On Fighter Piloting and Fatherhood

Of the many titles we hold in life, I had never considered the parallels between two that most define me—until recently.

It happened during a particularly exasperating parenting moment.

“Son,” I said to the offending child, much less calm and collected than depicted here, “you’re making fatherhood too much like landing on an aircraft carrier.”

I explained that a carrier landing requires 100% of a pilot’s concentration to the exclusion of any other task or thought. Numerous, virtually non-stop flight control inputs are made until touch down. It’s exhausting.

“Instead,” I continued, “fathering should be more like flying across the country up at high altitude.”

I assumed he understood that when cruising with autopilot on, virtually no control inputs are required. This relaxed phase of flight requires comparatively little effort and, frankly, not much thought.

…If you have children, you can imagine the blank response I received.

But the more I considered this spur-of-the-moment comparison, the more I recognized the many parallels between being a father and being a fighter pilot. Sure, there are the varying levels of effort required, but there’s more—like the value of carrying external stores and the benefits of having a wingman.

Later, after a little brainstorming, I came up with the following similarities between fighter piloting and fatherhood:

THE NEED TO BE PROACTIVE

Student pilots are instructed early in their training to “never let an airplane take you somewhere your brain didn’t get to five minutes earlier.” The idea being that continually thinking ahead increases situational awareness, thus maximizing efficiency and minimizing risk.

Conversely, when reacting to situations, pilots tend to become task saturated and unable to manage other duties—even relatively trivial ones. This can be disastrous.

Parenting is no different. Who hasn’t endured the inevitable road trip cries “are we there yet?” and “Billy touched me!” from the backseat? Reactionary game plans in this arena are seldom successful.

Yet with some simple planning for activities or amusement options—be it games, I Spy, or electronic entertainment—parent drivers can enjoy a modicum of peace, at least until Moana ends.

Worse, children seem to have a knack for knowing the most inconvenient time to be hungry or desperately need a bathroom as if cued by some cosmic prankster.

To combat this, I try to always carry snacks anytime I leave the house with the kids. And when out and about, I almost never pass up a bathroom despite pleas of “but I don’t need to go!” Inevitably, they do need to go—it just isn’t an emergency. Yet.

Children, like airplanes, seem to recognize and exploit the weaknesses of a reactionary game plan. Proactive, involved planning and execution are required for success in either.

CARRYING EXTERNAL STORES

Most modern combat aircraft are equipped with external attachment points to carry a variety of stores that may be needed in flight, depending on the mission. Common stores include expendable tanks for extra fuel, pods for electronic warfare, and various air- or surface-attack weapons.

Likewise, when my family is on a ‘mission’ I am usually equipped with a backpack loaded appropriately. There’s water, sunscreen, battery recharging sources for our myriad devices, various small distractions, and always plenty of snacks (as previously stated). Before abruptly falling out of favor, cargo shorts used to be another effective option.

(…Thankfully, my flight experiences never included aircraft equipped with internal weapons bays, such as the F-22 Raptor, or this particular comparison may have taken an awkward turn.)

CONTINUOUS LEARNING

In nearly 25 years of Navy flying, not once did I ever meet a pilot who claimed to have learned all there was to know about aviation. It is simply not possible—there is always something more to be learned and, indeed, the thorough post-flight debriefs can last hours as every ‘learning point’ is laboriously analyzed.

Military flyers are lifelong learners.

Parents, too, learn something new every day. Just when you think you have your infant figured out, he turns into a toddler. Then she heads off to school. Then puberty. Then driving. Then dating. Then… you get the point.

And never mind trying to apply what you learned with child #1 on child #2 (or, God forbid, #3)—with each new child comes new learning opportunities.

The tragedy in this parallel is that parenting debriefs are virtually nonexistent—at least in my house, where the best we manage is an occasional passing update or weary end-of-the-day pillow talk before slumbering off.

It’s too bad.

The debrief is where the real learning happens with clearly identified areas to concentrate on to increase the chance for success the next time out. My fathering could definitely benefit from that.

REFUEL & REARM

Unlike large strategic bombers that can unleash a firestorm of bombs virtually anywhere on earth, tactical fighters are notoriously low on fuel and lightly armed. The constant need to replenish results in a nearly non-stop search for the nearest aerial tanker.

My three sons (and all their friends, it seems) have a perpetual need to replenish that would make a Costco blush. But that isn’t the point here. Parents need to stay properly rested, hydrated, nourished, and mentally and emotionally replenished to operate at peak performance. For just as flight attendants advise airline passengers to secure their own oxygen masks in the event of an emergency before assisting others, parents are not effective if they exhaust their fuel or expend all their stores.

To be an effective father, I too continually seek opportunities to hydrate, rest, exercise, and otherwise replenish. The opportunities are sometimes fleeting.

HAVING A WINGMAN

By far the most tangible comparison between fighter piloting and fatherhood is the value of having a wingman.

Combat missions require a minimum of two aircraft to operate together in the smallest element for the mutual support afforded by the extra eyes and ears. Further, a wingman offers a perspective sometimes unseen by the other, such as a threat at your dead six or a problem with the underside of your aircraft.

When separated over enemy territory, lone fighters are implored to seek a wingman of opportunity while flowing towards friendly territory.

Admittedly, different family dynamics often result in single-mother or -father households which I have no desire to denigrate, but for me, having a wingman in the home has been vital. My wife can spot threats in my blind spots that may otherwise go unnoticed and, like a good wingman, she is quick to point them out with a short terse call to action.

Sure, a “break right!” call may be followed by an excruciating high-G turn, but it is always in my best long-term interests to do exactly as directed. This is as true at 35,000 feet and Mach 0.9 as it is in our living room at zero knots.

At home or afar, a wingman is also pivotal during ongoing operations when a brief refuel or rearm respite is needed.

Further, a wingman’s external stores can be a value-adding asset to the flight, and a wingman can be pivotal in the development and execution of proactive game plans.

But most of all, when the mission is over and everyone is safe on deck, a good wingman will be there for the debrief to accentuate the ‘goods’, to offer suggestions for the ‘others’, and then to celebrate afterwards with a refreshment at the club with friends.

Because in the end, isn’t that what matters?

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