What Does Aerobatics Have To Do With Business Development Organizations?

I used to be so scared of flying that I would sit on a plane and breathe in a bag to deal with an anxiety attack. I forced myself to travel for business, but each flight was such a high-stress event that I would feel depleted as if I had run a marathon. I felt as if I had to hold the plane in the air by sheer willpower the entire flight.

A little while ago, however, I started venturing out to shake things up a bit. I heard it does happen to people when they approach 40 – when a realization that life is not a dress rehearsal becomes more than just an intellectual understanding. I did all kinds of things – from climbing in tree tops, training in tactical driving, shooting machine guns, and storming a building, to then riding my first rollercoaster in Busch Gardens this August. My desire to push the envelope started out as a mind-over-matter thing that I do a lot to push through 18-hour work days. It morphed into curiosity as to how the subject matter experts I work with in Government proposals do their jobs, and then grew into a desire to step out of a daily mold. Finally, it all turned into the ardent desire to live my life to the fullest.

Flying was a tough one, though. I did get a lot better as over the years by using online courses and pep-talks from anyone who didn’t suffer from the same phobia in order to learn their techniques and cure myself of the fear, but it only took me so far.

So, last week I went to Reno to offer our course, Business Development for Project Personnel, to one of our customers, Tactical Air Support, Inc. (TacAir – TacAir provides military aviation experts, including TOPGUNs, former Fighter Weapons School commanders, and test pilots. They are as elite of warriors as the Navy SEALs, but specialize in flying – they train military forces in the U.S. and allied countries in operationally current advanced flight training, tactics development and evaluation, etc. They were also the first western commercial company trained to maintain and operate the Ukrainian SU-27, a twin-engine super-maneuverable fighter aircraft that they ultimately imported to the U.S.

Training super-bright students is always rewarding, but the setting for this training mission turned out to be simply unbelievable. The hotel-casino where I was staying was as noisy as a beehive with the arrival of desert dust-covered Burning Man crowds. They were still in their costumes, smelling of cannabis and booze, and high on life and assorted stimulants.

At an epicenter of an After-Burn party, I didn’t get much sleep from the noise. However, I did witness a slew of characters including a guy in a peacock hat and a silvery trench coat (with apparently nothing under) who flashed me as I walked by. Not too far from the hotel was a Great Reno Balloon Race, with a mesmerizing display of colors and patterns. The Tailhook Convention, a famous event where naval aviators and the supporting industry network over beer, wine, and flying toy monkeys, topped off the week. All of it was going on as the Stead Airfield near the TacAir offices was filling up with colorful airplanes for the insanely dangerous, but exhilarating National Championship Air Races about to start.

The topper of the trip, however, came on a sunny morning when a former TOPGUN Commander Gerry Gallop (“Spud”) took me to fly in the Embraer 314 Super Tucano, an attack airplane built for counter-insurgency (COIN) warfare and Close Air Support (CAS). It has all of the sophistication of a new F-16, but a fuel economy of a turbo prop. This powerful plane, able to pull 7 Gs, is used primarily to support ground forces and even carries a sensor just like the one on Predator UAVs. TacAir is the only commercial company that operates the Super Tucano, so this was a unique treat.

So, with all my fear of flying and even rollercoasters, here I was, climbing into a cockpit and getting strapped into an ejection seat to do some aerobatics. The type of stuff that I am scared to even watch, let alone partake in. There was excitement but zero fear. No, scratch that. The only worry was that I was going to toss my cookies, as I was told by others this was a real possibility with all the spinning.

In my helmet, I heard all kinds of voices – the pilot, the tower, and the plane itself. The plane spoke in a rather sensuous female voice with a slight (Brazilian?) accent. It kept saying Danger… Danger… Warning… Oxy-gen. Mind you, it was before the take-off, but I could care less what she said at that point – I was too eager to be airborne and trusted that Gerry would figure out what the plane was fussing about. I also amused myself with the mental social commentary running through my head, working out exactly why one would give female voices to fighter planes.

