All of us remember where we were on 9/11. I had one of the greatest jobs in the world of the Vice Commander of the Tanker Airlift Control Center (TACC). For the non Air Force people, the TACC is the air operations center responsible for the planning scheduling and execution of all airlift and tanker operations, 24/7 365. Remembering that Afghanistan is a landlocked country, every bullet fired, bomb dropped, every bean eaten, literally everything needed for the war effort had to be airlifted in. In the 12 years since 9/11 all of our military has worked hard to establish road and rail systems to supply our efforts there. Now it is a little easier with more robust lines of communication. Back then it seemed to be a nearly impossible task.
You can imagine that as we began to take the fight to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, the TACC was beyond busy. By early October, we were trying to establish airfields for our troops and aircraft to operate out of. Kharshi-Khanabad, Uzbekistan, known as K2, was an old Soviet base, which became a center of operations. But in those first days of the war K2 was nothing more than a runway, with a few deserted buildings.
The first AMC mobility missions into K2 were flown by C-17s. This was before the ubiquitous use of night vision goggles made flying blacked out approaches a much easier. We were concerned about the threat of hand held surface to air missiles on our crews and planes. Therefore the decision was made to send the first C-17s into K2 at night, blacked out. K2 had no operational navigation aides, so the first crews flying into K2 were taking in basic equipment and temporary portable navigation aides.
The Power of Empowerment
On the night the first C-17 was to fly into K2, the mood in the operations center was tense, and focused like a laser beam. You could have cut the air in our operations center with a knife. Our team was deeply concerned about the safety of these first crews.
I was directed to contact the aircraft commander who was to fly that first sortie and speak to him personally to ensure that he was comfortable that he could find the field, and safely execute an approach and landing into K2.
Finding that aircrew took a long time. After about three hours of phone calls I finally found the crew at Incirlik AB Turkey, and thence was able to call the young Captain who was the aircraft commander. He was asleep, trying to get some rest prior to this challenging mission.
“Sir, with all due respect Freaking Ray Charles could find K2 in a C-17…”
Here is the conversation between he and I. It is still etched deeply in my mind after all these years. I don’t recall his name, and wish I could give him the credit he so richly deserves. I will call him Captain Smith.“Captain Smith, is this Captain Smith?”, I spoke into the telephone via a very scratchy connection. A sleepy Captain Smith replied, “Yes this is Captain Smith.” In a serious tone I said, “Captain Smith, this is Colonel Geno Redmon, and I am the Vice Commander of the TACC. Are you awake? “ “I am now Sir, replied a bored voice.” But I had his attention. “I have been directed by Maj Gen Mike Wooley Commander of the TACC and Maj Gen Roger Brady the AMC Director of Operations, to contact you and ask you specifically, “Are you absolutely confident that you can find K2 and fly a blacked out landing safely into K2?” There was a slight pause, and then the now wide-awake Captain Smith said in a quite authoritative and confident voice, “Sir, I am the aircraft commander of a C-17, the best airlifter in the world. It has dual INS (inertial navigation system), it has dual GPS (global positioning system). I have specially built an approach into K2 on my mission computer. Sir, with all due respect Freaking Ray Charles could find K2 in a C-17.” With that statement, I paused and then said, “Captain Smith thank you for your service, good luck and god speed from the TACC and may God Bless America.”
I hung up the phone and immediately dropped to my knees in a fit of laughter.
Generals Wooley and Brady, clearly irritated with my behavior quickly turned in their chairs and said, “Redmon, what is so damned funny?” I stopped laughing, attempted to compose myself and relayed the direct quote from Captain Smith.” The room erupted in laughter, and for the first time in nearly a month there was some semblance of calm and relaxation. Later that night Captain Smith successfully executed his mission. And the USAF was ready to carry the fight to the enemy right on schedule.
Lessons in Empowerment
There was an important lesson in this for me, and for leaders of all organizations. We in the United States Air Force are blessed with the finest young men and women that this country offers. They have been trained to do their jobs with competence and confidence. When all else fails, we can trust our crew dogs on the tip of the sword to do their jobs. May God bless Captain Smith, his crew and all of those brave soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen who have given and still give their lives in the service of their country.
Key Questions for Leaders:
- Are you as a leader doing your best to supply your workers every tool they need to do their jobs correctly?
- Have you done everything possible to ensure that your workers have been trained to safely and efficiently perform their jobs to the best of their ability and to the high standards you have set for your organizations?
- When the time comes do you trust your people to do their jobs?
- Do you empower your people to make decisions as they pertain to their job descriptions?
- Do you have a feedback mechanism in place to monitor performance, correct deficiencies, and offer positive feed back for meeting or exceeding expectations?