The Death of a Mom & Fighter Pilots

The news spread quickly around town.  Another parent from the eighth grade class had passed away. This time, a mom under fifty died from a rare freezing of the heart caused by Melanoma entering the blood stream.  One year earlier, a dad passed away from a combination of cancer and dystrophy.  My child clung to my arm all weekend, determined in her own way to keep me from leaving this earth anytime soon.

At the funeral, I heard stories of how this mom’s mother also passed away at nearly the same age.  This mom obviously had to grow up fast after her mother’s death, leaving her childhood much sooner than expected.  I personally understand her situation having lost my father at the age of fifteen.  It now became me versus the world.  I had to survive and figure out the adult world literally by myself.  I suspect this mom also felt the same way, determined to survive, succeed, and find happiness again.

Several people at the funeral home speculated that she is probably up in heaven holding God in a headlock, asking him why she had to leave so quickly from earth.  This headlock image characterizes a woman determined to have control over her environment.  The need for such control often comes with a price.  Many opportunities, ideas, and people are ignored because they do not fit into the controlled view of life.  Her planned life story probably unfolded according to her script but had a surprise twist and ending.

Several days after the funeral, I attended a business conference.  The guest speaker, Carey D. Lohrenz, opened the event with a talk about her life as The U.S. Navy’s first female F-14 Tomcat Fighter Pilot.  Fighter Pilots speaking at business conferences has become the new trend.  Their experiences flying million dollar planes at the age of nineteen has become the latest trend in leadership training.  Twelve months earlier, I attended a conference where a male fighter pilot talked about his flying career and the lessons learned.

Carey talked about the need for Courage, Tenacity, and Integrity as part of solid leadership qualities.  Particularly being the first female F-14 Tomcat Fighter, Carey had to be tenacious in her pursuit of flying and she had to have integrity higher than any of the males around her or she would be quickly singled out as unfit.  She knew the standards for her were set higher than the males in her class just because she was under a microscope of observation.  Any slight trip would be used as an excuse to disqualify her from the program.

With such intense pressure upon Carey, I expected to find a lady much like the mom who just passed away, determined to survive, succeed, and control her environment.  In fact, Carey made a point of demonstrating her lack of control over many aspects of her life.  A Christmas card photo of her family of four, three girls and one boy, demonstrated her point.  The oldest daughter held the youngest around her arms on a beautiful beach setting.  The middle daughter stood in the distance, again a beautiful smile glowing from her face.  The son, on the other hand, was bending down looking for something on the sand.  The only thing we could see of him was his rear end.  Carey sent the photo, deciding this was the best she could get that year and would correct it the next year.  At least, she thought, people knew she had a son.

When Carey began talking about the fighter pilot experience, she showed a crayon like drawing of an airplane.  Words with arrows pointed to parts of the plane, describing the knowledge she has of the physics and engineering of a plane.  For example, she pointed toward the rear of the plane and said these flapper like things are needed to keep the plane in flight.  In the front of the plane, she wrote the word magic, describing some kind of magic occurs here to get the plane off the ground.  Obviously, she was being funny but also indicating that she does not need to understand the physics of a plane to fly one.

Carey then described the numerous gauges inside the cockpit which she did understand thoroughly.  Each gauge provided key bits of information about the plane and its flight path.  After this, she showed a video of a fighter in action during a simulated fight in the air.  Two things were clear from the video.  First, the pilot spent more time looking around in the air, trying to spot the enemy pilots and planes.  He rarely looked at his instrument gauges.  Second, he could be heard yelling out loud how awesome he was.

Carey then brought all the images together in a simple statement – the eighty/twenty rule.  We only need to know eighty percent of the information to make good decisions.  One hundred percent knowledge of every detail before making a decision or taking action is not necessary and often impossible.  She described the intensity of bringing in a fighter plane on to an aircraft carrier at night.  The gauges helped her get close to the aircraft carrier but she needed to use her visual observations when getting closer to see if she was coming in too low.  Often the aircraft carrier would bob up and down in rough waters and a gauge could not detect that quickly enough to avoid a crash.  Her point was that gauges are important and necessary but we all still need to observe the world around us and detect the unexpected.

Landing aircraft

One year earlier, a male fighter pilot talked about the risk of “Task Lock”, where we can become so fixed upon a specific task that we lose sight of the total environment.  In particular, he described the crash of a passenger plane in Florida where the flight crew became so fixated upon a gauge which had a malfunctioning light bulb that they lost sight of the plane’s altitude.  Just before they crashed, killing all on board, the crew visually observed they were just feet off the ground and had no time to correct the plane’s altitude. If the crew had been paying attention to the bigger picture and their observable surroundings, they would have detected the rapid decrease in altitude much faster and provided the corrections.

Carey’s approach to an effective life expects the unexpected to happen and keeps looking for the unplanned from people who enter her life with insights, information, or opportunities.  These new items often change what we first believed to be the “right” course for our lives.  She also emphasizes the need for action before having one hundred percent information, meaning there comes a time for action based upon facts, insight and intuition.

Having experienced the loss of a parent at a young age, I understand the need to control life and its events for fear of suffering a major loss again.  This need for total control often results in the building of virtual and real walls, where only the familiar and expected are allowed in. Ironically, the more control we feel, the less we understand what is really happening.  We only see what we want to see, reinforcing the wall of perception created to simplify life.  To put it in terms of the fighter pilots, we are focused upon the instrument gauges of life, ignorant of what is happening just outside our looking glass.

The death of this eighth grade mom shattered many other parents’ illusion of total control in their lives, even if for a brief moment.  But will they learn a life lesson from this tragedy, a lesson young fighter pilots learn on a daily basis?  Will they see that total control over life is just an illusion and not necessary for success?  Will they recognize the anxiety created from having to always feel in control?  It is difficult to know whether a reduced anxiety and a more open respect for the unfamiliar and unexpected would have provided earlier insight into the disease of this mom.  But it could have provided her with a Fighter Pilots chance for success.

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