My First Flight In An F-16: The World’s Greatest Roller Coaster

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My First Flight In An F-16: The World’s Greatest Roller Coaster

By Mitchell Boling
Adapted from his book, “Leadership: A View From The Middle
Copyright (C) 2019. Reprinted with Permission.

I had been a member of the U.S. Air Force for only sixteen months when I was fortunate enough to be taken for a flight in the back seat of an F-16 fighter aircraft. A twenty-one-year-old airman first class, I was a trainee in every sense of the word; a three-level, as it was called. The goal at that point in my Air Force career was to learn my job, which was performing avionics maintenance on the F-16. One of the things I really enjoyed while working on the flight line was the opportunity to deploy on temporary duty or TDY trips. It was during a TDY when I received my flight in the F-16 Fighting Falcon, also known as the Viper.

I was assigned to the 19th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, which supported the 19th Tactical Fighter Squadron from Shaw AFB, South Carolina. I deployed with the squadron to Patrick AFB, Florida for two weeks in November 1984. The mission was for our pilots to perform training in a different area and also to work with the host squadron at Patrick, which flew the OV-10 Bronco. As for the aircraft maintainers, once set up at the new location, we performed our work as usual which involved generating the aircraft for flight and repairing them when they landed. Basically, the same activities we did back at our home station but with fewer aircraft. The benefit of going on this TDY was hanging out at Cocoa Beach, Florida for two weeks. Indeed, a TDY deployment to Florida was always a good one.

During the TDY my coworkers and I always noticed when a two-seater F-16 B-model would taxi by with nobody sitting in the back seat. It always seemed to be a waste, not having anyone in “the pit,” and we often commented on it. Basically, why didn’t they take one of us with them? We also knew it was during TDY trips that fighter squadrons would typically reward their troops by doing just that, taking them along on a mission. So, one day after watching another F-16B taxi by with an empty backseat, I approached our lieutenant and asked him if there was any chance that some of us might be able to fly in the backseat of one of our jets while we were there. “I’ll go ask,” he replied.

I had pretty much forgotten all about it and went about my work, and then my supervisor walked up to me on the flight line. “You need to report to the ops desk tomorrow morning at seven.”

“What for?” I asked.

“You’re on the list to get an incentive ride.”

“What! I’m going to get a ride?”

“Yeah, well, they picked six people. Three of them are the primes, and three are backups in case someone can’t pass the physical. You’re one of the backups.”

“Oh, so I’m a backup? Well, I’ll be there in the morning, and we’ll see what happens!”

The next morning, the six of us junior enlisted aircraft maintainers nervously ambled over to the ops desk, from which the fighter squadron operated. The ops desk was where the director of operations or DO, sat to oversee flight operations for that day. One of our pilots, a major whose call sign was “Chip,” was sitting behind the desk. He looked us over, and then he saw the name tag on my uniform.

“BOLING! You’re gonna be with me,” he said excitedly. “We’re flying tomorrow in the first go, and we’ll get to shoot this thing.” He held up an 8 x 10 glossy of a rail dune buggy that was going to be used for strafing practice on the bombing and gunnery range that week. He continued, “I’ve never shot at a moving target before! This is gonna be awesome!” He then began the introduction briefing to the rest of the group, but all I could really hear was my own voice inside my head saying, I thought I was a backup. What do you mean I’m flying tomorrow?

Once the initial shock wore off that I was indeed going to fly the next day, I followed along with the group to attend egress training. Egress training was where we learned how to wear the g-suit and survival harness. A g-suit is a tight fitting set of cowboy chaps that protects the pilot against sustained high g-forces. G force is the Earth’s pull of gravity in relation to our body weight. For instance, as we walk around every day, we are at one g, or one force of gravity. As we experience accelerations, the g-forces against our body increase. Further, if we drive a car through a stretch of road that has a lot of dips along it, we experience changes in g-force. As the car transitions through the bottom of the dip and starts to go back up, we will feel a slight pull of gravity on our body. This is the acceleration which results in the g-force rising. Driving along a road like this would produce something like an additional half-g on our body for less than one second. Today’s advanced fighter jets can withstand up to nine g’s of force for several seconds, multiple times during a typical flight. This is why fighter pilots wear the g-suit, because it helps to keep their blood in their head during high-g turns.

