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Mentorship in Aviation: Enhancing Squadron Culture through Real Stories

By MAJ JOSHUA MILLER, AMC Flight Safety

When was the last time you shared a flying story with your squadron mates? Hopefully, it was recently. Storytelling has become a lost art in flying squadrons. Years ago, Air Force aviators were much better at finding informal leadership opportunities to tell a story. Unfortunately, many of them have become too busy with additional duties to be the aviation mentors that our squadrons need them to be. Often, distractions in the squadron leave little time for an important facet in an aviation culture: mentorship.

Storytelling is a pillar of aviation mentorship that has many useful benefits. It can reaffirm knowns, such as operating limitations and weather requirements, as well as reveal situations that young aviators may not have thought about or experienced in their limited aviation journeys.

All generations of aviators deserve quality mentorship. The future success of our squadrons depends on it! Here are a few tips for aviators in helping foster the ideal environment or culture in aviation mentorship.

“Here is where I screwed up.” This is one of the most important, yet most difficult obstacles to overcome. Our aviation culture demands perfection; admitting a mistake can be difficult in front of leadership, subordinates, and especially peers. Being candid while mentoring sets a tone that allows others to comfortably admit when a mistake was made along the way.

As a mentor, set an example from the beginning by expressing a certain amount of openness. The next generation of aviators needs to understand that flying is a constant series of corrections at the most basic level and mistakes will be made. Experience is the best teacher, but learning from the experiences of others may often be a useful teaching moment.

“There I was, in the weather, at night...” As we all know, every great flying story starts just like this. It is human nature to embellish a story, and we all do it. The venerable 10 percent truth rule is a known tactic throughout the aviation community and adds to a story. Of course, take care with this—no one wants to listen to a completely fabricated story.

Experienced mentors, tell the stories about where you made a mistake. Show our next generation of aviators that you, too, are fallible and that it is okay to make mistakes. Ensure the fledgling aviators that you lead will not make the same mistakes you have. This culture can only be built by the leaders (formal and informal) of a squadron. Squadron Commanders and Ops Officers must foster this culture!

Not everyone is comfortable telling a story, especially if the person made mistakes. A mentor can use many resources to start a conversation. Try reviewing the most recent ASAP submissions in your airframe; this will surely spark some great conversation. Additionally, a unit safety representative or flight safety officer can gather significant mishaps for review. These documented mishaps will hopefully teach a lesson to you and those you mentor.

Before you enlighten your flying mates of your perilous flight, submit an ASAP! Help the entire community learn the lesson you experienced. The ASAP program is the perfect way to tell your story. Remember, the AMC OpsRAMS team works tirelessly to ensure the ASAP you submit is non-punitive. Submit the ASAP!

Humor matters. There is value in making the story funny. Humor helps keep the ideal mentoring environment informal, relaxed, and comfortable—perfect to learn and grow as aviators. Self-deprecating humor can be the perfect tool for getting a group of young aviators to open up about their experiences.

“Bar talks” are sacred. Hanging around the squadron and talking about thunderstorm avoidance or the last ILS flown to minimums is priceless mentorship. Use a squadron heritage or social room for this. A conference room or office can sometimes seem too formal, stifling an open communication environment. Consider using a common area where people can come and go as they please. Be the mentor that initiates the conversation around the popcorn machine to help your squadron culture grow!

“This mentorship thing is nothing new.” Aviation mentorship has been a part of the aviation culture since man first took flight. Reference the excerpt from the MATS Flyer (The Mobility Forum’s predecessor) published in August 1958. It is part of an article titled The Turning Point, which focuses on the importance of transforming from a mentee to a mentor in the flying community. The “1950s speak” is humorous today, but the message is the same—mentorship in the aviation arena is important!

On occasion, we recount adventures at “two for one” gatherings and, though we “belong” because we have had our share of narrow escapes, we begin to realize that most were caused by our own ignorance and inexperience. We may even pause to reflect occasionally that had we paid heed to the advice available we would not have had nearly so many highly adventurous, but unnecessary close calls with disaster.

A healthy flying culture starts with formal leaders fostering a positive culture, then the squadron body carrying the mentorship torch. For the most part, the Air Force does a great job developing proficient and intelligent aviators. Flying squadrons, however, may fall short in fostering the intangible areas such as informal mentorship.

One of the simplest and most natural things in a flying squadron should be mentorship through storytelling. Through these, squadrons will continue to develop the next generation of aviators and ensure we will remain the greatest and safest Air Force the world has ever seen.

Fly safe and mentor often!