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.

— James Albright

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Updated:

2020-08-01

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Flight Lessons 4, cover

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 bureacuracy 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.

It all started a few years earlier . . .

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Prelude: The Prediction

The summer of 1989

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E-4B in Warsaw, Poland

“Are these the nuclear ‘go’ codes?” I asked.

“I can neither confirm nor deny that, major,” the colonel said. “You know that.”

“If you want to be on the ground by 1900, I’m going to need to know why,” I said. “I can push air traffic control around, but only for the right reasons.” I leaned against the metal railing that lined the hallway as he thought about his secrecy requirements versus his need to update those secrets. The blue carpet beneath our feet was lined with thin wires to dampen static electricity and the windows appeared to be covered in mosquito netting, but the metal grid was there to absorb any electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear bomb explosion. The airplane was a flying power plant and radio station, oozing with electrons. I knew that taking my hand off the rail for only a few seconds would subject me to a small jolt of static electricity. Keeping in contact was a habit.

“Let me put it to you this way,” he said, looking over his shoulder. We were alone in the long hallway that stretched the distance from tail to nose of our Boeing 747, but he held his voice to a whisper. “If we don’t have that bag on the airplane after 1900, and we have to go to war, the President of the United States will not be able to direct his bombers, missiles, or subs.”

If the guy representing the White House was worried enough about bombers, missiles, or subs, then my decision was clear.

“Got it,” I said. “I’ll do my best and pass along an ETA when I have it.” I spun on my heels without waiting for his reaction; time was fleeting. Our E-4B looked like a generic Boeing 747, except maybe the “United States of America” emblazoned on the length of the fuselage may have given away our real role in life. I picked up the nearest phone and dialed zero, one.

“Flight deck.” I recognized the flight engineer’s Texas drawl.

“Pete, this is Eddie. Tell Dave to push it up to Mach nine two and descend to thirty thousand. Then hand the phone to the nav.”

“Sure thing,” he said. After ten seconds, there was another voice.

“Captain Marks,” he said.

“Paul, we are headed for thirty thousand feet at Mach nine two. I need an ETA for Offutt by the time I get back to the cockpit.”

“Yes, sir,” he said. “Are you descending to improve our true airspeed?” he asked.

“Exactly,” I said. “And you don’t have to ‘sir’ me.”

“You got it, sir,” he said. Among all our pilots and engineers rank didn’t seem to matter unless someone from outside the flight crew was present. For some reason our navigators didn’t play that game; I would always be Major Haskel to Captain Paul Marks.

I ducked into the radio operator’s compartment and found the lead RO. “Sergeant Saterwhite, please get me the Offutt Air Force Base weather shop.” As he dialed I stood by his console with my back to the windows opposite his station. The walls on his side were perfectly square and if it were not for the sounds I could have mistaken his cubicle for a ground-based radio operator’s cubicle. I heard the sound of the air around the fuselage increase in volume and pitch, telling me we had accelerated past Mach 0.90. I wondered why the deck angle of the aircraft hadn’t decreased yet; we should have begun the descent. “Here you go,” Saterwhite said, handing me a phone.

“I am a hundred nautical miles west of Casper, Wyoming headed for you,” I said. “I need the best winds between twenty and thirty thousand. Over.” I didn’t often use the ‘over’ called for by the manual on these half-duplex phones, but many non-aviators didn’t seem to know when to talk without it. He could only talk once I released the transmit button. The weather officer simply said, “standby.”

The radio operator gave me a look while twirling a pencil between his thumb and forefinger. The arc of the pink eraser seemed to describe the top of a question mark. “This is me, standing by,” I explained.

In another minute, I had my answers and headed forward and up the spiral staircase to my own office. I opened the cockpit door and looked at the navigator at his rearward facing desk. “Midnight, ten,” he said. That would be 1910, local time.

“What if I gave you another fifty knots in tailwinds?” I asked.

“Lemme see,” he said.

I returned to my waiting seat, row one, left, top floor of our flying office building. The “T” of my flight instruments told me we were flying at Mach 0.92, wings level with a 3 degree nose up pitch, Flight Level 350, and headed almost perfectly due east. “Why aren’t we descending?”

“ATC is working on it,” Dave said. “We have traffic below us.”

“Declare priority and move them out of the way,” I said. Our airplane’s special status allowed us to do that, but I would need to make a phone call to the Federal Aviation Administration after we landed.

“Really?” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve got the airplane.”

“Pilot, nav,” I heard over the interphone.

“Yes.”

“You give me fifty knots and I’ll get you on the runway on the hour,” he said. “But not to the chocks.”

“Are you using the standard descent schedule?” I asked.

