Category Archives: Pilot Story

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!

Snack-O

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!