers.

A couple of the bennies of organizing the party was that I (and my wing commander) was invited to attend the “official” Battle of Britain yearly gathering where “The Few” were annually honored by their nation. I had an exhilarating time at “Bentley Priory” which was the RAF headquarters for the Battle. I met the most famous of the pilots who were still living; and experienced their deep love for each other and typical jovial pilot antics. At the priory, there was an oil painting of Prince Phillip, who had started flying with the RAF in the 1950s and ultimately logged over 5900 hours of flight time and often attended and supported this event (unfortunately, not in my year). While at the celebration, I was sponsored to join the RAF membership hotel in London; where we stayed that night and then many others in the future. Finally, we were invited to the private ceremony at Westminster Abbey, where Prince Charles laid a wreath in the alcove dedicated to “The Few:. As the Prince walked by my wife, she gushed and almost fainted; feeling like we were as close to royalty as we would ever come.

As I passed the reigns to the next project officer in 1997, the final event was held with these pilots and the base dedicated a memorial to them. Unfortunately, the party and pilots had succumbed to age. I feel incredibly privileged and fortunate to have fallen into that amazing opportunity to share the skies with these men. Flying jets in England might just have been “my finest hour.”

The Marine recruiter

During our Junior Year of high school, my high school buddy, who was limited when he could drive (longer story), asked me to take him to the Marine recruiter’s office; he had an appointment.

“What, I said disdainfully? Why would you want to go to the recruiters, you are a ‘pretty boy’ (and he was, although it was more of a thought than a statement), you went to Harvard for summer school, why would you consider the military; who does that?” no answer from him “OK – I’ll give you a ride, but don’t expect me to go in.”

So, we went in.

The recruiter was an impressively built, uniformed jar-head” and explained to Steve (I sat as far away as possible, just in earshot) the potential for a full-paid college scholarship and the possibility of flying helicopters or maybe if he was good enough, flying fighter jets. But then he caveated, “Before we can even talk to you about those possibilities, you must take this Marine entry exam?” Steve nodded like he fully understood.

Hey you…” he was pointing at me, “Why don’t you take the test as well?”

Well, “there I was – staring at my watch”, so what else do I have to do? “Sure, why not.”

So he sat us in the back room and pulled out the bubble sheets and two tests. There were some basic English word associations, grammar, and a set of rapid-fire “simple” math problems; which is all I remember today. I mean, we are talking “the Marines” … (please forgive me my future military compatriots – with a meek, but hallowed “Semper Fi”)

After we finished the test, the Marine recruiter sent us to the main room and went on to score it. He shouted for his buddy (recruiters always work with wingmen). They came out and made some phone calls and eventually approached us. I was already disgusted with the test. It was sixth-grade level – my arrogant self thought.

“Men, (we were not men) we can’t score these tests here in Littleton. You guys exceeded our chart. We need to take you downtown to finish the evaluation. It won’t take long, come with me.”

He stared at Steve, who got up to comply.

Hey, we weren’t in Denmark and this story was sounding fishy. I thought, if I get in that van, I’m not getting back here until I’m a Marine. I’m not sure what scoring system they are using downtown, but I’m sure it involves some type of physical and recruitment process that includes a signature and ultimately commits me to Marine-dom. No way, Jose!

“Steve, I’m not going. You can go, but you’ll have to get your own ride home.” (A classic teenage manipulation, I got car and you don’t) Steve looked at the Marine and narrowed his eyes a little. I saw the gears starting to turn in his head as well. The pieces were coming together. So…

We darted out of that office in quick action, out of the ole-Woodlawn shopping center. (As a side, years later, that office became a coffee shop, but I deviate) We high-fived our good luck and laughed at the issue. “Did he think we were stupid?”

And, we passed the Air Force recruiters office next door – windows ablaze with fighter planes posters. Nope, the military is not going to trick me into joining!.

But the recruiter did put those subliminal messages into my mind … “pay for school” … “serve my country” … “fly fighter jets” … “look swole in uniform and pick up chicks ” (Hey, I just had seen Officer and a Gentleman)

So – I went back to school, did my work, and unconsciously traped into my future. A future defined by a lack of intentions and a vision without inspiration.

Until a few months later that is…

It was a Christmas party during my Senior Year.    I was bored – of course, I was bored, I was 17 and had an on switch and an off switch.   I was trapped by this parental gathering and I was hanging out somewhere between the TV and the hor-devours.   Yes, it was my Senior Year and my body had finally decided to up to my peers and was demanding a constant intake of food and food related substitutes; like Taco Bell mostly.

I was approached by some older man. I don’t remember what he looked like, but he looked bored too.

“Hey, what year of school are you in?” he surprised me but acknowledging my presence.

“Uh, I’m a Senior” – his eyebrows raised, probably wondering how someone so “let’s say delayed or perhaps short” could be a Senior.

“What are you doing when you graduate?” – he made conversation.

I looked around … “I’m going to college to be an engineer – a petroleum engineer – like my Dad.” I nonchalantly eek’d out.

“Is that what you want to do?” – he said with determination.   He must have noted my lack of care.    I think he just shook me awake.

“Uh, I don’t know, maybe,” I responded, and I felt blood gushing toward my brain, leaving my gut.

Then the line came, a line that changed my life – “If you could do anything, anything at all, what would you do?”

And, surprisingly, I blurted, “I would fly fighter jets in the Air Force.”

Before that moment, that dream did not exist. I’m not even sure where it came from. I loved building model airplanes and rockets and reading science fiction, but flying jets wasn’t even in my rubicon of possibility.   You never know what someone will say that will change someone else’s life.     But the next words out of his mouth changed mine…

He picked up his cracker, looked into my eyes, and said  “Ok, why don’t you do that?” and then stuffed it into his mouth.

And I did…

But, the story doesn’t end there. I sent this story to my buddy Steve; who has had a very successful career. He informed me that I got an 87% recollection. I’m sure the pretty boy stuff cost me 13%; but I’m ok with that.

He informed me that he still tells the story as well. And, as serendipity goes, his 20-year-old son is now a Marine! Wow – those recruiters were pretty damn good! Semper Fi – Blake!