The g-suit stretches from the belly button down to the ankles. It has zippers aligned vertically along the legs to cinch them tight, and a hose protruding from the left hip. The suit gets connected via this hose to the aircraft and it fills with air whenever the aircraft is taking on a g-load while turning. When the suit fills with air, it squeezes the pilot’s lower body very tightly in order to keep the blood from pooling in his lower extremities. Along with this, we learned to perform the anti-g straining maneuver. This action is performed any time the aircraft was taking high g’s and it is accomplished by flexing every muscle in the body in order to constrict the blood vessels as much as possible, to make it more difficult for blood to flow away from the head. When blood leaves the head, unconsciousness is quickly inevitable and planes tend to crash when the pilot is asleep.

We also learned how to wear the survival harness, which is like a vest, but has straps that extend behind the buttocks and up through the groin, connecting with buckles in the front. The harness has more buckles at the top by the front of the shoulders that connect to the ejection seat in the aircraft. In the event of an ejection, this harness is what attaches the pilot (or passenger in my case) to the parachute. We then learned the difference between “eject, eject, eject,” and “egress, egress, egress.” Ejecting is when an explosive charge blows the canopy off of the jet and a rocket motor blasts the seat and pilot out of the aircraft at twelve g’s. The pilot’s life is saved as his parachute opens less than two seconds later. Egressing is simply climbing out of the cockpit in a hurry if the aircraft is on the ground and on fire. It’s pretty important to know the difference between those two commands. After that, taking turns we were hung from the ceiling in a parachute so we could feel how badly the harness hurts our groin.

Finished with egress training, we all headed over to the base medical clinic so the flight surgeon could give us our physical examinations. The examination was quick, and mostly he just wanted to ensure we did not have head colds and were able to clear our ears okay. While the cockpit in an F-16 is pressurized, the pilot and passenger will still feel the forces of changes in altitude. This is very similar to flying in an airliner, where your eardrums may pop, or even driving a car through a mountain pass. This is something we’ve all experienced, but in a high-performance fighter jet like the F-16, changes in altitude happens very quickly and very often. The pilot must be able to clear his ears or he may suffer painful damage to his eardrums.

Finished with this, the day was over so off I went to my dorm room. I stayed in that night and went to bed early. I wanted to ensure I was as healthy as possible for the flight in the morning. When morning came, nervousness was already setting in. I was worried about what I should eat, because there was a pretty good chance that I would see my breakfast a couple of hours after I had eaten it. I finally decided to have an apple. I figured that would be good enough if I ended up bringing it back up during the flight.

I reported in at the ops desk two hours prior to my scheduled take off time, where I was met by Chip. He escorted me over to the life support section where I received my flight gear and helmet. Chip left me there as he went to brief his wingman on the two-ship surface attack mission that we were about to undertake. I waited nervously in the life support section until Chip arrived to get his flight gear.

Together, we stepped out to our aircraft, tail number 83-1171, an F-16B model. We met with the crew chief and he got me situated in the back seat where I was strapped in tightly, and I began fiddling with my helmet, oxygen mask and flight gloves. Chip performed a quick walkaround of the jet to ensure everything was in order. Our aircraft was configured with two 370-gallon wing tanks, an electronic countermeasures pod on the centerline, and six practice bombs on each wing. Each practice bomb, a BDU-33, was about two feet long and weighed about twenty-five pounds. Packed with an explosive charge, it would emit a plume of white smoke when the bomb struck its target. This allowed the pilot to see if he hit what he was aiming at. We also had a “hot” gun with 510 rounds of target practice ammo for that dune buggy I was shown the day before.

Satisfied that the aircraft was ready, Chip came up the ladder to give me some final instructions and words of encouragement. He went over some of the switches I would need to know about, such as the HOT MIC switch and the HUD/RADAR toggle switch. The HOT MIC switch controls the microphone in my oxygen mask by silencing my voice and loud breathing on the aircraft intercom system. The HUD/RADAR toggle switch changes the radar picture to the head up display so I could see what he was seeing out the front of the aircraft. The HUD also displayed important things like airspeed, altitude, g-loading, and aiming solutions. He also familiarized me with the seat arm handle and the ejection seat “D” ring. Finally, he pointed out the “ball cooler,” an air conditioning duct that was mounted directly in front of the seat, pointed right at the occupant’s crotch. He told me that if I began to get airsick I could pull up my glove, exposing the skin on my wrist, and hold it right over the cooling air coming from that duct. Doing this would help to calm me down and keep me from potentially losing my breakfast. “But,” he said, “If you do start to get sick, make damn sure you turn the HOT MIC switch off.”

