Fighter pilot likes fight-and-win partners

Lt. Col. Rob “Waldo” Waldman, former combat decorated fighter pilot and businessman, told Siemens Summit 2012 attendees how it’s necessary to prepare for every mission, build courage to adapt to change and adversity, promote one team and one culture, and commit to excellence in business and in life.
By Mark T. Hoske July 26, 2012

Lt. Col. Rob “Waldo” Waldman, former combat decorated fighter pilot and businessman, told attendees at the 2012 Siemens Summit that it’s necessary to prepare for every mission, build courage to adapt to change and adversity, and promote one team and one cMaybe you’ve worked on an automation project that’s felt like 9 Gs. That’s the maximum force applied to an F-16 fighter pilot during extreme maneuvers, “like your head is about to rip right off your body,” according to Lt. Col. Rob “Waldo” Waldman, former combat decorated fighter pilot and businessman. He told attendees at the Siemens Summit (June 26-28, in Washington, D.C.) that it’s necessary to prepare for every mission, build courage to adapt to change and adversity, promote one team and one culture, and commit to excellence in business and in life. Among fighter pilots, your wingman is your trusted partner. Waldman explained how to build trusting, revenue-producing relationships with employees, partners, and customers. His paraphrased comments follow.

What is a wingman? Someone who will back you up, not turn away, and help you win. I flew 65 missions in Iraq. I’ve flown at 3 a.m. pitch black, in a $30 million F-16, pulling up to 9 Gs, which feels like your head is going to rip right off your body. I’ve felt passion, fear, and doubt, especially when surface-to-air missiles were fired at me. In those situations, you learn what a trusted partner means.

That includes a commitment to excellence, where integrity is first and service is before self. It’s where you’re strapped in with a willingness to get shot at.

I grew up in Long Island, N.Y., with an over-demanding mom and dad from Brooklyn. We were very poor growing up. My dad was a crew chief in the Navy. He always said, “Do it right the first time or don’t do it at all.” He also said, “If you hang out with garbage, you will become garbage.”

Mom was the general. At 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning, she’d come into my room and give me the white glove test. She was tough. There was no allowance. We were told to work for our money. Don’t give up on your kids. Be tough.

I have a twin, Dave. We were very competitive. Dave was fearless. At the pool, he’d jump off the high dive, no problem. Not me. I was on the 30-ft board. Yep. I turned around and went back down.

When my Dad was head of maintenance at an airport, he took me to work. Ah, the smell of JP4 jet fuel. A giant 747 sitting there.  I didn’t want to fix them, though. I wanted to fly them. He was a Navy man, so applying to the Air Force Academy was tough for him. But we visited together to ensure that was really what I wanted to do. It’s a tough thing for parents to support children making that kind of decision. In a Colorado gymnasium, waiting for me was a 10-meter, 33-ft-high board. No one graduated without jumping off that with a 30-lb pack. That wasn’t in the marketing brochure.

I was the last in my class to do it. But I did it. What’s standing between you and living your dreams as an engineer, a parent, and a businessperson? Will you continue to do what you have to do when the fun parts are over? How do you respond as an individual? It all starts with you. People are depending on you.

Whether it was inhaling a lungful of water or freaking out in a cross-country flight, fighting claustrophobia in the cockpit, I constantly reminded myself that my love of flying was greater than my fears. I flew the DMZ [demilitarized zone] in Korea, in the 35th fighter squadron. In any conflict, we were the first to fight.

Every squadron has a slogan. Ours was, “Push it up.” I know that may be a little too motivational for engineers. I get it.

But sometimes jumping out of bed isn’t easy. We all have a choice daily. Push it up to full power or pull it back. If we don’t resist temptation to ease up, we might as well go back to bed. Complacency kills fighter pilots. We all must train, sweat, and prepare. Complacency also kills business brands and causes industrial accidents. Let’s not get shot down in what we do. Let your passion drive your beliefs. Stay committed for the love of the fight. Take action, recommit yourselves to action.

This video of a mission gives you an idea of what it’s like up there. “I know you’re freaking out. Stay in position, don’t lose sight of me, I’ll take you to the target. Commit, commit, full power.”

Sometimes you feel shot down or need a quick turnaround. Survival is when you focus on threat, the competition. Winning is focused on the customer. When you think about the people around you in formation, it shifts everything. You have other people depending on you. They want to know if they can depend on you to work late hours when needed, to dig deep. What do you need to do to push it up? Work on communication skills? Or maybe pull back at work a little and attend your son’s soccer game?

Commit to excellence. Be mission ready. Study up, get briefed on the mission, gather the latest intelligence, understand technology, get system upgrades and software upgrades, and learn and relearn as needed. Have a contingency plan, a “What if…”. Prepare. F-16s have one engine. If we lost an engine, we were gliding. [Video showed an F-16 gliding in, with an escort, a wingman, talking in the gliding pilot, helping him through the steps, right to the runway.]

Attitude doesn’t determine altitude. Performance and actions are the only things that matter. You cannot lead by the seat of your pants. You have to be in the chair to fly the mission. We call that practiced under pressure. Preparation builds confidence. Trust sells. Ensure your partners are earning their wings as well. The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in battle.

