Curing The Pilot Disease Worse Than COVID-19 – Part 1

Welcome back BogiDope readers. Last week we looked at the symptoms of Wingman (or Copilot) Syndrome…the pilot disease even worse than Coronavirus. I received a lot of great feedback from people who either have or have avoided the syndrome themselves. This week we’re going to look at some ways that a pilot can recover if he or she contracts this career-killing sickness. (We’ll also look at some treatments that pilots try to use, even though they don’t work.)

Table of Contents

  1. Signs and Symptoms (Last Week)
  2. Long-Term Prognosis (Last Week)
  3. Effective Therapies
    1. Knowledge
    2. Mission Planning
    3. Delegation
    4. Not My Problem
    5. Drive It Like You Stole It!
    6. Not My Problem
    7. Organizational Ownership
  4. Ineffective Therapies (Next Week)
  5. Balance (Next Week)

Effective Therapies

Thankfully, there are a lot of things each of us can do to fight against Wingman Syndrome. After reading through the list of symptoms, you may have noticed that your personal illness manifests itself more in one area of your aviation pursuits than others. You may find focusing on that one area to be enough to cure you of this disease.

However, if you identify this syndrome in yourself, I recommend you consider pulling a Dr. House and blasting it with the pilot version of broad-spectrum antibiotics. Look at the strategies below and try to find one you can implement for each area. You’ll find that by just being more deliberate in your attitude toward your flying, you’ll improve in lots of areas.

Now, let’s discuss some specifics:

Knowledge

The easiest way to start curing knowledge-related Copilot Syndrome is also the most vulnerable: basic job-related knowledge. If you need to shore up your knowledge start reading through your aircraft’s POH, Tech Order, NATOPS, Duh-Book-Have-Pretty-Plane-Pictures, etc. Make sure you can speak intelligently to and apply knowledge about aircraft systems, limitations, performance, and normal/emergency procedures.

Once you’ve shored-up your aircraft-specific knowledge, move on to your Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs). You should be able to speak to and employ every part of your mission set. For fighters, bombers, and many other communities, this will include studying threats you’re likely to encounter on a real-world mission.

From basic TTPs, move on to your company or unit’s operational policies and the FAA’s regulations. I encounter a lot of military pilots who know shockingly little about the civilian side of flying. This is all well and good until they decide to buy an airplane, or look for an airline job. They end up sounding like fools and wasting everyone’s time asking questions that could be easily answered by opening up Part 61 or Part 91 and doing some light reading. (If that sounds too difficult for you right now, you probably have Wingman Syndrome and need to do it anyway. However, I wrote a Military Pilot GA Translation Guide to help get you started. It just scratches the surface, which I hope will be enough to get you interested in teaching yourself some more.)

This kind of knowledge is slippery. If you aren’t actively maintaining it, you’ll find it slowly slipping away. Studying it isn’t a one-and-done event. You need to continuously go through these publications to keep your knowledge fresh.

This treatment is best taken in doses. Even just 5-15 minutes per day spent reading through your publications is a great start. If your full-time work responsibilities allow it, I recommend also setting aside at least one day per week where you can spend at least an hour studying.

As an airline pilot, I like to do this on long flights. My company-issued iPad is attached to the sidewall of my jet with a Pivot mount, and I have every publication at my fingertips. Once we’ve reached cruise, I’ll open a pub and spend a few minutes reading from it, from time to time.

Military pilots who fly long missions can probably also find some time at cruise to study. However, a military pilot should never hesitate to be seen studying pubs at your desk. If anyone gives you a modicum of shit for it, tell them you think they have a case of Wingman Syndrome and send them the link to Part 1 of this series. They will be ashamed and will leave you to study in peace.

Better yet, challenge the other person to study with or quiz you for a few minutes. The material should be fresh in your mind from studying that day, and you might be able to use inspiration instead of shame to encourage your friend to study more.

