Captain’s Log: Desert Storm Day Zero

A “Symphony of Your Life” blog with Captain Mark Hardcastle

A little humility and a good idea can go a long way toward fixing a flawed plan…

January, 1991. Desert Shield is over. Tomorrow we will go into battle. My Ravens, with whom I have flown almost exclusively throughout the Shield, have come to me with bad news. They have been replaced by senior staff from their squadron, and are asking for my help in getting back onto the crew. Is there anything I can do?

Our airplane was officially designated the “RC-135,” known more affectionately as “The Hog” because of its distinctive long nose. The interior of the plane, based on an early variant of Boeing’s 707 passenger jet, was divided into several compartments, each populated by operators who hold multiple reconnaissance specialties. Each specialty came from its own squadron with its own chain of command. With the exception of my compartment, I had nothing to do with my mission staffing, and flew with whomever happened to show up on any given day.

The compartment I occupied was the flight deck and was separated from the “recon” sections of the plane by a curtain. My communication with the rest of the plane was via inter-phone through the senior Electronic Warfare Officer, or “Raven,” who coordinated with the remaining recon operators.

You may be starting to get an idea of the complexity of our normal routine. While we were governed by standard operating procedures that guaranteed our effectiveness – even with rotating crews in various compartments – it isn’t hard to recognize the benefit of working with crews you know.

I, along with my flight deck crew, had rotated in and out of the theater multiple times during the Shield. By simple coincidence, my crew of Ravens on all but one of those deployments had been the same crew who were now standing before me in our 12-person tent on the Riyadh airfield. We had flown dozens of sorties together over those months, had learned that we all had similar operating philosophies, and had become a well-oiled, highly effective reconnaissance machine. It was a good team.

And now, the night before the Super Bowl, their head coach had benched my starters.

Because they were from an entirely different squadron, I had zero control over the situation. Their leadership had complete freedom to staff any mission however they saw fit. As we brainstormed together that night, we had to begin from the reality that our hand was weak. But while acknowledging the lack of power we looked for possibilities to influence.

Possibility of influence. That’s all we had, so we resolved to make the best of it. I left the tent and made my way to the operations center where I found their squadron commander and his second-in-command finalizing staffing for all of the next day’s missions. There would be several of those flights as Desert Storm was unleashed.

It’s worth noting at this point that two of the Ravens who were to replace “my own” were the two gentlemen now standing before me, the commander and his operations officer, both senior officers, each with double my time in service. They were engrossed in their task. I was scared spitless.

I didn’t see it this way at the time, but my friend Captain Bob Zimmerman says there are high-stakes moments in our lives in which we need to find just 20 seconds of courage. This was one of those moments. I could see their plan was flawed. I had no authority to fix it on my own. And I owed it to myself, my crew of Ravens, and indeed the impending war effort, to do something.

So I took a deep breath, introduced myself, and began by acknowledging that I really had no business being there. It was not my place – it was theirs – to lead their squadron. But I was coming to them for help.

I explained that I had learned that my Ravens had been replaced. And I was aware that this in and of itself was not a big deal, or even at all unusual. The difference this night was the remarkable good fortune we’d had to fly together – to train together – during the entirety of the Shield. We had become the team that makes it to the Super Bowl. And, as a crew, we were asking in all humility if we might be re-crewed together so we could take the field as the team we had become.

I thanked these leaders for their time, saluted smartly, and left the ops center, not knowing what the outcome would be. It didn’t take long. Before I made it back to the tent, my Ravens had been called into the ops center. Moments later they came back with the news. It was done. We would be going into battle as the combat-ready crew we had created together.

There was a time I would have approached this challenge differently. Arrogance and cockiness are hallmarks of young pilots (you’ve seen the movie, “Top Gun,” right?). Although I knew better than to bulldoze my way into meetings with senior officers, my overconfidence got in my way more times than I care to admit. Life, though, has a way of rounding off hard corners. The process can be painful. I have my share of scars to prove it.

That night in Riyadh on the eve of Desert Storm, I had not yet learned all the humility that would be forced upon me over the course of my 62 years on the planet. But I had learned enough. And the experience of humbling myself after gathering 20 seconds of courage locked in the lesson. Somehow finding the courage to make the effort, clothed in recognition of one’s place, can be powerful.

I hope that you are not looking at flying into actual combat tomorrow with actual bullets. But I know that you will be fighting a hard battle. I hope you have a good crew. And a good plan. If not, a little humility, a good idea, and maybe 20 seconds of courage can go a long way toward fixing everything.

Thanks for reading!

Captain Mark

Link to Mark’s book, The Symphony of Your Life

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Mark graduated from the USAF Academy in 1982. After nine years as a pilot on active duty, he left the military to join a commercial airline. In addition to flying B-737s around the country, Hardcastle spends time in the Rocky Mountains and serves on the artistic staff of the Colorado Children’s Chorale. He lives in Centennial, Colorado, with his wife and four children. Need some help figuring out why you’re on this planet? Want to talk about discovering your mission and purpose? Contact Mark today at 720.840.8361 to schedule a free personal consultation. He can also deliver an inspirational keynote or workshop for your organization! email: for information.

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