RAAF Base Newcastle; Australia's Fightertown. A warm, sunny Friday afternoon in the spring of 1999. The smell of fresh cut grass, eucalyptus leaves and jet fuel. Most of my course mates and instructors were already in the bar. I was sitting in a room, my sweaty green flying suit almost dry and the red marks from my oxygen mask just starting to fade from my nose. Impending dread; listening intently as my instructor concluded the debrief of the mission we had just flown.
The informal student's guide for F/A-18 conversion states “Some days you are the hound, and sometimes you are the hydrant. Everyone finds some part of the course very, very tough.”
For me, the “very, very tough” part was 2 v 2 intercepts against a MiG-29 threat. I just couldn’t perform all three of the tasks required; Formation, Comm and Radar. Usually, what happened is that I would prioritise communications and radar work, and my formation would suffer…I would ‘go blind’; fighter pilot language for losing sight of your lead. This was a safety concern (I can’t avoid hitting my lead if I can’t see him). Tactically, going blind is a nightmare; you now need to spend valuable time finding your lead while you are closing on a lethal enemy at more than 2000km/h.
For more than 10 years, I had become completely obsessed with becoming a fighter pilot. I cared about little else…I HAD to do it. This motivation was driven by a few factors; wanting to escape my small country town, wanting to prove the doubters wrong, but mostly just wanting to fly the fastest, craziest jet I could.
So, back to the briefing room. I had already failed this mission once. I knew I needed to pass this flight, or my dreams of becoming a fighter pilot would be at risk of ending like so many others before me. F/A-18 conversion doesn’t care about dreams.
“So, I’m sorry, but that mission is going to be a fail.” My blood replaced by ice. Can't hear anything anymore.
I had failed flights before, but this one seemed different. Previously, when I had failed a flight, I knew I COULD pass it. I just needed to prepare better. This time, I was doing everything I possibly could. I was out of ideas. There just seemed too much to do at once. To be tactically proficient but safe. I just couldn’t do it.
“I know you’re working hard mate. It’s the weekend now…let’s go to the bar and have a beer.”
I couldn’t. I walked outside, and sat in the gutter with tears in my eyes, and waited for my ride home.
On Monday morning, I walked back into that building; steely eyed, chest out and shoulders back, hungry to go and kill MiG-29s. It was the ONLY way.
I passed the flight.
Years later, I was an instructor at the Royal Australian Air Force’s flying training school near Perth. We were getting ready to post another batch of new pilots to various aircraft types. As had been happening for decades, the instructors were in a room discussing who should get the limited slots for fast jets. This wasn’t easy…we all knew students who had performed exceptionally well on pilot’s course, but had failed fighter conversion. And then there were others like me, who were average on pilot’s course, but had been successful at fighters.
I decided to go to the source. With input from the school’s psychologist, I designed a survey which I sent out to every current fast jet pilot in Australia (there were around 60). The gist of it was “Why were YOU successful on operational conversion.”
The survey asked about their perception of the importance of many factors; from IQ, to ‘natural flying ability’ to emotional intelligence. When the results came back, I was stunned.
Of all the qualities which were offered, one was overwhelmingly reported as MOST important. Tenacity.
Never give up. Victory through endurance. Don’t take no for an answer.
You got knocked down? Get the fuck up off that canvas and face up again!
It wasn’t like tenacity narrowly edged out the other factors. It blew them away by a huge, statistically significant margin.
So what do we make of this? Of course, there are occasions where it is pointless carrying on towards a goal if it’s blatantly obvious it’s impossible (or dangerous). I am 48; I’m not going to try to win Olympic gold in pole vaulting.
But if our goal is scary but reasonable and if there is hope and if there remains a chance; never, ever give up.
Like the latin inscription tattooed on my arm…FORTITUDINE VINCIMUS;"Through endurance we conquer".
At the end of the day, the result is outside our control. What truly matters is how we play the game. On the F/A-18 course before mine, they experienced a particularly brutal week in which a number of the students failed and had departed the classroom with their dreams shattered. One of the instructors wrote the following Theodore Roosevelt quote on the classroom whiteboard:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Never give up.