With that, he climbed back down and went up to the front cockpit where the crew chief strapped him in and shook his hand. “See you on the headset, sir,” said the crew chief as he climbed down and pulled the ladder away. As Chip lowered the canopy, I took the air sickness bag out of my pocket and positioned it inside the top of my g-suit, near my belly button, ready to be grabbed at a moment’s notice. The crew chief put on his headset and cleared us to start the engine.

I had been through dozens of engine starts and aircraft launches, but this was the first time I had been inside an F-16 with the canopy closed and engine running. I immediately started getting claustrophobic, but just began concentrating and paying attention to what was going on. I didn’t want to miss a thing. Twenty minutes after engine start, everything was running fine and all of the preflight checkouts were complete. It was noisy in there. While I couldn’t really hear the engine, what I did hear was the loud blowing of the environmental control system or ECS. It blew cold air throughout the aircraft avionics bays and cockpit. My oxygen mask had good air flowing through it, and since the air was rushing directly against the microphone, I figured out immediately to shut off the HOT MIC switch unless I needed to talk to Chip. I was already breathing heavily!

Soon it became time to pull the wheel chocks. After the crew chief was clear of the aircraft, Chip revved up the engine and we taxied out of the parking spot. Everyone knew that a fellow maintainer was in the back seat, and all waved or made mock puking gestures as we taxied by. One of my friends also took a few cherished pictures of the event. We parked at the weapons arming area near the end of the runway, and our wingman rolled up and parked directly to our right. The weapons crews scurried around both aircraft, pulling safety pins and arming the weapons that were mounted under the wings. Once we were given the all clear, we taxied into position at the end of the active runway.

Once we settled into position on the runway, Chip instructed me to place my seat arming lever down. This armed the rocket motor under my seat in the event we needed to eject from the aircraft. He also positioned the ejection control handle to BOTH, meaning both he and I had the ability to pull the D ring and eject both seats. This is a safety feature in the event that one of the pilots became incapacitated, the other one could save them both. I had the power to eject us both!

Our wingman was now on our left wing, slightly aft. With clearance to take off, we did one last check of the flight control surfaces; the flaperons and horizontal tails flexed up and down and the rudder waved back and forth. Chip stood on the brakes and moved the throttle forward to build up power. Before he took his feet off of the brakes, he announced to me, “I think you’ll appreciate the acceleration this thing has.” Off with the brakes. We lurched forward, and he pushed the throttle farther up and into afterburner, which directed raw jet fuel into the engine exhaust. With a massive cone of fire pushing us from the rear, off we went, pulling away from our wingman as he awaited his turn. I looked to the right and saw the foot-tall grassy field next to the runway quickly blur as the rumble behind my back built. The air pressure rose inside the cockpit, getting more forceful and noisy. Feeling myself being forced back into my seat, we became airborne within a few seconds.

Climbing away from the runway smoothly, Chip pulled the throttle out of afterburner and raised the landing gear handle. A few seconds later after the landing gear clunked home, the aircraft violently lurched up as I experienced my first four-g climb out. Whoa! I hadn’t expected that. A four-g pitch up following an afterburner launch and my body really felt it! Weighing nearly 200 pounds, I had the force of 800 pounds on my body as we went through that maneuver. And this was only beginning! The feeling was over as quickly as it began, as we started the quick climb to our cruising altitude of 18,000 feet. We couldn’t go any higher because of my status as a passenger who had not gone through the altitude chamber training. While our F-16 had a pressurized cockpit, as a safety of flight measure, nobody was allowed to fly above 18,000 feet unless they had an “altitude card.”

We quickly leveled out and headed west, toward the Gulf of Mexico. Looking to my left, I saw our wingman positioned a half mile off our wing. What a sight! The F-16 is a beautiful aircraft, but seeing it from this new perspective, in flight for the first time—it was downright gorgeous. We bounced along at 350 knots, with small puffy clouds floating by on this marvelous November morning over central Florida. I couldn’t have asked for a better memory. Chip told me that if I looked down and to my right, I could see Disney World.