“That’s all I got,” he said. I knew his squadron manual gave him a higher speed schedule for this situation, but we didn’t have time for that kind of pilot-to-navigator instruction.

“Okay,” I said. “Call the base and find out what runway they are on. If they are on three zero and the winds give us less than a ten-knot tailwind on one two, tell them that’s what we’re using. And tell them we want the pattern empty by the time we get there.”

“You don’t want much, do you?” he said. It was humor from the captain. That was a positive sign. I was starting to think this might work.

Dave spun the altitude selector to 300, meaning 30,000 feet.

“I see thirty,” I said. “Ask for twenty-seven.” I thought about that some more. I dialed the autopilot’s vertical speed function and set 1,000 feet per minute. I pulled just enough of the four throttles to keep the speed at Mach 0.92, our limiting speed at these altitudes.

In a moment, Dave reset the altitude selector to 270. Once we got there I pushed the throttles forward by the same amount I had pulled, plus a little more. “Pete, you have the throttles. Keep us at nine two.”

The cockpit of the Boeing 747, even our military version, is eerily quiet at most speeds. But once the speed crept over Mach 0.88 the air started to separate behind the iconic 747 hump and became noticeable in the cockpit. By the time we got to Mach 0.92, it became noisy enough in the cockpit that we had to raise our voices to be heard.

“Pilot, nav,” I heard.

“Yes.”

“The base says the pattern belongs to you,” Paul said. “You can expect a left quartering tailwind, but only five knots.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’m going to fly 300 knots below 10,000 feet until I don’t have to. Let me know when we are on the normal speed schedule to make the chocks on the hour.”

“You got it, sir,” he said. The FAA requires all airplanes to fly slower than 250 knots when below 10,000 feet except for a few military exceptions. Some fighters, for example, are allowed 300 knots until configuring for landing. The speed limit made sense of course, it gave everyone a better chance spotting each other and avoiding a midair collision. We almost always abided by the rule, but could grant ourselves a waiver if we needed it. I wanted to get rid of that extra speed sooner than later. Getting back on the speed schedule would eliminate having to guess when I needed to slow down to get the landing gear and flaps extended. If I was too fast to land, I would have to go around and our timing would be out the window.

At 27,000 feet we would normally begin our descent when 90 nautical miles away. That would provide a nice 3-degree descent, but it also resulted in decreasing true airspeed. I knew we could make a 4-degree descent work and that would improve our forward speed.

“We’ll start down at 80 miles,” I said to Dave. “Don’t let me break anything.”

The weather was “clear and a million,” meaning the visibility was unlimited and there was no ceiling. Offutt Air Force Base sits ten miles south of Omaha just west of the Missouri River. The base hosts the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command, a squadron of spy planes, and the infamous “Looking Glass” birds that had been standing airborne alert since 1961. But none of those missions outranked ours and I knew there would be a uniformed officer with a black brief case flanked by two armed guards waiting for us. As I waited for the distance indicator to wind its way to 80, I thought that the secrets people on the airplane must have done something seriously wrong to find themselves without the secrets needed to go to war simply because the calendar had advanced to the next month. These secret codes were normally published in monthly books that had to be replaced by the end of the last day every month, at midnight Greenwich Mean Time. That would be 1900 in the Midwest today.

As the distance closed to 85, Dave requested and was granted our initial descent. I tapped the throttles, telling Pete they again belonged to me. I pulled a little, and did some math. Our ground speed was 540 knots, exactly nine miles every minute. A 4-degree descent should take about 3,600 feet per minute. That’s a lot. But our maximum speed would decrease with altitude and, with that, so would the required descent rate. “I think you got this,” Dave said.

By the time we got to 10,000 feet things were starting to look normal, except we were way too fast. We were lined up with the runway 30 miles away, still doing 320 knots. “That’s all I can take,” I said. I pulled all four throttles to idle and pulled the speed brake handle. “Dave extend each setting of flaps when we have the limiting speed. When we get to the gear speed I’ll bring the speed brakes in.”

After the second notch of flaps the navigator finally said what I had been waiting for. “On a normal descent schedule to make the chocks, pilot.”

I pushed the speed brake handle in and pointed to the gear handle. “Gear,” I said. Three minutes later we were back to normal.

“Fully configured, on speed,” Pete said. “The before landing checklist is complete.” A minute later we were on the ground and a minute after that we spotted an Army Colonel with a black brief case standing next to our normal parking spot. At 1858, the air stairs hit the ground three stories below us.

