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.