Fighter Pilot Parent: Leading Your Kids with Lessons from the Cockpit

Fighter Pilot Parent: Leading Your Kids with Lessons from the Cockpit

by Brick Conners


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Lead your most important team (your kids) with integrity, honor, and love.

There are no bad teams (i.e., kids). There are only less-than-perfect leaders (i.e., parents). So says former fighter pilot and parent of four, retired US Navy Captain “Brick” Conners. Conners believes good leadership drives every successful outcome, and good parenting is no different. As a Navy Strike Fighter Pilot, Brick amassed over 4500 hours and over 1000 carrier landings during multiple combat deployments. So he understands all too well the critical importance of leadership in enabling those under his command to take off and return safely. Every parent wants the same: to have our children take off into the world and its adventures, but to return home safely at the end of the day.

Conners links thrilling life-and-death experiences in leadership, adversity, and performance to practices and takeaways that will guide parents, grandparents, coaches, military personnel, and anyone else who wants to raise, develop, and lead children and young people. Through tools gleaned from his own experience as a pilot, parent, and coach, Conners shows how we can redefine our own leadership skills and develop the same in children, so that they are equipped to deal with the unavoidable hazards of growing up. As parents, if we’re not happy with how we’ve handled parenting challenges in the past, we will find ways to reevaluate and alter our course; if we have acted on values and beliefs that were not always ideal, we will learn how to take a different approach: one that can lead our children to extraordinary trajectories, increased success, and lifelong happiness.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781632992291
Publisher: Greenleaf Book Group, LLC
Publication date: 07/03/2019
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.63(d)

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Success means different things to different people. For strike fighter squadron commanders, success usually means returning home with the same number of aircraft and people that you started with, and decisively executing every mission you are assigned. At the Navy fighter pilot level, it usually means performing your mission, supporting your wingmen, and landing aboard the ship the first time, every time. The emphasis here on first-time success penetrates every area of fighter pilot development, which is understandable given the costs associated with aircraft, weapon systems, collateral damage, and aircrew training. In warfare, it has gotten to the point where failure is no longer an option, and US air forces have set a pretty high standard.

What Does First-Time Success Look Like?

What are the secrets of first-time success in combat — or in parenting? How can children benefit from the fighter pilot experience? First, let me give you an illustration of what it looks like in the military.

In Operation Desert Storm, in just over a month's time in 1991, nearly 110,000 sorties were flown against a fairly advanced Iraqi threat. The US only lost twenty-seven aircraft and five helicopters during the entire conflict.

Then, in the first response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the major air operations in support of Operation Enduring Freedom lasting about two months concluded with 6,500 sorties flown against a much less sophisticated threat. There were no losses at all.

And finally, the Operation Iraqi Freedom Air Campaign, which lasted less than two months in 2003, ended with 41,404 sorties flown, and only seven aircraft lost to enemy fire. Losing one airplane or pilot is clearly a tragedy, but when you compare modern losses to past military operations, the results are astonishing. For perspective and context, the US lost on average 170 aircraft per day in World War II. We have come a long way in the pursuit of first-time success — albeit still not quite perfection.

The list of factors contributing to first-time success is endless: preparation, planning, practice, proficiency, knowledge, intelligence, optimal systems and tools, flexibility, adaptability, mental toughness, physical toughness, collaboration, coordination, composure, discipline — and the list goes on. It is my opinion that there is only one way to develop and hone each of those factors simultaneously, and that is through a process I call controlled failure.

Controlled Failure

Optimal performance and first-time success occur when a person is safely allowed to make mistakes — individually and as part of a team — in progressively more challenging scenarios. Failure is your friend. With my son, the youngest of four and the only boy, we noticed that he ran in an unusual way when playing youth micro soccer when he was five or six years old — to the point of concern. After watching a few of his games and seeing no improvement, I observed him during his other activities. The problem soon became obvious. As the "baby," and the substantially younger brother to three big sisters, he constantly was being picked up and carried everywhere. He wasn't allowed to make mistakes or perfect his running mechanics. We weren't doing him any favors. So we quickly returned to the controlled failure concept that my daughters had benefited from when they were little.

