A fighter pilot's perspective on control

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Gregory Kreuder
  • 13th Fighter Squadron commander
Regardless of the badge or rank, as Airmen we all decided to put the needs of our country above our own. We work in high-pressure environments where we compete with peers for jobs, schools, and promotions. Yet we still need to function as cohesive teams to achieve each of our squadrons' missions.
If we can't adapt, this leads to undue stress and friction. In this article, I'll offer a perspective gained during Undergraduate Pilot Training as perhaps one way to strike a balance between these competing interests. In my16 years in the Air Force since Pilot Training, I've truly enjoyed serving without concern for what the future holds. In my view, the issue of control is at the heart of the matter.

Whether or not we agree, most have heard the saying, "Control is an illusion." If true, should we throw our hands up in defeat? On the contrary, I propose we separate the few things that are within our control from the vast remainder which is not. Expend our best effort where we can and let the rest ride. Sounds simple, but this requires critical analysis and deliberate effort. In my opinion, what we can truly control are two things: our effort (starting with preparation through execution) and our attitude. Things outside our control: pretty much everything else.

By focusing on one and disregarding the other, I suggest we'll lead less stressful lives and perform better. To a certain extent, I submit stress is the manifestation of our inability to control events which, for whatever reason, are outside our control.

I graduated Officer Training School in 1995 and went to pilot training at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, where I flew the mighty T-37 "Tweet" followed by the T-38 "Talon." It quickly became clear that this deliberate high-pressure environment would determine not only who could fly jets well, but who could deal with stressful situations. The reasoning is straightforward; the pressure-cooker is designed to replicate the stress of say, an in-flight engine fire, without actually initiating one.

The Air Force needs pilots that react to emergencies in a cool, calm, and professional manner, not someone who grabs the mic and yells, "We're all gonna die!" As student pilots, we were graded on everything we did and how we did it, every day. Pilots that remained calm with a positive attitude invariably performed better than those who didn't.

Everybody has good and bad days and I'm no exception to this rule. Although it's easy to be in a good mood when things go our way, the true measure of our character is when things don't go so well. For example, on one of my bad days I left my trusty T-37's landing light extended when doing practice approach and landings at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas. After one particular approach, I failed to properly accomplish the checklist after bringing up the landing gear and completely forgot to retract my landing light. As I was about to over-speed the hapless appendage, my instructor took control of the aircraft and retracted it for me. He just as quickly handed me the aircraft back and in the space of a few seconds I knew I'd failed that sortie. Nuts!

As I walked home that afternoon, I asked myself if I had adequately prepared for the ride, put forth my best effort, and maintained a positive attitude throughout. These are the only variables truly within my control and I strove to maintain the highest standard for each. Fortunately in this case I felt I maintained a positive attitude, was well-prepared, and did my best that day. This was an error in execution that happens to everyone from time to time. I didn't dwell on it and instead concentrated on the lesson. Stick to the checklist and retract the landing light, dummy! The next day I re-flew the sortie without event and that was that.

Most Airmen in my class adopted a similar philosophy. Consciously or otherwise, we focused on having a good attitude and simply doing our best every day. We learned to let go of the rest, including the grades that ultimately determined class standing and our follow-on assignments. I'm confident we functioned well as a team due to this or a similar mindset. On occasion, thankfully rare, one of our classmates would excessively focus on grades and comparative class ranking.

This concentration on factors outside their control greatly increased the individual's stress and often soured their attitude. When the team saw this they joined forces and brought the wayward soul back on board. We taught each other to remain positive, focus on effort rather than performance on any given day, and let our instructors worry about how the rest would go.

The way I see it, there's only one person you have to prove anything to: yourself. I recommend we consciously "grade" ourselves by the few things we can control (preparation, effort, and attitude) instead of how others see us (grades, promotions, ranking). Do the right thing because it's the right thing to do and let our supervisors worry about performance reports and what our next jobs might be. For my part, this mindset has greatly reduced stress and I've truly enjoyed my sixteen years and counting in the Air Force.
Although I've offered pilot training as an example, this approach can be applied to any environment where we work closely with one another, yet are graded in relation to each other. Rather than focusing on the parts of control that remain an illusion, we can instead concentrate on the variables that occasionally drive the outcome in our favor. By doing so, we're maintaining full control of our sense of self-worth and ability to lead less stressful and happier lives.