One of the key lessons that I have learned over the years as a test pilot is that the success of any team or organization is contingent on strong leadership with core values.  Teams need an environment of trust as well as a transparent and ‘safe workplace’ to openly identify challenges and get to the bottom of problems, most importantly, learn from each other’s mistakes. With these traits, we can create powerful, effective, and ultimately very successful organizations. One of the most serious threats to an extremely cohesive functional team is toxicity. Toxic leadership can destabilize the ability of a test flying unit to operate safely. A toxic work environment erodes the ‘team’ and in the world of experimental test flying (maybe one of the most dangerous environments that exists), it can kill people.

I’d like to share a time in my career where toxicity put me in a very interesting and career impacting fork in the road; a ticking time bomb, that almost exploded.

Some personal background.  Some of you are likely familiar with the great Santini. I grew up in a world where I lived with a ticking time bomb, in a family filled with violence. My father was the Canadian version of “The Great Santini.” For those of you not familiar, ‘Santini’ was the Marine Lieutenant Colonel character from the book and movie of the same name by Tim Conroy. Santini was an alcohol-fueled, domestically violent fighter pilot. In our household growing up, we lived with fear-based parenting, always waiting for the next explosion and violent outbreak which kept everyone on their toes and fending for themselves.  It was personal survival versus functional family.

So fast forward to 2011 in the early days of F-35 flight testing at NAS Pax River in Maryland, we had our own version of Santini’s anger in our midst.

Life was not good at the F-35 Integrated Test Force (ITF) at Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River (Pax River). The F-35 program was way, way late, proving far costlier than promised and the jet was not working. At Pax River, where we were to test the F-35 B and C models, flight test progress was cripplingly slow. After the many delays which had played out in the media, the Lockheed Martin and US government leaders agreed to bring in a retired US Air Force Colonel as the new leader of the Lockheed Martin contractor team. People didn’t work for him, they worked under him. He was a workaholic, ran his fiefdom with free reign, answered only to schedules and sacrificed the men and women who worked under him to accomplish his goals.  He wasn’t a pilot, had no experience in flight testing but had run military acquisition programs in the past.   As a non-flyer, he had a special dislike for pilots who likely had haunted him throughout his non-flying career.

On the government side, the Commanding Officer (CO) of the US Navy test squadron was a US Marine Corps Colonel, a Harrier pilot who had a special distaste for civilian contractor test pilots and distrust of the F-35 civilian contractor team. His perceived authority over all the F-35 test pilots was that we flew the F/A-18 Hornets as chase aircraft for our test F-35s and those Hornets were part of his squadron. He thought he owned us, acted like it, but didn’t.

Culture starts at the top, and so my troubles began…

The F-35 ITF test pilot team mix was unique. There were civilian test pilots, four from Lockheed Martin and two Brits from BAE, mixed with military test pilots from the US Navy, US Marine Corps and Royal Air Force / Navy. The test piloting experience within this group was vastly different. Some of the military test pilots were fresh out of test pilot school with no real-world flight test experience while many of the contractor test pilots had decades of flight-testing history. This should have made a very effective test pilot team; however it was just the opposite.

A series of flying and judgement mistakes by my peer civilian test pilots at Pax River prompted the Marine Colonel to summon us all for an in-person lecture in his office. One BAE test pilot had been investigated when he was filmed making a vertical landing of the brand-new F-35 with his hands in the air showing that it could be done without the pilot’s help.  It had been an irresponsible stunt. One LM test pilot had been on ‘double secret probation’ time and time again for incredible mental errors when flying. Collectively, the test pilot group had made errors handling the F/A-18s under the Colonel’s command.  As a long time Hornet pilot with 2,000 hours in the jet, I had more time flying the F/A-18 than anyone in that Navy test squadron; hence I wasn’t prone to making rookie mistakes at this stage in my career. That did not matter, we were all lectured on professionalism, airmanship and our careers threatened.

When aircraft accidents are analyzed, one of the analysis tools used to model the contributing factors is called the Swiss Cheese Model. Each contributing factor in a flying event is like a slice of Swiss Cheese and a problem in any of those factors is represented by a hole in the slice of cheese.  The model says that if the holes in the slices of Swiss Cheese (which all have holes in them) line up and you can see through with all the slices stacked up, that’s when an accident happens. If any one of those slices does not line up, then all the contributors to an accident are not present and we end up with a close call, but not a devastating accident.