All the factors that go into first-time success must gradually be tested in order to evolve to a point of mastery. And then, and most important, any mistakes have to be honestly appraised and corrected, no matter how slight, before moving on to the next challenge. Ultimately in combat, you want quick, decisive, and overwhelming first-time success in many different areas simultaneously. This process of controlled failure has proven itself time and again, and it's the primary reason there is no greater fighting force in military history than the US military.

Crawl, Walk, Run

In the Navy, we call it "crawl, walk, run" — just like raising kids, right? We start from nothing, build and master basic skills, and then integrate those skills into more sophisticated and risky scenarios until we are ready for deployment and combat. If you've ever taught a teenager how to drive, you understand exactly how this might work (especially if you live in Southern California, where every drive seems like combat). And then, when proficiency and currency start to fade, you go through the whole process again — for instance, when your teenager comes home from college and hasn't been behind the wheel for some time.

If this type of preparation is done right, there are no big surprises on game day. For me, aside from real bullets and missiles coming at you, controlled failure made combat actually seem easier than training. By the time you get there, the confidence you feel and the trust you have that everything will function properly and everyone will do their job is extremely high, but not too high. On game day, everything has been perfected and integrated in training, and coordinated in execution. By doing all these things first, only then can you adequately plan, make good decisions, and improve your chance of high first-time success. This is much easier to say than to do, mainly because it requires patience and discipline.

Controlled failure is exactly how Navy fighter pilots and other military professionals make the complex and dangerous look routine. It is the defining process for mastering and sustaining a complex set of skills while building earned confidence and a positive winning attitude. There are no shortcuts or substitutions. Controlled failure is the price that parents must be willing to pay to help their children achieve their dreams.

It probably goes without saying, but safety is an extremely important piece of this process. When you plan to fail, you also must plan to control the consequences of failure. You need a safety net. Controlled failure and risk management go hand in hand. As speed, pace, and complexity advance (and as your child grows older), the safety net must also expand to address the new safety environment, but in such a way that it doesn't compromise the payoff: advancement to the next level.

The Navy calls this operational risk management (ORM).

Dealing with the Unpredictable and the Unrecoverable

On what was supposed to be my last night as the air wing LSO (remember legendary LSO Bug Roach telling me about situations beyond anyone's control?), a serious risk-management scenario presented itself. As we were rounding the southern tip of India, en route to the north Arabian Sea and a waning Operation Desert Storm, we were committed to refreshing our night currency so we would be completely ready when we arrived. During transit, night flying was severely limited due to the challenge of maneuvering the ship for flight operations while also staying on our intended transit track, so we took the opportunity to fly at night whenever we could. That particular night was the first opportunity in a long time to do so.

We had a full night schedule — four events with ten to fourteen aircraft in each. We also had some pretty serious challenges. There was a high cloud layer that dimmed the stars, and the moon was useless to us on the other side of the planet so visibility was compromised. Other than being in a mine with the lights out, there is no other darkness quite like it. Plus, as is typical in this area of the world, the Indian Ocean sea swells were pushing our gigantic ship around. We also had no place to divert aircraft should the ship or an aircraft experience a significant problem. This was not an uncommon scenario, but we needed to engage in some additional and aggressive risk management. Our safety net was really tiny and needed some alterations.

Despite the challenging conditions, we decided to fly. However, we limited the controlled failure opportunity to "A" Team pilots — pilots with proven exceptional landing performance. I personally went to each squadron ready room and reviewed their schedule. Most squadrons had already self-regulated (made their own risk adjustments), but one thing caught my eye. I recognized a pilot who had a long history of marginal performance. He was under constant scrutiny and had many dangerous landings to his name, despite being a fairly experienced aviator. To expand the safety net, I asked the squadron to remove him from their schedule. They obliged, or so I thought.