I think group study can be useful in moderation. It might be useful and pleasant to sponsor a study group as your once-a-week knowledge maintenance session. Keep the group small to minimize tangential discussions, and choose a topic for each week. As long as you aren’t self-righteous about it, nobody will ever complain about you helping to make others better while you improve your own knowledge.

Further along this vein, if you feel like you need some extra studying motivation, approach your chief pilot and/or weapons officer and ask to brief something at your organization’s next continuation training/pilot development meeting. With a topic, a deadline, a built-in mentor, and a potentially hostile audience, you can’t help but do justice to the topic. If you’re a younger aviator, a good presentation (relatively short, very to the point, and possibly laced with humor) can earn you some very desirable recognition.

Once you feel like your basic knowledge is solid, it’s okay to move on to deeper topics. If your community sends pilots to Weapons School, you should have access to an almost endless supply of papers written by students and instructors. These are great resources for deeper-level knowledge, and they’d also make great material for your weekly study group, as long as everyone else is equally caught up on the basics.

I also make a point of studying safety reports in hopes that reading about the mistakes of others will help me not repeat them. Every military unit has safety officers with access to a giant database of reports. They may not give you your own login, but they should be happy to search the records with you and send you copies of reports that you’d like to read.

My airline also publishes a monthly synopsis of all mishaps company-wide. Reading these reports helps me improve my own habit patterns, focus my personal studying, and helps me realize how critical it is to constantly refresh my basic knowledge.

Civilian pilots have access to safety reports on the NTSB website. This website lets you search using a wide variety of criteria. It’s a nearly endless source of fascinating reading.

It’s good to study accident reports for your specific aircraft. However, I also recommend studying reports for new places you might be flying, and aircraft with similar missions. The NTSB database also lets you search for keywords. Things like “visibility,” “loss of control in flight,” “CFIT,” and others might be good search criteria to start with.

If you’re feeling especially well-versed in topics directly related to your job description, it may be time to start actively building knowledge related to other people on your aircraft’s crew. In the B-1B, the Weapons System Officers (WSOs) sit several feet behind the pilots, facing an entire bulkhead full of switches and computers.

Capt. Dennis Bone, the most appropriately-named B-1 WSO of all time, flying at the Offensive Systems Officer (OSO) station.

The most impressive B-1B pilots I flew with knew the WSO’s systems so well that if the WSO experienced something needing troubleshooting, the pilot was able to talk the WSO through the button pushes necessary to fix things.

I never got there on the Bone, but I did start to reach that level on the U-28A. The U-28A has two different sensor turrets. The copilot has a Wescam MX-15, and the Combat Systems Officer (CSO) operates a Raytheon MTS-A. While the systems have similar outputs, the user interfaces couldn’t be more different. Most copilots get very good on the MX-15, but wouldn’t even know where to get started on the MTS-A.

I ended up working with some very experienced CSOs and even spending some time on training missions running their sensor myself. I got familiar enough with it that I could talk a new CSO through basic troubleshooting while sitting in the Aircraft Commander seat, managing a crew, and running an air stack.

That was probably the most knowledgeable and proficient I’ve ever been in a flying job, and I loved it. However, it’s important to work toward that level of knowledge at the right pace. It took me 3-4 years and probably 1500 hours flying the U-28A to attain that level of proficiency…and that’s okay!

One of my criticisms of the USAF’s overall philosophy is typified in our third Core Value: “Excellence In All We Do.” Applied properly, there’s nothing wrong with this ideal. Unfortunately, I feel like the USAF has a bad habit of demanding or assuming Excellence without earning it.

Many people seem to think that the act of stating “Excellence” as our core value means we’ve already achieved it, and need do no more. Others take this a (bad) step further and demand near-perfection from everyone, because anything less is a betrayal of that Core Value.

If you take one thing from my articles about Copilot Syndrome, I want you to understand that Excellence is not a static thing. It’s a process, and it must be earned through hard work. Excellence is an attainable goal, but slips away quickly if neglected.

