Pilot or Passenger? - Derek Oaks

Pilot or Passenger?

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A-10 Control Stick

During pilot training, one of the instructors in the T-37 was notorious for grabbing the student’s oxygen hose and squeezing it to cut off the supply of oxygen.  While doing so, he would ask, “Are you a pilot, or passenger?”  While teaching formation flight, he was particularly sadistic.  When his student had trouble getting into position right off of the fingertip of their flight lead only a few feet away, he would again grab his student’s oxygen mask and say, “Get in position!  No fingertip, no oxygen!”

There may be better ways to teach, but this instructor’s madness worked.  Fear and a little bit of panic drove his students to get in position, take control of the aircraft, and learn how to be a pilot instead of a passenger.

I spent quite a few years in the right seat of some of the most complex aircraft in the world. I was technically competent, well-versed in procedures and techniques on how to fly an aircraft, and knew how to employ them as well as anyone other co-pilot. Lingering in my mind always, however, was the question of whether I could cut in on my own, f I could really take charge of an aircraft and successfully run a mission. It was not until I had some time in the aircraft commander’s seat, then solo in a single-seat fighter aircraft, that I really came to believe in my ability to fly an aircraft. I had one thousand hours of flight before I felt like I really had taken control of an aircraft and could put it where I wanted it, make it do what I wanted it to do, and complete a mission.

Do we ever feel content to sit in the co-pilot’s seat, or even a passenger seat and let others take full responsibility for our lives and our direction? Even when trained in our profession, or whatever lies ahead of us, do we ever feel more comfortable letting things happen around us, or turning on a movie while our direction is completely at the hands of others?

As a young child, new student, apprentice, and even a new pilot, we need the guidance of others. We don’t even know how much we don’t know. Parents tie our shoes, make our meals, teach us the basics of life. Teachers impart what they know about defined subjects, mentors share insights, and craftsmen share tricks of the trade. We all need that guidance to get started and going in the right direction.

At some point, each of us, with each new skill, must venture out on our own. We must tie our own shoes, feed ourselves, pay our own bills, and embrace life lessons. We have to become contributing members of society. As comfortable as it is to be fed, depend on the skills of others, and sit in a passenger seat, we never appreciate ourselves and the challenges and victories in life until we grasp the stick firmly and determine our own vector.

As a leader, it is often painful to release the stick and let our student pilot control the aircraft on their own. Watching a brand new pilot take your life and theirs into their hands while traveling close to one hundred miles an hour will get your heart racing, but without that leap of faith and trust in your instruction, you will continue to be in charge of not only your own life, but your students. We hate to see our kids fail, our students fail, our subordinates fail, but that failure is assured if they are never given control to learn for themselves.

As a grandparent of mine often said, “you have to train your replacements.” No step for a teacher/leader/parent is more important than that of handing over the keys, passing off the flight controls, and empowering a student to do something on their own.

As the perpetual student, are we ready and willing to take control? Are we ready to grow as pilots, or content to sit as passengers? A former leader of mine once said, “never turn down an opportunity to lead.” Especially yourself.


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