“Whoever is careless with the truth in small maters cannot be trusted with important matters.”
- Albert Einstein
In the winter of 1972-73, my dad was the commander of the 391stTactical Fighter Squadron, part of the 366thFighter Wing at Mountain Home, Idaho. The 391stflew the Air Force’s newest fighter-bomber, the General Dynamics F-111F. With thirty percent more thrust and no increase in weight over the original F-111A, the Aardvark, as it was called, was a Cadillac. Designed to fly at speeds close to the speed of sound on the deck, with a new digital radar that was better than advertised, it was loved by her crews. Unfortunately, the first years in service of the F-111 were marred by accidents, misapplications of its capabilities, a disastrous introduction in Vietnam, and a high operating cost. Putting it lightly, the F-111 and the 366thFighter Wing were under the microscope.
During that winter, the squadron and wing found itself preparing for an operational readiness inspection. Careers were made and lost during these inspections, and the F-111 could ill-afford to perform poorly in the first-ever readiness inspection of an F-111F unit. My dad and his team understood that, and felt the enormous pressure of the pending inspection.
During the initial training for the inspection, four of my dad’s crusty older weapon systems officers came into his office and shut the door. With the standup of the F-111 squadrons, many of the initial weapons systems officers, or WSOs, came from Strategic Air Command and heavy bombers, a command that was harsh with its inspections and heavy on discipline. These WSOs came from a community that played straight, but saw war and training for war as a no-fail scenario. Failure was not an option, so you found ways to beat the enemy. In this case, the enemy was the inspection team.
When they had my dad’s attention, they pulled out a manila folder, and revealed a set of radar photos. When questioned, they shared that these were actual radar photos of the planned targets for their inspection. Through back channels, they had managed to get the most important piece of intelligence about their enemy and his intentions with those images. Today, with Google imagery of the entire world down to the meter, this may not seem like much. The crews would still have to fly their routes and identify their targets correctly. But in 1972, satellite imagery of any fidelity was nearly impossible and closely-guarded, with real-time imagery non-existent until 1977. In order to find a target, crews used old paper maps with limited landmarks, terrain features and development to mentally build a picture of what a spot on the ground would look like. They would refine their system based on these land features, pulled from a paper map with precision the width of a #2 pencil, then mentally create what that terrain would look like through the image of their radars. Getting these radar images of targets that many of the crews had never actually seen before was a coup of significant proportions. These WSOs had found a way to beat the enemy and pass the Operational Readiness Inspection. Like any good crewmember, his guys had found a way to beat the enemy and bring a win home for the team.
After a brief look at the photos, my dad’s response was “burn them. We don’t need them, don’t want to get caught with them.” Befuddled at first, these loyal WSOs did as they were told and burned the photos. From then until the inspection, the squadron trained at such a high level that the photos did not matter.
When the inspection team arrived and graded the 391stoperational readiness, they were so good that they thought they cheated. The aircraft and maintenance crews performed magnificently, providing results that not even the builder understood. The aircrew flew better than any other fighter unit for this type of inspection at the time, and guaranteed the longevity of the Aardvark.
Had my dad accepted those photos, the results may have been exactly the same, and no one except those few crews would have ever known the difference. Promotions would have been the same, the praise for the F-111F would have been the same, and the world would have continued to rotate as before. But those involved would have been different.
First, they would have been left asking themselves if they could have excelled as they did on their own. That little internal voice that personally questions integrity would have wondered until the grave if they were as good as their press. Everyone needs feathers in their cap, accomplishments that remind them in difficult times that they measure up, and these inspection results were one of these feathers. Next, with the “assistance”, their efforts may not have brought out the best in themselves. Comfortable in having a leg up on the competition, they may have been like the star high school athlete who fails miserably in college because they never challenge themselves and believed the fanfare of their gifted nature. Lastly, the following decisions involving gray areas would have been increasingly more difficult. The more they justified their actions, the easier it would have been to justify decisions where it really did matter.
Integrity matters for so many reasons. Most importantly, it matters for your own sense of self-worth. The world may never know what corners you cut to make it through, but you will.