I was so out of my element that I couldn’t see it, but I replied to him, “You mean over there, by that body of water?”

“Uh, yeah.”

I immediately felt like a fool for saying that nonsense. Anyone who has ever flown over central Florida knows that there are practically more bodies of water than actual land. Lakes and rivers dotted the landscape everywhere in Florida. Anyway, we were on a mission, and the Gulf Coast loomed ahead.

When we were over the coast, it was time to begin the tactical part of the mission, finding the bombing range. Our F-16 was not equipped with the gadgets of today like global positioning system. Instead, pilots navigated using three methods: inertial navigation set or INS, tactical air navigation or TACAN, and their eyeballs. The INS is a gyroscope and computer that provides precision navigation across the Earth. In this system, the pilot has to tell the INS where it is located on the Earth prior to taxiing, by keying in the coordinates of where the aircraft is sitting. The INS gyroscope and computer align to compute acceleration and thus, its present position over the Earth. TACAN is navigation by radio. The aircraft tunes to an air or ground based station that transmits a pulse every so often. The aircraft TACAN receiver/transmitter or R/T, receives this pulse and uses the data to compute heading and slant range to the station. Both navigation results are displayed on the horizontal situation indicator or HSI.

Chip warned me that we were about to maneuver, and then promptly rolled our jet onto its back, upside down at 18,000 feet, and pulled on the side stick controller. Another g-loading I didn’t expect! We pointed ourselves straight down toward the gulf, airspeed rising through 400 knots. He continued the pull, and leveled out around 5,000 feet heading in the opposite direction. We had just performed a combat descent, and now we were headed east. Once we passed over a few towns, we continued our descent until we were at 1,000 feet over sparsely populated land.

We screamed along the trees at 400 knots, our wingman at our side, looking for a set of train tracks. Yes, train tracks. Chip had briefed to his wingman before the mission that they will be using a set of train tracks as a landmark as they began their turn into the initial point or IP. The IP was from where we would begin our attacks on the target. Chip called to our wingman, Viper Two, on the secondary radio.

“Two, do you see the tracks?”

“Negative…wait. There they are, off to our left!” he replied.

“I see them now,” said Chip. He then commanded the flight toward the landmark. “Viper, hook left. Come to three-five-zero.”

Our wingman quickly responded his acknowledgement of the command with a crisp, “Two.”

Both jets banked ninety degrees left and roared across the tree tops, coming onto the new course. The train tracks flashed by. I spotted a blue 1956 Ford pickup truck parked in a driveway. It flashed by. What a rush, zooming along at over 400 knots near treetop level!

There it was: Avon Park Air Force Range. The range was a large expanse of barren land with various targets positioned here and there for bombing and gunnery practice.

The part of the range that we were heading to looked like a mile diameter circle painted on the ground with two intersecting lines through the middle of the circle. In the middle of this “crosshair” was our target: a large truck. We were going to make twelve passes on this target with the hopes of scoring a shack each time, with our twenty-five-pound practice bombs. We checked in with the range control officer and orbited a few miles away while another two-ship of F-16s completed their attacks.

“Avon, this is Viper, a two-ship F-16, each with twelve BDU-33s and a hot gun. Checking in,” Chip announced.

“Viper, Avon, I have you visual. I copy your load out, but unfortunately the strafe range is closed today.”

“Avon, Viper, what about the dune buggy?”

“Sorry, Viper, dune buggy is bent.”

“Viper copies.” Chip then made some really painful noises into our intercom. He was extremely disappointed that we would not be shooting the gun today, especially at something as special as a moving target. Oh well, time to get down with the other business at hand.

We were cleared in hot, and as the flight lead, we positioned ourselves for the first attack. Our two F-16s entered the range at a few thousand feet, with our wingman positioned across the circle that we were making in the sky. From above, it would look like the two F-16s were orbiting in a giant circle with their left wings pointing at each other, one aircraft attacking while the other was preparing to attack. We approached the area with the target on our left side, and when the parameters were right, we went up. “One’s up!” Chip radioed. We climbed for about four seconds. “One’s in!” We rolled left and pulled really hard, headed toward the target in a forty-five-degree dive. As I watched from the back-seat HUD repeater, Chip lined up the continuously computed impact point “pipper” onto the target and thumbed the weapons release “pickle” button. The flight path marker, which represented our aircraft on the HUD, flashed quickly as the bomb was released from the aircraft.