Perfection is not a human trait. I believe in continuously working toward it, but demanding that anyone achieve it is unrealistic. If I were CSAF for a day, I would change the USAF’s 3rd Core Value to read: “Relentless Pursuit of Excellence” to preclude the presumption of having attained Excellence…especially without having earned it.

This all applies to your pilot knowledge. You can only gain it through study. Once you get some, you have to keep studying or you will lose it. Pursuing excellence in pilot knowledge is a career-long process. So, go get to it!

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Mission Planning

Last week, we read about how my buddy Steve got into trouble by just becoming lazy about mission planning. Once you’ve flown the same aircraft for a while, it’s easy to get too comfortable with your local area. This is an especially large threat for fighters, trainers, and other aircraft that do most of their training close to home.

If you find yourself getting complacent, start by challenging your assumptions every once in a while. You probably know how much fuel you’ll burn for start/taxi/takeoff, getting to your practice area, running your practice profile, and getting back home. Every once in awhile, assume you don’t. Get out the spaghetti charts and force yourself to run the numbers all over again.

If you fly with a crew, I think it’s also a good idea to increase your familiarity with the planning usually taken care of by other crew positions. In the B-1B, the WSOs always flight planned our route and weaponeered our targets while the pilots planned fuel, air refueling tracks, weight and balance, and other parts of the mission. The best Aircraft Commanders would assign junior pilots and WSOs to work together on parts of the mission they weren’t familiar with. I learned to weaponeer targets, run our archaic flight planning software, and much more. It was interesting stuff, it made me more effective at our mission, and it paid huge dividends later in my career.

Do your loadmasters own weight and balance? Does your flight engineer own ops limits on aircraft systems? Is your boomer the only one with a good grasp of trouble-shooting the refueling system? Are your intel troops the only ones in the squadron who know how to get updated data on threats in your target area? If you’re trying to fight Wingman Syndrome, you need to make all of that change!

This doesn’t mean stepping on toes or implying others can’t do their job. You need to approach them humbly, explaining that you’re trying to broaden your knowledge. You also need to have a reputation for knowing your own stuff cold before you try expanding your knowledge in these directions. (We’ll touch more on that idea later.)

It’s also easy to get into a rut on training in the same places and the same ways all the time.

The AC-130U, badass war machine that is now retired.

The AC-130U is one of the more awesome war machines conceived by human minds. I’ve spent many hours in the skies over Afghanistan working with them to protect good guys with boots on the ground, and punishing bad guys.

However, I’m surprised at the way the AC-130U always trained at home station. They’d launch, climb up to the nearest restricted area, dial in their guns, and then spend several hours shooting the same targets on the same ranges from the same orbits they always used.

Granted, their mission set requires a lot of practice doing this. They regularly carried a crew of 16. Getting that many people to work together on a platform that by definition supports troops close to the enemy means you can’t practice coordinating enough. Imagine how many training events they had to accomplish on basic mission sets every flight!

That said, there’s a lot more to supporting Special Operations Forces missions than just flying in a single circle and laying down hate. The AC-130U community was very resistant to the shift in mission and largely refused to adjust the way they trained.

The AC-130U has been succeeded by -W and -J models. They adopted new weapons and systems, and embraced the other mission sets that their SOF partners needed them to cover. That flexibility has been rewarded with more opportunity to work with those forces, while the U-Boat is all but done.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The military develops new weapons systems and retires old ones. The AC-130J has standoff weapons capabilities that the AC-130U doesn’t. However, could the U-Boat have adapted its tactics and remained more useful and relevant for the forces it supported? I guess we’ll never know.

How often do you go out and fly simulated missions against simulated targets? Why not put extra effort into calling the types of units that you support and asking if you can work with them? I promise that their JTACs would love to update their currencies, their people would love to see and hear some real air cover, and they’d even appreciate just being able to catch a ride somewhere else for their own training benefit.

