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A Day With The Boss

September 1, 2010

Who doesn’t enjoy it when the boss spends time with you at work? Well, I had quite the day with my boss back in 1992 when I was flying for the Navy. We were between deployments and operating out of our home base in Brunswick Maine when two flight crews (including mine) were assigned a 30 day mission to Rota, Spain. Our Commanding Officer (hereby referred to as the “Skipper”) accompanied us on this mission. The skipper didn’t fly missions with aircrews all that often, but when he did, it was cause for a bit more anxiety than the average everyday feeling that flying combat missions in a multimillion dollar aircraft typically brings. Even with the Skipper in tow, this trip was actually a great deal, fly sorties out of Rota Spain, spend some time in Garons France flying with the French Military, and visit other interesting places like Gibraltar. At the time, I had no idea that Gibraltar would be forever and permanently etched in my memory.

Shortly after arriving in Rota, we received the news, we were to fly to Gibraltar, the strategic entry and exit choke point at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea, and pay a visit to our friends in the British Military. Gibraltar, a British Territory, historically has been a significant source of contention between the Spaniards and Brits, and the two countries literally have held a grudge since 1713 when it was ceded to Britain by Spain in the Treaty of Utrecht. So much so that from 1969 to 2006, Gibraltar wouldn’t allow air traffic to fly directly from Spain to this small town at the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula, nor would Spain allow air traffic to fly direct either (we’ll hear about this again later!). This densely populated territory is occupied by about 30,000 Gibraltarians and is literally a large rock surrounded by a town. It shares less than 1 mile of border with Spain and therefore there is only one road in and out of Gibraltar.

The mission was simple enough, fly from Rota to Gibraltar and back, and take the skipper along. I was cautiously optimistic about flying with my boss, always good to get some quality time, but it does add a bit of an “inspection” feel to the mission. This, soon to be infamous flight, became interesting before we even boarded the aircraft. It was while the skipper and I were filing our flight plan (basically telling Air Traffic Control what our plans were) when I received my first surprise, after commenting how this would be a short flight, the skipper informed me that we couldn’t fly directly from Spain to Gibraltar. Of course I acted like I knew this already, not to look too much like a rookie pilot, but I was impressed with the bosses level of international flying knowledge nonetheless (“lesson one grasshopper, you must always review the special flight notices in the back of the flight planning charts”). So we proceeded, somewhat randomly, to select Portugal, the most obvious, albeit out of the way, non-Spanish intermediate point for a touch and go landing prior to arriving at our destination. I’d never been to Portugal, but the visit would be short lived, as a touch and go is literally that, wheels touch down and then full power, you fly back into the air.

The first leg of our journey began rather uneventful, with me in the first pilot seat and the skipper flying co-pilot.  We executed a flawless (if I may say so myself) touch and go in Portugal and then began our final transit to Gibraltar. After a short transition out of Portuguese airspace, we soon approached the large ominous rocky landmark. As we spotted Gibraltar on a visual approach, one couldn’t help but realize why this fortress of a city standing guard high above the narrowest point in the Mediterranean held such strategic historical significance. I was able to limit my fixation on the rock to a few seconds (we are trained in flight school not to fixate) when I glanced back to line up on the main runway I noticed the oddest sight, cars crossing right across the middle of the runway! We’re trained to abort landings if anything is spotted on the runway so in a very controlled panic I asked the skipper if I should proceed or wave off the approach. This is when I received my second lesson, always review the destination airport for any unique situations, and in the case of Gibraltar, we had a classic unique situation, the main road into town crosses the main runway. We proceeded with our intentions, and just like a well timed railroad crossing, right before we touched down the gates came down and stopped the car traffic until we had safely passed. If you pull up a map of Gibraltar, you will quickly see that the only space for an airport is at the border, right where that main road happens to cross, which makes for an interesting transportation bottleneck to say the least.

We had a great visit in Gibraltar but my mind was preoccupied with already having received two lessons from the Skipper on this still young trip. I was determined to finish strong and the rest of this day wouldn’t disappoint. We proceeded to file our return flight plan and collectively decided that we would go home via a different route. This time, Tangier Morocco sounded like a great option, the country at the Northwestern tip of Africa was just a short 9 miles away on the other side of the Straights of Gibraltar, the narrowest point of the Mediterranean Sea. So we not-so-ceremoniously said goodbye to our British friends and departed Gibraltar to the waves of dozens of cars patiently awaiting their turn to cross the runway. Fortunately, the aircraft have the right of way!

The trip to Morocco would be very short, and as quick as we took off, we were suddenly setting up for our touch and go at the Tangier’s International Airport and talking to the Moroccan Air Traffic Control (ATC). English is the international language for flying but the quality of the English sometimes makes you wonder if they’re really speaking English. It’s ironic that something as important as ATC to Pilot communications would be subject to so much potential error with the broken English we often have to deal with in the air over foreign lands. Everything seemed to be going smooth as we set up for our touch and go, but little did we know we were minutes away from a potential international incident!

The communications with ATC were extra challenging that day and I was struggling to understand the instructions that were being passed to us on final approach. The Skipper and I looked at each other puzzled as the controller seemed to have something very important to say, we just couldn’t understand exactly what! Typically, even when dealing with broken English, we can decipher what is being said because we have an idea of what type of information is being passed at any given point during the approach (active runway, altitude, number 2 for landing, etc). However, this gentleman clearly had something more on his mind. So as we continued our approach for landing, literally as we were seconds from touchdown, I said to the Skipper, “I think they’re telling us we need State Department approval to land here”! The Skipper retorted, “Are you sure”? I replied, “I think I also heard something about an international incident, I am going to wave off our landing Skipper”! Ever so hesitantly he agreed and said, “I hope you’re right, go ahead”.

In the end, I am fortunate that in the face of uncertainty I spoke up, as ATC was specifically telling us that a US Military aircraft needed State Department approval to land (even for a touch and go) in Morocco. The Skipper was very grateful that I ever so closely adverted disaster and in the end, I was able to gain a little respect from the boss.

You see, when you get the chance to spend a day with the boss, you should see it as both an opportunity to learn as well as an opportunity to shine.  There have been many extensive studies on cockpit crew communications, especially when there is a superior/subordinate situation in play.  This is also a factor in many emergency rooms where nurses are often intimidated by the surgeons and won’t speak up if they see something that is wrong.  I find it intriguing that the simple fear of speaking up to a superior continues to be a factor in emergency room errors and aircraft mishaps that have led to both injuries and fatalities.

I learned a lot from my skipper that day and I grew a bit as a pilot as well.     In the end, I was glad he came along on that mission and on many subsequent missions. From a leading, coaching, managing perspective there is no better way to teach as well as learn.  The Skipper in this story is Skipper Hill, who left this world much too early this past year.  This blog entry is a tribute to him and his leadership, which lives on in me today.  To this day, I continue to learn from the people I lead and I hope that they will continue to learn from me.   A common trait of good leaders is the ability and willingness to admit they don’t know everything and seek the advice of others, even from a subordinate now and then.  So the next time you spend a day with the boss, be sure to speak up, because if your boss is a true leader, they’re very interested in what you have to say!

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