Category Archives: Pilot Story


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!

The 10% Rule

And, as I think about compiling the following stories into a potential book, I realize that these are old and some are very worn, so I must evoke the 10% rule.

You ask, “What is the 10% rule?”

It seems apropos to tell these stories playing upon our fighter culture. Normally, every story begins with “There I Was” with some maneuvering with my two arms to demonstrate whether I was in an offensive position (where I was most of the time) or defensive (and not for long).   As you can see, I’ve already only told 10% of the truth!

But before I begin writing these anecdotes; I must highlight the 10% rule. I have searched the internet and there are plenty of 10% rules that are discussed; most of them related to Pareto or other mental models; but surprisingly none reference the 10% rule in regard to telling a real fighter pilot story. And it relates to fisherman and golfers and other activities where truth cannot be verified. But few of these activities actually set forth rules and agreements on how their stories can be told.

In our world (either a bar, a hooch, a vault, or perhaps a backyard fire pit), when you evoke a “There I was”, your story MUST be 10% true. There it is, that is the rule, you can’t make something up that didn’t happen, there must be truth in the story. But hopefully, not too much truth!

Why you ask? Because the ego of a fighter pilot is fragile. They are often driven by competition, adrenal, and “fear” – fear of being seen as “not enough”. And, most good fighter pilot stories are not about one’s heroic glory but instead, one’s “got shot down in flames” failure. But the myth, the legend, and the lesson still exist in the story; so it must be told. As the subject of many stories told by my brethren; I have become frustrated, angered, or even downright mad when their story makes them a hero and me a goat; especially realizing they have spun 89% of the yarn to their benefit. Yet, within the confines of the 10% rule, I settle down and accept my waxing knowing the rule exists to serve a purpose: not to belittle me, but to pass what we learned.

That is it, the 10% rule ultimately allow aviators to learn from the mistakes of others. Without the 10% rule, nobody would tell the stories and nobody would want to hear them. They would be too raw, too painful, and too real. But once they are embellished, and deviated from reality, the lesson can be passed without shame, embarrassment, or harassment of that pilot’s ego becoming enflamed. We know that perhaps only 10% of the story is true, we just don’t know which 10%! So, if someone is telling a story about my flying, I know that no one knows what is true and what is not. My ego is protected. But I also know that there is enough “authenticity” in the story that what is important is passed.

We all listen, we all laugh, we all tease the subject harmlessly. And then we go on; and remember next time I’m entering a fight, I must see both my lead and the bandit… because there is very little room for failure in combat, so when it happens, it is better to be told holding a beer.

So, as I begin, I am envoking the 10% rule. If I remember the story differently than you …  my bad, but I only promised 10% truth.