Speaking of which, it might also be useful to choose training areas that you don’t normally use. Usually, the reality of aircraft scheduling makes this difficult. However, if you work with your Plans and Scheduling shops, you ought to be able to coordinate something. Fighting Wingman Syndrome doesn’t mean making off-station training a regular occurrence. If you spent weeks working on a project to go train elsewhere even just a few times, you’ll be expanding your horizons and gaining valuable knowledge.

An ideal part of training in new areas is working with different types of aircraft, potentially even from other military branches. It doesn’t matter what you fly, I promise every fighter unit on the planet would enjoy chasing you around and shooting you down for a day or two. Have you ever provided CAS in the same stack as aircraft from a different branch? How often do you coordinate assaulting an airfield right after some bombers have rolled through? These can all be valuable training exercises that require you to step out of your comfort zone.

It will take some convincing to get your chain of command to approve these types of things. If your squadron has Weapons Officers, they’re a good place to start. (I promise they’re bored of doing the same thing every day in the local area too.) You may need your training shop to help justify these ideas, and that may include you digging into your pubs to identify parts of your mission set that apply to these training events.

Of course, most units have a schedule of exercises to attend each year. These are pre-packaged and pre-approved opportunities to get this type of training. I recommend volunteering for these when you can.

Whether you’re trying to get assigned to go to an exercise, or just set up a couple of days of unique training on your own, there are some prerequisites. Just like maintaining your basic knowledge before diverging to tangential topics, you should not even consider asking to expand your training envelope unless you are solid at the basics of your mission.

You need to be very good at all of your basic mission sets, and be highly proficient at both planning and executing missions in your local flying area before you try to branch out. As you start shopping your ideas for enhanced training, and/or planning those missions, you can’t let your primary ground duties slide either. This stuff is all extra, and should only be pursued if you can do so while taking care of the basics.

I also recommend not rushing any of this. Don’t set goals of setting up a certain number of fancy training scenarios. Set a goal of doing the next one. If part of your purpose is fighting Copilot Syndrome, then just the process of going through the planning will be an effective treatment. Work steadily toward your goal, but take advantage of the process along the way. We’ll discuss goal-setting more later.

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Delegation

In my experience, the most common delegation-related presentation of Copilot Syndrome in the Air Force was delegating flying-related duties to focus on non-flying duties. In my mind, the solution here is simple: do the opposite.

If you’re scheduled to fly, make that your whole world. If something from your ground job needs to get done, delegate that to a friend or minion. Pilots have a bad habit of assuming that we are the most important people in any organization.

We think to ourselves: “If I’m not at this meeting the whole world will fall apart.”

Guess what: it won’t.

In my opinion, one of the definitions of leadership failure is not training the people in your command to take over when you’re not there…whether it’s because you got promoted to a new job, or you’re out flying.

Remember our discussion about Excellence? Part of the reason leaders are afraid to delegate is that they’re afraid a stand-in won’t demonstrate Perfection at a meeting. You don’t have enough [edited] available in your life to waste any of them caring about that. Train your stand-in as best you can. Throw him in the water and “see how little Squirt does on his own.” Excellence is doing your best to prepare little Squirt, giving him that chance, following up on his performance, praising him for triumphs and helping him adjust based on any shortcomings, and covering for any mix-ups with your chain of command afterward. Remember, Excellence is a process, not a presumption.

In the meantime, focus on your flying. The taxpayers or your company hired you because of the wings on your chest. If they’d wanted a middle-management drone, they could bring in an Army infantry grunt or transfer Lundberg over from Innitech.

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Not My Problem

I guard against contracting the Not-My-Problem flavor of Wingman Syndrome by always assuming my boss is incompetent. Most of the time, I’m pleased to see that I’m wrong. However, this mentality drives me to always prepare to take over if necessary. As part of that, I’m constantly watching and learning about the next level of knowledge and skills that I’ll be working on in my career.

