Category Archives: Memoir

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!  

French Horn + Lacrosse

Key Decision – Deciding to Play the French Horn in Fourth Grade
Key Belief – I wasn’t competitive in the mainstream; I needed to find a unique niche where I would achieve my own success
Tags: Key Decisions, Limiting Beliefs, Ownership & Dependence, Memoir

Best French Horns for Marching Band » American Songwriter
Not me – but it could have been!

Yup – I can draw a line from playing the French Horn to flying jets in Europe.

The background begins with my mother. My mom is German. She was born and grew up in a traditional German home where classical music was considered “pop” just as lederhosen was considered chic. Growing up, I rarely heard any other music than that. Occasionally, on a family trip, we dad might squeeze in some Johnny Cash or perhaps John Denver; but mostly Ludwig Beethoven or Wolfgang Amadeus. So, in fourth grade, it was time to pick an instrument; and I was steered toward a more orchestral leaning, and the “French Horn” was picked.

While writing this, I asked my mom how this happened. She said when it was time to pick an instrument, I didn’t know what I wanted to play. She said a cousin in Germany was a famous French Horn player and maybe I’d want to do that… so I did (I guess)?!

Frankly, I don’t remember the choice; but I believe I participated in it and I consider it a “Key Decision” that influenced my extracurricular activities, it influenced how I was seen by others and most importantly, how I was seen by myself.

In that decision, I took on the persona of someone who chooses to be outside of the norm. My decision wasn’t the traditional, more expected orientation of my male peers to play drums or front-line brass (like a trumpet, trombone, or even saxophone) and certainly not the more classical expectations around woodwinds or strings. I found the French Horn to be in a unique niche; and I’ve continued to find success outside of the traditional, always looking for these niche opportunities. This cemented a belief that if I follow traditional strategies, I will end up average, normal or typical. I created a “key (or limiting) belief that the way to distinguish myself was to compete outside of what is expected.”

This thread can be pulled throughout my career and shows up in almost every key decision. And, as I am writing this, I realize this “key decision” of niche activity or “to rebel from the norm” resonates with me continuously.

I enjoyed playing “into” the French Horn as my personality, and was successful both in band and orchestra; being recognized and selected for Centennial (metro) and State Championships. My only high school “letter” came from playing the horn (adding insult to industry, it wasn’t the standard letter, it was a fluffy one ensuring it wouldn’t be confused with the Jock-oriented symbol. Similarly, I competed and was selected to tour Europe and compete internationally (third place worldwide) with another school’s orchestra.

But as I started to recognize this decision was not mine, I became dissatisfied. Who was I as a “French Horn Player?” The person I was (or wanted to be) did not play French Horn or play Piano but wanted to play team sports and compete physically.

However, because I was a late “bloomer,” in early high school I couldn’t compete in my age group. They were growing beards while I was growing up. So, in alignment with my niche strategy, I looked for alternative strategies. Luckily, my best friend (key-influencer) introduced me to Lacrosse in our Junior Year. Lacrosse in public high schools was a niche sport. At Littleton High School, the Hockey team played in the Lacrosse “Club” to stay fit off-season. We were not a school-sanctioned sport, so we played as a club and trained anywhere we could find an empty field.

I joined the club and ultimately was satisfied because I owned this decision. I continued playing in the band; but dumped the horn in my senior year and have never picked it up since. Do I regret this decision? Occasionally I think ingratitude of this decision, the orchestra, the travel, the recognition; but mainly acknowledging my mom’s kind heart to support me in her dreams.

But it wasn’t me, nor was it my true choice. A better choice was third-string middy and getting hit and beat up as a beginning Lacrosse player. It was a decision that I made on my own; and although my parents supported the decision, weren’t really connected to it. Stepping into my own influence allowed me to begin to own my future set forth my military adventure. Well, that is until choosing a college.

The “Ping” Putter

62-3632, Northrop AT-38B Talon, United States Air Force

Near the end of my AT-38 tour, my additional duty was as “Chief of Weapons” and responsible for coordinating the combat preparation or training activities of the squadron. This is normally a fairly esteemed position in a fighter squadron but has less acclaim in a fighter “training” squadron. All of my early mentors were Weapons Officers and they lived in the weapons shop, so nonetheless, it was a job that I had aspired to.

