Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In The Military: “Live the life you aspire to” with Francesco “Paco” Chierici

Death is fickle, so live the life you aspire to. One of the most important lessons I learned during twenty years in the cockpit is that death is unpredictable. The best pilot I ever knew flew into the water, killing himself and his navigator. Some of the shakiest pilots survived to fly twenty years unscathed. […]

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Death is fickle, so live the life you aspire to. One of the most important lessons I learned during twenty years in the cockpit is that death is unpredictable. The best pilot I ever knew flew into the water, killing himself and his navigator. Some of the shakiest pilots survived to fly twenty years unscathed. In my tenure, over twenty-three of my friends and colleagues perished in aircraft accidents. Only one plane, two aviators, were brought down in combat. It’s a dangerous business operating those machines at the edge of the envelope.

As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Francesco “Paco” Chierici. Francesco is the author of the new military thriller Lions of the Sky. During his active duty career in the US Navy, Chierici flew A-6E Intruders and F-14A Tomcats, deployed to conflict zones from Somalia to Iraq and was stationed aboard carriers including the USS Ranger, Nimitz and Kitty Hawk. Unable to give up dogfighting, he flew the F-5 Tiger II for a further ten years as a Bandit concurrent with his employment as a commercial pilot. Throughout his military career, Paco accumulated nearly 3,000 tactical hours, 400 carrier landings, a Southwest Asia Service Medal with Bronze Star, and three Strike/Flight Air Medals. Chierici’s writing has appeared in Aviation Classics magazine, AOPA magazine, and Fighter Sweep. He also created and produced the award-winning naval aviation documentary, Speed and Angels. Currently a 737 captain, Chierici can often be found in the skies above California flying a Yak-50 with a group of like minded G-hounds to get his dogfighting fix. He lives in Northern California with his wife Hillary, and two children.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

Absolutely. I grew up in Italy till I was ten, then we finally settled down in upstate New York when I was in eighth grade. I am the oldest of four, and the son of two awesome parents. I went off to Boston University for college on a Navy ROTC scholarship and upon graduation I was off to flight school.

And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?

I served for ten years as an active duty fighter pilot, then became a commercial pilot concurrent with a further ten years as a Navy Reserve fighter pilot. I flew the A-6E and the F-14A active duty, then in reserves I flew the F-5 Tiger II as an Adversary Instructor. The Adversary role was the thrill of a lifetime. We played the bad-guy teaching and testing the students flying F-14s and F/A-18s so as to prepare them for their deployments. It was the best flying I have done in my life.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

I flew over the Persian Gulf and Somalia during my two deployments, accumulating nearly 400 carrier landings. I loved every minute of flying those planes from carriers. It was incredibly demanding and intense, and equally extremely enjoyable. We lived a thousand lives worth of experiences that decade. As a reserve Adversary pilot the intensity of the job was dramatically diluted, which was a relief because my wife and I had started a family. I committed about a week per month flying for the Navy, which is a lot for a reserve job, but I loved the flying so much I was happy to do it. The reserve squadron had very little turnover during my years there so the core group became very tight as well, though during our non-Navy days we all scattered to our homes across the country.

Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?

I don’t know that I can condense the two decades of my military career down to one story. There was so much drama, excitement and tragedy, so many adventures, selecting just one as representative is just not possible. That is one of the aspects that compelled me to write Lions of the Sky. Though it, and the books to follow, are fiction, the storylines are drawn directly from my experiences, then crafted into a cohesive story.

I’m interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.

Believe it or not, as modern day fighter pilots, we have very few opportunities for heroics, as I imagine the word to be defined. I believe that a hero is a person who perseveres against the greatest odds while overcoming their own fear. There were plenty of times when I was flying that I was scared, a few times I was downright terrified. Usually it was during a night carrier landing far at sea, too far to divert to a land runway. But I never really believed I was about to die, I was just desperately wishing I was elsewhere, specifically — safe on deck.

I have the greatest respect for the troops who were stuck on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, exposed to danger for months on end with no respite from the stomach eating stress. I feel that what I did could never compare to the sacrifice and hazards they experienced.

That said, two good friends of mine were in situations as fighter pilots that are as heroic as I’ve witnessed. I made a documentary, called Speed and Angels, about two of the last F-14 students to fly the legendary plane. We followed Jay “Faceshot” Consalvi, and Meagan “Slick” Varley as they made their way through Tomcat training, then on into their first year as Fleet fighter pilots. Each of them experienced situations that were beyond the normal scope of dedication.

After she successfully completed training, achieving a lifelong dream, Meagan was mired in a crisis that very nearly cost her her life, not to mention her career. She fell into a slump during her carrier landings, which are each critiqued and graded for as long as you fly aboard ships. The self-imposed pressure she piled upon herself as the bad grades mounted served to send her into a spiral and her confidence waned to the point she was a danger to herself and others. I had seen this happen to a few other pilots, kind of like a golfer who can’t hit the ball anymore because he can’t quiet the voices of doubt in his head. None of the other pilots had ever managed to recover from their slumps. They deteriorated to the point they were removed from flight status. But somehow Meagan found an inner courage to pull herself up by her own bootstraps, renewing her confidence in herself and recovering her career. Pretty much everyone had written her off, certain she was just one more scary landing from getting kicked out. It was one of the most courageous acts of perseverance I’ve witnessed and I remind myself of it frequently when I become frustrated.

