HOW GOOD DO YOU WANT IT? - 7 February 2013
Cockpit Photo Just Prior to Leaving Adak Alaska in November 2011
"How good do you want it?" I asked this question about 30 years ago when I started my first aviation training course, navigator training with the US Air Force (USAF). I was a recent graduate from university, having performed relatively well the last couple of years. Navigator training was the start of my professional career and I thought to myself, "I wonder how good I could have it?" Since I hadn't done any flying before, and certainly hadn’t done any USAF training like this before, I had no idea what to expect. I didn't know if I could do well. I didn't know if it took incredible efforts simply to be mediocre. I had no idea; it was all new to me. Still, I considered this question for a while before my training started.
Eventually, I answered the question. I wanted to see how well I could possibly do, which meant putting in my best possible effort no matter what. I had no idea how good I could be, so I thought: "...let’s see how good I could be if I tried has hard as I could."
This wasn't really a specific goal like "graduating number one", or "not failing any tests", or getting "out-standings" on flight evals. But it was still a commitment, a daily commitment, to be solely focused on training, to do my best no matter what.
With that commitment, answers to living arrangements came into focus. Instead of renting near my classmates with their added distractions, I picked an apartment off the beaten path where it was nice and quiet. Instead of spending a lot of time and money trying to make this little place a mini palace, I considered it my monastery. It was cheaply furnished to keep costs down. I didn't buy a TV or get cable. Why have it since my TV time would be spent studying? I also got the most basic kitchen utensils and bathroom supplies. Except for my little bed and a desk to study at, I didn't buy anything. No frills was the best way to describe my new home.
When training started, that was all I did: I trained. I lived, ate, slept, and dreamed navigator training. I read, and read, and read some more. I answered all of the practice questions they gave me. I made my own practice questions to practice even more. I made my own little tests and practiced taking them under time limits, trying to simulate testing conditions. I made my own training exercises, trying to emulate the exercises I would undertake during real flight evals. While practicing these exercises, I pretended I had bad weather making me re-plan and compensate in-flight. I imagined scenarios in which pilots wouldn't follow direction, flying incorrect headings, forcing me to find their errors, then take steps to correct the mistakes. My goal was to be as prepared as I could be by imagining and then practicing every possible scenario I could think of. I even developed a very disciplined process for taking tests, answering the questions, transferring the questions to the answer sheets, and all the while checking and triple checking I didn't inadvertently answer "A" instead of meaning "C."
This type of self-study was substantially more thorough than what I was tasked to do with assigned homework. Since I didn't have anything else to do--i.e. no distractions, no TV--I was consistent with this self-study throughout my navigator course. It paid off.
￼After seven months of training, I missed four total questions on academic tests, tying me for best academically in my class. Even after marking thousands of different multiple choice answers, none of the four were missed due to mis-marking an answer.
I did very well during my flight evals. All that self-study prepared me for those times when my flights didn't go as planned. As all experienced aviators know, no flight goes precisely as planned. Inevitably some re-planning is required. Being prepared becomes so important. What I didn't know then is a measure of an aviator's abilities can be shown by how elegantly they deal with these bumps. All that self-study allowed me to smoothly adjust to changes with minimal panic, which is exactly how I want things to roll nowadays, 30 years and thousands of flight hours later. As a result of all this, I was the best flier in my class.
Because of these scores, I graduated at the top of my class - probably my most important professional achievement. With a #1 graduate on my resume, doors opened that allowed me to get to my pilot wings, attend USAF Test Pilot School, and eventually the job I currently have, conducting experimental flight tests.
Looking backwards along the 30 year road that brings me to today, it's easy to see what’s at the beginning of that road, asking that question, "How good do you want it?" Everything flowed from my answer, my direction, my choices, my commitment. Without that question, I'm not sure what would've happened. All bets would’ve been off, as they say.