After releasing the bomb, he pulled up violently, putting five g’s on us. I was getting used to it now, as I flexed and groaned against the g’s. We climbed for a couple of seconds, and quickly rolled back to the left. He looked over his left shoulder and watched the bomb strike its target. “Shack!” He called over the radio. We leveled out and started setting up for our next run as the white plume of smoke dissipated from the torn-up target.

While we were setting up for the next run, I could see our wingman attacking the target. “Two’s up…Two’s in!” His jet smoothly executed its own dive attack just as we had twenty seconds before. “Shack!”

Our flight attacked the target from different dive angles with different aiming and delivery techniques for the next fifteen minutes or so. Following one of our attacks, Chip asked me if I would like to see how many g’s we could pull. “Hell yes! Let’s do it!” was my reply. He extended our flight path a little farther out to maintain our timing for our next run and said, “Okay, here we go, rolling left,” he said. He rolled the aircraft ninety degrees to the left, and then quickly pulled back on the stick, guiding the nose through an extremely tight, 360-degree circle.

This maneuver lasted about ten seconds, and was the longest sustained g-force we experienced in the flight. The aircraft shook and vibrated in response to the commanded maneuver, and the wing tips fluttered up and down. Air rushed across the strake, where the wing meets the fuselage, and was whipped up into a white smoke. These contrails poured violently across the top of the wing and dissipated behind us. The g’s weighed mightily on my body. I was forced down into my seat extremely hard, my arms dead against my lap. I tried to lift them but they just slapped back into my lap. The oxygen mask tugged painfully at my nose and cheeks, my eyes bulged and my eyelids drooped. This was putting the hurt on me!

I began doing my g-straining maneuver, grunting with all my might, flexing every muscle in my body. The g-suit had blown up like a balloon, squeezing my legs and stomach like a vice. But I still began to lose consciousness. My g-straining wasn’t working! I could see a gray void surrounding my vision, creating a circle of gray around the cockpit instrument cluster that I was staring at. Experiencing this “tunnel vision” was as if I was looking through a paper towel tube at the instruments in front of me. The circle contracted smaller and smaller to the point where I could only see the three-inch diameter HSI. Wishing this torture would soon end, Chip finally leveled out, completing our circle in the sky. Instantly, the gray vision whooshed toward my face and was gone. I had made it! I looked at the HUD repeater in front of me and found the g readout. We had sustained 6.6 g’s of force in that circle. With no external stores like bombs and fuel tanks, the jet is rated at nine g’s. But since we had bombs and tanks, the jet was limited to seven. We almost made it to seven g’s, but man was that a tough feeling. My body had weighed more than 1200 pounds!

We quickly got back on track and finished our bombing practice. Chip was still fuming about not being able to shoot that buggy as we headed back to base. Prior to heading back, we performed another maneuver called a battle damage check. This was nothing more than flying very close to the underside of our wingman to make sure he had no “hung” bombs or any other types of damage that may have occurred during our attacks at the range. This was a pretty cool sight, flying directly under our wingman, close enough to see the hydraulic stains and scratches from all of the maintenance that had been done to the jet. Neither of us had damage or hung bombs, so off to Patrick AFB we went.

Flying along at 18,000 feet as I watched our wingman float in the sky beside us, I began to feel queasy. Pulling g’s actually felt good, because my insides were being pulled down and held there. Simply flying straight and level was the part that bothered me the most. When we flew straight and level, especially after doing all of that physical work on the range, we bounced and buffeted along, with my insides doing the same. I pulled my glove back and held my wrist in front of the ball cooler. This seemed to help a little bit, but I was beginning to not like this at all. It was then that Chip asked me the question I had been waiting for.

“Mitch, do you want to fly it?” he said.

“Yes sir, I’d love to!” I replied.

“Okay, you have the jet.” With a flick of a switch, he had given control over to me.

It immediately began “porposing” which is a term for swimming like a porpoise, up and down, up and down. He explained to me that the flight controls were very sensitive to any movement of my hand on the side stick controller. The F-16 is called the Electric Jet because its flight controls are governed by a computer. It only takes a slight amount of pressure on the side stick to effect movement of the aircraft. In a sense, the pilot merely has to think of what he wants to do, and the aircraft responds. That is how sensitive it is. I started concentrating on keeping us on the correct altitude, while watching the HSI to keep us on the course home. I forgot all about getting sick.