After a week of operational duty, our flight crew was replaced and spread to the winds, each with their own lives to return to. As the crew commander, I had one final task to complete: paperwork. After combining the various logs and forms from the rest of the crew, I added my trip report. That report was usually a sterile, one-paragraph summary of the week’s events. Being an aspiring author, I normally handed in four or five pages, written in whatever style that amused me at the time. “The Case of the Missing Black Bag” was written ala Hunter S. Thompson. “Zounds,” I wrote, “fifteen minutes short with no supply of minutes in sight!”

“That’s damned funny,” Alton Gee said as he signed off on the report. As our head scheduler, Lieutenant Colonel Gee’s initials would be the last step before the paperwork hit the commander’s desk. “I bet you even get a chuckle out of Rodney P.”

Alton was the only person in the squadron who could get away with calling the commander by his first name. The boss was Lieutenant Colonel Rodney P. Larson and Alton called many people by first name and initial. But he tended to invent pet names for his favorite pets and it was the highest honor in the squadron to be granted such a name.

“Maybe you ought to give up this flying thing, Ed-you-el. Maybe you can be a writer instead.”

“All I want to do is fly,” I said. “Anything else is a distraction.”

A young sergeant dropped a stack of new paperwork on Alton’s desk and stood. Alton found another stack, placed my report on top, and handed the bundle to the waiting orderly. Alton read the top line of each new sheet of paper and dealt them onto his desk like a deck of cards. Two or three ended up in the trash. Alton got up and started to talk as he added flights to our scheduling board.

“The Pentagon boys are running a midnight exercise tomorrow night,” he said as the flight started to take shape with his grease pencil marks. It was a ten-hour sortie from eight pm to six am, one of our least favorite flights. “Drill some holes in the sky,” he continued. “Well, nothing to be done about it. Let the whining begin.” His board looked back two months and forward two months. I was happy to see that I had done the trip within recent memory and would probably escape it this time. A crowd started to collect outside his office, knowing that fates were about to be decided. Alton scanned the fourteen listed pilots and selected Majors Jesse Smith and Bob Wilson as pilots for the overnighter. Almost on cue, Wilson entered.

“Alton,” he said. “I really can’t do this tomorrow night. I promise I’ll do the next one.”

“You’re up in the batting rotation,” Alton said. “Fair’s fair.”

“But my wife and I have tickets to a show,” he said. “Please.”

“You are either an aircraft commander or you aren’t,” Alton said.

Bob looked at me for support, but I didn’t want to do the flight either. “Eddie?” he said. Alton tended to put any pilot he didn’t like in the whiner category and that may have been unfair in this case. Bob wasn’t the strongest pilot in our arsenal, but he was competent and not bad company at any bar. “Let me think about it,” I said. Bob left.

Alton looked at me and the empty spot along the row of the schedule next to my name. “I don’t know why you want to help him out. He hasn’t done one of these in a while and you did the last one.”

“He’s going through a rough patch with his wife,” I said. “They’ve only been married a few years and she still hasn’t got the hang of having a part time husband. Let’s cut him some slack, Alton.”

“Okay, Ed-you-el,” he said. He erased the “AC” from the intersection of the flight and Bob’s name and redrew it on the line with my name.

“Haskel!” I heard yelled from across the hallway from the commander’s office. “Get your ass in here now!”

From outside the scheduling office I saw a sea of eyes turned my way. The commander was unhappy and broadcasted his displeasure for all to hear. I got up and tried to walk as casually as I could under the circumstances without appearing disrespectful. I appeared at Lieutenant Colonel Rodney P. Larson’s office doorway in a pose halfway between “attention” and “parade rest.”

“Sir?” I said.

“It says here you flew at Mach nine two to make this block time,” he said, veins bulging through the thin blonde hair of his pale scalp. “Tell me that’s not what you really did and that this is some kind of exaggeration of your so-called writing style.”

“That’s exactly what I did, sir,” I said. “I flew as fast as I could and lower than economical all to maximize true airspeed. I exceeded two-fifty below ten for a few thousand feet too. We landed on speed and made it with two minutes to spare.”

None of that did anything to soothe the savage beast. “Well that’s the last time anyone does anything like that,” he said. “Dismissed.”

I returned to the mission planning room, just outside of Alton’s office. The crowd left a seat at the table for me, which I took. All eyes in the room shifted from me to the door behind me. I turned to see our angry commander.

“The next pilot who exceeds Mach eight six in this squadron is fired,” Lieutenant Colonel Larson said. “Does everyone understand that?”

“Yes, sir,” every pilot in the room said. Every pilot except me. Larson left and the eyes returned to me.

“Why Mach eight six?” someone finally said.