Jay’s story is equally remarkable, though very different. A brief ten days after he completed his F-14 training in Virginia he was flying over Iraq conducting one of his very first combat missions. He was as green as green could be, completely unprepared for the situation in which he was about to find himself. He and his flight lead were called in to provide air cover for an Army unit whose Stryker vehicles had been ambushed in downtown Mosul. They were pinned down and desperately calling for support as they were being picked apart by insurgents surrounding them in the adjacent buildings. Jay was required to perform strafing runs on targets in dangerously close proximity to the good guys in an urban environment where all the building appeared remarkably similar, especially when you are whizzing over the tops at 500MPH. Jay had never been trained for this specific mission and as he rolled in to fire his 20MM cannon his heart was in his throat, terrified he was going to fire on the US troops or civilians. Bullets fired by the insurgents streaked past his canopy as he squeezed the trigger and a shoulder mounted SAM barely missed him as he climbed away from his first pass. The silence on the radio immediately after his shots terrified him as he was certain he had shot at the wrong spot.

But the ground controller finally came up exuberantly calling for more of the same. Jay made five more passes, despite the constant ground fire coming up at him, and managed to help save those Army troops. The original footage we have in the film still makes the hair on my arms stand up. Jay was scared, and out of his depth, but he managed to do an amazing job anyway.

I am always humbled and inspired by Jay and Meagan, and their courage.

Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?

Usually. I believe the word ‘hero’ is overused. There are many acts of great courage that still fall short of actual heroics. True heroes transcend themselves and their situations, achieving something great despite overwhelming odds and at great personal risk.

Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 5 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned from your experience”? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Believe in yourself. Life is chock full of naysayers and natural obstacles. But you can’t let any external, or internal, factors deter you from your ambitions. You have to have an aspiration to pull you forward. Whether or not you achieve that ambition is secondary to the fact that you are moving towards a goal. When I aspired to become a fighter pilot I was competing against tens of thousands of other candidates. In many ways I was willfully ignorant of the odds and the competition. I focused on myself and my path and ignored the infinitesimal chance I had of actually being selected, then surviving the multi-year marathon of training. As I look back I am humbled by my good fortune, but I also recognize that I didn’t allow myself to get tripped up.

2. Work within the team, but don’t be a herd animal. Teamwork is a crucial component of military effectiveness, especially flying fighters. Squadrons have about 40 aviators and 200 maintainers. In the Navy we administer the squadron and work along with our maintainers to keep the squadron operational. It is crucial to be able to work within the structure of the organization so that all interests are aligned and the 240 people are pulling for a common goal. On the flip side, a good leader is intelligent enough to seek opportunities to improve the process. We’ve all heard “we do it this way because that’s the way it’s always been done.” It’s an endemic attitude in the military due to the speed of operations which leads to the lack of time to deconstruct tradition to allow for a reflective look at process.

In fighter aviation, we have a deliberately flat rank structure because when you are flying towards enemy planes at the speed of sound, the person with the most situational awareness is the one who directs the action. That could be the very newest guy who happens to be flying with an admiral. If he had the big picture, he makes the calls. That is one of the reasons we use call signs when we fly. It’s less intimidating for a new pilot to say, “JoBob, break left now!” than to say, “Admiral, sir, I recommend we turn sharply to the left to avoid a missile coming at us.”

3. Death is fickle, so live the life you aspire to. One of the most important lessons I learned during twenty years in the cockpit is that death is unpredictable. The best pilot I ever knew flew into the water, killing himself and his navigator. Some of the shakiest pilots survived to fly twenty years unscathed. In my tenure, over twenty-three of my friends and colleagues perished in aircraft accidents. Only one plane, two aviators, were brought down in combat. It’s a dangerous business operating those machines at the edge of the envelope. The random causes of the accidents were all over the board. Mechanical malfunctions and pilot error, and a combination of both, caused such a variety of accidents that the only possibility for absolute safety was to not fly. That wasn’t an option for those of us who loved flying fighters so much that we convinced ourselves there was no chance we could be the next victim. It also served to give us a unique perspective on how to live life. It should be lived to the absolute fullest. Treat every day as your last, savor every meal, love your family and friends and make sure they know you mean it.

4. You can’t be afraid to fail. If you never fail, you haven’t challenged yourself sufficiently. Failing is a staple of anyone who succeeds at the highest level. It is the surest way to learn, so long as you don’t fail too hard. Taking risks is the path to achieving the highest goals you aspire to, but the more risks you take, the greater the opportunity to stumble. Treat failing as an opportunity to refine your plan, then go out and try again.