Chip gave me instructions on which course to fly and when to change altitudes. I didn’t know he had been talking with Air Traffic Control the whole time, and was responding to their instructions of course and altitude changes. I simply flew the jet where he told me to fly it, following my cues on the HSI and altimeter. I flew it for about fifteen minutes like this until he said, “Okay, I have the jet.”

“You have the jet,” I replied. I let go of the flight controls and looked outside. There was our wingman, ten feet off of our right wing. I don’t know how long he had been there, but he had definitely closed formation from what I had been seeing thus far in the flight. What a beautiful sight!

We were approaching Patrick AFB; I had flown us all the way back to the base. I looked over to the wingman, marveling at the beauty of his aircraft as he flew off of our wing across the airfield, level at 2,400 feet. He was looking right at me the whole time; well, he was looking at his flight lead, not me. But he did make a gesture to me as I was staring back at him. He pointed straight ahead with his left hand, jabbing at the air with a pointed finger. As soon as I turned my head toward the front, we broke left into a four-g turn in preparation for landing. It was a good thing the wingman pointed to me to look forward, because if my head was facing over my right shoulder and we banked to the left at four g’s, I could have injured my neck.

We circled around the base and touched down on the runway, rolling out to a full stop.

As we taxied back to our parking space, I started feeling queasy again and began sweating profusely. All of the bumping and bouncing as we taxied back had started to bother me. Also, the feeling of claustrophobia had returned in full force, due to the canopy remaining closed. I was ready to get out of this thing, and thankfully we made it to the parking space and shut the engine down. Watching the canopy open was a great feeling, and with the fresh air hitting me, I started to feel better almost immediately.

The crew chief put the ladder up for me first, and I happily gave him my helmet. I also waved my empty puke bag to all of the maintainers who had gathered to see how many chunks I had blown. When Chip climbed out of the jet, he told the crew chief that he was code-3 for TACAN. Code-3 meant the aircraft was grounded until it could be repaired. Why hadn’t I noticed the TACAN had failed? TACAN was one of my systems, and I was disappointed in myself that I did not recognize that the failure had occurred. I guess I was too busy with everything that had been going on that I could miss seeing the failure. When my coworkers came over to talk with the pilot about the failed TACAN system, I stepped up. “Hey, this is my jet. I broke it, and now I’m gonna fix it. Don’t touch it.” The supervisor hemmed and hawed about that statement. But I told him, “Please let me go in and change out of this flight suit, and I’ll come back out and replace the TACAN R/T. Just have someone go get a new one for me.” I continued, “I broke this airplane, and I want to fix it. This is my jet.” He laughed and told me that I could fix it, but that I had to be quick about it since it was scheduled to fly again that afternoon.

Chip came up to me as we stepped to the crew van. “Did you enjoy the flight?”

“Hell yes, and thank you so much for taking me along.” This was a once in a lifetime opportunity, to ride on the World’s Greatest Roller Coaster. I thanked him profusely, and said that I appreciated him for letting me go along on his mission. I then asked if he needed me to be in the debrief, and he said I didn’t need to be there. I said good, because I need to fix this jet that we broke. Together we hopped into a van and were whisked off to the squadron. He then went over to the debrief room where he and the wingman would talk about the mission they just accomplished, and I changed back into my uniform.

I quickly reported back to the flight line, and the TACAN R/T was waiting for me at my aircraft. I got my tools and climbed up onto its backbone and sat down right behind the cockpit I had just occupied. As I removed the screws from the panel covering the faulty component, I stared down at the rear cockpit and ran the experiences of the flight through my mind. I needed to commit to memory, every moment of that marvelous adventure. I finished opening the panel, exposing the faulty TACAN R/T, and quickly replaced it. The aircraft was returned to service that afternoon, flying once again with a new pilot and passenger, happily delivering practice bombs to a beaten-up old truck on a bombing range in Central Florida.