While training Taiwanese pilots, we had extra funds to entice a front-line fighter squadron to train two weeks with us. It was good for them to fly against a “MiG-21” type aircraft. We were small and visually challenging for fighting. For the Taiwanese, it was a chance to practice against a fourth-generation fighter. For us, it was the opportunity to mix with our old buddies and try to beat them up with our limited trainer and huge amounts of bravado. We invited an F-15C squadron from Alaska to visit warm Southern New Mexico as they also prepped for further training during the winter in the lower states.

As the Chief of Weapons, it was my job to coordinate the visit and prepare the training materials and tactics to maximize the two weeks event. After coordinating with the Alaskan squadron, I developed a five-page training program and circulated it through the different offices and then the commanders in the squadron. The day before the “Eagles” arrived, I made about 50 copies of the program and placed it on the operations desk for our pilots, students, and visitors to review prior to their in-briefs.

Then I went out on an uneventful training sortie.

When I got back, a couple Captains told me to watch out, our Squadron Commander, the boss (Lt Col squadron commander), was on a rampage. “Watch out, he is out for your head.” I quickly reviewed everything that happened on the sortie and over the previous few days and couldn’t imagine what I did to make him upset. Ugh!

When I walked into my office, it was covered with my training booklets. They were torn into quarters and strewn across every open piece of space in the room. “S@#$, what did I do?” There was one piece was taped onto my whiteboard that said in big back Sharpie “LUCKY – SEE ME!”

I meekly entered the command office, and the secretary looked sad for me. She said “He is really pissed-off!”

“Dang, time to face the music.”

“Sir?” I peaked my head around the corner of his door, ready to spring away if something was thrown at me.

“Dagnabit Lucky, What the $#@# were you thinking? Do you know who the Chief of Weapons is in this Squadron?” (Clearly a loaded question that I was too scared to recognize).

I said very humbly, “me?”

“Are you an idiot? I am the Chief of Weapons and every other job in this squadron, nothing gets decided or printed until I approve it, do you understand?” he said with spit sprewing out of this mouth.

I mumbled a quiet “yes.” Wondering if he was going to ground me or something worse.

“Next time you organize weapon and tactic procedures, you coordinate it through me, do you understand?”

“Uh, yes Sir, but … I did, and here is your signature.” I pointed out.

“What? Let me see that, God Damn it, he stalled … Hmmmm, you know the first time I
was reviewing it for grammar, you should have sent it through a second time.” He said flabbergasted.

We both knew at this point he was full of crap and calling him out at that moment was a bad idea. Better to cut bait and run.

“Yes Sir, my bad, I will coordinate properly next time,” I stated, with a more serious and attentive snap to attention.

And, I immediately reprinted the brochure and brought it to him for coordination which he signed without any substantial input.

Obviously, I didn’t know if he was struggling with something else, but I immediately said to myself, “I will never be that kind-of commander”. One that leads through fear and ridicule, one that creates compliance but never inspiration, loyalty, or trust. One that yells, spits, and doesn’t know how to say “I’m sorry,” which for me was the only acceptable response if he ever wanted to regain trust and credibility.

That was the “old guard.” And the Air Force was fraught with this type of hierarchal leader. It just was how it was.

So, as any self-respecting fighter pilot does, I packed up all the torn brochures and stuffed them in a garbage bag; and put them under my desk awaiting the next opportunity.

A few months later, the boss was moving on and we were getting a new commander. I volunteered to prepare his going away gift. I called his wife and asked if there was something special he would like, and she said he has been “eyeing” a new Ping putter. I told her not to let him buy it and we will get him it as a going-away present.

I called the Ping factory and had a putter made individually for him, with his name and callsign engraved onto the top of it. They sent it to the squadron. And, wanting to be a good steward and not waste paper, I pulled out my garbage bag of torn brochures and wrapped that putter up in them. It took a lot of tape with a bunch of frayed paper. Even the “LUCKY, SEE ME” earned a place of prominence in the wrapping.

At the going-away party, I had the opportunity to give him his gift. In truth, the boss had done me well, given me opportunities, and set me up for future promotion. But, he also had a tendency to lose his temper and yell at subordinates.

I think his words that night were something like “Lucky, you son-of-a-bitch.” I don’t know if I built a bridge or tore one down, but I thank him for helping me know what kind of leader I wanted to be.