Are you starting to zone out during a mission brief or debrief? Start taking notes, not just about the mission, but also about what the AC/FL is doing that has you zoning out. Then, at some point before you have to give that type of briefing, practice in front of a mirror once or twice to make sure you don’t make the same mistakes.

Every time you’re setting up for a maneuver or training event, think about what is going through the AC/FL/Captain’s mind. Would you do anything differently? Could you set this up from memory? If not, what do you need to study to lock in that knowledge?

Another part of this is just taking ownership of your organization. When I was in the B-1B, we were assigned to Air Combat Command (ACC). Most of the aircraft and pilots in ACC are fighters, so they try to run everything like a fighter unit. At Ellsworth AFB, this meant that the maintenance units were woefully understaffed. In the fighter world, each jet has a crew chief who knows everything about, and takes care of, his or her aircraft.

Fighters are complex and need a lot of maintenance, but they’re nowhere near as complex or maintenance-intensive as the B-1…477,000 pounds of 1970s technology built in the 1980s using components from subcontractors that ceased to exist decades ago. Trying to staff bomber maintenance like a fighter wing was the worst kind of willful ignorance.

Almost without fail, every time I stepped to fly a B-1 and found a maintenance issue, the crew chief’s reply would be, “Well, this isn’t my airplane.” In fairness, this was correct. The staffing was so abysmal that few crew chiefs ever got to launch their own jet. However, this attitude is Copilot Syndrome at its worst.

Have you ever excused a failure or shortcoming anywhere in your unit with, “I’m not in charge of that”? If you want to avoid this Syndrome, you need to remove that phrase from your mind forever.

Instead, take the stance that you own everything. If something needs to be fixed and it’s really not your responsibility, make sure you track down the person in charge of it and (genuinely) offer to help fix it.

It’s important not to be patronizing or criticizing about this. You don’t want to be the person who gets into everyone else’s chili. However, you should not let anything sit uncorrected unless you’ve at least tried to improve it.

I did this several times while I was on Active Duty, and it always worked out well. More than once, I was put in charge of a shop to find that many responsibilities had been sitting unattended for years. All it took was a conscious choice on my part to take ownership of the situation and I was able to avoid Wingman Syndrome while also making my squadron a better place.

I ended up identifying this mindset with a specific phrase. We’ll look at that idea and some of the times I applied it next.

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Drive It Like You Stole It!

For me, the opposite of “Mother May I?” is: “Drive it like you stole it!”

This means knowing exactly where the boundaries of your authority lie and acting freely within those limits without asking for permission or apologizing.

Hopefully, that definition immediately leads you to note how important knowledge is to this mentality. If you want to drive it like you stole it, you must know your regulations well enough to realize exactly where your boundaries lie. You can’t and shouldn’t try to fake that knowledge. Nothing will get you in trouble more quickly than exceeding your authority while trying to use this mentality.

I regard this mentality as one of the great secrets to my success in aviation, and especially in the military. As a young Captain, I got assigned to replace a Major as Chief of Training. The Major was a good dude, but his shop hadn’t done much of anything for a long time. We’d maintained and QC’d grade folders, and attended meetings, but otherwise nobody did much in the office.

In a way, that’s fine. We were a busy squadron and it was good for people to have free time. However, we were also doing some things stupidly, and there was room to do better. I started by reading the regulation that governed Training and realized that I was in charge of several of the things that I’d identified as areas for potential improvement. Instead of just spending my days checking email and maintaining the status quo, I put together a plan and started assigning people to help implement those improvements. We ended up revising training regulations, training syllabi, changing how we tracked training events in the squadron, and how we managed pilot upgrades. It took a little extra work to get it all done, but the result was that the squadron ran more intelligently and efficiently for everyone thereafter.

