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Developing from the ground up

AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar --

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

 

"Fire in the left wing, shutdown the refuel, emergency shutdown procedures, NOW!"

This loud, urgent, and frantic statement startled me from a deep, cozy slumber late one summer afternoon as I was failing miserably at manning my post during a B-1 aircraft ground refuel.  These words startled me so much in fact, I was unable to properly perform the above mentioned, "emergency shutdown procedures." Procedures I was trained and tested on, procedures I was expected to know instinctively, and procedures I needed to be able to do instantly when called upon.  I failed!  

As I regained my bearings, I slowly realized my supervisor was standing at the bottom of the crew entry ladder stairs staring, or more appropriately, glaring directly at me.  In that moment, I immediately realized, I let my boss down, my team down, and ultimately, myself down.  Thankfully, there was no fire; had there been, I could have caused a bad situation to get much worse.  Thankfully, my supervisor recognized an opportunity to develop me from the ground up...literally.

I spent the next two days accompanied by my supervisor on our days off, scrubbing out static discharge grounding plugs with a bucket, wire brush, some simple green multi-purpose cleaner, and good old fashioned elbow grease.  As I went from grounding plug to grounding plug, scrubbing and sweating away, my supervisor stood next to me with the refuel technical order in-hand reading through the step-by-step emergency shutdown procedures over and over again.  As we walked from one plug to the next, he had me recite the procedures from memory.  Over a brown-bag lunch, which he provided, he quizzed me on other system knowledge pertaining to the procedures and the associated warnings and cautions -- all information and knowledge I needed to know.  Later that night, in-between icing my knees and lower back, I researched 10 examples of aircraft or industrial accidents, which could have been prevented, if people had done their jobs.  This was to be presented the next day in a two-to-three page paper with cited sources.  At the time, I recall thinking, my boss was the biggest jerk ever and even flirted with the idea of reporting him to the Inspector General for abuse of power...surely the IG would put him in his place.  

At 6 a.m. the next morning I arrived at my section with three pages in-hand, fired up and ready to report my boss to "The Man" if this "abuse" continued. ‘I’ll show him,’ I thought.  First, I changed into my coveralls and prepared myself for the “encounter.”  What happened next set the stage for my true understanding of what my supervisor was attempting to do with me long-term.  When I opened my locker, out fell an envelope addressed to me...Mr. Baxter.  I looked around, expecting to see my boss or someone there gazing at me as I opened and read this unexpected correspondence, but no one was there. It was Sunday after all.

I opened the envelope and unfolded what appeared to be a letter. As I read, I soon realized this letter was not addressed to me, but to my father.  

"Dear Mr. Baxter, it is with utmost regret and my deepest sorrow that I write to you and your family with the terrible news concerning the death of your only son, Jeremy.  I failed to keep your son safe under my watch and you are now suffering from my failure as his supervisor.  Your son was a good man and his presence will be forever missed...my deepest condolences in your loss."  

The letter had much more to say, but I think you get the message.  After I read and re-read these words, I slowly got dressed and headed out to the tool crib to get my bucket, wire brush, simple green and my technical order.  There I found my supervisor waiting for me with all of these tools already in-hand.  Let me tell you, Lady Gaga knows nothing about a poker face compared to my supervisor; I couldn't read him.  We headed out to the spot we ended on the day before, to my surprise, he handed me the technical order, instructed me to start reading, got down and began scrubbing the grounding plug I was meant to scrub.  After 30 seconds or so of standing there trying to catch flies with my mouth hanging wide open, he looked up at me and, again, tells me to start reading.  So, I read.  Not only did I read, but I also taught him what I learned through my research the night before and my studying the previous day covering the system knowledge and emergency procedures.  The student was now the teacher.

Thankfully, I've learned multiple lessons similar to these from various supervisors over the course of my career, none quite as dramatic, but lessons none-the-less.  I don't claim to have all the answers; no one does.  Thinking back on this event, I fell asleep on the job.  My supervisor could have taken a different approach to the situation and you wouldn't be reading this article today, but he saw an opportunity to help me grow and take care of me.  I use the term "care" not in the sense of, "I'll save ya man."  Rather, he kicked me in the butt, forced me to learn what I needed to know, and took his own time and effort. Two days off, wrote a mock death notification to my father, which couldn’t have been easy, plus he did the same menial tasks he expected me to do--all in an attempt to get through to me.  That's what I consider taking care of our people.  

First line supervisors!  What are you doing to develop your Airmen?  Are you taking the time to seize an opportunity to teach and develop our Airmen with the lessons you know to be important or are you expecting them to "figure it out" as we press with getting the job done?  It doesn't have to be the "remedial" training I described above, but it needs to be something; so own it!  We're all very busy and the mission is always there; an underlying current which drives us toward a common purpose and it will only continue to speed ahead.  The future of our mission will falter if we don't take care of our people...from the ground up!