By late 2011, the Swiss Cheese model was starting to line up.  We had all the elements leading to an accident including an exceptionally toxic work environment, complete loss of trust within our peer group, loss of confidence in individual flying abilities and intimidation from higher authority at a level I have never witnessed in my many decades of flying. Human error is the most common contributor to aircraft accidents.  Pilots make mistakes and are especially at risk when the work environment is dysfunctional and toxic.

What was at risk?  An accident in a prototype, one-of-a-kind F-35 test aircraft would have been complete loss of US government support for the F-35 development, very likely cancellation of some part of the program and certainly a devastating blow to the chances of the F-35 enterprise succeeding.

All of this dysfunction led one of my peer LM test pilots to relay this info to a pair of US Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel test pilots in our group. Like good loyal Marine Corps officers, they promptly told their Colonel who immediately went ‘postal’ and kicked his foot through a wall down the hall from our squadron offices. His outburst brought back childhood memories of the ‘Santini’ reaction I grew up with.

The ‘Hole in the Wall’ outburst and news raced through the unit like a brush fire. Kicking a hole in a wall is not, in itself, much of a story. But as a Marine Corps Colonel in 2011, that type of behavior was not acceptable, especially in an era of extreme sensitivity with respect to workplace harassment and violence in the workplace.  Workplace issues within LM were highlighted by a real-world event.  In 2003, an LM employee at a company facility in Meridian, Mississippi shot 14 of his co-workers, killing 6 of them. There was and still is mandatory annual training warning all LM employees to be vigilant for signs of people exhibiting workplace violence and to de-escalate as soon as possible. However in this case, the LM ITF Director ordered that the hole in the wall be covered up, patched over, and painted (after unapproved clandestine photos of the damage had been taken and shared amongst the employees). I suspect that he wanted to cover up the Marine Colonel’s incident before it caught outside attention.

Trust and Transparency are critical elements of a safe and effective workplace.  Toxicity erases both.  I call this the ‘3 T’s’.  Without trust and transparency, the Swiss Cheese model has even greater opportunity to ‘line up.’  I was truly concerned about the flight safety of our organization and the impact this leader was having on us.

I had an extensive network of colleagues through my many years as a test pilot and decided to connect with a classmate from test pilot school who was a mentor to the Marine Colonel.

I texted my classmate on a Wednesday morning in early December 2011, and told him that when he was home the following weekend, we should meet for beers to talk. He asked why I needed to talk to him, following LM training protocol with respect to workplace violence and de-escalation, I texted back that his protege had kicked a hole in the wall at the ITF and that we needed to defuse this situation. I was not blowing the whistle on the event but instead knew that we needed to defuse it and valued the insights from my former classmate on how best to manage this.

An important lesson I’ll write about in an upcoming blog, one of my mistakes was trusting that an executive military leader would do the right thing. Not always the case!

Instead of waiting to talk to me, my classmate called the Colonel to ask him directly what had happened. After that call, the Marine Colonel immediately called the ITF Director who then marched down to my office and ordered me to leave the workplace.  All of this happened within 30 minutes of the texts to my classmate.

I couldn’t be fired; I had not done anything wrong or illegal.  However, I would suffer some serious repercussions.  I became a scapegoat and was removed from the F-35 ITF and based in Fort Worth Texas.  This meant living the life of a commuter, travelling from my home at Pax River to Fort Worth, Texas to work and fly. living out of a Texas hotel for the next 2 ½ years.

The follow-on effect of my dismissal had an unintended consequence. With all eyes now on the Marine Colonel, he was forced to back down from the persecution of the test pilot team.  Most importantly, the explosiveness had been diffused at the ITF.  The tyrannical behavior subsided and the ‘holes in the Swiss Cheese’ were no longer lining up.

Why did I send those texts in the first place?

I had grown up around the Santini effect and the terror that came from domestic violence.  As I grew older, I learned to stand up to that violence. I also knew that toxicity from that kind of Leader lording over test pilots eroded the trust and transparency that our flying unit needed to continue to operate and fly safely.  I would never have forgiven myself if I had not intervened to diffuse things and instead watched an aircraft accident happen with human error linked to the toxicity of the workplace.

