“Back to Basics” in Air Mobility: An Elusive Dream Without Policy Change

General Dewey Everhart wants his airmen to get back to operational basics. It's a great thought, but without policy changes, it''ll remain aspirational rather than real.
Dewey Everhart wants his mobility airmen to get back to operational basics. It’s a great thought, but without policy changes to support and protect it, his appeal is likely to collide inauspiciously with the realities of a broken community.

Lt. Gen. Carlton “Dewey” Everhart, Commander Eigtheenth Air Force, penned a strong message to his airmen recently. He told them it was time to get “back to basics.” 

At this point, a majority of readers are making ready to shank themselves through the eye with a sharp object, having heard this particular mantra ad nauseum in recent years. But for those who know Everhart, it should come as no surprise that while other sloganeers should be shunned out-of-hand for employing such trite witticisms, Dewey earns his well-deserved benefit of the doubt by making fruitful use of the idea. 

Everhart, whose command encompasses the overwhelming majority of all airlift and tanker forces in the Air Force, is widely respected. He’s known for balancing a no-bones-about-it, straight talking leadership style with concern for people. Most importantly, he’s known for setting a good example as a leader and operator throughout his career, having never asked of his people anything he wouldn’t do himself. His sense of priority and respect for fellow airmen are on firm ground with most who know of him.

His example is evident in last month’s letter.

“Basic airmanship is at the very heart of what we do every day.  My challenge to you is to go back to your first day on the job and reexamine the tactics, techniques and procedures the way you did as a new lieutenant or airman.  Re-learn them; they are important for you to safely accomplish your mission.”

Mobility airmen have long yearned for this message, with its focus on words like “mission” and “operations.” Even more important is what Everhart didn’t say: there’s no mention of “resiliency” or “comprehensive fitness” or even a scant digression into sexual assault, suicide prevention, or alcohol abuse, words and ideas that have so saturated the messages of senior officers that they’ve been worn to a useless nub, undercutting leader credibility with every successive failed attempt to penetrate the hearts and minds of airmen.

Lt. Gen. Everhart is a widely-respected leader with a rare balance of operational and staff credibility. His message is a welcome one for airmen tired of focusing on peripheral issues rather than getting the job done.
Lt. Gen. Everhart is a widely-respected leader with a rare balance of operational and staff credibility. His message is a welcome one for airmen tired of focusing on peripheral issues rather than getting the job done.

Everhart kept his message tight, and the tone was one of high expectation rather than condescending paternalism. He called for a safety down day, he gave his people a theme with which to work on that day, and he stood back and let them do the real thinking.

* * * * *

But as refreshing as his words are, and as warmly as they were received by subordinate commanders longing to be free from the bonds of stock propaganda, there is a downside to the Everhart message, and it’s not insignificant.

If he wants mobility airmen to get back to basics, he’s going to need Air Mobility Command (AMC) to rebuild the policies that made those basics real in the first place. The abandonment of basic airmanship did not start in squadrons. It started in cubicles within Building 1600 at Scott Air Force Base, where efficiency-seeking bureaucrats and the generals who loved them found interesting ways to eviscerate a proud and proven aviation culture that had been built over the course of decades. Their policies shredded this culture within a few years, leaving only the holdovers from previous generations as guards against its complete annihilation.

The C-17, which does a majority of airlift work for the Air Force, is a good lens through which to understand this story. The C-17 has been known since its fielding as “an easy airplane to fly, but a tough airplane to fly well.” Identifying with the first part of this idea, generals who’d been raised flying C-141s and legacy KC-135s marveled at the C-17’s automation and navigation capabilities, developing the impression that crews didn’t need the same fundamental “stick and rudder” skills as previous generations.

But as these “old heads” assumed key policy positions, they often forgot about the second part of the bumper sticker: the C-17 is difficult to fly well. And as it turns out, doing just about anything in Iraq or Afghanistan means being able to access the fly well segment of aircrew capability. 

With that context, consider the unique problem AMC faced just under a decade ago. Staffers found themselves in a constant fight to prioritize available jets and crews. The demands of twin counterinsurgencies had outstripped available airlift, leaving AMC in a perpetual struggle to find more capacity. The airframe problem could be addressed by presenting forces differently while new C-17s continued to stream off the Long Beach assembly line. But the crew shortage was a tougher problem.

AMC made three decisions (actually many more, but three we can think about for now) in the space of a few years in attempt to solve this crew shortage problem. The impact of these decisions was the provision of marginally more airlift capacity to United States Transportation Command, where it could be used to keep both insurgencies on the best possible logistical footing (assuming efficient use of airlift, which was not the case, but which we will assume for the purpose of the present discussion). But in the course of generating as many as 1,000 air mobility missions per day in the latter years of the last decade, the command created the problem it is now trying to solve not by reversing its policies, but by talking the issue to death.

The first decision was to scrap normal pilot progression in the C-17 and instead use a process called “Mobility Pilot Development” or “MPD.” This was an idea so dumb it defies any artful analogy or metaphor.

MPD eliminated key experience indicators and drastically shortened the seasoning time afforded to new pilots before they began preparing for upgrade to Aircraft Commander. The program actually eliminated the time-honored term “copilot” (hubris alert!) … replacing it with the nonsensical “Flight Pilot” while eliminating the well-worn “First Pilot” qualification. Before MPD, C-17 pilots focused on knowledge, checklists, systems, and basic hand flying for 9-12 months before spending a week in an intensive, simulator-based program to drill them on more advanced normal and emergency procedures. Upon passing a formal evaluation, they were deemed “First Pilot” qualified and considered eligible to practice Aircraft Commander duties for another 9-12 months before attending formal upgrade.

