REAL DISCIPLINE - 18 April 2013
Sunrise Over House - Alamogordo, NM, 88310
Most non-aviators think of discipline when it comes to aviation as something that's rarely needed but saves the day in very dramatic fashion. The movie version of this type of discipline is like those guys in the Star Wars scene when they're trying to bomb the exhaust vent. Tie fighters are everywhere. Flak is exploding around the heroes. A wingman is shot out of the sky. The stars are nervous and want to flinch out, yet this old guy is telling them, "Stay on target." Most people think of discipline in aviation as being that old guy who is unflappable in the midst of incredible danger. That's probably all true and all. But, when you're doing something completely benign, like flying for hours from point A to point B, an example of discipline more applicable to everyday use is: keep those long and boring trips long and boring.
I come from a community that's all about high dynamics and controlling massive chaos to achieve controlled results. Fighting air-to-air combat is physically and mentally demanding. It requires intense commitment and perseverance. Certain types of personalities make great fighter pilots. Usually terms like aggressive, attentive, detailed oriented, and highly intelligent are thrown around when talking about people in this community. One term not usually used is patient, or even accepting. Problems can occur when you expect the aviator accustomed to the high intensity tempo of shooting the other guy out of the sky to do something much more mundane, like flying his aircraft from Florida to Hawaii. You encounter a different set of challenges. And, none of them are as exciting as "stay on target."
Discipline is needed to keep aviators doing the "right" things when boredom is the most dangerous adversary, just as it's needed when bombs are bursting around you. It takes mental commitment and perseverance. It can be intense. And, it can take incredible mental strength to stay on task.
What's interesting is I hardly ever hear people talk about this type of low-key discipline. Most discussions on discipline cluster around more dynamic applications. We praise those who have traveled through crazy gauntlets, as if they won an Olympic medal. Yet, we don't normally praise those for doing what they're supposed to do each and every day. If you really acknowledge how difficult it is to do these mundane things incredibly well, you realize such low-key discipline is deserving of equal praise.
It's hard to tell stories that give praise to people who do the right thing day-in and day-out. But, it might be worthwhile for me to tell such a story about doing the right thing in the middle of a long flight.
I once was lucky enough to deploy with a group of F-15's from Kadena AB in Japan to the Continental United States. It's a long way from home with a lot of ocean to fly over. Unlike when you're flying a passenger airliner, you don't fly as high or as fast because you have to air-refuel along the way. The result: instead of a six or seven hour airline flight from Florida to Hawaii, it's well over 10 hours in the spaces of a fighter cockpit.
Let me give you a little background about what you wear when flying the F-15. You wear everything you might need in case you unexpectedly get dunked into the water. As a result, you carry a lot of stuff even though you may never use any of it.
In a survival vest you have mirrors, flares, markers, gyro-jets, two-way radios, radio beacons, etc. You might even have food in your flight suit just in case. Add all that to your normal flight gear, which includes a helmet, mask, parachute harness and g-suit, and you start looking like the Pillsbury Dough Boy.
Now, imagine wearing all that in the cramped confines of a single-seat fighter. It's probably not much roomier than sitting in coach on a regular airline, except there's no need to worry about reclining into the passenger behind you - you can't recline. You're sitting ramrod straight, completely strapped in, as if you might eject on a moment's notice. There's no tray to put your food on because your food is prepped into bite-sized pieces. No need for a tray. You're able to adjust the rudder pedals and perhaps raise or lower the seat, but, that's about it for crew comfort. It gets better: the seat your posterior is on was nicely padded when the jet was brand new. But after 5,000 high g flight hours, the pad is about as soft as a piece of plywood. That's okay because after about five hours of sitting on this you've lost feeling in your lower extremities. It's a blessing, really.
Imagine highly competitive aviators, strapped into a very uncomfortable rack, doing a very mundane thing. What would they do to entertain themselves and keep some semblance of awareness? It's not like you can take a catnap when flying by yourself. This is where that low-key discipline I mentioned before comes into play. "I will not do something stupid, I will not do something stupid." It's a pretty common mantra when you're bored.
For long trips, I know some guys have played games. You're lucky if someone brings a Trivial Pursuit deck. It's a special treat until you've been through the deck three times. There's Battleship. That's a crowd favorite, even though hearing, "You sank my submarine," on the radio is a little unusual when flying a fighter jet. Nowadays, you might have books on tape, or even your ipod. Technology is a wonderful thing. Back 20 years ago we had none of that. We only had the things we thought of to entertain ourselves. This can get interesting when a young Lieutenant cooks something up.
I was No. 5 in a six-ship of F-15's flying from Panama City, Florida, to Oahu, Hawaii. I was at the rear, with my Lieutenant wingman with the rest of the gaggle of F-15's, and our tanker spread out in front. We were all about a half mile from each other, which makes long distance flying much easier. You don't have to stay too attentive to your lead or the other flight members.
My wingman is out to the left of me. We were about five hours in, feet wet, about half way to Hawaii, when I hear on our inter-flight frequency, "Hey, Sulu. Look at me!" This is not what you want to hear. Thinking boredom has gotten the best of him, I shoot a glance over expecting him to be upside down or worse. I see his jet, perfect, not doing anything. It's just there.
"Hey, did you see it? Did you see it?"
I'm thinking, huh? I see nothing. I respond, "See what?"
"Just a sec." Large pregnant pause. "Did you see that?"
I see nothing. His plane is perfect. It's out there in formation as he should be. "Nope, I don't see anything. What am I supposed to see?"
"I've got my survival mirror out. I'm trying to flash you!"
In our survival vests, we carried a highly polished mirror to be used as a signal device after you ejected and were standing on the ground. When used correctly, these mirrors could be observed more than a hundred miles away. I'm not sure I ever heard of anyone using their mirror in-flight like my wingman tried. In this case, he was failing miserably at Signal Mirror 101, which was probably just fine since he was occupying his brain with such benign nonsense. I developed this image in my head of him contorting is body in his cockpit trying to aim the mirror and reflect the sun on my jet, all the while keeping things straight and level. That mental image kept me occupied for quite some time.
Of course, the rest of the 10 hour flight wasn't nearly as dramatic as those 30 seconds.
As painful as those flights were, I would much rather have them be boring than exciting. Boring meant things were going as planned, and superior skill and intellect weren't required to save the day. I consider myself lucky in that most of my long boring flights were exactly that, long and boring, and that low-key discipline was well exercised during those flights.
Now, there was one ocean crossing long flight that wasn't so boring. It's a good story. I'll tell you later.