Flight Lessons 4 Command
This book is all about leadership and covers my time as a squadron commander in Germany.
Photo: The 76th Airlift Squadron, 1985
This volume takes place in Germany where Eddie is a squadron commander with various levels of leadership below him and several layers of command above. By virtue of the personalities involved, each provide a case study of command and leadership. By this point, Eddie had been subjected to the command of all sorts of leaders, some good but most bad. A typical commander of a flying squadron has 15 to 18 years experience as a line pilot, staff officer, or subordinate leader. There isn't a lot of training and selection to command rarely involves an evaluation of one's ability to lead. So the results should be expected. Eddie starts this journey looking for the ideal style of leadership. The flight lessons are all about leadership, suitable for leading anything from a small flight department to an airline. (Or at least I think that is true based on my experiences.)
But there is a twist. The squadron loses an airplane, the CT-43 that crashed in Dubrovnik, Croatia on April 3, 1996. In the end, Eddie discovers the secret of command that unlocks the mystery of how to lead any level of a bureaucracy while balancing the needs of the people below with the organization above. Oh yes, the accident. The official Air Force investigation was flawed and got it wrong. I include the details and attempt to set things right.
- Prelude: The Prediction. In the summer of 1989, Eddie was happily flying an Air Force Boeing 747 as a major and an instructor pilot. He didn't think things could get any better but the Air Force placed him on what some would call, "the command track." They had things in mind for him other than flying airplanes. In the end, it all turned out. But in the moment, it wasn't what he wanted. As Eddie departed for my new life, a trusted friend gave him two predictions for his future. The first became true in five years: command of a flying squadron. The prognosis about his second prediction is up in the air. "You were right," Eddie told his old friend, years later. "No, I was not," his friend countered.
- Remington's Secret. As a new squadron commander, Eddie's first duty was to report to the wing commander. Ramstein Air Base was undergoing massive changes and he was the middle commander of a clean sweep of every commander who had operational control of the airplanes: three squadron commanders, the group commander, and the wing commander himself. Brigadier General Remington, the outgoing commander, had sage advice and a secret Eddie would have to discover on his own. General Remington was a war hero of sorts, and that made his leadership task easy at first, but that ease would complicate things for him and the wing in the years to come.
- The Politics of Command. The Air Force tends toward favoring political skill over all others and those with that skill tend to be promoted more quickly. As an "on time" lieutenant colonel, Eddie always viewed those "fast burners" with suspicion. But working for just such fast burner group commander taught him the value of these political connections. But as these political goals of the organization started to take a toll on flight safety, Eddie's old unease returned.
- The New Sheriff. It seemed nobody in the wing had a prior history with the new wing commander, except Eddie. And his history wasn't a good one. Brigadier General Paulson had a track record of stepping on anyone while clawing his way up the career ladder and he had no use for a safety officer who knew how to use the word "no." He reminded Eddie on the day of his change of command that he was no longer a safety officer. Eddie reminded him that as operational commanders, "we were all safety officers."
- Blind Spots. The new wing commander wanted a metric to allow the wing to demonstrate just how good it was, so he invented one: on time takeoffs. He did this while volunteering the wing for crushing new commitments requiring combat landings while under fire in Sarajevo, Bosnia. He did this with no additional manpower or spare parts. Everyone knew something would have to give, and most knew it would be the C-130 maintenance squadron commander. An old friend of Eddie's, Eddie realized Major Mark Honable was being set up for failure.
- Go Along to Get Along. "This isn't a democracy" may be a favorite catch phrase among military commanders, except we all know that it is a lie. In the short term subordinates have no choice but to follow any legal, moral, and ethical order. But in the long term they can vote with their feet: they can opt to leave the military. Military commanders have to keep this in mind, especially in the Air Force. (The most civilian of the military services.) But some commanders overreact to this and go too far towards putting everything up for a vote. Leadership isn't a popularity contest, and those leaders who treat it that way end up being the most unpopular of all.
- Team Ramstein. Many organizations in the Air Force have direct parallels with the civilian world. A commander of a flying squadron, for example, may be akin to the director of aviation of a very large flight department. We also have doctors, lawyers, accountants, and just about everyone else needed to run a small city. As you might expect, we talk a great deal about the value of team work. Commanders can be aloof and so distant from the team that the phrase loses its meeting. But just as bad, or perhaps worse, commanders can be so intertwined with the team that leadership disappears.
- Transformation. You might think that a leader who learns to anticipate the needs of his subordinates perfectly while meeting the basic goals of the organization is destined for greatness. Eddie was on that track but failed to realize that if the bureaucracy isn't put first in priority, the commander cannot survive. Eddie's future appears to be in jeopardy as he confronts the wing commander a few times too many.
- The Prince. It was to be an undistinguished year for Eddie. He would be allowed to command for a year and then be reassigned as the wing commander's special assistant. Reading as if taken directly from Machiavelli's "The Prince," the wing prepares for General Paulson's second year when everything changes. One of Eddie's aircraft crashes in Croatia. Everyone on board, including a close friend of the President, are killed.
- The Process. The Air Force safety program is designed to place a priority of finding the causes behind all crashes with the aim of preventing recurrence. There is a rigid process designed to remove political pressures from the rest of the Air Force, lest the findings be corrupted. But the Air Force could not face Presidential pressures to ensure the blame was spread evenly. The accident investigation, as a result, was badly flawed. The report exonerated everyone in Eddie's squadron except the pilots themselves. A part of the blame was placed on Croatia and the remainder on the wing and group commanders. Missing from the list of blame was the Air Force itself.
- What Really Happened The Air Force investigation revealed just how dysfunctional the wing was and recognized Eddie's efforts, though futile, were aimed at pushing back. As a result, the higher command was ordered to "take care" of Eddie with a good assignment. So Eddie was half a world away when the accident report was released. It took Eddie several months to read it, all 7,000 pages of it. On a second reading, he found the real cause of the crash.
- Postscript. Eddie finished his twenty years in uniform working for a four-star general as a legislative liaison officer. His next promotion was guaranteed as was his next assignment. (Back to the Pentagon.) But his years working on Capitol Hill taught him that he wouldn't have his heart in the effort, so he decided to end his career exactly 20 years after it had started. At his retirement ceremony, a few friends dropped by to tie up all the lessons learned.
- A Few Thoughts. This was a book about leadership and I do have a few final thoughts on the subject. But it was also a book about a very public aircraft crash and that bears some discussion about "expert pilots" willing to appear before any camera without the slightest idea about that really happened. And I need to say something about the prime motivation behind aircraft accident investigation: prevention.
Print Version or eBook?
I priced each book at the minimum level the publisher would allow. For an eBook that ends up being $9.99 and because the printed book is all color and about 300 pages, that ended up being $17. So there is that, the print book will cost you another seven dollars.
You can carry the eBook wherever you carry your electronic device. (It is published for the Kindle but Kindle readers are available for your iPad, your PC, your MacBook, just about everything.) The print version isn't too hard to carry, though. It is published on 6" x 9" stock and is a half inch thick. I think it will look smart on any aviation library, especially as part of a five volume set.
Where do I buy?
The publisher says "anywhere fine books are sold," but there is the matter of public interest. (This is a book for pilots, no doubt about it.)
The book is available at Barnes & Noble in eBook ($9.99) and printed ($17) versions. Both are in full color. Click: here.