Up until 6:45, the night flight was smooth. Major Kevin Sweeney leveled the KC135 air tanker at an altitude of 25,000 feet. His mission, and the mission of his four-man crew that night was to provide a mobile gas station for fighter jets attacking SCUD missile sites in Iraq, threatening Israel, 19 days after operation Desert Shield became operation Desert Storm.
But the next 75 minutes would forever change his life and test his leadership skills trustworthiness.
It was at that point that the 300,000 pound, four-engine KC135 flew into the jet wash of the leading tanker, just like in the movie Top Gun. Except that a KC135 is no F-14. The plane went immediately into a violent Dutch Roll, completely out of control. As it turned out, it also lost both engines from under the left wing.
As Major Sweeney fought to regain control over the uncontrollable plane, using all his knowledge and physical power, one of the crew members asked a simple question, “Are we going to have to bail?”
KC135 tankers have a small hatch on the bottom left side of the cockpit that can be opened from the inside by a crew member. All crew seats had parachutes attached to them, and in case of an emergency, such as this one, crew members could strap themselves to their parachutes, open the hatch, and depart from the plane before it hits the ground.
“Are we going to have to bail?”
All eyes were on Major Sweeney. He was confident that he could bring the plane back home and land it. At least confident enough. So his reply was: “No, stick with me. We’ll be fine.”
And that statement tested his trustworthiness as a leader.
Every one of those four-man crew members had an essential job to do so that the flight would end well. Even the boom operator, who was responsible to manually lower the landing gear after the loss of hydraulic pressure that resulted from losing two engines. And he had to do it in three minutes, and not the average seven which this task would take. The navigator had to plot a route back to the airport, and the co-pilot had to help with flying the plane.
The crew had to make a quick decision whether to stick with Major Sweeney. They had to ask themselves whether they trusted him. The stakes were the highest possible. They had to decide whether they trusted him with their lives.
They all stuck with him, and he landed the plane safely at their home base.
That was how it happened. But what, in those few precious seconds, convinced the crew that they could trust Major Sweeney with their lives, when he said “stick with me, we’ll be fine,” instead of bailing out of the crippled plane?
Following is an analysis of his trustworthiness using the Trustactions™ model:
Kevin had 4,000 hours of flight time on this plane. He already already flown 17 missions since the beginning of operation “Desert Shield”. Right before the flight, he provided a very detailed briefing of the operation to the crews of both planes that flew that night. The level of detail shows competence. When the plane entered the violent Dutch Roll, he didn’t lose his composure. He answered the question “Are we going to have to bail?” with “We’ll be fine.” That confidence, especially under those circumstances, is a strong sign of competence. To stop the Dutch Roll, Maj. Sweeney pulled the air brakes, which dramatically reduced the roll and made the plane controllable again. He obviously knew what he was doing. Kevin had a general reputation as a good pilot (After this mission, his reputation climbed significantly upwards…)He already won the Air Medal for flying KC135s in Vietnam. This was not his first combat mission.
It is quite expected that serving in the National Air Guard instills certain shared values among all those who serve. The flight took place during a combat operation. The crew shared the same enemy (the Iraqi SCUD missile sites and the Iraqi regime), but they also shared the elements of the mission as a figurative shared enemy, especially after the loss of control over the plane. At that point, no matter how different the crew members were in their general ideologies, they shared one enemy: a plane that was going to crash and kill them. Maj. Sweeney didn’t keep the details of the situation to himself. He shared them with his crew. He told them everything that was happening, all the way from the normal takeoff to the harrowing landing.
Kevin didn’t treat his crew as his subordinates. He treated them as partners to the mission. While it is common to let the enlisted tail boom operator sit in the back of the place, Kevin invited him to sit in the jump seat in the cockpit, and even told him to not be afraid to say something if he sees anything that makes him worry. He treated him (and the rest of the crew) as equal.
Time and Intimacy
The crew members knew Maj. Sweeney anywhere between five and ten years. They flew together at different occasions. Since the beginning of operation Desert Shield they lived together, ate together, and spent a lot of time together. Since the beginning of that flight and until the “bail” question was asked, they had already spent 45 minutes in the same cockpit, and more if you consider the time that has passed since they were called to the mission. The strongest “normal” intimacy is the face-to-face meeting. However, sharing a life-altering event makes for even stronger intimacy than that. Even before the plane lost control, they were sharing time together flying a highly flammable cargo over enemy territory. That builds intimacy.
When all of the Trustactions factors are considered, it becomes clear why the crew trusted Major Sweeney to land the plane safely without hesitation.
Since that incident, 18 years ago, Lt. Col. Kevin Sweeney still calls all crew members on that flight on the February 6th anniversary just to speak with them. At the time, they didn’t know that he would do that every year, representing the time and intimacy factors, but this level of communications could not have started only then.
And finally, to touch on the fairness and symmetry factor, the three officers in the crew (Maj. Sweeney, the co-pilot, and the navigator) were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and refused to accept it until the enlisted tail boom operator was awarded one as well. “We would not have survived this flight without any member of the crew,” he told me when I interviewed him.