It was fulfilling to see that I was able to make my squadron better. You should note that I didn’t ask the Ops Officer’s permission to do any of those projects. I just started making them happen. (I didn’t do this all in a vacuum though. I made sure the DO knew what I was doing, and occasionally updated him on my progress and offered him the opportunity to direct adjustments to my efforts.) Not only did this rewarding work prevent me from contracting Wingman Syndrome in that job, it ended up making me look very good to my bosses.

My next job was Chief of Flight Safety. This job is a major risk factor for contracting Copilot Syndrome. Unless a mishap occurs, there really isn’t much to do. Every squadron has a bulletin board where the Safety Officer posts some articles that nobody ever reads unless waiting to talk to the commander. Every few months, headquarters requires some lame briefing about not shaking your baby while you drink and drive. Otherwise, it’s easy to get lost not doing anything.

I again read through the regulation that defined my shop’s responsibilities and found mention of a Mishap Response Plan – the steps to follow if there is an aircraft accident. Curious, I looked up ours and found…nothing. All we had was a very generic checklist for a Wing-level safety shop. If we’d had a mishap, it would have been useless.

I spent the next couple weeks using that template to write a meaningful Mishap Response Plan for our squadron. The plan included gathering the training and flight evaluation (checkride) folders for any crewmembers involved in a mishap, along with copies of their flight planning materials, and anything else that might be important. I got two big cardboard boxes and put copies of the checklist in each. One box got a stack of red “Secret” stickers, since many of our training records were classified. If the checklist was enacted, those stickers would be placed on one of the boxes to make sure it got extra care.

Once I felt like my checklist was ready, I did a couple of test runs. First, I cleared my plan with my bosses and let all the other shop chiefs know what I was planning. Then, on exercise day, I pretended that one of the aircraft out flying had been involved in a mishap. I went around to each shop in the squadron and had them provide the actual materials that the investigators would ask for.

This took a couple of test runs because there were some hiccups the first time. However, I ended up feeling like we had a usable product by the time I’d finished.

Note that I wasn’t the first person to hold that job, yet none of them had thought to even check on the status of this plan. Also, note that none of my superiors had enough awareness of what was happening in that shop to be able to direct me to do this project. The only reason it happened is because I looked for it, and then took it upon myself.

I got sent to another shop without ever having to use my plan, but unfortunately my successor got to implement it for a real-world scenario. On 18 February 2012, we lost four good men when a U-28A crashed in Djibouti.

The crew of Ratchet 33, some outstanding Americans who sacrificed everything for our benefit. Here’s a toast….

My work in the safety shop wasn’t flashy or even all that important. However, I hope that by making sure we were ready for this event we were able to help the families of our fallen just a little bit more effectively, and get answers for everyone just a little bit sooner.

If I’d given into Copilot Syndrome in that job, our response to this mishap would have been an uncoordinated mess. Driving that job like I’d stolen it made my squadron a better place and helped honor my friends’ sacrifice.

On a happier note, let’s consider a flying example of this mentality. I started flying as a First Officer (FO) on the A220 when it was brand-new at my airline. I’d flown the E-11A (Bombardier Global Express) for a deployment in the Air Force. The A220 is very similar to the Global in both systems design and avionics…and they’re decades beyond almost anything else in the airline industry. Between having a 600-hour head start, and just being from a younger generation that understands computers, I became pretty proficient with the aircraft’s systems and automation very early on.

The A220 flight deck. Modern, smart, effective, comfortable, beautiful. Unless you’ve flown nothing but B7373s for the last 20 years.

Many of my captains came from older aircraft with much older technology. Many of them had been doing widebody flying for the past several years and weren’t used to the pace of domestic operations.

A lot of these pilots are also the people who constantly complain about things like our monthly schedule bidding system, the apps on our company iPads, and other IT-related systems because they just don’t speak computer very well.

Every once in awhile (and especially on approaches to DFW and IAH) we’d get a combination slam-dunk and late turn to final right before the FAF. When I was flying, the Captain would immediately start talking.

