It’s not how you fail; it’s how you get back up. I want pilots who have failed and showed the strength to recover and succeed. If they don’t have scars, they don’t have character and when the shit hits the fan, they won’t know what to do and will cave. I want the ones who failed, got back up and moved forward.

Luckily for me, I stumbled early in my flying career and learned invaluable lessons from the experience and moved on. During Ab Initio flight training in the Canadian Air Force flying the Beechcraft Musketeer, I was super keen like everyone else on my course. We studied hard, partied on Fridays as wannabe pilots and learned the very basics of flying. I was a lousy student through those years, a product of inattention and lack of discipline in military college so that I didn’t have the habits to effectively study when it really mattered, like pilot training.  Nonetheless, I was doing OK during that first phase of pilot training; I was certainly a keen student. When it came to the final flying test on the Musketeer, I flew a great practice flight with my instructor and was very confident that I could perform for the final exam. But on the day of my final flight, it all went bad, quickly. The test routine was changed, and my flying ‘hacks’ didn’t work anymore. My problems began to compound as I messed up more and more through the flight. The final straw was having my examiner take control of the plane from me as I was messing up a landing attempt. During the debrief, I knew things had gone badly. I hadn’t passed and I was going to have a Progress Review Board (PRB) of the senior staff to finalize my status and determine what was going to happen to my career. I remember calling my father, a fighter pilot, early that afternoon to tell him that I had failed, crying. He spent the entire phone call trying to console me, but I knew my life’s dream of becoming a fighter pilot were over.

Except, they weren’t.  For some reason, luck shone down on me that day.  When the PRB met, they decided to allow me to proceed to the next phase of pilot training.  My 64.7% score (65% was the passing grade) was compensated for by my good practice flight, good enough academic marks and certainly my keen attitude. I had escaped.

The failure on that day was career-changing in many ways.  If there was ever any notion that I was a ‘gifted’ pilot, the flying exam failure had shattered that idea.  I needed to deal with the reality that I could run into trouble later on down the road in my pilot training.  I had stumbled on Game Day, and I needed to ensure that this would not happen ever again. My practice flight had given me confidence but the next flight, when it really mattered, is where I had made mistake after mistake.  If the PRB members hadn’t been so kind, my flying career would have ended before it began, as was the case for so many wannabe pilots.

Paradigm Change Needed

Lots of pilots are like I was. They are great day-to-day but stumble and fail when the pressure is on. I needed to change the paradigm so that my practices were just that, practice, and that I always was on for Game Day. I prioritized the ‘Money Flights’.  I wouldn’t understand how to articulate the theme until years later, but I knew that the focus had to be on ensuring that I never stumbled on a flight exam, air show performance or high-risk test flight. The emphasis allowed me to understand that everything I did in practice to get ready was just that, practice.  It became okay to make the little mistakes along the way. The stumbles helped keep me humble and served as a constant reminder that I did not possess some unique flying talent or gift.  Just as long as I didn’t screw up the big flights, this philosophy worked.

Years later, I would read Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” and recognize the theme of the ‘10,000-Hour Rule’ essentially stating that endless hours of practice were needed to achieve uniquely successful outcomes. More relevant was the theme presented in the book “Peak” by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. The theme of ‘Deliberate Practice’, training with specific focus and building blocks to succeed was more aligned to the path that I had followed all those years. I wasn’t just doing ‘Sets and Reps’ to practice; instead it took very deliberate, focused training steps to get peak performance.

Elasticity

My practice flight had gone very well but the final test had been an epic fail.  When the flight examiner changed the test profile, I wasn’t prepared and did not adjust as I needed to. I understood that a change of mentality was required. And also that creating a buffer was not merely more ‘Sets and Reps’. Practicing the same routine, assuming that everything would work as expected and honing my nascent skills to execute better was still too narrow in thinking. I had to start practicing worst case scenarios and learn how to react when things went wrong. I might not practice for every eventuality but if I focused on abnormal events, I would create margin in my flying skill set vice the very constrained learning approach that we generally take. And though the non-planned event might not be exactly what I imagined; I would have created ‘elasticity’ for my skill sets such that I would react based on similarity to an unusual situation that I had practiced. Elasticity would become a critical theme throughout my development as a fighter pilot and later test pilot.

