435th Fighter Training Squadron builds better leaders, warfighters

  • Published
  • Air Education and Training Command Public Affairs
When the mission is to create better leaders, quantifying success presents a challenge; but for one fighter jet training squadron here, the proof is undeniable.

The pilots of the 435th Fighter Training Squadron have seen a remarkable 85 percent reduction over the last year in both their student dropout rate in the unit’s Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals Course and the washout rate for their students’ follow-on training.

The Deadly Black Eagles attribute this significant success to their commander’s attendance in 2014 at the Profession of Arms Center of Excellence’s course “Professionalism – Enhancing Human Capital.” The course focuses on generating a foundational understanding of trust, authority and influence to create leaders who recognize how professionalism drives behavior and who can develop environments that build increased commitment to the Air Force core values.

The squadron’s transformation began 18 months ago when Lt. Col. Mark Schmidt, 435th FTS commander, attended PACE’s course and took the tools he learned back to his team. He knew that deep-seated changes to the unit’s culture couldn’t be made by individual efforts; rather, he needed to challenge and empower his flight commanders to, in his words, “move the grade book, while also developing the individuals” in the unit.

“Our mission is to turn pilots into fighter pilots. We’ve always been able to move the grade book from beginning to end and graduate combat-ready Airmen,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt said while unit members were great at forging fighter pilots, it didn’t necessarily mean they were creating effective leaders, something fundamental to being an Air Force officer. He knew that if he wanted to grow leaders, he had to empower his flight commanders to sow the seeds.

As a critical layer of leadership, the 435th FTS flight commanders were in a position to help develop the instructor pilots and pilots in training, but also to improve themselves, therefore investing into the future of the force on multiple levels.

Capt. Chris Umphres, a 435th FTS flight commander, joined Schmidt during a recent PACE Professionalism Summit to discuss how EHC worked for the unit and the role flight commanders played in the culture change. He said using the tools Schmidt filtered to him and the other flight commanders, they were able to develop a plan to intentionally develop themselves, as junior commanders and then focus on effecting change within the instructor pilot and student corps. Umphres said the team dedicated themselves to a tailored plan that was creative, ambitious and opportunistic.

One challenge the squadron faced was in-flight instruction.

“We are always working to have better briefs with students before and after flights,” Umphres said. “How can we capitalize on the two minutes we have between engagements in the air, when the student has an opportunity to change something and correct for the next run, as opposed to waiting until the debrief?”

That’s when the flight commanders got creative to tailor their plan. They looked outside the Air Force to find parallels and what they came up with was coaching.

“If you look at a coach in a basketball game and his team is in transition, he has about two seconds to shout something at the players to fix a mistake, or he has a 30-second time out to communicate something to the team,” Umphres said. “So, now that we have this coaching analogy and we know we can learn something, how do we take advantage of this thinking?”

That’s when ambition paid off. The flight commanders set their sights on Shaka Smart, head coach of the University of Texas men’s basketball team. Smart is renowned for not only his coaching methods, but also mentorship with his players. Smart was quoted in an article for a popular sports news network earlier this year, “I’m about helping the team members become the best versions of themselves.” Smart’s philosophy was right on target.

With the University of Texas in Austin only two hours up the road from Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Umphres and his peers jumped on the opportunity. They hopped on a bus and met with Smart for some full-court discussions.

Capt. Dave Clementi, another flight commander and chief of weapons at the 435 FTS, also joined Schmidt at the PACE summit to share his experience. He spoke about the meeting with Smart and what he took away from their conversation.

“Coach Smart spent the entire first six months of his tenure building relationships. He realized his biggest challenge is the division between players and coaches. We see this in the Air Force. We see it in flying training. There are students and instructors.” Clementi said. “Coach Smart talked about how his purpose isn’t to win championships, but to bring out the best in each of his people.”

Clementi said they use Smart’s philosophy to change the way fighter pilots see their role.

“Our focus used to be ‘winning championships,’ when in fact our job should be to create great leaders,” he said. “These students are only going to be fighter wingmen for five or six years and then they are going to be leaders. They may fly later, but they will always be leaders.”

It seems a bit out of the ordinary to think of the Air Force’s tough fighter jocks concentrating so heavily on the “softer” side of business, but one should not assume this in any way diminishes the fight in these fighter pilots.

“If we were just churning out a bunch of really nice guys and gals, great husbands and wives, that would be admirable. But if our efforts don’t make us better warfighters at the end of the day, then we need to reassess what we are doing,” Umphres said. “All the data we are getting makes me more confident that we are making better people. By making our team more balanced and intellectually curious and active, we are also making them better fighter pilots.”

The meeting with Smart was just one of many things the flight commanders shared with the squadron’s instructor pilots and students. According to Umphres, they’ve reached out and coordinated events with professors, professional speakers, religious and military leaders during the last two years.

“As the beneficiaries of all of the time and effort put into these events, we, as flight commanders, now feel we have an obligation to put what we are learning into practice,” Umphres said. “If the members of the squadron are not in a better place at the end of the day, we’re failing as commanders.”

This thinking is what Schmidt says will solidify a better future for the 435th FTS, the flying community and the Air Force as a whole.

“In four to eight years, these men and women could be sitting in my seat,” he said.

When asked what success looks like to him, Schmidt said he wants the men and women under his command to be successful in everything they do.

“Success to me would be a group of people who are flourishing in their workplace, in their home lives and in their community,” he said. “If they make commander, but their marriage is on the rocks, it’s not really worth it, right? The desired end state is for them to be thriving in all aspects of life.”

To learn more about PACE and the courses and tools offered, visit www.airman.af.mil.