When I was a newly winged naval aviator, flying A-7E Corsair II jets off the USS Constellation, one of my first squadron commanding officers was a High-Trust Leader, Commander L.J. Vernon, who lived the 5C’s every day.
Compared to land-based operations, the takeoff from an aircraft carrier in a fighter jet is violent. After jamming the aircraft’s throttle to full power, the high-pressure steam catapult would fire and accelerate the single-piloted, single engine A-7E to 180 mph in three seconds! The metal deck of the carrier would rush away as the pilot was thrown back into the ejection seat. When the acceleration abruptly ended, the jet was above flying speed, over the water, in front of the ship. The pilot would raise the landing gear and flaps while commencing a climb away from the water. The procedure then called for the pilot to announce safely airborne and ready for vectors from the controller, referencing the tail number of the jet — simply “301, airborne.”
L.J. was well-known among the air wing’s pilots for the radio call he would make every time he was catapulted into the air for a night flight off the ship. He would tag his airborne call with his own personal addition, “301 airborne, and loving it!”
Most of the time, hearing LJ’s call on the radio was a nice break in the routine. Without using his name, we would all think, “there goes Skipper Vernon.” It was his personal statement, leading by an example of enthusiasm, even when getting blasted into the night sky from a ship at sea far from land. It added to the special sense of camaraderie that Navy pilots share.
But the true value of his simple routine became vividly apparent to me one dark, rainy night in the Western Pacific Ocean. The weather was terrible with clouds layered from 500 to 25,000 feet. The wind was howling and the massive ship was pitching and rolling. Getting soaked as we preflighted our jets by flashlight, we climbed into the cockpits, closed the canopies, and marveled at the young sailors — our plane captains and troubleshooters — who followed us through the engine start sequence as we checked our jets for proper operation.
Soon the plane captains were removing the chains and chocks that secured our jets to the flight deck and one-by-one we taxied into three lines behind the catapults. You could cut the air with the apprehension we all felt as we prepared to fly into a dark, black, stormy night. And while the prospect of launching gave me pause, this newly-minted Navy pilot tried not to think about having to land on this pitching, rolling, heaving deck 90 minutes later.
LJ was the first one on the catapult and when he set full power and wiped out his flight controls while checking his engine instruments to confirm all were working properly, I remember thinking, “I guess we’re really going to do this.”
Wham! the catapult fired and I watched as LJ’s jet went whistling down the track and into the blackness. Right on cue, he radioed, “301 airborne…and loving it!”
Hearing his usual radio call, with his usual enthusiasm, changed everything in my cockpit. Suddenly, this flight was not to be feared, but to be a challenge embraced. L.J. wasn’t just enduring the situation, his nine-syllable radio transmission was a call to adventure for everyone behind him still on the flight deck — C’mon, join me, let’s go!
It was one of the most powerful examples of COMMITMENT I have witnessed.
All went well that night. We completed the training mission and all made it back safely. And I moved up a notch in my progression from being a “nugget” to an accomplished naval aviator.
Be a High-Trust Leader — demonstrate COMMITMENT by being your best self when the conditions are the most challenging. Your manner and positive enthusiasm are infectious and will help the team overcome anxiety. Show your team you are “Airborne and loving it!”