One example happened early in my CF-18 days. A software system upgrade to our fleet led to a series of failures of our inertial navigation system (INS) and the flying platform. Instead of having a Heads-Up Display (HUD) to fly with, the INS data was wrong, and we were relegated to flying on back-up instruments that most never practiced with.  On that day, I was flying back to our base in Germany when the navigation system failed, and I lost all the data to my HUD.  I was stuck on a very bad weather day where the clouds at our base were at down to the minimum weather limits acceptable and I was to recover without accurate HUD information. I had worked on a technique in our CF-18 simulator weeks prior learning to fly without the HUD data.  I had only one alternate airport available and it was also having bad weather. So I focused on trying to land at our base in Baden-Soellingen.  I flew 3 approaches with this back-up non-standard technique until I was able to land safely at the minimum weather limits. If I had not developed the backup technique in the simulator weeks before, I am not certain how I would have safely landed the jet.

Many years later, when I created the F-35 Paris Air Show program, I relied on that same mindset. I wanted to practice and execute the most accurate air show flying routine possible, but I also worked daily on nonstandard, never-expected emergencies and learned how to react and recover from them. The elasticity that I created ensured that I would be ready when and if something unexpected and potentially dangerous happened. When I made a mistake during one of the Paris Air Show practices, I reverted to what I had seen in the simulator emergency scenarios. I knew how to get myself out of the situation, recover and continue the airshow sequence.

I contrast this event with one that struck a former Lockheed Martin test pilot colleague years earlier.  During an airshow practice, he had an engine afterburner malfunction and did not discover it until late, didn’t know how to recover, defaulted to an incorrect technique which led to an ejection and loss of a perfectly working fighter. He was permanently injured and, in his case, we witnessed the opposite of ‘elasticity’. In the moment when something didn’t go as planned, he didn’t know what to do.

The great boxer Mike Tyson was quoted as saying “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Flying always goes great until it doesn’t. Most everyone is capable of performing in the air when everything is going well. But what happens when it all goes to shit, and the world is turned upside down? That is what I needed to guard against. My flight exam had gone badly because the conditions had changed otherwise, I would likely have flown a great check ride. But Mike Tyson’s scenario happened to me, and I was unprepared.

Resiliency

I had failed a flying exam and would have to move on with the next phase of training realizing that my skills were not as good as others.  Luckily for me, I had a three-year wait while I completed university studies before the next phase of training. I needed to develop a mindset that would allow me to bounce back from missteps and failures and not lose total confidence.

What often happens to us, when we stumble, is a loss of confidence and self-generated pressure crushes our ability to move beyond the first bad event. In fact, things often cascade as one problem leads to another to yet another until we defeat ourselves mentally long before the actual event. I witnessed this throughout my career as very capable people have one misfortune which then leads to another and so on. I needed to develop the ability to compartmentalize failures, isolate them, learn from a positive sense and move forward. I needed to build ‘resiliency’ if I were to avert the outcomes that had befallen many of my aspiring pilot friends. I certainly did not come from a background of clutch performances. I was not an athlete who handled pressure well and hadn’t been good enough at anything to be considered a high-level performer.

However, I did learn the mental game after that summer’s failure. I learned the skill of positive thinking and to focus on techniques to forget what happened beforehand, good or bad, so that I could focus on the present. I learned to carry an unbeatable belief that I was going to succeed, to dismiss any missteps and to keep focused till the very end. “It’s not over till it’s over” as baseball legend Yogi Berra once said.

I learned a prayer that I said every single flight for 40+ years.  It essentially says: 1. to be safe, 2. to do the best of my ability and 3. if I were safe and had flown the best that I could, to have fun. The effect of that prayer and mindset was to not be focused on the performance while I flew.  Instead, I created resiliency by not allowing my mind to be distracted by the negatives and to keep myself focused from getting behind.