• • •

I love telling that story, but how could it possibly relate to the art of leadership? Remember that leadership is influencing people toward a common goal. The difficult part to this is how does one convince their people to want to go toward that goal? This is a very common question in companies today. Several methods are available to us to realize this goal, such as practicing situational leadership and using the five powers in leadership (legitimate, coercive, reward, expert and referent). Another option is simply utilizing effective communication with those who we are to lead. This is a rather broad statement, but what I am referring to is actually showing our people how they fit into an organization. Showing them how they contribute, and how their efforts effect the entire operation. What I experienced in the back seat of that F-16 showed me how I fit into the overall operation.

By experiencing first hand exactly what a fighter pilot goes through was quite an education. It showed me, as a relatively new employee and follower, exactly what was involved in performing the mission. I experienced exactly what fighter pilots endure and how these aircraft perform. It showed me how I fit in the overall scheme of things, and how my efforts contributed to the overall mission. I had climbed out of that aircraft and told my coworkers to leave it alone, that I broke it so I was going to fix it. In that hour and a half of flying in a jet fighter, I learned just how important my contributions were to the success of our mission. The experience made me feel like I had a better grasp on what was involved to be successful in completing the mission, and made me feel like my contributions mattered.

I felt like my contributions mattered, it’s as simple as that. As a young follower, I felt like what I was doing each and every day was worthwhile. I felt like I was making a difference! I believe this single experience helped to shape me into becoming more successful in my Air Force career. It helped me grow as a leader, because I had learned how to become a good follower. Seeing how my contributions effected the overall success of the unit, and experiencing firsthand what our customer (the fighter pilot) experienced on a daily basis, I got a better picture of how I fit in. There are a lot of ways to show our employees how they fit in, and they don’t have to fly in a fighter jet to learn it.

Numerous methods exist how to show employees how they contribute to the mission. I’ve been involved in something that was called an immersion program, where we swapped employees with one of the avionics repair shops on the flight line. The people in the repair shops had never gone onto the flight line, and those of us from the flight line had never seen the inside of the repair shop. I was given the opportunity to spend a week learning what they did to the aircraft computers after we turned them in for repair. I learned how they fit into the overall mission and how their contributions made our unit successful. Conversely, they came out into the sunlight and enjoyed a week with us on the flight line around these loud, beautiful flying machines. Most didn’t want to go back inside, but alas, everyone has their place in an organization. The immersion program was effective at showing everyone how their efforts contributed to the success of the unit. But something like this requires some logistical planning. It doesn’t have to be that involved, however. Managers and leaders don’t have to go to these lengths to show people how they contribute.

We can show our employees how they fit in in many ways. An employee doesn’t have to be proclaimed a “Manager for a Day” or anything like that (although I have done something like that before). The manager simply has to include the employees in discussions about their part of the company and how their efforts affect the bottom line. Bring employees into production meetings. Or, rather than bringing employees into the big meetings which could become distracting, one could simply call a monthly meeting with their coworkers or subordinates and show them a few slides on how they contribute. Show them exactly how their efforts make the eye-catching graphs on the metrics rise and fall. Don’t think of it as simply a “Death by PowerPoint” display, but a genuine inclusion to the employee on how they fit in and how they contribute to the cause. It’s as simple as that, effective communication.

It all boils down to that. Properly utilizing effective communication techniques, and in this case, simply bringing them into a meeting and showing them how they contribute to the success of the organization, will eventually make a difference in the employee’s outlook. This in turn will make a difference in how the organization progresses toward a common goal. As leaders, we are always trying to influence our followers to want to go toward the common goal. Using techniques like giving them a ride in the backseat of a high-performance jet fighter, establishing an immersion program, or simply inviting them to a monthly production meeting, will help to realize that goal.

About The Author:

The above article was written by Mitch Boling. Mitch retired from the USAF after 25 years as an F-16 maintainer. In his career he was fortunate enough to fly in this jet three times, and he documents all three experiences in his book, Leadership: A View From The Middle (found on Amazon). It’s a book about leadership, but it is full of his experiences flying in and working on the F-16.

Disclaimer: The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

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2 Responses

  1. Grant McHerron says:

    I know what you mean about pulling G’s in a turn: I had the fun of pulling 8G in a 270 degree turn in an Extra 200 and remember screwing up my “hook” and starting to fade out. Amazing time. I dream of getting to do the F-16 9G turn 🙂

    • Hi Grant, I never made it to 9Gs in my three flights, but I think I had enough at 7.8g on one of my other flights. It was very physical and a true workout. I was fortunate to fly in that beautiful aircraft three times in my career. What a rush!


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