As the first group of aircraft prepared for their night landing miles away, I decided to go up to the LSO platform (this is where LSOs control airplanes adjacent to the landing area) to observe. As the primary and backup LSOs took their positions, I wedged myself out of the way in the rear near the net (a place where LSOs can jump to safety in case of a crash), unbeknownst to everyone else. Thankfully, I had never had to use the net for my own personal safety.

As the LSOs completed their radio and equipment checks, the lights from the first of fourteen aircraft appeared on the horizon. I scanned the screen for the pilot names, and my stomach sank. The one and only pilot I had excused from flying happened to be in the first aircraft coming down. Not good, but at least for the moment, the deck was cooperating and fairly stable. It wouldn't last.

At a half mile out, it looked like he was positioned to make a good landing. However, the randomness of the sea swells worked against him. About ten seconds from landing, the back end of the ship suddenly elevated dramatically. The pilot was advised of the situation and cautioned to hold his rate of descent, which he did inititally. Unfortunately, though, he elevated slightly. The LSOs alerted him so he could correct his overpowered position.

With about five seconds remaining to touchdown, the deck movement peaked and started to cycle back down. What the pilot did next was unpredictable and instantaneously unrecoverable. Anticipating going high, he pulled his throttles to idle and pushed his nose down. When I heard his engines spool down, I knew it was over for him — and maybe even for all of us on the LSO platform. I immediately jumped into the net, descending via its steel frame, into a space directly below the LSO platform, hoping that I had just made a big fool of myself.

But I hadn't. As I lay on my back in the net, I heard a noise that sounded like a dumpster being dropped off a ten-story building. I opened my eyes to see the horizon change from pitch-black to bright orange. Other LSOs started joining me in the net. To avoid being at the bottom of the LSO dog pile, I made my way back up to the flight deck just in time to see the pilot's F-14 Tomcat cockpit slide off the landing area backward and fall toward the dark Indian Ocean.

Seconds later, the F-14's crew initiated ejection. One seat went out over the water. The other went back over the ship. The crewmember who landed in the water survived and was rescued by helicopter. The other — the pilot — crashed on the flight deck before his parachute had fully deployed, and he died on impact. The flight deck was a mess. Grieving and lessons learned would have to wait.

There were pieces of the wrecked jet covering the entire landing area. Some were large, but most were very small. Multiple fires littered the broken aircraft's track as well as the area below the ramp, called the fantail. Our first priority was to get them extinguished. The firefighting foam system was activated, leaving the deck and wreckage covered with a coating of thick, white foam. But more importantly, there were thirteen more aircraft waiting to land. Some were very low on fuel, and our ship was their only option.

Despite the tragedy created through a risk-management oversight, redemption was eventually found in the controlled failure process that we had endured over time. It worked like this: The teams on the flight deck quickly removed the debris, cleared the landing area, and launched an aircraft capable of refueling those in the air waiting to land — all within twenty minutes or so. The remaining aircraft, with air controller- assisted sequencing, prepared for landing as the ship drivers on the bridge maneuvered the ship for optimal recovery wind and a more stable flight. My LSO partner and I manned the LSO platform, and we began bringing them aboard.

The pilots flew exceptional landings despite being under intense pressure. Perfection was the only option by then. We closed the night with everyone back on board. It was a total team effort that was completely brokered through our preparation for first-time success. From ever- escalating complexity and challenge in drills and training scenarios to being disciplined about risk management and risk controls, our success that night can only be attributed to controlled failure.

Parenting and Controlled Failure

As a parent, you probably want your children to be successful at many things. If you were to create a list of what those things were and how you can help them along that journey, your list might look something like this:

* What process will I use to determine their natural passions and to develop a crawl, walk, run approach (controlled failure)?

* How will I help them achieve their dreams in terms of ever- escalating challenge, complexity, and discipline?

* What safety nets will I use to accelerate mastery without crushing their enthusiasm and passion for the things they love?

It is my opinion that there is a growing tendency, whether purposeful or not, for parents to cheat the process by never letting their children fail at anything. Medals and awards for showing up and participating seem to be just fine to some. Out of love or convenience, some parents never let their children approach the scary edge of the envelope where real growth and learning happen. If you're not failing, you're not trying, so to speak.