Peak Performance

It is easy to say that one should practice more and that if we put in the work, we will be ready for any test or flight. If nothing else, Sets and Reps will ensure that we have practiced enough and are ready.  Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers’ talked about the ‘10,000 Hour Rule’ which used anecdotes including about how the Beatles practiced and played thousands and thousands of hours early in their career which later helped enable their successes.  Except the 10,000 Hour Rule doesn’t really cover the issue.  True, you have to put in the work.  But repetition doesn’t build capacity or capability.  Instead, the term of ‘Deliberate Practice’, introduced in the book “Peak” by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, better defines what is needed.  Conducting very programmed and deliberate efforts to train, not just repeating known patterns but trying new techniques, doing specific tasks, ensuring that all eventualities are covered is encompassed by this theme.  For a pilot, this means flying simulators and practicing maneuvers and then injecting variables, emergencies, changing the conditions, making the weather worse, making the tasks harder and hopefully building resilience in the skill set.  The goal is to have flown the series so many times with so many variables that when something happens on the Money Flight, there will be no surprises or at least, you will be able to adjust, react and safely figure out how to fly the jet.

Are there cases when pilots could not react in time?  Since the beginning of powered flight, pilots have been forced to react to unplanned events.  Sometimes the pilots were lucky and found a way out, but often the pilots did not react as needed and bad things happened.

That same airshow accident that I referred to earlier was a case where the pilot had not followed the theme of Deliberate Practice, was not prepared for unplanned events and did not know what to do when an emergency occurred.  I cite this case often in my studies of Deliberate Practice, how a trained, very capable test pilot was responsible for the loss of a perfectly good, almost brand-new fighter jet.  The pilot had not put in the work, done the Sets and Reps and especially not done deliberate training to practice emergencies and what to do when things went wrong.

I knew that my focus had to be on Game Day performance and not worry about my progression day-to-day. All around me were amazingly talented pilots from the early days of training through until the end of my career. I couldn’t get distracted by them and let competition and ego keep me from trying to be as good as I could be. I wasn’t going to be able to fly like them day in, day out. What counted was the flights where crucial performance mattered. The ‘Money Flights’: those flight exams early on, air show performances, high-risk test flights and, of course, combat missions. I learned to allow myself the latitude to make the little mistakes often seen only by me and to use them as steps so that when it came to Game Day flights, I would have learned along the way and would be ready to not make mistakes when it really counted.

The best example was the creation of the F-35 air show and the manner in which I prepared for it. Even before Malcolm Gladwell and the 10,000-hour rule from “Outsiders” or “Peak” by Anders Ericsson and Robert Poole brought forth the themes, I had tried to explain how humans can attain high levels of performance and I knew that I had to create a way to develop the unique capacity. What did I do? I looked ahead at the end goals, a final exam or an air show performance and backed up the timeline to plan all the steps to get me ready for the event. Instead of hoping that I was practicing along the way and expecting to be ready, I backed up in time and created the steps to ensure that I had prepared progressively. I worked the problem backwards so that I never missed any of the practice steps. Years later, I would learn how to articulate this as ‘Ambidextrous Thinking’ and would write extensively about the techniques. But even as a young pilot, I figured out how to prepare and was able to Max perform for every crucial event.

Summary

If you live long enough, epic failures like my failed flight exam will happen. The hope is that those especially bad days will occur without some grave consequence; and that we can learn from them. The pilots that I want flying for, and with me, are the ones who have failed, got back up again, learned, and moved on. I want the scars and the growth so that we are more resilient, stronger afterwards.  Warriors aren’t built from shiny Teflon-coated pilots. We are all going to fail. We learn to contain the fallout, do damage control, and not let the mistakes compound themselves. We learn discipline, to compartmentalize mistakes and misfortunes, park them and move on without the baggage.  It is easy to say and hard to do.

Gifted?

A final thought.  I referred to the notion of Gifted, or not.  I don’t believe in it.  For the many, many years that I flew fighters, in all those countries and different jets, I never knew anyone who was ‘Gifted’.  Chuck Yeager used to say that a pilot’s skill was a measure of 3 things: some natural ability, training and experience.  I saw that as the years wore on and pilots progressed in their careers, natural ability was overridden by training and experience.  There was no talk about gifted but rather what pilots had learned in their training and how their experiences helped shape the pilots that they had become.  I can dissect virtually every pilot I have ever been associated with and attribute their successes or failures to steps followed, influenced and rooted in events many years prior but not from some special DNA or God-given ability. Save the notion of Gifted for Hollywood movies.