This deliberate development model was important to the depth of new pilots. It structured expectations and incentives to encourage a convincing mastery of basic airmanship before advancement was considered. With this scheme (and its resources) stripped away (over the objection of every credible expert in the community who managed to be heard, though not many were), progression lost all of that deliberate quality. New pilots were instantly considered to be auditioning for upgrade, and didn’t need nearly as much experience to get there.

With this change, a focus on traditional copilot duties – checklists, general knowledge, systems, navigation, etc. – were as doomed as the copilot label itself. Pilots had no meaningful reason to focus on these things because they were not valued by the command. The second-order effects were devastating: whenever something masquerading as a higher priority arrived on-scene (like a masters degree, excellence in physical training, or community service), pilots faced a dilemma. Too often, they dropped the Dash One and ensured career viability by doing what the command seemed to care more about.

Next, AMC moved to a centralized dispatching system, lurching away from the traditional practice of aircrews planning their own missions. Under the old system, an Aircraft Commander manually filled out a flight plan, painstakingly checking his route, diplomatic clearances, weather implications, and any airfield notices that might be a factor. This forced the crew to rely on internal consensus-testing and mutual support, and the situational awareness built through these behaviors saved many a mission from disaster. Under the new system, which sought efficiency by reducing ground times in favor of an airline-like central planning function, crews were handed a stack of paper generated by someone else — someone in a cave a thousand miles away who probably never flew the C-17, maybe never flew at all, and almost certainly never flew in the current operating environment — going through planning motions in isolation. The crew hadn’t thought about anything in the resulting stack of paper, but were still responsible to execute a combat mission on the basis of it.

This might have worked fine if C-17 downrange missions bore no difference from a standard Memphis-to-Clearwater shuttle. But they do, and getting these hazardous missions right means thinking about them in depth and detail, evaluating contingencies discovered during planning. Airmanship is between the ears, not in the hands. It’s about study and planning as foundations for performance, not executing a mission someone else built.

Centralized mission planning violated Eisenhower’s time-honored “plans are useless, but planning is everything” maxim, leaving crews without the proper intellectual footing for the missions they were executing. With this change, basic planning as a skillset exsanguinated within months rather than years. Not only that, the change contributed to many mishaps and near-misses downrange and elsewhere, though you’ll have little luck getting the command to explicitly agree. 

Finally, AMC added dozens of recurring training requirements to C-17 pilot training tables. Basically, any time someone anywhere thought a pilot should know how to do something – usually in the wake of a minor mistake for which an explanation and response were nonetheless required, but sometimes because a “functional” insisted upon regulatory patronage – a training square was added. This trend continued until crewmembers could no longer even understand, much less tend to, their own training record and requirements. This phenomenon blurred and diffused the focus of training until absurdly peripheral issues became equally as important as core skills. Lost in a massive jumble of confusion: the primacy of skills like takeoff, landing, instrument approach, climb, descent, and overwater navigation. In other words, “the basics” fell victim to the reality that if everything is important, nothing is important.

* * * * *

Of course, AMC did not provide more resources with which to contend with these decisions or the changes they implied. In fact, the command reduced aviation resource management positions and consolidated the few remaining billets at base level, leaving squadron commanders with a massive problem to solve and no way to solve it (more on this in a later article).

Now consider the impact of chronically crushing tempo, generally declining resources, failing support, non-negotiable manpower bills for other Air Force requirements, and a dynamic operating environment, and it becomes easier to understand how squadrons stopped treating “the basics” as operational touchstones.

But even without all of these externalities, the basics would have been out of reach, because that is exactly where AMC put them. For squadrons to begin touching them again, AMC will need to roll back policy changes from the last decade and rebuild the bridge currently separating its crew force from basic airmanship.

The basics are the basics for a reason: it’s because the very structure of the business makes mastering them a natural consequence of doing the job. They are inherent in daily operations to the point that not getting them right sticks out like a sore thumb. 

Airlift is a core asymmetric advantage for the United States. But it's not as easy as the "trash hauler" meme would imply. Getting it right means structuring and organizing for success, and this is an area where AMC has work to do.
Airlift is a core asymmetric advantage for the United States. But it’s not as easy as the “trash hauler” meme would imply. Getting it right means structuring and organizing for success, and this is an area where AMC has work to do.

Something becomes ingrained when it must be done as a normal function of daily work. When pilots can’t succeed, thrive, or progress without general knowledge, planning ability, and mastery of core flying skills, these things will happen without generals having to beg for them. But for them to be part of daily squadron life, policies have to support and protect them rather than moving them beyond reach.

With an exceptional roster of current squadron, group, and wing commanders in the mobility community, there’s no time like the present to capture what worked a generation ago and use it as the driving force in putting the community back on stable, safe footing before the next war comes calling, as it assuredly will.

General Everhart is right to exhort his crews to focus on basics as a path to safe execution. He’s also clearly head-and-shoulders above many of the failed leaders who presided over the decline he is now working to manage. But for his request to be honored, the has to break free from the pattern set by those predecessors and lead with policy change rather than words alone.

Anything less, and Dewey might as well be asking Pete Carroll to make good play calls in the Red Zone.

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