TPN at ATA

By Jason Depew
TPN Staff Writer

What do you sell at a military trade show? It turns out there’s a lot…ish.

I just spent part of a week representing The Pilot Network at the annual Airlift/Tanker Association (ATA) conference in Orlando. It was a fun and fascinating experience. If you’re in the military and you’ve never been, ask your boss to send you TDY next year. If you’re not in the military, but you want to go, ask Matt Swee or Adam Uhan if you can help next year as a rep for TPN or one of our other sponsors.

Speaking of our sponsors, it was great to see so many of them here! We got to hang out with friends from Bose, Pivot, ForeFlight, Mil2ATP, MilKEEP, Planeform, and ProFlyt. Marc Himelhoch was busy fighting windshear in a SWA 737 at KONT this week, but we set up his banner and promoted his fantastic book, Cockpit2Cockpit. I even got to promote my recently released side-side hustle. (The #1 New Release in its category on Amazon!)

If you get benefits from The Pilot Network, please send your love and thanks to our sponsors. Their support is critical to keeping this network afloat!

Now, back to the question at hand, what do you sell at a military trade show?

There were a lot of vendors for equipment and training services. There was some large-scale equipment for the loadmaster/boomer/crew chief side of the ATA, like this 500 gallon LOX trailer:

500 Gallons of LOX? What could go wrong?

I couldn’t get over the scale of this thing. It seems like an incredibly powerful tool, but it also made me feel like this every time I walked past it:

There were representatives from the major coast in/out airports on the Atlantic (Bangor, Gander, Shannon.) That seemed strange to me at first, but I guess it’s worth a few grand to send reps here if it gets you even one extra C-17 or KC-135 per year.

Of course, the biggest-name manufacturers had fantastic displays. Airbus, Boeing, Embraer, and Gulfstream were at show-center in the exhibit hall, and if nothing else their displays were worth walking around to see the aircraft photographs.

Gulfstream’s booth at ATA, as much pilot art gallery as promotional platform. Notice the furniture in front of the pictures to keep us pilots from pawing at or drooling on the artwork.

The Boeing display naturally emphasized KC-46 above all. I spoke to a lot of people involved in the KC-46 program. As pilots, they love the aircraft, but it seems that the mission systems are far from ready. I’m confident they’ll get the kinks worked out. I hope it’s sooner than later so that we can give the KC-135 the honorable retirement that it deserves.

KC-46 was everywhere at ATA. There were visuals all over the place, and every conversation seemed to touch on it.

Senior Leader Interaction

Although I (accurately) call ATA a trade show, it’s also a sort of leadership conference for the USAF’s tanker and mobility pilots. The place was packed with more Generals and Colonels than you’re likely to see anywhere outside Washington D.C., or a Corona conference at the Air Force Academy. Several of them gave briefings to an auditorium packed with roughly 2000 uniform-wearing airmen.

In some ways, these briefings are an annual highlight for tanker and airlift crew dawgs. It’s an important chance for them to hear whether their top leaders understand their desires and concerns.

I don’t know whether it’s my rapidly advancing age, or my status as a nearly worthless Reservist with several non-military jobs occupying the majority of my time, but being at ATA made me realize that I have a very different perspective on senior leaders than I used to.

While I appreciated the generals taking the time and energy to address their airmen, some of their messages seemed pretty generic. We have far too many suicides and we’re trying to do something about it. Is this news to you? OPSTEMPO is a major contributor to stress in your lives…sorry. Is the KC-10 going to stick around or not? I’m suddenly very thirsty…do you have any water?

Despite my perhaps unforgiving reception of the mass-messaging, It was interesting talking to individual leaders one-on-one. The ATA sets aside time for O-6s and above to walk through the vendor exhibit hall and speak with each of us. I got to go toe-to-toe with Colonels and Generals to explain what TPN is, help promote our sponsors, and to talk about the big issues in the Air Force.

I was very pleased to note that most of the O-6s I talked to get “it” on issues like pilot retention. One of them outlined his idea for fixing things, and it fit perfectly with my own ideas on the matter. Our mutual conclusion seemed to be: “Why the hell aren’t we doing this?”

The unspoken answer to that question seems to be that even the Generals of the United States Air Force lack the authority to fix the problems we face as pilots.

Think about that for a moment, and please keep it in mind when you (rightfully) engage in sport-bitching about why Quality of Life in the Air Force right now is, at best, “pretty darn good.”

For me, the conclusion here is that while we crew dawgs (or senior leaders) should continue taking our complaints or solutions to our Colonels and Generals, we need to go higher and start taking our messages to our Congressional reps as well. Thankfully, that’s a right the Constitution grants us, even with all the other freedoms we voluntarily give up when we raise our hands to serve. Each of us, on an individual level, can and should start writing or meeting with our reps to explain the problems with pilot retention and Quality of Life, and offer our suggestions for solutions. We need to encourage Congress to adjust laws to allow the necessary changes, and empower our senior leaders to implement them.

We can also do this on a collective/organizational level. There are many military service organizations with lobbying capability in Washington. However, many reservists are also members of airline pilot unions with significant clout in that city. We need to insist that they push much harder to promote solutions that are mutually beneficial to the airlines airlines and the military.

Do I think it’ll make a difference? I’m not sure. We can and should rage against toxic military leadership at all levels. However, if you’re directing your righteous anger and frustration at senior military leaders in general, hoping they can make some kind of large-scale, meaningful change, you’re probably barking up the wrong tree. Either start leveraging all of your personal contacts to get the message to Congress, or just come to the airlines where you can reduce your overall life stress level to nil because you just don’t need to care anymore.

