Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Things I've Learned, Till Now

1. It’s Usually the Second or Third Bad Decision that Kills You
On flying missions, even when you’ve made a bad decision, there’s usually still a chance to rectify the situation. Sometimes you just make a bad call. Your first bad decision might pertain to weather, fuel, mission complexity, or physiological factors. Don’t keep doing it. Get yourself back on a viable course of action. Flying is constant string of decisions that affect your outcomes. There is a lot of pressure to get the mission done. Sometimes the pressure is real and sometimes it’s perceived. Regardless…it can cloud your judgment.

2. Being a Little Bit Scared is a Good Thing
I don’t care who you are…this job is dangerous. I once saw Chuck Yeager in a television interview. He made a statement that struck me as profound. I can’t remember it exactly, but it went roughly, “Every time I strap on an airplane, I say to myself, be careful Yeager, this sucker could bite you today.” If Chuck Yeager is a little bit scared, it’s probably okay for me to be. Call it what you want, maybe it’s a self preservation instinct, or those little hairs on the back of your neck, but you have to have an internal fear mechanism to make it in the long run.

3. Even within the Rules, There’s Plenty of Rope to Hang Yourself
There’s no other type of flying that comes close to what we do in the military. Think about it. What other company is going to let you take out their planes and dogfight within 500’ of each other, or fly a low level at 300’ AGL, or roll-in and drop a string of bombs with a 60 degree dive angle. You don’t have to break the rules to have fun. When you step out the door, the Air Force gives you about a hundred feet of rope to wrap around your neck if you choose to. There’s a lot of trust inherent in that. I’ve broken rules, but as I’ve gotten older, and hopefully wiser, I’m able to see how stupid and gratuitous that is. It’s an insult to yourself and the Air Force. And…if you end up killing yourself while breaking the rules, they’ll make an example of you in safety meetings for a long time. If that’s not motivation to follow the rules, I don’t what is.

4. There is a Lot You Don’t Know
The problem is…you don’t currently know how much you don’t know. Take this simple test. If you a have several thousand hours, think back to when you had 500. If you have 500 hours, think back to when you were in UPT. At each level, you were probably pretty confident and sure of your knowledge. Guess what folks…it never ends. I like to attend forums where there are aircrews from other communities. For no other reason, I’m reminded of how much is going on in military flying that I don’t know about. It’s humbling. If you fly fighters, talk to an AFSOC helicopter pilot, or a C-17 pilot who’s just back from one of the “Stans,” or even a FAIP who puts his life on the line with some young punk who’s trying to kill him everyday. You’ll find out real quick that nobody has “cornered the market” on risk and danger.

5. It’s Best to Keep Your Plan Simple
Don’t make things harder than they need to be. This business is hard enough without incorporating the “double-rat’s-ass” plan for no reason. In my anecdotal experience, a tactical plan’s chance of success is inversely proportional to its complexity. Concentrate on basics and be really, really good at them. If you are a fighter pilot, those things are probably de-confliction, target acquisition, weapons delivery, and mutual support. Those basics apply to just about every type of tactical mission, whether it’s air-to-air or air-to-mud. Make those the tenets of your objectives for every training or combat flight. If you are good at the basics, you’ll be able to adapt to complex situations.

6. You Need to Visualize Yourself in Emergency Situations
We can all sight examples of pilots who have “screwed up” in emergency situations. It’s easy to point a finger. How does a seasoned veteran forget to jettison his stores after being hit by a missile, or forget to put his speed brakes in with a failed engine and stall the plane, or make a landing 100 knots too fast and go off the end of the runway? Guess what…emergencies are stressful. There’s time dilation and the possibility of having the proverbial “seat cushion” where the sun don’t shine. Go through your boldface frequently. Don’t just say the words; translate the words into the physical actions you’d actually make in the plane. Move your hands to the switches as you say the words. If you reinforce the words with the actions it will help prepare you to act in stressful situations.

7. Good Communication is Imperative
It doesn’t matter whether you are mission briefing, talking to ATC, or calling out a threat reaction…you have to be able to communicate well. You may be the smartest guy in the room, but if nobody else can figure out what the hell you are talking about, you can’t be totally effective in this business. Our job is very technical. It’s important to use the proper terminology and protocol. As an instructor if my wingman has a problem with his HUD, armament control panel, or navigation system, I can’t help him unless he can successfully communicate his problem to me and I can successfully communicate a solution.

Communication not only has to be correct, it has to be timely. CRM is here and it’s important. We need to take care of each other in flight and on the ground. In one of my prior squadrons, an A-10 flight lead flew into the ground while holding at low altitude. He hit the ground at an extremely low angle of impact. He was highly experienced, had flown three different kinds of fighters, and was also a major airline pilot. He essentially mis-prioritized his attention in the cockpit while attack planning and gently descended right into the ground. He had two wingmen with him in tactical formation. Neither one said a word. One of them, a very young pilot, actually admitted to watching lead descend the whole time—all the way to impact. Afterward, he said it looked wrong, but he didn’t say anything, because he figured the guy knew what he was doing. Now he has to live with that.

8. Don’t Get Too Married to Your Plan
Murphy is out there on every mission. If you are like me, it seems like the harder you work on your plan and briefing, the more chance that it will change. Plan properly, but don’t become emotionally invested in your plan. It can lead you to make bad decisions. For a particular mission, you may have created the greatest low altitude attack geometry ever know to man, but if the weather doesn’t cooperate, you may need to shelve it and go to plan B. It’s tempting to push weather or fuel in order to meet your objectives. One of the things that make our job so gratifying is that you can never totally predict what is going to happen. Flying is more like a chess game than filling out a tax form. Stay flexible, keep thinking, and don’t get too married to your plan.

1 comment:

Kathleen said...

these seem like pretty good life lessons!thanks for sharing.