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Where does the power lie?

Many leaders lose sight of the idea that they have to earn trust and commitment from their subordinates. Last week I wrote about a servant leader. This week I'd like to explore the opposite: a leader that doesn't understand the power of their people.

In 2005 I was working swing shift in the 310th AMU. The previous year we suffered through a prolonged battle with start malfunctions and other heavy maintenance issues. We worked a lot of hours. Most of us had been working together for quite a long time and we got along really well with only a few exceptions.

At this time there was still a distinct separation of the two TAMS sections [yes, there used to be two TAMS sections in AMUs] complete with separate expediters and section chiefs. I was in A section and it was universally understood our section was much better than B section. This is less a subjective opinion, and much more objective fact.

Our AMU Chief, CMSgt James Fullington was a strict disciplinarian. He didn't seem to have a grasp of the basics of aircraft maintenance, let alone F-16 specific maintenance. He was the type to only interact with junior personnel during discipline or one-sided AMU calls. He disliked me in particular and seemed to delight when he caught me in a state of imperfection [side note: In 2005 we all had manual log-ins to the computers and intranet. Periodically I would intentionally lock-out the Chief from his account at night so first thing in the morning he would have to call comm and get his account unlocked ruining his morning].

This story begins on a Tuesday. I can't remember the month or even the season [sorry]. We had a pretty typical roll call with our section chief going over the minutia and the expediter [Brian Ingram] going over the maintenance for the evening. However, within the section chiefs notes was a critical piece of information: We had failed a preflight QVI [quality verification inspection] the night before and our AMU Chief decided that because of this failed QVI he determined that none of the crew chiefs were competent at preflight inspections. Because of this determination our section chief announced all crew chiefs would be coming in the following Saturday for preflight training.

So there are a few problems here.

1) Every crew chief knows how to do a preflight. Barring some weird anomaly every Airman arrives at their first duty station with a full understanding of every step of a preflight inspection [among other certifications]. To declare that everyone must be trained is a shit response. In effect, the Chief was mandating training as punishment.

2) The failed preflight was not for egregious errors. It was an accumulation of minor carded items and non-carded items. None of which were a safety of flight issue. The reaction indicates the Chief did not have an understanding of the write ups.

3) Every preflight inspection could fail. This isn't a well guarded secret and every maintenance leader worth their salt understands this universal truth.

4) Don't tell people on a Tuesday they are coming in on a Saturday for useless remedial training. That gives them 4 days to stew.

This particular decision likely was a reaction to only reviewing QA fails. Most AMU leaders only look at or are briefed about QA failures. They never review QA passes or successes. This gives them a constant influx of negative information so they form a skewed perception of their unit's maintenance quality. As a swing shift 7 level I didn't believe we had a quality maintenance issue, however I recognize I was probably biased.

In response to the weekend tasking the entire crew chief swing shift had an informal meeting after roll call. I told the gathered men that the AMU chief didn't believe we were good aircraft inspectors and I suggested we prove him wrong, by breaking the living fuck out of all of the jets.

Now, this doesn't mean we sabotaged any jets or fabricated discrepancies. What it meant is that we looked really hard at everything, and tried to find the most inane write-ups that could ground our fleet. The more jets we grounded the better, with the ultimate goal being that we not fly any.

In order for it to work, both TAMS sections had to be on board, and every single person had to do it together. I told them that if we did this, expect to work 14 hour days for the rest of the week, plus the entire weekend.

Luckily the other section was on board led by one of their swing shift 7 levels SSgt Jason Ryan.

So we set out to do our impeccable inspections for the evening. The trick with this tactic is you become ultra T.O. compliant. Every technician understands that if a unit was 100% T.O. compliant it would grind to a halt for a significant period of time. I'm not sure what rank people reach where they lose this insight, but from my limited observation it happens somewhere around E-8. This doesn't mean everyone E-8 and above is detached from the reality of flightline operations, but they become the exception not the norm.

So we began. I found loose rivets on both stabs. Pete Saccone discovered a kick panel screw missing. Other guys found main landing gear door hinge bushings migrated. My expediter Craig Wright came over and I told him about my stabs. I'm not sure if he knew what was going on, but you could tell he was stressed. He looked at the stab and said the rivets looked good enough and he was sure the 'evaluation by sheet metal would be good.' I replied that I look forward to having them sign off the eval. Craig asked if maybe we could have it eval'd another day because so many jets were breaking and I said no. He then said we had filled the hangar in just the last few hours with Non-Mission capable aircraft.

About 3 hours into the shift and after about a 40% MC rate hit our swing shift pro-super brought all the crew chiefs together in the conference room for a meeting.

Our swing shift Pro Super was MSgt Austin. He was dry, sarcastic and generally pretty ornery. This meeting in particular he was angry and it was quite evident this would be a one sided conversation with us listening to his direction.

Between MSgt Austin and his expediters he managed to figure out what was going on. The mandatory preflight training on the weekend coinciding with a massive uptick in preflight Red X finds isn't a large cognitive leap.

He directed that for the rest of the shift we were not allowed to write up anymore discrepancies without his approval first.

I disagreed. We were writing up either known Red X conditions or Red dash evaluations. I told MSgt Austin if he believed our discrepancies were not valid he was welcome to sign them off. Quite the difference between people not writing up discrepancies and having to put your name in the forms for a valid Red X right?

A few younger Airmen caved to the pressure. In the end we didn't break the fleet too bad and we managed a few lines the next day. Even though we worked a 14 hour shift that night and worked to exhaustion, our morale was really high. We knew we had the power. We had to willingness to destroy our own night, and our own weekend at the cost of sorties. We were doing it on our terms.

The next day at roll call our section chief briefed us that we would no longer be required to  report to work on Saturday for mandatory preflight training. The rest of the week we worked 12+ hours fixing all the discrepancies from the preflights and whatever breaks came down with the flying schedule.

There were times later in my career as a section chief when I knew my guys were getting hemmed up in the same way as we were in 2005. All I could think of is that I wanted them to push back the same way. But as a section chief it felt a bit more mutinous to suggest such a measure to my guys so I never did.

As a supervisor, and later as a section chief, I really tried to avoid using training as an excuse for when something wasn't done correctly. Often at meetings a failure would be briefed and before all the facts were known of why the failure happened, the person was already decertified on the task with a plan for retraining. Did the person not know how to do the task? Or were they complacent? Or worse: Does the quality of this task reflect on the quality climate of the flightline?

Using training is a weak way out and leaders shouldn't accept it at face value. As a leader it is imperative that you earn the trust of your subordinates. The military places leaders at a disadvantage because they believe that trust and compliance is a given. However every person has their breaking point. In this story we reached ours and reminded Chief Fullington of how much power we really had.

In the twilight of my career I ended up doing something similar to remind my supervision where the power lied, but that's another story at another base; however in case you're curious fuel leaks can really, REALLY ground a fleet.


  1. Everyone loves being in the Red X militia. Sometimes ya gotta stick it to the man!


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