Lorenz on Leadership -- A tale of two instructors

RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- Air Education and Training Command is primarily made up of students and instructors. On the surface, the instructors simply teach certain skills so that students are ready for new challenges. In reality, they contribute so much more. Instructors make us better Airmen and continually raise our level of performance by enforcing the standards. They make a difference by tailoring their message and connecting with each and every student. I cannot tell you the number of times senior officers and NCOs have told me stories about an instructor who made a difference in their lives -- I know you can think of instructors who had a positive impact in your life. I am no different. Let me tell you about two instructors that helped shape who I am today.

The first instructor who made a difference in my life was Capt. Leonard J. "Chicken" Funderburk. He flew OV-10s in Vietnam and was awarded the Air Force Cross for heroism. He flew hard, played hard and, at six foot five with a black belt in Karate, was larger than life. Numerous stories about his heroic feats in Vietnam and phenomenal instruction in the T-37 Tweet were passed down from class to class. Even before my class left academics to start flying the T-37, we were awed by Chicken's reputation.

After graduation from academics, I was assigned to D Flight in the 43rd Flying Training Squadron at Craig Air Force Base, Ala. Along with two other classmates, I sat at a table right next to Chicken's. Every day, I had a front row seat to Chicken's post-flight debriefings -- it was a sight to behold. Chicken dissected each and every element of the training sortie and demanded that each of his students were well prepared and flew their best. His students always started the debrief sitting straight up in their chairs, nervous smiles trying to feign confidence. This posture never lasted long. After two hours of continuous critique, smiles quickly vanished and bodies eventually melted toward the floor. I was so thankful Chicken was not my instructor.

I flew training sorties with my assigned instructor and had some good days and others I'd rather forget. Unfortunately, one of those not-so-good days was my "pre-solo" sortie. I "busted" the ride and wasn't cleared to solo like my other classmates. I was absolutely crushed. My flight commander decided that I needed a change and called me into his office. He told me he was shifting me to a new instructor. I'm sure he watched the color leave my face when he told me my new instructor would be Chicken.

I begged him not to do it -- especially after just having busted a ride. I started to doubt that I would make it through the program. The next day I sat across from Chicken, mortified. I knew he could see right through my feigned smile. I tried to focus on my sortie as his deep voice stepped through the elements of the upcoming pre-solo mission. He told me one thing over and over again, "Always be hot and be high; never be low and be slow!" He must have said it 10 times. He took me out to the flight line and had me climb into the T-37. Since I had busted the previous pre-solo ride, I knew this sortie really counted.

We took off and he set me up first for a straight-in approach, followed by a single engine and then no-flap landing. As I look back, each one of these approaches was average to slightly below average. After the last planned approach, Chicken turned to me and yelled, "Lorenz you are going to kill me, put her on the deck!" With those words, I knew I was finished and probably going to wash out of pilot training. I landed . . . and then he told me to shut down the number two engine. All of a sudden I realized he was going to let me solo. I was elated. As Chicken stepped from the aircraft he once again said, "Always be hot and be high; never be low and be slow."

I took off and had a very uneventful solo sortie. Chicken realized that I lacked a little confidence and just needed the right kind of instruction and motivation to succeed. Over the next few months, Chicken's demanding teaching style gave me the confidence to not only complete pilot training, but to face subsequent challenges in both my professional and private lives. I have never forgotten him or how he made a difference in my life.

I encountered the second instructor whom made a difference in my life much later in my career. In 1986, I was stationed at Castle Air Force Base, Calif., and was selected to upgrade to instructor pilot in the KC-135. In order to upgrade, everyone had to complete a six week program called, Central Flight Instructor Course. It was a very demanding course which trained upgrading instructors how to teach aircraft systems and flight procedures. It emphasized the many ways students could unintentionally back into harrowing situations and helped instructors to correct the errors before everyone onboard became another safety statistic. I didn't bat an eye when Capt. Rusty Findley (now Lt. Gen. Rusty Findley, Air Mobility Command vice commander) and I were teamed with the most famous KC-135 CFIC instructor in the fleet at the time, Lt. Col. Earl Orbin.

Colonel Orbin was famous for being straight forward, thorough, relentless and demanding. We had both heard horror stories about how challenging his level of instruction was. Now, Rusty and I had been flying the KC-135 for years. We were long on experience and confidence, and looked forward to the course. After all, we knew the KC-135 and its systems inside and out. For us, the instructor course was going to be a breeze.

Through a series of Colonel Orbin's challenging training sorties, including grueling pre-briefs and debriefs, one thing became clear: I was too overconfident in my existing abilities and systems knowledge. My overconfidence had led me to become complacent. During flight operations, much like other career fields, complacency can kill. It can lead one to overestimate their own abilities while not paying enough attention to the student's lack of ability.

I quickly changed my approach, increased my level of preparation and arrived each day on top of my game. I left the course with the instructional skills I would need during each upcoming mission. Colonel Orbin was fair, firm and demanding. He pushed Rusty and I -- forced us both to grow as aviators and instructors. He reminded us that flying is an unforgiving business where everyone's limits vary from day to day, sortie to sortie. We needed to balance our own limits with those of the student. Since then I have learned to apply this lesson in other areas of my life as well. I think it has made me a better aviator, officer, husband, father and friend.

Instructors, like Captain "Chicken" Funderburk and Colonel Orbin, make a difference each and every day and are the backbone of our Air Force's excellence. Although my instructors employed different techniques, they looked at me through a clear lens, saw where I needed improvement and tailored their instruction specifically for me. When you have the opportunity, follow the lead of Chicken, Colonel Orbin, and all the instructors who made a difference in your life. Take the time to make a positive impact in each of your student's lives -- regardless of whether those "students" are found at work or in the community. It's what I strive to do each and every day and it's the only way that our Air Force will remain the best in the world.