There is a silver lining to this story.  The career I led for the 2+ years commuting, and the powerful personal leadership lessons I learned, served me well for the next decade. I was lucky enough to become involved with the F-35 Business Development campaigns and the Communications experts of the F-35 team.  I began flying F-35 test flights in Texas to gain experience in the jet and travelled around the world supporting the many F-35 sales and marketing campaigns. It was the start of a decade as the global spokesman for the largest defense program in history. Lemons out of Lemonade, I would never have broadened beyond the test pilot world had the exile not been imposed during those years.

When I finally returned to Pax River, personalities had changed with a new group of military test pilots posted to the ITF. With this new team, I built friendships and bonds that have lasted through the years. The Marine Colonel had long since retired.  The LM ITF Director was replaced by a leader who knew how to focus on personnel and to care for his organization.  The ITF culture had changed for the better and ultimately safer.

What to learn from this:

  1. Simple, Clear and Wrong – The Marine Colonel was very clear in his frustration with the F-35 program’s lack of progress. Instead of focusing his energy on how to lead the F-35 program to recover from its stumbles and to move forward, he expended enormous energy unleashing his anger on the personnel who were expected to conduct the high-risk test flying.  The emotional instability of the highest-ranking military officer did not set a tone for success and instead nearly contributed to an accident.  He had very clear thinking and a plan of attack to a problem understood in very simple terms; except it was all wrong.  What that Colonel needed to do was to move beyond his personal animosity and rid the test pilot operations from toxicity; not contribute to it.
  2. Sometimes the Right Reasons have the Wrong Consequences – I knew that we were going to have an accident. Pilots were tripping up doing the simplest of flying tasks, incorrectly reacting to aircraft emergencies, and making bone-headed decisions in the cockpit.  Test pilots had lost confidence in their own abilities, distrust had spread across the entire group with men flying together second guessing each other in the air.  The Swiss Cheese holes were lining up.  My attempt to discuss the issue with a neutral player, my classmate 2-star Admiral, was precisely what I should have done.  However, the ill-advised call from the Admiral to the Colonel and the brush fire that ensued failed to have the effect that I intended.  Instead of diffusing the situation, I became the scapegoat to deflect attention.
  3. Fated to Make that Choice – I spent many years learning from the many, many aircraft accidents in the test pilot world. I knew all the contributors to those accidents.  I could never just stay silent and allow bad things to happen.  One of the key takeaways from my own CF-5 landing accident was to never again sit back and not challenge authority when I knew something was wrong.  In the Pax River ITF case, we were about to have an accident.  I grew up a son of ‘Santini.’  How could I not step in, after a lifetime of lessons reading about how pilots had failed to intervene, speak up and act when they sensed something bad was about to happen?  In many respects, I was fated to make that decision to contact my classmate and to ride out the fallout when it didn’t go the way I had expected.  I did not enjoy the 2 years of commuting each week back and forth from Maryland to Texas but if I had not made that call, and the accident had happened, what would I have said to myself then?
  4. The 3 T’s: Toxicity erases Trust and Transparency – Standing up to the Santini effect had to happen before we had an accident. These values apply in all of our workplaces, not just in the high-risk flight test world. Leaders and authorities who contribute to toxic work environments need to be challenged and neutralized and we should never allow ourselves to be victims of them. None of us should ever back down and we should not allow ourselves to be censored.  We all need to speak up and intervene when faced with these situations.

I have a saying from my fighter pilot world: “A squadron is a place and a time.”  It means that our work world is really dependent on the leadership, culture, chemistry of the team where we world; that is not always present, nor does it stay forever.  I came to the ITF when it was a toxic, dysfunctional organization and left when it was a highly efficient, enormously successful enterprise.  I watched very effective civilian and military leadership direct a diverse mix of professionals to execute high risk testing day in and day out without crashing a plane or killing anyone.  I witnessed the maturing of young test pilots in the most technically challenging, highest pressure test program in history.  To see their skills evolve, watching their hard work pay off as the F-35 program turned itself around and succeeded was unique and highly rewarding.  I was blessed to see the best of people at the toughest of times.

Was it worth it to stay the course?  I lived through the turnaround of the F-35 program and its exit from purgatory to success.  In my career, I have worked on many different flight test programs in many countries; a number of which were not very successful.  I bet many years ago that the F-35 was going to be the success that was promised.  Looking back now, it was worth it to bet on the right horse; that horse won.