Leadership… There’s a plethora of books, articles, comments, blogs… you name it there something on it. I offer no comments on the merits of each, they speak for themselves. I just share a couple of war stories based on personal experience.
As a young captain in the Air Force, I began to look forward to promotion opportunities. Being appointed the commander of a unit, any unit, is usually a good way to get you on the promotion list. So I spoke to my Wing Commander about it. Not being risk averse, I told him ‘give me your toughest job’ and I will do it. He told me one of the organizational maintenance squadrons was having a tough time and needed new blood. “I’ll do it” says I.
Organizational maintenance is the heart of Air Force flight operations. The crew chiefs perform the most important and most thankless jobs in the Air Force. They take care of the aircraft, get them gassed, clean them, inspect them, you name it and the crew chiefs do it. This particular squadron was responsible for our bomb wing’s KC-135A and KC-135Rs air refueling tankers.
As I began to work there and got acquainted with these airmen [male and female] and the jobs they had to do, I truly appreciated them infinitely more than I did when I just flew in the aircraft. These airmen work incredibly long days, don’t get paid a lot, yet take such pride in what they do that it was truly a humbling experience. I committed to myself to do the very best possible job in order to earn their respect.
About a month into the job, I was tasked for weekend duty. I was the Officer-In-Charge of the entire squadron responsible for the operational maintenance of over 45 aircraft and about 300 airmen. I have to admit that I was feeling… good. I was going to be ‘DA MAN’ that weekend. That Friday, I briefed the senior non-commissioned officers (NCOs) on what were the most important tasks that weekend, etc. They knew all this better than me did but we had to follow protocol and standard procedures.
On Saturday morning, at 0700 I was at ‘MY FLIGHTLINE’ I was the ranking officer in charge and it was all mine – like in Braveheart when Stephen of Ireland says “It’s my island” [re
]. With my boots spit shined to a glassy black
mirrors, my uniform pressed with knife-edge creases, I got into my command
truck and began to make the rounds – just stopping by and greeting all the crew
chiefs as they did their normal tasks. Leadership
[management] by walking around… Ireland
Suddenly on the radio: “ATTENTION, ATTENTION. THIS IS NOT AN EXERCISE. Massive fuel spill on parking spot __, aircraft ____. “ This was repeated a couple of more times.
‘This is it’ I thought, my command moment…
I turned on the flashing lights on the truck and sped to the appropriate spot. The senior NCO in charge of the flight of aircraft was already there; nothing appeared amiss. I drove up to him, and very formally asked him to appraise me of the situation, what steps had been taken, etc. Now this particular NCO was… a bit on the mild-mannered side. He gave me a detailed explanation of what had happened and his actions.
Not fully understanding what he was saying, I declared in a baritone and authoritative command voice, that we should tow all of the aircraft away from this aircraft to ensure safety of the flightline, clear the area, etc. etc.
He then very seriously asked “Sir, so do you want me to tow all of the aircraft to another area, etc, etc?” And he was ready to do this….
[ MOMENT OF SILENCE ]
Have you ever had one of those Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moments where you are jolted into a clarity of thought and vision wherein everything else fades … and only stark reality remains?
I suddenly felt that a fog had been lifted from my mind: I didn’t have a clue of what I was talking about yet this NCO was ready to do whatever I told him to do.
“NO!” I said, “No. Just continue to follow the appropriate procedures and let me know when its cleared.” I then promptly left.
I drove back to my office, sat down, and thanked God for having jolted me into reality. I was really shaken up. I couldn’t believe what had just happened… I didn’t know any of the procedures regarding massive fuel spills (hell, I didn’t even know what constituted a massive fuel spill), yet this NCO was ready to do whatever I requested.
As it turns out, ‘massive’ fuel spills are not at all unusual with tanker aircraft and what is called ‘massive’ may, in reality, not be quite massive at all. There are well-settled standard procedures to deal with these incidents known to all maintenance personnel who work on these aircraft.
Well, I didn’t know that…
I sat at my desk for the rest of the day … promising myself to study and prepare so that I would never again issue orders without knowing what I was talking about. Somebody might actually do what I requested. A very scary thought when you don’t know what you are talking about…
So there I was… After about a year in the Organizational Maintenance Squadron, our wing was tasked with participating in an exercise wherein we were supposed to generate aircraft [prepare aircraft for flying] in a simulated chemical warfare environment. In English, we are supposed to do our jobs while wearing chemical warfare equipment, and pretending that this was a real world situation.
I was appointed the on-site commander for the exercise. I was responsible for both the tanker and bomber aircraft that were part of the exercise. I had to ensure that all of the aircraft assigned to the exercise were operationally ready to perform their mission. Naturally, all actions were being monitored by our commanders who in turn had to report our status at various times throughout the exercise. If you fail to meet a particular milestone, it reflects on the unit, as well as yourself… this is not a good thing.
Wearing chemical warfare gear is not fun… I was driving around in my command truck monitoring the operations. The aircrews that were going to fly the aircraft came out to their aircraft, completed their preflight and engine runs. Everything appeared to be going well and that we would meet our timelines.
Suddenly, there’s a radio message stating that bomber so and so has a fuel leak and is grounded. In essence, our wing would be unable to accomplish its mission, NOT GOOD.
I drove over to the particular aircraft. As I came up to it, one of our young lieutenants jumped into my truck—it was supposed to be free of chemicals, so I didn’t have to wear the gas mask. She took off her gas mask, and told me the aircraft had a fuel leak on one of the line and had been grounded.
Again clarity came over me… I told her to think about the situation. We were supposed to be preparing to fly an operational mission; the usual normal peacetime rules of operations do not apply in such a situation. I told her that I wanted the aircraft to be buttoned up for a one-time flight so that it could be declared mission ready. I also told her that if the aircraft could not be flown even one time, to let me know that as well.
Now this particular lieutenant was a really smart person, with a degree in electrical engineering from MIT. She looked at me with a look of wonder and clarity… ‘wow, I never thought of it in that way’. Without a word, she left the truck. Thirty minutes later, the bomber dispatcher called out on the radio that the aircraft had been buttoned up for a one-time flight and was ready to go. Our wing was 100 percent operationally ready to accomplish the specified mission. We passed the exercise…
Later our deputy commander for maintenance gave me thumbs up. I felt good about this one. Yes, I was no longer scared that someone would follow my orders…