Failure is not a bad thing. Failure is your friend. Fail frequently, but fail forward or fail differently in order to learn and improve. Failure breeds experience. Experience breeds wisdom. Wisdom breeds future success and good decision-making. Trading all these wonderful benefits for a false sense of self-esteem and a short-lived confidence is not a very good bargain in the long term.

At the other extreme, there are some parents who demand that their kids be successful at everything. That is a tall order. It is tough enough to master two or three things you are passionate about, let alone mastering many additional things you are not. Precious few can pull that off. The pressure is intense. The fun factor is low. Ultimately, instead of mastering your passions, you become a jack of all trades, master of none.

Each child is different. They have their own individual performance envelope, like a high-performance jet, and parents can add tremendous value by knowing where that edge is and allowing their children to explore it using controlled failure methods. Sometimes the edge is physical, sometimes it is knowledge, and sometimes it is just plain apprehension and fear. Avoiding failure at all costs is not in anyone's best interest. It only introduces other risks that tend to be more insidious and more devastating later in life. You won't be able to protect your kids forever.

As I mentioned earlier, certain risks are never acceptable. Child predators of all kinds lurk everywhere. Catastrophic injury is clearly unacceptable for your child as well. As a fighter pilot, analogies to these unacceptable risks include successful enemy action, mishaps, and aircraft losses. Where child safety is concerned, there can be no compromises, yet if controlled failure is applied and you are disciplined about risk management, you will have already acknowledged the risk potential and will have invested in the appropriate controls that will allow you to persevere and increase your child's likelihood for first-time success at the most challenging levels. Just as in combat, you respect the threat, avoid the threat where possible, build or use threat sanctuaries, and monitor the threat for any changes. Ultimately, controlled failure leads to better decision-making and the ability to define — and therefore measure — success.

Success, Hard Work, and Passion

Real success is not automatic or guaranteed — not in flight training and not in parenting. It is earned through the process of harvesting lessons along the way, closing gaps, and gaining valuable experience as you chase perfection.

How are air campaigns and parenting comparable? Actually, the process of defining success and controlling failure is identical. Just like fighter pilots before they go into air campaigns, before you send your kids out into the world you properly train, test, supervise, and monitor them. You wouldn't just drop them off at the mall or throw them in the pool and see what happens. As they grow older, and success plans evolve, keeping a close and watchful eye becomes more problematic, but if you've invested in a controlled failure process, and your kids have proven themselves ready, a high probability of success is waiting for them, and you.

If your children desire trying out successfully for a sports team, getting an A on a major exam, or passing their driving test on the first try, getting to those goals through the rigor in training and risk management that pilots use for first-time combat success is not a bad way to go. Over time, kids will understand the importance and value of preparing for first-time success. Understanding, appreciating, and enjoying are not the same thing unfortunately. Hard work is involved.

Let's face it, hard work is not fun. It's especially not fun if you don't have passion for the achievement that you seek. With fighter pilots, most are extremely passionate about flying. They love it and want to be the best at it. Still, while night flying and being away from your family may be essential elements of success, few would argue that either could be considered fun. Success ultimately depends on how you approach the not- so-fun stuff.


Excerpted from "Fighter Pilot Parent"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Brad Conners.
Excerpted by permission of River Grove Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

PREFACE * Aircraft Carrier: A Day in the Life,
INTRODUCTION * Best Trained, Most Feared,
ONE * First-Time Success in the Military and in Parenting,
TWO * Why There Are No Atheists in the Cockpit,
THREE * Character, Integrity, and Ethical Courage,
FOUR * Leadership — It's All About Service,
FIVE * Likability, Humility, Grace, and Humor,
SIX * The Fun Factor,
SEVEN * Managing Fear and Stress,
EIGHT * Recognition, Rewards, and Celebrations,
NINE * Guiding Children Toward Happiness,
TEN * Final Thoughts: Faith, Family, Friends, and Fun,

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