“You…uh…need to think about configuring and…uh…we need to….” while starting to push a bunch of buttons. If I’d played “Mother May I?” by patiently waiting for my Captain to figure himself out before asking to configure or start descending, there’s no way we could have made the approach.

However, since I knew what I was doing, I’d start by saying something like, “I’m visual with the PAPIs and the runway. I’m starting down.”

Then, I’d start barking out orders like, “Gear down, Flaps 2!”

In almost every case, the Captain would still be tumbleweed and would hesitate while looking up to try and figure out what I was asking for and why. If I’d played “Mother May I?” at that point, things would have gone poorly again.

Instead, I’d drive it like I stole it. I’d just bark out my orders again, adding: “I’m visual, we can fix the box in a minute.”

Eventually, the Captain would follow my instructions. We’d end up configured and on speed with plenty of time to get the FMS (and the Captain) caught up to what I was doing with the airplane. At no time was the aircraft in an unsafe position, and we were able to save a lot of money (and add to our profit sharing check for the year) by not having to go-around. This only happened because I chose to be assertive when the opportunity presented itself.

Note that I had to actually know what I was doing for this to work. If I’d been as behind the aircraft as the Captain, getting directive like that would not have helped. The better choice in that kind of situation would be to ask for vectors back around, or just go-around. We’ll talk more about those distinctions later on.

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Goals

Another tool I use to vaccinate myself against Copilot Syndrome is setting goals.

As pilots, we have to be especially careful with goals. You should never set a goal that depends on something outside of your control. It’s a recipe for failure and heartbreak. It’s okay to aspire to things out of our control, but our goals need to be things that are entirely within our control.

As an example, I’ll admit that I’d love to be an astronaut. Talk about adventure, right? I’ve applied for the last two astronaut classes. Since I’m neither Navy SEAL nor a ER doctor, I didn’t stand a chance in 2017. My application was a little stronger this time around, but I don’t have any illusions about actually being competitive. I’ll probably also throw my name in the hat for the SpaceShip2 pilot jobs Virgin Galactic has posted right now. However, since I have never attended Test Pilot School, I realize that I’m not competitive there either.

This patch speaks for itself.

If my goal were to become an astronaut, I’d almost certainly be an eternal failure. Thankfully, I’ve realized this and instead focused my goals on things I can control.

For now, I’ve focused on enhancing my flying career as it is. I upgraded to Captain at my airline as early as possible to start accruing PIC time in large jets. If COVID-19 doesn’t displace me back to an FO seat (it most likely will) I’ll pursue the opportunity to become a Line Check Airman as soon as I reach 1000 Part 121 PIC hours. I’ve also kept up flight instructing in the Icon A5, and I’m getting increasingly serious about building a kit airplane.

These things are all under my control. My ability to upgrade is based solely on seniority, and I took advantage of the opportunity as soon as I got it. Becoming a Line Check Airman isn’t under my control, but attaining 1000 PIC hours is. Seeking out jobs as a flight instructor and choosing to do that instead of playing golf is also under my control.

I’m enjoying all of these challenges and continuing to develop myself as a pilot. I find fulfillment in attaining these goals for their own sake. All of this work is protecting me from falling victim to Copilot Syndrome.

Honestly, I realize that making myself competitive for an astronaut job would probably take more work than I’m willing to put in at this point in my life. I figure I could make myself competitive. At the very least, I’d need to:

  • Find a way to fund my attendance at the National Test Pilot School. Not only would that take some doing with a $999K price tag for their top-tier option, but I’d need to take a year-long Leave of Absence (LOA) from my airline…adding another ~$200K to the effective cost.
  • Realistically, I’d probably have to extend my LOA to take a job as a Test Pilot for a couple of years after I completed NTPS. (Applying for an entry-level Test Pilot job with an aircraft manufacturer might get them to fund NTPS for me. However, it’d probably lock me into several years at the company, meaning even more of a pay cut.)
  • Get a Master’s or higher-level degree in a field more technical than Human Factors Psychology, or else at least get a PhD in HF. This would not be a cost issue…it’d be a matter of time and effort.
  • At least earn EMT certification and do some volunteer work in that job as a side-hustle. I think NASA would prefer an actual MD, but I’m definitely not willing to do that.