Perspective

That brings me to another fascinating realization I had during this conference. Back when I was a snot-nosed lieutenant or captain on Active Duty, I felt quite some reverence and showed significant deference to Colonels. It’s appropriate to respect the rank, but it was also just basic self-interest, right?

I got to interact directly with a bunch of senior officers here, but I didn’t feel the same…fear?…that I used to. It helped that I was wearing a polo shirt with a TPN logo, rather than a uniform. I also had a Delta Captain’s hat on display next to my Icon Aircraft ballcap, and an Air Force helmet that I (sort of sadly) haven’t worn for a few years. I was peddling a book with a ridiculous title and illustration on the cover that explains how to become unbelievably wealthy despite a career in the military. Basically, these senior leaders had nothing over me.

A portion of the TPN display at ATA showed the variety of life paths we help people follow.

All of these factors seemed to form a sort of virtual suit of armor that gave me a +5 against shoulder chickens. I had no qualms about introducing myself as “Jason” and these senior leaders were interested in engaging me as an industry partner. I was still respectful, but the dynamic was completely different from when I was on Active Duty.

This also enabled me to speak freely and easily about TPN and our sponsors. I wasn’t briefing these commanders on the results of the latest science project they’d tasked me with, and my family’s livelihood doesn’t depend on me selling them something. I was just sharing ideas with them and promoting resources that can actually make things better for them and the people they serve. (You should have seen the way their eyes lit up when they realized the power of 21st century technological marvels like MilKEEP and ProFlyt!)

I decided that I like having these powers. I’m still a snot-nosed major in the USAF Reserve. I still obey orders and respect my chain of command. However, that only occupies a tiny portion of my life at this point. It’s a nice position to be in. If you’re sick of feeling too much pressure from the mountain of bureaucracy above you, leaving Active Duty and getting a different day job can work wonders for your mental health. (Click here to read that post in our app.)

Networking

My favorite part of this conference was running into fellow members of The Pilot Network. I had a great time catching up with TW Chapman, a friend from my pilot training class that I hadn’t seen since we graduated. I got to have long conversations with several Networkers about their particular situation in life and plans for the future. I felt like I had good answers to questions that they’d been afraid to ask publicly on the TPN Community website or in our Facebook Group. In more than one case, I feel like we were able to successfully reach the point where lingering doubts were mostly abated and these individuals felt empowered to make decisions and start taking action toward their next step in life.

In my opinion, that is the ultimate value of The Pilot Network. We are nearly 30,000 pilots representing almost every type of aviation on the planet. If you have a question, please don’t be afraid to ask! My involvement with TPN is thus far completely voluntary and my goal is to help each of you achieve your goals, whatever they may be.

TPNx is the next awesome opportunity for this. We have roughly 200 people registered for a long weekend of education, networking, and (dare I say) fun. If you have lingering questions, it will be a great place to get direct access to experts from all parts of our industry.

Beyond that, you should expect to see reps from TPN starting to branch out to other large-scale gatherings where pilots congregate. If you know of an event that would benefit from having TPN present, please let us know and we’ll see what we can coordinate.

Opportunity

Although it didn’t get discussed a lot, I garnered from my discussions that ATA is a meaningful organization doing great things for the men and women of AMC. (And PACAF, USAFE, and the Guard/Reserve, etc. Forgive this once red-headed stepchild of ACC…uh AFSOC…uh AETC…uh AFCENT for lumping you all into AMC for my own convenience.) If nothing else, it takes a monumental amount of coordination and effort to make a conference like ATA successful. That involves a lot of volunteers and demands some real-world leadership.

Perhaps the greatest champion of TPN at ATA this weekend was Alex “Popeye” Fafinski. He arranged booth spaces for us and our sponsors, and plastered the hotel with signs advertising us as the newest partners of the ATA. He helped spread the message of TPN to all kinds of new people and organizations that will be great resources for you in the future. If you know or run into Popeye, be sure to thank him.

I checked with Popeye and some of the other ATA leaders I met and they confirmed that there are opportunities to serve within their organization. If you’re interested in making a difference in the lives of your fellow airmen, whether you’re on Active Duty or you’ve moved on, I highly recommend reaching out to them to see if there’s a way you can contribute. This greatest need right now is for leadership, fellowship, and mentoring at their local chapters all over the world.

The ATA has no shortage of volunteers for helping out at their annual conference (in exchange for free tickets,) but if you have something especially valuable to contribute be sure to let the ATA leadership know. In the past, AMC had a less-than-desirable habit of using TDY orders to ATA as a sort of attaboy for their shiny pennies. Unfortunately, that tended to leave out the most active ATA members. Thankfully, through a good working relationship, ATA and AMC have arrived at the mutual realization that they’re all best served by focusing their TDY resources on sending local ATA chapter leaders to the national conference each year. This allows them to provide better representation for the members in their chapter, and those leaders return with built-in conduits for communicating important information.

All that goes to say: if you want your future attendance at ATA to be subsidized by TDY funds, your best bet is to get involved in your local ATA chapter and seek out leadership opportunities.

Thanks to ATA for inviting us out to your conference, thanks to our awesome sponsors for joining us, and thanks to you Networkers for stopping by and hanging out. I hope we made your lives better this week.
Next up: TPNx in the Orlando Airport Hyatt on 9-11 November. It’s going to be another great event. I hope to see you there!

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