5 Lessons On Fatherhood From A Fighter Pilot

Fighter Pilot Dads

Everything in life can be analogous in some way to flying fighters. In no aspect of life is this more evident than in raising kids. Rearing a child can seem about as close to engaging in air-to-air combat as it gets. I’ve been a fighter pilot longer than I’ve been a dad, and I must admit I’m more comfortable in a BFM engagement than pushing a stroller. In spite of my amateur parenting skills, being a dad has been more rewarding than any 9G break turn, 400 knot afterburner climb, or gun kill that I have achieved. In the short time I’ve been responsible for raising another human being, I have learned quite a bit about this we call “Fatherhood”. This Father’s Day I’d like to offer five thoughts on being a dad from the point of view of the fighter pilot.

1. Your kids are your wingmen, not the hostile bandit!

For the longest time I thought my kid was the bandit in the flying fighters/raising kids analogy. It makes sense right? The kid wants to play, but you want to go to bed. The kid wants to eat ice cream for breakfast, but you want to be a responsible adult. The little ones are usually 180 degrees out from us in their way of thinking. It would seem that raising kids is like going to the merge in one high-aspect pass after another – each fighter trying to out maneuver the other and gain 3/9 advantage (an offensive position) over the other fighter.

The reality is, our children are our wingmen. Just like a fledging wingman, they need direction to become tactically effective. The young second lieutenant fresh out of the B-course is full of excitement and can’t wait to get to the fight. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know – which can be a good thing. The brand new wingman is the proverbial “pit bull on a leash”. He needs molding and mentoring. This comes through countless hours of flying and debriefing. We should be spending even more time mentoring and guiding our kids than we do developing combat-ready wingmen. By taking the time to help them gain the tools they need to survive combat (i.e. the real world), we are fostering a relationship much more important than that of a flight lead to a wingman.

2. If our kids don’t understand the objectives, they won’t accomplish them.

Every mission brief starts out with the mission commander briefing the objectives. Each and every player – Command and Control, strike package, escort package, etc. – must know what we are trying to accomplish. The rest of the brief is spent identifying how those objectives will be accomplished. Just as an understanding of the mission objectives is paramount in winning an air war, kids need to have a comprehendible set of objectives towards which they can work. Whether it’s potty training, staying seated until they’ve finished their meal, or being a well-rounded individual that contributes to society, our little wingmen need to be working towards something or else chaos will reign. We, as mission commanders and flight leads, need to establish these objectives firmly in their minds and empower them to accomplish the tasks at hand.

3. Wingmen, at times, must carry live ordnance.

A wingman will do absolutely no good if sent into combat with training ordnance.   They must be trusted to carry live weapons once they’ve proven they are capable of doing so. Imagine how confusing and pointless it would be to qualify a wingman to employ weapons, only to throw CATMs (Captive Air Training Missile) on their jets when they go off to war. At some point our kids need to be trusted to do the right thing. That point comes after much training and evaluating. The Air Force takes a graduated approach to trusting its fighter pilots. Wingmen are given a little trust, flight leads a little more, and instructors even more. With that trust comes accountability and expectations – be sure the trust placed in your child is always accompanied by these two critical elements.

4. A flight lead’s job is to monitor his wingmen.

Fighter pilots who have gone through the flight lead upgrade have been deemed good enough to not only run their own intercepts and tactics, but to monitor and ensure their wingmen do the same. Allow yourself time for self-improvement and always be watchful and attentive to what your kids are doing. If you don’t know your wingman’s position, you don’t know if he is offensive or defensive…and you certainly can’t run your tactics effectively! The new wingmen don’t have the habit patterns you do that lend to your survival. Wingmen have been known to forget ops checks and have put themselves in emergency fuel states. A flight lead who stays apprised of his wingman’s survival requirements will bring his wingman home every time.

5. A good flight lead draws out learning in the debrief.

Kids, just like your airborne wingmen, need feedback. The debrief is a time of great learning. In the tactical debrief, a situation is assessed. The wingman’s (and flight lead’s) actions are scrutinized and lessons are learned. If the objectives were not met – for example: one of the strikers was shot down by an enemy fighter – then a root cause must be determined as to why the mission wasn’t accomplished. We do this so we don’t make the same mistakes over and over!

A look back at the day’s objectives with your kids before bedtime can provide a similar learning environment. Identify the correct actions taken during the day, and spend time addressing the “not so good” actions of the day. It should be clear in everyone’s minds as to what was done right, and what was done wrong. Maybe your debrief doesn’t happen on a daily basis, but it should happen frequently enough that your little wingmen remain engaged in accomplishing your objectives.

Someday you may find yourself anchored in an all-out BFM engagement with a real bandit. You may, for whatever reason, be low on ordnance, low on fuel, and low on energy. As the range and angles in the fight begin to turn in favor of the bandit, you need to be able to count on your wingman to come to your aid. By taking the time to foster a positive relationship with your kids, you will be building strong, enabled wingmen who could one day save your hide. In any case, you will be fostering a loving and rewarding relationship with an amazing person who looks to you for guidance, leadership, and love. Happy Fathers Day to all you flight leads out there!