Even if I decided to commit to that path, astronaut could not be the ultimate goal. The goals would have to be achieving each item on the list to make myself competitive. Astronaut itself would have to remain an aspiration, rather than a goal.

We don’t have to aspire to anything as lofty as astronaut to use goal-setting to inoculate against Wingman Syndrome. You can pick any qualification applicable to your branch of aviation and set goals that will make you more competitive for it. I posted a long list of potential upgrade goals in my article about military pilot career progression.

Start by choosing one of those as a target. Next, identify the steps you’d need to take to qualify for it. Then, start deliberately seeking opportunities to accomplish those steps.

I don’t recommend putting time constraints on yourself if you can help it. Rushing to build experience tends to lead people to cut corners or neglect other parts of their life. Instead, just pick whatever upgrade you need to work toward next. Then, every time you fly, try to tailor what you do to build your experience for that target. If given the opportunity to choose what flying you do, always select the option that moves you closer to your goal, even if it isn’t as desirable for other reasons.

The point here isn’t to rush from goal to goal, it’s to always have something toward which you’re working. If you view all of your flying in terms of an overall goal, you can’t help but avoid Wingman Syndrome.

One last note on goals: just like some of the other areas we’ve discussed, it’s important to make sure you’re solid with the basics before you start actively pursuing anything else. Don’t bother trying to upgrade to Flight Lead if you’re regularly getting hammered for tactical mistakes as a wingman.

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Organizational Ownership

I could certainly go on here, but I think we’ve got the basic idea. The one last specific suggestion I’ll recommend is that you always take ownership of your organization, whether that’s a company or a squadron.

If anything needs improving, you should try to be part of the solution. If anything failed, it’s your fault. Don’t take that so far that you’re miserable, but if your actions are always focused on making your organization the best place it can be, you’ll never get complacent enough to contract Copilot Syndrome.

The legendary pilot band, Dos Gringos put this principle into a song called The Legend of Shaved Dog’s Ass. Be careful listening to it. It’s NSFW, and it advocates some things that will get you fired from a military unit or a civilian job in today’s environment. I don’t present this song so much as specific, literal advice, as the type of mentality to adopt if you want to truly avoid Wingman Syndrome.

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Ineffective Therapies

Having looked at effective ways of beating Wingman Syndrome, it’s time to consider some of the things that don’t work. However, we’ve covered a lot of ground for today. Take some time to consider how to use these principles to your benefit, and we’ll finish up next week.

Thanks for reading!

< Back to Part 1 (Symptoms) | Part 2 (Effective Therapies)

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Image Credits:

This post’s feature image was posted by the National Cancer Institute on Unsplash.

The image of Yuri’s night patch is from here: http://www.collectspace.com/news/news-032216a-yuris-night-beanastronaut-patch.html. I don’t think you can order them anymore.

Captain Bone, the Bone WSO: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/226504/34th-bomb-squadron-aircrew-prepares-flight.

AC-130U: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/370325/afsoc-ac-130u.

The A220 flight deck photo is from here: https://www.airbus.com/aircraft/passenger-aircraft/a220-family/a220-100.html. I didn’t ask Airbus if we could use it, but I hope they won’t mind me saying that it’s a fantastic aircraft. It has almost 3,500 miles of range, 109 seats, and yet it burns less fuel per hour than a CRJ900. If I were starting an airline, I’d start with just two aircraft types: The A220, and the A321XLR. If any investors would like me to make that happen for them, please feel free to send me an offer for your VP of Flight Ops position.

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