Lessons from Friends #1: Team Building
Photo caption: Rich “Tex” Coe, Jim “Scoop” van Loben Sels, Pat “Wedge” Penland and me — The Crew of The Millennium — in Las Vegas!
I recently retired from the military. As we were preparing for the retirement, many of our long-time friends began reaching out to wish us well. Some of these also made the trip to Bossier City, LA, to join us for the celebration. As is tradition, at the end of the retirement ceremony the one retiring makes a few remarks, typically of thanks to those who supported the retiree during their career. As I reflected on my nearly 30 years of service, I was overwhelmed with gratitude to so many for their impact on me, helping me throughout my career. It dawned on me that in my remarks, I should tell a few stories to highlight those who made such a positive mark on my career and life, and would be in attendance so I could look them in the eye when doing so.
The first of these stories is about one of my aircraft commanders (AC) when I was flying the B-1 at Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota. This was the early 90s, and I was a co-pilot on my first Air Force assignment after pilot training. Young and impressionable, in my mid-20s, I was very excited to be flying the newest bomber in our service, and one of the youngest pilots to do so. My AC was Pat “Wedge” Penland, a humble and talented pilot who had a few years of flying under his belt.
Our crew had two brand new aviators, including me, and two more experienced. We were off to the Air Force’s premier combat training exercise (see https://www.nellis.af.mil/About/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/284176/414th-combat-training-squadron-red-flag/), and I couldn’t wait to fly in the big leagues!
Wedge knew he had his work cut out for him. Flying in Red Flag is very demanding, and thankfully our squadron had a robust spin-up program to ensure we were ready when we arrived in Las Vegas. For about three months, we took general knowledge tests, flew practice simulator flights, and also flew actual B-1 flights in the area around South Dakota. It was a lot of preparation, but I had heard the stories of aviators breaking the Red Flag rules and getting sent home, and I didn’t want to be one of those guys. And, even worse, in the dangerous business we were in, I wanted to make sure I did everything I could to ensure we were safe and came home to our loved ones in one piece. Of course, I never really thought about the fact that Wedge, as the AC, was ultimately responsible for what happened with the jet. But he did!
As I think back, Wedge was wise well beyond his years. He knew how to work hard and play hard, and importantly, how to build a team. The B-1 is a crew of four, and as I previously mentioned, two of us were still wet behind the ears! Wedge knew he needed to invest in us BEFORE we got to Las Vegas and it was “go time.” The training in the squadron would help, but it wasn’t sufficient. He needed to build his team. So, in an effort to get to know one another better, Wedge and his amazing wife Tawnya started having get-togethers at their house. Informal, lots of food, and our spouses were included. Our leader knew this was integral to strengthening his team. Not only would those of us wearing the uniform become closer, so would our loved ones. And wow, as I look back over 30 years, how critical that is. We moved around from house to house throughout the following months, having a great time enjoying each other’s company. These were some of the fondest memories of my career. And in the process, Wedge and Tawnya grew a team, and made life-long friends.
This experience had an enormous impact on a young man and young couple. I was newly married, and new to the Air Force, and I thought this was just how it was done. I was to find out later that this is not always the case, and the Penlands had it right. My wife felt included, and had a more experienced spouse to turn to and mentor her. This was extremely valuable as we started having kids, and I began to deploy. My wife was new to the Air Force, and we were both new to marriage. Who do you reach out to during difficult times? Those you have a relationship with. And when you are my wife, truly 1,000 miles from a home she had never left until meeting me, she needed someone like Tawnya. And I needed someone like Wedge. And
neither of us knew it. But they did.
After this time together as a crew, we were off to Las Vegas. And we were ready. The flying was some of the absolute best in my now 4,000+ hours of flying. We clicked as a crew, and Wedge led us like a pro. We did well, and won some awards. At one point we decided we had to be the best B-1 crew there, and affectionately named ourselves the “Crew of the Millennium.” Why? To this day none of the four of us are sure, but it caught on, despite the self-proclamation. We prepared well, worked hard, and it payed off. We also played hard, and Wedge made sure we stayed out of trouble.
This is where I learned about being a good Wingman, and having each other’s back. We are human and imperfect, and we all need buddies who will look out for one another. Teambuilding is a topic of much writing and training. The Air Force invests heavily in this for obvious reasons. You can read a lot of books and attend numerous seminars, but putting that knowledge into practice is a skill in and of itself. This skill has one main ingredient – taking the time to show others you care. Wedge taught me this, which I grabbed and paid forward. I love our Airmen, and that care translated into action over and over again during my career. It was a great run, which began with one of the best examples I have ever seen.
Wedge, thanks for caring.