“I don’t know,” I said. Mach 0.86 was our usual cruise speed and we taught our pilots to vary that plus or minus Mach 0.04 under normal circumstances if needed to make our timing work. But when the mission dictated it, we allowed pilots to go as slow as the airplane’s maneuvering speed or as high as the maximum operating speed. At higher altitudes, that was Mach 0.92.

And so began the month of missed block times. We always had one airplane on operational duty for our White House and Pentagon masters who rarely complained about block times unless we were late. None of this should have mattered except the normal schedule was based on Mach 0.86 as a starting condition. Now that it became a maximum, block times became almost impossible to make.

Larson exploded with rage at each late report. The non-pilots wondered how the pilots had lost the ability to land on time while the pilots counted the days until Lieutenant Colonel Rodney P. Larson had to fly the operational bird. When that day came, he managed to land on time. Slowly but surely word got out, Lieutenant Colonel Larson flew faster than Mach 0.86. It was no longer a maximum speed.

A month later I had orders to upgrade. It would be my second time as an Air Force instructor pilot and was what I had been hoping for secretly. Sometimes the best way to get something in any bureaucracy is to pretend you don’t care if it happens or not. But I cared. I sat in the scheduling office, opposite Alton’s desk, never mentioning the schedule or even casting an eye to the board.

“Well I might as well get to some real Air Force scheduling,” Alton said, picking up his grease pencil. “I hear that young Ed-you-el is going to be a real Boeing 747 instructor pilot. Ahead of the pack, as they say.”

“Somebody’s looking out for me,” I said. “I wasn’t expecting this for another year.”

“That somebody, believe it or not,” he said, “is one Rodney P. Larson.”

“I guess he’s forgotten the Month of Missed Block Times,” I said. “Even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then. It’s just the law of averages.”

Alton gave me a half laugh and half of a wry look. He retreated from the scheduling board and sat down. “Maybe this is Rodney P’s way of apologizing to you for that bit of nastiness. He isn’t the best squadron commander we’ve ever had around here. But he isn’t the worst.”

“He swims in an elite pool of scum,” I said. “He isn’t the worst squadron commander, but he is in the running for the title.”

Alton gave me a pained look. “You want my prediction for you, young Ed-you-el?”

“Sure,” I said.

“I predict that one day this man’s Air Force is going to elevate you to commander of a squadron of your very own,” he said. “It is inevitable. You are smart, you are a good pilot, and you manage to collect supporters wherever you go.”

“That’s good to hear,” I said.

“But I also predict you will fail as a squadron commander,” he said. Alton had a way of hurling insults but he usually did so with an audience for comedic effect. We were alone in his office and I was an audience of one.

“You are a terrible judge of people,” he continued. “You think very highly of your peers and you turn a blind eye to the faults of anyone who works for you. Ordinarily those are fine traits, but not so fine in a commander.”

“I’m not so sure that’s right,” I said.

“It is,” he said. “Take your support of our worst pilot, that whiner Bob Wilson. He busted his qualification check, he busted his first upgrade check, and he is the first pilot in here to complain about unfair treatment. And yet you do nothing but defend him.”

“He’s not that bad,” I said.

“But he isn’t the only one,” Alton said. “You have the same blindness for half the engineers, navigators, and flight attendants.” I let his words hang. It was hard to tell when Alton was serious or setting up the world’s biggest punch line. Patience always paid dividends in his office. “It seems to me that whole block time mess could have been avoided if you politely closed the door with the boss and explained to him what the real maximum speed of the airplane is. He was a fine line pilot before he went to headquarters for three years. When he came back he didn’t know the numbers as well as he should have. You secretly wanted him to make a fool of himself because you secretly think all superior officers are stupid.”

“I suppose,” I started but ended, running out of words.

“Young Ed-you-el, I really like you,” he said after my awkward pause. “I really do. But you have to realize that just because somebody makes colonel around here doesn’t make them a bad person. You don’t seem to understand that just because someone doesn’t have SAT scores like yours or can perform differential calculus in their heads like you can, that doesn’t make them stupid. I will grant you that most Air Force commanders get to their lofty positions because of political connections and other such nonsense. But that doesn’t make every one of them evil.”

I thought of a retort but it ended up sounding foolish in my head so I squelched the thought. Lieutenant Colonel Alton Gee befriended me on my first day in the squadron and I thought we enjoyed each other’s company for our almost daily discussions about engineering, history, or anything else that struck his fancy. But now I feared our friendship was coming to an end.

“So you will one day be a squadron commander, young Ed-you-el,” he finally continued. “And I hope the best for you, I really do. But I think the die may have already been cast. You are who you are.”

In six years, the first half of his prediction came true, I was selected to command an Air Force squadron in Germany.