My first aircraft commander at Grand Forks AFB taught me an invaluable lesson. I had flown about 6 missions as Tom Sparks’ co-pilot in the KC-135A model jet tanker. Tom had seen me take off, fly, and land the airplane. We spent time together as a crew talking about flying while we were mission planning and during our seven day alert tours. One day the following incident occurred (as mentioned in the video below):
At dusk, we were completing our mission and it was my turn to land. We weighed 150,000 -160,000 pounds, a normal landing weight, and as part of the normal landing procedures I called for Tom to drop the flaps to 50 degrees – which he did. As we were passing through about 50 to 60 feet in the air, for some unknown reason I pulled the power to idle (my head must have been in the clouds).

This was a mistake.

At our weight and speed with the flaps at 50 degrees, the KC-135 A model airplane was going to drop straight down and hit the runway very hard.

Most aircraft commanders would have grabbed the stick and yelled, “I got it,” taking the control of the airplane away from me. But not Tom Sparks. Tom looked at me, crossed his arms and said, “You got guts.” I have never forgotten those words or that instant.

Tom taught me a very valuable lesson. He knew I was a good enough pilot to handle the situation, albeit a bad one at that moment. If he had grabbed the stick, he might have made the situation worse. But primarily, Tom taught me to quickly evaluate people’s capabilities then let them know that you trust them and expect them to perform. I can honestly say that was the worst landing of my Air Force career, but it is one of the most important lessons in dealing with people I ever learned.

Thanks Sparky!

P.S. I ran into Tom again about 20 years into my career. At the time he was stationed at the Pentagon and we had a good laugh about that landing.

About Kevin Sweeney

Lt. Colonel Kevin Sweeney is the only pilot to have landed a plane with both engines blown off the left wing during a night combat mission in Desert Storm. Follow Kevin on twitter @TheLtColonel or book Kevin to speak at your event by contacting our office.