Lessons from Friends #5: Trust Your Gut
It was an honor when I grabbed the wing guidon from my boss and said, “Sir, I assume command!”
I had been in the Air Force for 26 years and 15 moves.
Married my soulmate.
Had two great kids.
One crazy dog.
Lost my Grandfather, who would have been so proud.
My father was dying of Alzheimer’s (and although we didn’t know at the time, only had a year left alive). He would have been proud as well, but wasn’t able to understand what was happening.
It was an awesome day. Back in Missouri for the third time. Now, as the Commander of the 509thBomb Wing and Whiteman Air Force Base.
I was honored, nervous, grateful, and ready to lead the talented men and women of the unit my Grandfather started. And with it, ended a terrible war.
He was Commander #1. I was #45.
Unbeknownst at that time, during my Command we were taking the B-2 back to combat. The last time was in 2011 during Operation ODYSSEY DAWN for strikes in Libya.
Six years later, we were called on again.
My boss at the time was Maj Gen Tom Bussiere, Commander, Eighth Air Force. We had served together off and on for 20 years, including multiple times in the B-2. We knew each other well.
And had flown together in combat in 1999 during Operation ALLIED FORCE.
Tom is a gifted leader and good friend. I considered him a close mentor throughout my career, and relied on his sage advice on a number of occasions.
He once told me, “Nuke, always trust your gut. The Air Force has trained you well over the years. Rely on your experience and sound judgment when facing difficult and challenging situations.”
Now, in early January of 2017, we were on the cusp of sending the B-2 into combat once again. Although it had been six years since the last time the B-2 was called upon, our team was ready.
I was so proud of them. Exercises, inspections, training…so many times recognized as “best seen to date”, “#1 in Air Force Global Strike Command” and “best in U.S. Strategic Command”.
Despite the time since the last employment in combat, morale was rated “highest in the Command.”
As with any complex operation, some challenges were ahead as we increased our posture.
The date for the mission was dependent on Presidential approval.
Target: two ISIS camps 28 miles southwest of the Libyan port city of Sirte.
It was January in Missouri. An ice storm was coming, right when we needed to be generating our aircraft.
We could load the bombs and re-position the aircraft, but the logistics requirements to operate from a remote location would be exorbitant.
Not a good option.
We could wait the storm out, but if approval came at the front end of the window, we would not have adequate time to generate, which involved moving bombs across some narrow roads specifically designed for this purpose. But they were outside and susceptible to the elements.
Also, not a good option.
We could load the aircraft early, before the storm. However, this also came with risk. With limited aircraft, we had overlapping requirements. When aircraft were dedicated to one mission, they were not available to another.
These include both nuclear and conventional requirements.
But, in this case my gut told me that when looking at risk vs. reward, this was the best option to ensure success.
I called my Boss. He called his. That was the longest five minutes of my life.
By now we had a short time before the ice storm was forecast to hit. We called the team together, gave them their marching orders, and got to work.
My final words: “Team, this is an important mission and we are working against the clock. But, we must keep safety at the forefront. I can’t have anyone getting hurt. You are too valuable. Do your best…I’ve got your back.”
And they performed magnificently. The aircraft were loaded in record time. With no mishaps. And we beat the storm by minutes.
Then we waited. The storm hit. Our mission support professionals were ready, and when it was safe, they cleared the runway and taxiways swiftly.
While our gifted maintenance pros we were readying the aircraft, our operations team was busy building the crew lineup. This was no small task. Our pilots go through a rigorous qualification program. When they graduate, they are mission ready. However, the real experience comes from years of employing the B-2 in a variety of missions.
Depth of experience comes from years of practice.
And, in combat is typically when something unusual happens. Where judgment is required.
Our pilots are well trained. Confident in their abilities. But nothing replaces experience.
When I returned to Whiteman for this tour, it had been eight years since my last operational assignment in the B-2. A lot had changed. The aircraft and weapons had gone through numerous upgrades. And I found that our pilots were busier than ever before in the cockpit.
This weighed heavily in my mind as we began the process of developing the crew lineup.
My operations group commander and I discussed who would be in the primary aircraft. To me, it was an easy decision. Sure, I knew every pilot felt they were ready. That is how I want them to think. Confident.
But, in my gut I knew experience was critical.
And that was our approach. We selected our most experienced pilots and leaders.
Shortly thereafter, the President approved the mission. Go time was at the front of the planned window, and we were ready!
Our teams performed magnificently. From our medics readying our force, to our support personnel ensuring the facilities, ramp and runway were in top shape, to our maintenance pros performing at the top of their game to prepare and load the aircraft.
But what about the aircrew? I did say we needed experienced pilots on board. Why?
When I was growing up, “The Rest of the Story” was a Monday-through-Friday radio program originally hosted by Paul Harvey. Beginning as a part of his newscasts during the Second World War and then premiering as its own series on the ABC Radio Networks on May 10, 1976, “The Rest of the Story” consisted of stories presented as little-known or forgotten facts on a variety of subjects with some key element of the story held back until the end. The broadcasts always concluded with a variation on the tag line “And now you know the rest of the story.”
So, yes, you guessed it, there is more to the story for our aircrew.
The mission lead was one of our squadron weapons officers, paired with his squadron commander. The other aircraft were similarly crewed.
Now, for those unfamiliar, squadron weapons officers are graduates of the prestigious U.S. Air Force Weapons School, which trains tactical experts and leaders to control and exploit air, space and cyber on behalf of the joint force. Every six months, the school graduates approximately 100 weapons officers and enlisted specialists who are tactical system experts, weapons instructors and leaders of Airmen.
Weapons officers serve as advisors to military leaders at all levels, both those in uniform or civilian government positions. Weapons officers are the instructors of the Air Force’s instructors and the service’s institutional reservoir of tactical and operational knowledge. They form a fraternity of trusted advisors and problem-solvers that leads the force and enables it to integrate its combat power seamlessly alongside those of other military services.
In summary – these PhD-level warriors are the best of the best!
And, for this mission, exactly what we needed.
Due to operational security reasons, I can’t get into all the details. But, let’s just say this mission was anything but ordinary.
Halfway across the Atlantic, the crew started to receive new targets. Complicated enough. But in the end, they had nearly a complete mission change.
To be clear – that is reprograming 80 bombs. At 15+ digits each. And, a very intricate level of placement and patterning of those bombs.
Ensuring no error.
While air refueling. Multiple times. With no spare crew members. Just two pilots. Who are flying the aircraft, and navigating, to include avoiding storms in front of them, communicating and coordinating with multiple outside agencies, and reprogramming the bombs.
And, it gets better. At the last minute, nearing the bomb run, they are instructed to change their run-in heading for both aircraft, which involved working multiple levels of deconfliction with other parties involved with the mission.
And yes, they also performed magnificently! They would tell you it was the most challenging mission of their career to that point.
That is why we needed our most experienced and talented pilots on board. And now you know the rest of the story!
I am so proud of them, and everyone who was involved in ensuring their success.
Lt Gen Bussiere, thanks for your mentorship and example. It was an honor to serve for you and with you. Keep leading ‘em well!