Finally, we did a maximum performance takeoff. It was simply beautiful over northern Nevada with the balloons in the air at a distance, and very clear. It was too bad you could not quite see all the way to the Black Rock desert and the Burning Man site, where the cleanup crews were beginning their arduous job after the mega-party.

I took over the controls and felt just how unbelievably maneuverable and responsive the plane was to one’s touch. No wonder after you fly for a while, the plane becomes an extension of the pilot. When Gerry took back over, we did some fighter maneuvering at G-loads. It was a new feeling hard to describe, other than the spine being compressed hard and my insides wrung and pulled down. I instinctively focused on breathing at that point and keeping my muscles tense with ears level with the shoulders, enjoying the blue sky and sunshine in the glass canopy.

We then went on to do the aerobatics, including a barrel roll where the plane went upside down and a wingover where I felt nearly weightless. I gather the plane rapidly lost altitude at that point. I honestly could not tell where the plane was in relation to the ground or sky or what it was doing – except it was the wildest ride I wish someone had filmed from the ground.

The next part was equally as exhilarating. We headed down to the mountainous terrain to simulate a low-level reconnaissance and attack mission. The airplane zoomed nimbly close to the ground at about 250 mph so you could see every bit of detail – the insurgents wouldn’t be able to hide, had there been any in the Nevada mountains.

We then climbed back up for the tower to clear us for the overhead “break,” the normal military arrival procedure for high-performance aircraft. After a quick trip around the landing pattern, we touched down and taxied to the TacAir hangar at the end of what was quickly becoming Pit Row for the Air Race week. I was full of adrenaline and not one bit queasy – I guess I won a genetic roulette where it comes to my G-load tolerance. I didn’t only have the time of my life, I kept my dignity intact!

I reflected on why this was such a positive experience as opposed to my usual apprehension regarding flying. There I was in the plane, feeling safer than sitting at a desk writing this article. I believe it was all about trust. Trust in the professionalism of the TOPGUN-trained pilots. Trust that Gerry’s expertise is consistent with the culture of excellence I had observed at TacAir.

Trust is a relatively rare feeling for me. What about you? Think about it – in Business Development – and around your workplace, how many people do you have around you with whom you can trust your life and not worry about triple-checking everything they do because you are certain they will handle everything with the utmost care? Wouldn’t you enjoy working alongside highly trained professionals who can see the big picture, but also pay keen attention to detail? Who are perfectionists and have the stamina to push themselves hard? Who put everything they have into winning a pursuit – and their only reason for not getting something done right would be if they were in a hospital or dead?

I had an epiphany on this trip about building high-performance organizations. In a regular organization, a Pareto principle applies: 80 percent of all work is done by 20 percent of all people. If you are one of these 20-percenters, you know that you will work 10 times as hard and burn the midnight oil, while worrying about asking too much of others, respecting their rights to have time with their family, and to lead a balanced life. But what if you had mostly the top performers around you? What if you didn’t have to compensate for others’ shortfalls? What if you didn’t have to worry, triple-check, and over-manage? Could you have a more balanced life yourself? Could you accomplish even more? Would you have a lot more fun doing what you do?

So, take a look around at those who are doing business development, capture, and proposals with you. Do you need to reexamine what roles people play in your organization? Do you need to encourage some to step up and take on more responsibility (perhaps in exchange for greater rewards) so that they could work to their full capacity? Do some people require training and development? Do you need to let go of those who don’t deliver?

And then, turn to the mirror, which is highly advisable to do periodically as you look around. Are there areas of self-improvement for yourself where you could draw inspiration from professionals like those that I got to meet at TacAir, who are true masters at what they do? Who are your role models that inspire you to work even harder, to feel more alive, to push further, and strive to be a better you?

P.S.: If you need Business Development, Capture Management, Proposal Management and Writing, Proposal Training Support, or rent a Proposal Office Space, please call us (301) 384-3350 or email [email protected]. We have more than 900 fully vetted capture and proposal managers, technical writers, graphic artists, orals coaches, editors, subject matter experts, and other proposal support. We have supported 18 out of the top 20 Federal Contractors and have won $18 Billion since 2005.

Best, Olessia Smotrova-Taylor President / CEO OST Global Solutions, Inc.

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