5. Always begin with a good plan, then be ready to adapt it once the action starts. You can’t go into battle without a plan; that is an obvious folly. I love Mike Tyson’s quote though, “Everybody’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” When we trained to dogfight as novice fighter pilots, we would compare our aircraft’s advantages against the enemy’s weaknesses and create a plan to exploit that difference. We would refine and visualize those series of maneuvers that would bring us an air-to-air victory, and then we would go into the sky and employ them against trained adversaries flying inferior aircraft. What we learned after the very first merge was that the enemy is uncooperative, and often a much better pilot who could use their skill and experience to shoot us down. The true lesson was that we needed to have a plan, then a follow-on plan to execute once we got punched in the mouth. Plan, execute, evaluate, analyze, alter plan; all under the strain of 6Gs and speeds exceeding 500mph. It was thrilling!

Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?

Without a doubt, my military experience has helped me in my career. The obvious connection is the skill of flying. I learned to fly in the Navy and now fly professionally as a commercial pilot.

But my time in the service also gave me the tools to strike into uncharted territories, like documentary filmmaking and the writing of novels. As I mentioned above, it is crucial to have aspiration and to strive to achieve them. And to achieve a worthwhile goal, risks must be taken as one moves into new territory. Growth without risk is an unrealistic expectation.

As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. Did you struggle after your deployment was over? What have you done to adjust and thrive in civilian life that others may want to emulate?

I struggled, but for a different reason than what you allude to. As a pilot who lived on a carrier during my deployments, I was able to remove myself for a few hours from the stress of the combat zone, unlike the ground forces who were exposed and at risk for their entire deployments. The big adjustment for me was going from the speed and adrenaline of flying fighters in a front-line unit to the mundane speed of normal life. It was such a dramatic shift in gear that it took me about four years to settle into my post active duty life. To ease the transition I flew a further ten years in the reserves. I still got to fly the wonderful machines and get my dogfighting fix, but the commitment was only a few days a month and the rest of the time I was with my family and working a more normal job. As my tenure in the reserves was coming to a close, I threw myself into the creative endeavor of storytelling, both through film and prose. Staying busy and having new challenges is crucial. Always have an objective you are moving towards.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I am hard at work on the sequel to Lions of the Sky. The response to the first novel has been amazing and I am thrilled to be able to bring a few of the same characters back in a new adventure. I think people love positive and exciting stories that are well told through real characters. I hope that helps in some manner.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

It’s important to have an overarching objective for the whole team to rally around and move toward, and equally important to break out further goals for the smaller elements, and even individuals, to strive for that support the overall mission. The most difficult part of being a leader of a team, regardless of size, is convincing everyone to pull in the same direction. That is the art of leadership.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Probably the best words of advice I received were, “Never let your plane get somewhere your brain didn’t get to five minutes earlier.” On the surface, it is a bit of useful advice about staying ahead of your jet even as it moves at the speed of sound. But the message translates to all aspects of life; know where you are going, and have a plan for what you will do when you arrive.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

That’s a good question. I try to be a good person, to treat others as I would like them to treat me. My wife and I donate to a community development program in northern Haiti called H.O.P.E Haiti. They do amazing work improving the lives of the people of Borgne, in northern Haiti, by working with the locals to provide clean water, healthcare, education, and economic development. 100% of the money goes to support the projects.

On a more personal level, I endeavor to tell stories, both in filmmaking and writing, that show the positive side or people and the value of struggle.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

This is probably not what you were after, but it’s my latest cause to rail over. I have zero political influence, but I believe Gerrymandering is the root of all political evil in our country. It forces the candidates from both parties to cater to the extreme elements in order to gain traction. The middle 80% of the electorate is unrepresented by the cockamamie map drawing.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One of my favorite quotes is attributed to Julius Caesar, “Alea iacta est,” which translates to “The die have been cast.” He uttered this phrase as he led his army across the Rubicon River to challenge a Roman Senate that had become corrupt and stagnant. Whatever your thoughts are on Caesar crossing the river to engage in civil war, the subsequent disillusion of the Republic, and the founding of the Roman Empire, the quote is significant to me because Caesar committed himself to bold action while at the same time acknowledging the great risk. He understood that once he led his army across the Rubicon, there was no turning back. But he also knew that he could only accomplish what he desired by crossing the Rubicon.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Investment — Warren Buffett. He is a visionary and such a non-traditional persona for an investment magnate. I admire how he blends down-to-earth humanity with the business of making money.

Business — Elon Musk. The world is moved forward by people like Elon: impatient people who envision clear solutions to problems. The variety of businesses he has thrown himself at is mind boggling. Space, electricity, tunneling, and more. He does not specialize in any field, he specializes in making things happen.

Literature — Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch), and Daniel Silva (Gabriel Allon). I aspire to write novels in the manner these two gentlemen have. They tell well crafted, thrilling stories, filled with fantastic characters. I would absolutely love to share a meal and a drink with them.

News — Kai Ryssdal. Kai is a fellow former Naval aviator who has turned NPR’s Marketplace into one of the most compelling and successful business segments. I admire his successful pivot from military aviation to business radio. I would imagine being a guest on his show as motivation to sit and grind though the next chapter of Lions of the Sky during some of the more difficult moments.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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