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Mentorship can help AEDC, Air Force “hone edge in air and space”

  • Published
  • By Maj. Ali Hamidani
  • 586th Flight Test Squadron

There I was, inverted, hanging from my straps in an American Champion Super Decathlon. Behind me was my aerobatics instructor, retired Brig. Gen. Jay Jabour, with thousands of hours in everything from a flying replica of the 1911 Wright “B” Flier to the YF-22 technology demonstrator. As we were forcing our feet upward to stay on the rudder pedals and watching the clock so as to not exceed the fuel-system’s maximum inverted flight time, the intercom was flooded with laughter as both of us embraced the pure joy of “dancing the skies” among the proverbial “sun-split clouds.”

While working with him to earn my tailwheel endorsement and aerobatics sign-off, Jabour was gracious enough to write me a letter of recommendation for U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School, or TPS, a program I’d dreamed of attending since I learned about it as a high school student. 

Fast forward a few months, I found myself in the front seat of retired Col. Andre Gerner’s MDM-1, a Polish-designed aerobatics sailplane. He instructed me through a myriad of aerobatics routines, but what really got my brain spinning was the intense conversation I had with him as he walked me through all the aeronautics calculations he was putting together to help write the craft’s pilot operating handbook. I met Gerner at one of my previous assignments, and he became one of my glider instructors at the Albuquerque Soaring Club. I was lucky enough to have him sign my second letter of endorsement to TPS.

Truly, I’ve benefited from some great mentors over the years, and I know from firsthand experience how important it is to seek out this sort of invaluable guidance and support from those who have done the things you hope to one day accomplish. 

If you wish to surmount lofty endeavors, it helps to start from a firm foothold atop the shoulders of giants. Otherwise, it’s sometimes difficult to find the mountain in the first place. This is why mentorship is so important.

To that end, I was fortunate enough to become a member of the Society of Flight Test Engineers. SFTE is an international fraternity of engineers, composed of men and women who test anything that has to do with air and space vehicles.

Then, as a TPS hopeful, I attended a symposium to present some of my graduate work on aircraft stability and control systems, and I actually met some of the very people who would soon become my instructors.

Now, as a TPS graduate, I am a member of Arnold Engineering Development Complex, or AEDC, and I feel it is my duty to seek out those individuals who share similar interests and work toward establishing strong mentor relationships.

With the help of a few really bright flight testers across the state, we’ve reinvigorated the New Mexico Chapter of SFTE. Throughout the past year, we’ve hosted two statewide fly-in events and engaging monthly meetings that have featured guest speakers, such as Jen Uchida, the SFTE International vice president, who shared her experiences through the NASA astronaut interview process; and Colin Bennet, our chapter secretary and Astronaut 003, who flew to space with Richard Branson aboard the Unity 22 mission in July.

During a T-38 Talon sortie over White Sands Missile Range, N.M., I spoke to Col. Jeffrey Geraghty, AEDC commander, about our efforts to promote mentorship in flight test, and he asked me to write an article to reach out to the larger AEDC family. 

So, here’s a call to all those individuals out there who are truly passionate about their field and who want to accomplish great things in advancing airpower for our nation – seek out a mentor or a mentee.

As Geraghty said, “It doesn’t matter what field you’re in, these professional relationships are all part of the wingman concept … and are paramount in working as a team to hone our edge in air and space.”

In our Air Force heritage, the term wingman was initially coined with a very formal definition that outlined the role of a pilot in relation to his or her formation leader. But now, we embrace this principle in all aspects of our lives as members of the Department of the Air Force. This holds true for mentorship as well. The mentor-mentee relationship doesn’t have to be anything super-formal, and you don’t need to go far to seek out a sage-person.

Col. Eric Felt, one of our SFTE New Mexico Chapter members, is the director of the Air Force Research Laboratory Space Vehicles Directorate and is the Phillips Research Site commander at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. He said, “The mentoring that has been most impactful to me is peer-to-peer.” He went on to say that he’s “used peer-to-peer mentoring many times to tackle difficult problems, such as how to ‘fix’ space test using best practices from the air domain or gain outsider perspective on leadership challenges encountered as a commander. You never know for sure where or how peer mentors will be able to help, but they definitely can, sometimes in unexpected ways.”

It is my sincere hope that these words find you with shining optimism for the new year ahead as you reflect on all the accomplishments of 2021. Perhaps we can all add to our list of resolutions to rekindle mentorship across the complex.

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