“Come with me!” My aircraft commander was pointing his finger and gesturing at me, his co-pilot. This was when I was the co-pilot on an elite stan/eval crew at Beale AFB. Some kind of interesting extra duty had just surfaced.
As I hurried to catch up Captain Jackson said, “We’ve need to check out the new DNS mod. We just got our first bird back and it’s up to us to OK it.” This was all news to me. Some agency in the USAF had decided to install radar doppler navigation systems on our KC-135Qs?
“They’ve been putting them on the a’s. Now it’s our turn, I guess.” He said. We made our way out to the tarmac and up into the cockpit. He was just settling in his usual left seat when Jackson frowned.
He looked over at me and said: “OK, what’s wrong with this?” The box had been rigged between the pilot and co-pilot in the exact spot where the radar display usually sat. We use that radar to keep an eye on our fellow aircraft in formation and it clearly marked areas of nasty weather. Someone somewhere had decided to spend a lot of time and effort, not to mention money, for this add-on to improve our ability to navigate. Surely they knew what they were doing, right? I looked around for the radar.
That display now resided over on the right side of the copilot, well out of sight of the aircraft commander.
As I hesitated, thinking about all this and wondering about how it all worked, Captain Jackson said: “The RADAR display Charlie. How the HELL can I see the radar display!? This is unacceptable. We will have to reject this.”
“I, er, um.” Was my main comment. I was still getting my head around the idea that someone had gone to all this trouble to support our mission — and they had wasted time and money because basically, no one had talked to Captain Jackson, or anyone else who routinely flew tankers in formation in the weather on high value operational sorties.
Fast forward to the summer of 1982. I had been just reassigned from pilot duty to join the teams who do this sort of weapon system support. In my case, I had been assigned to Space Division in Systems Command where systems were developed. I could have been assigned to the sister organization Logistics Command where they were maintained and sustained and where the ill-fated KC-135 DNS mode had originated. Indeed, it was only a few years later that the two major commands were merged as they are today.
How did I leave the cockpit?
Maybe this never happens for some. I am thinking of some of my Air Force Academy buddies. But there comes a point in a lot of men’s lives (I can’t speak for the ladies) where they start to look at adventure differently. As 1981 and 1982 approached, I was a different person completely. With the birth of my daughter in 1979 and my son in 1981, I was no longer just a married man. I was a Dad.
In my younger days, the allure of astronauts’ exploits and screaming jets lured me into aerospace and a degree in Astronautical Engineering at the USAF Academy. To oversimplify, a combination of dirty diapers lured me away from that vision. Changing them on my kids and realizing that even the top folks with the RIGHT STUFF led a fairly un-glamorous life most of the time which, in fact, included their own personal dirty diapers inside those glamorous space suits.
In summary, I wanted to be a stable Dad. Home for the family — not off flying to all corners of the world at a moment’s notice simply to obtain the illusion of glamour. Even in civilian life, airline pilots had a several-days-on / several-days-off existence. And they also traveled long distances. So pursuing a pilot career, as many of my AF friends did, did not seem reasonable to me.
Then there was the risk. It is one thing to see your friends die and know you will never let that happen to you. It is another to take that mental frame of mind while playing with your kids — especially since my Dad passed when I was 4 1/2. (For those younger readers, you should realize you are in an unprecedented period of aviation safety which did not exist when I was in the business.)
Fortunately I had the ace in the hole, an engineering degree.
My new plan was to focus on my engineering instead of my flying as my future. This included getting serious about my engineering master’s degree, which I needed whether I was to stay in the USAF or find a career outside the military.
This, and a combination of other events, led to my second major assignment in the Air Force, Los Angeles.
As of today, Los Angeles Air Force Base is host to the USAF Space and Missile Center. But at that time, missiles were managed out of Norton AFB in San Bernardino. Los Angeles Air Force Station, (sometimes nicknamed Hollywood AFB for the close connection with the movie stars like Jimmy Stewart) managed Space.
My assignment, based on my bachelor’s degree, was software systems manager for the Inertial Upper Stage (IUS). The IUS was a joint USAF-NASA program, led by the USAF. It provided a way to get heavyweight spacecraft into high energy orbits or to send probes out into the solar system. Riding atop a Titan or placed in the back of the Space Shuttle, it was the extra boost needed for those missions. For the Air Force, this was key to very top secret recon.
I would sometimes joke that all my KC-135 experience obviously led to this assignment. But there really was great real world experience I brought to this cosmic-sounding job.
First, I had a tendency as a pilot to want to know where I was starting and where I wanted to wind up. Some of the other “Space Engineers” had not yet developed this program management view and were just very enamored with the tech. I also was a fan boy, but my pilot skills made me want to get the sortie accomplished. So I was more mission-oriented than some. I learned that one place this shows up is working hard to keep extra requirements out of the system so that we are more likely to get the essential items correctly accomplished.
Second, I continued my philosophy of “If you are by yourself you are in the wrong place“. Working a Systems Program Office is a team effort. I constantly reminded myself of the need to operate like a team and not feel I had to be the Steve Canyon lone wolf to get the job done. I had a good team on the Air Force side. I had a great team on the contractor side. I learned that sometimes the most professional members of the team were not wearing uniforms.
Third, I knew I had a lot to learn. And I learned a lot. Including learning that learning a lot is important in every job. I learned the basics of a new field, software management. I got that master’s degree at USC where I learned a lot about systems management and how to elicit ideas from people. All of this I used extensively in my engineering career.
But perhaps most importantly, I remembered the story that started this post. And I realized that I was now the dope keeping the system working for the user. I never forgot the lesson I learned that day with Captain Jackson. It is the user, the warfighter, who knows what is needed for the mission. And this assignment started a life long learning program of how to do that correctly.
And if you’d like to see what I’ve learned over the years about keeping weapon systems working for the warfighter, check out my other Blog: Weapon System Sustainment.