With a wingman, your partner, 3 green means you’re looking good.

One day I was late for a briefing, which I didn’t like because it meant two things. I was grounded that day, and I had to bring donuts.

My commander was a state wrestling champ, and we knew he was tough. He said to me quietly after the meeting, “Being late is not like you, Waldo. Anything bothering you?” He knew that some of us might have things in our lives that might take precedence over flying some day. Loyalty is a big deal in this business. My commander earned more of my trust that day.

Leaders lift. When your wings are clipped, you’re depending on your wingman to say, “I’ve got you covered.” 3 green. My commander demonstrated leadership by the questions he asked. Connect from your heart. Push it up. You don’t have to be a cheerleader, but those around you need to know how you respond in the heat of battle.

Here’s a video of an F-16 in combat. When a missile is coming at you, sometimes you have to fly at it and break right, hard, or you’re dead. And if you don’t, then a 40-ft telephone pole with a warhead on top is going to shoot you out of sky.

Check 6 means you’re asking your wingman to check your rear [6 o’clock] for threats, missiles, or the enemy. You cannot see your most vulnerable position and must rely on your partner to see if you’re leaking fuel or on fire. Your wingman is your backup. “I’ve got your 6.”

Discipline is severe if you’re not backing each other up. We collaborate hardcore. Tell your spouse, best friends, and coworkers to put a hand up if they need backup. Take action now to get them the help they need. Speed is life. Do what you need to do quickly. You need innovation to increase your speed to market. Be approachable. As a leader don’t demand to hear only what you want to hear. Listen to what you need to hear. Sometimes you may have a bruised ego and tick off customers. Take action now. Your customer is depending on it. Execute. Have a debriefing.

In our debriefings after a mission, those around the table would remove rank from uniforms. They’re attached with Velcro. These meetings were not about ego; they were about doing what was right to improve. Are you willing to come through? You have to earn your wings every day.

Consider the “Check 6” culture of collaboration. Break right to your wingman. Tell them what they need to hear; risk the relationship to do what’s right. Tick off your buddies when necessary. Create game-changing products and implementations. At conferences like this, you may meet competitors today who will be partners tomorrow. Check each others’ 6.

It’s not just the ability to communicate or cheerleading, but how you communicate.

[Video showed a John Wayne character slapping his copilot.]

Don’t we all wish we had just one slap a day to hand out at work? That’s why I flew a single-engine single-seat fighter.

We had the opportunity to fly a training mission, one F-16 against four F-15s. It was very rare training, and my crew chief shorted me 500 lbs of fuel, which cut it short for me. When I got back, I tore into my 18-year-old crew chief. I went “New York” on him. Afterward, my commander was waiting in the hangar for me. You know it’s not going to be a good day when your commander is waiting for you.

“Come with me, Waldo.” We had a “Come to Jesus” meeting, which is really difficult for a New York Jew.

He made sure I got up at 6 a.m. the next day and worked the flight line to see what they do. I never worked so hard in my life. Before that, my ground crew was a commodity to me. The 18-year-old crew chief told me that he wanted to be fighter pilot like me. I just figured his job was to serve me. I didn’t realize he had dreams, too. I shook his hand and thanked him heartily. He looked at me more like I was a wingnut than a wingman.

Sometimes we shoot missiles at people around us, people who we really need to thank for sweating and sacrificing for us, ensuring we’re clear to fly fight and win. Appreciation is good to give. Shake hands. Buy a cup of coffee. Acknowledge people as human beings. Say you’re sorry for going off on them and apologize. Respect and trust are tough to gain and easy to lose. Right or wrong doesn’t matter as much as respect. You cannot afford to have your wingman check out. You have to back each other up. I know what it is like out there. Many of you are doing the work of three people. Shake hands and collaborate with those around you. Challenge, discuss, and help each other put food on the table.

Have commitment, have passion, be mission ready, be confident in your skills, and learn how to be a good wingman.

My book, “Never Fly Solo,” explains more of what I talked about here, and all profits go to military personnel who need it. Raise your hands if you’ve been in the military or know someone who has. Regardless of what you think about any of our current or past missions, we are one team, with one mission. Be a wingman. Love each other. Have courage. Show respect. Lend some wings to others. If you want to thank our troops, let’s be the type of people worth fighting for. You don’t have to wear a uniform to serve. Serve your community.

Never fly solo. My twin brother Dave has been my wingman for a long time. He gave me support when I had a panic attack and helped me manage my fear. If a little guy from New York can be a successful fighter pilot, you can get out there and kick butt, too.

“I need help” are the three most important words for a wingman. Do you have the courage to ask for help? Reveal vulnerabilities and give the 3 green when things look good. To turn fear into something more powerful, you have to ask for help. Who are your wingmen and who can you be a wingman for? Are you willing to give your wings away to help your wingman? Find meaning in the mission. It starts with you.

At 44, I overcame another fear. I’m a newly married man. Love lifts and fear drags. Don’t lose sight or lose the fight. Continue to earn your wings daily. Angels with one wing can fly only by embracing each other. Be a wing giver, and you’ll never fail.

– Mark T. Hoske, content manager CFE Media, Control Engineering, Plant Engineering, and Consulting-Specifying Engineer, can be reached at


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