Category Archives: Pilot Story

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!  

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.

Post Air Force flying

Flying over New Hampshire – like riding a bike

Yesterday and Today, my brother-in-law James took me flying in his Cirrus SR-22 aircraft. James started flying a few years ago, and he is all in. He is making his way through all the flying certifications and currently building his hours. He owns a beautiful plane and has a hanger at a local field about 10 minutes from his home. As we discussed his commitment to flying, he told me his lifestyle has had to change to accommodate this new hobby. To build and maintain his skills and his aircraft flight status, he must log about 100 hours a year. That probably means flying once or more every week. He told me he has new circles of friends who fly, he travels with other pilots and goes to aviation events with them. At home, he and his wife get together and socialize with other aviators. It is exciting to see his all-in commitment.

People ask me why I don’t still fly, and I’ve never been able to answer that question. I have loved flying and it was my sole purpose when I was younger. But, rather than becoming a commercial pilot, I wanted to foray into business. My old F-15 pilot friends say “I used to LIVE to Fly and now I Fly to LIVE” after their transition to the airlines. (While recognizing what a great job it is). Another F-15 pilot sent me a card after flying for a couple of years with Southwest. I loved it when he asked “Hey Lucky, how many G-s did you pull this year? – I thought “The F-15 can pull 9 times the weight of gravity when turning” and his response was “Well, I pulled over 100” – a reference to his much more lucrative salary.

When I think in terms of Whitney Johnson’s learning adoption curve, it makes a little more sense.

For the first few years, I was significantly challenged with constant learning, upgrades, and transitions to new aircraft. As I got older, perhaps senior Captain to young Major, I was ramping up the curve and working toward mastery of my flying skills About the time I/we fell really good about our skills, the Air Force asks us to do other things, and flying becomes and additional duty versus our primary duty. Sometimes, we are asked to take positions with no flying responsibilities but with new and exciting challenges.

This crossroads requires the pilot to decide, “do I want to stay flying” or do I want to pursue other opportunities.” I didn’t know that I had passed this intersection, when I discovered that my career flying opportunities were limited. As I noticed that I was excelling at other opportunities, flying disappeared into the rear-view-mirror. It wasn’t a predetermined choice, it just came and went. Unfortunately, as is my nature, I kept looking toward the next thing. By the time I recognized what had happened, that opportunity had “flown the coop.”

Today, we flew over the forests of New Hampshire and admired the fall foliage. James let me fly most of the route and I did three landings and before you ask, “Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing!” The Cirrus is an amazing general aviation aircraft, often called the Ferrari of propeller aircraft (and that metaphor extends to cost as well). It compensated for my 15 year hiatus; but flying truly felt like riding a bike.

I have a yearning to keep flying. But I also have a yearning toward writing, lifting & obstacle racing, off-piste skiing, tennis, golf, travel, adventure and continued leadership development and support.

As I noted, I also recognize that I am often looking toward the next thing and miss the moment. My “soul’s” goals are in the future now, with new adventures and obstacles. I will definitely fly more in the future, but that life has moved on for me; and nobody will let me fly an F-15 again.

Thanks James for helping me remember what is like to be air “born,” and it was glorious!