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Five Test Pilot Rules that I Carry with Me as a CEO

It is several decades since I flew my last mission as a test pilot in the USAF. Back then I was entrusted with multi-million dollar pieces of government property, flying planes at supersonic speeds. Today as a CEO, I am entrusted with the well-being and profitability of my company and its more than 350 employees.

For many being a test pilot sounds like the ultimate job — a life of fun and adventure. But what they don’t realize is that being a test pilot isn’t about thrills and risk taking; rather it is the complete opposite. As a test pilot, we spend hours training to avoid anything out of the ordinary happening. We reduced risk and avoid mishap because of a regime of check lists and rules. And heaven forbid a situation occurs, there was a set of rules for dealing with that as well.

As a CEO, each day I carry these same check lists and rules into the office; albeit slightly adapted to life outside of the cockpit. These guiding principles can be applied to any situation to avoid risk and mishap and to guide you to success.


Test pilots walk to the airplane with a fully coordinated, fully researched, fully simulated test plan or “Card” for all high risk tests. The test card has been reviewed by engineers and experienced test pilots and when you chute up you are tasked to fly the mission. Deviating or cowboying the test card is when major accidents and unexpected losses can occur. Over speed, over control, or over g can be the loss of your mission or a multi-billion dollar piece of equipment. Sounds boring? Not really, but this process rigor is key to any leader. If you don’t have a process in the business, then define it. Once established, adhere to it. Don’t cowboy the business without good research on what the change might be. This doesn’t mean don’t make changes…it means make researched, calculated and conscious change and then communicate it well.


The dash 1 is the “operating manual” for the plane: hundreds of pages, diagrams, explanations and engineering documentation on the plane, its limits and its capabilities. If you are going to fly it to the edge of its capabilities where things can go wrong, then you better know what happens if and when they do. Equating this to business would be the simple statement….KNOW YOUR BUSINESS. What happens to baseline revenue with a delayed product launch? What are the assumptions that your operating plan is based? Banking covenants, Net Promoter Score, etc….know your business and what happens when something changes.


Before you begin the high Mach run, you need to make sure the area in front is really clear of other traffic. Before you begin the inverted spin, you better know the elevation and cloud cover. Bottom line is know what environment you are operating and what is happening in your sphere of operation. As a CEO this means know your business environment. What is the market doing? Technology advancements, competitor movements, business trends, customer needs must be understood as well as the environment around you also like employee satisfaction and retention. Operate your business in a known environment!


If you are so focused on the process of starting the engines, then how can you detect the first indication of a bad start? If you are trying to figure where the flap handle is then you probably over-sped your flaps. The job of a test pilot is to detect the nuances and indications before they become issues so they can be prevented or fixed. Observation from all senses is only done when the basics are second nature. CEOs are the same. Running the business on a daily, tactical manner should be rote and standard. Watching, listening and detecting the inflexions in your business or staff only occur when you have the game down.


After you land and taxi back to shut down the engines in your parking spot, there is one person who will be glad to see you…the crew chief. This person helped strap you in and got you started. They were the last outside eyes looking over your airplane for any issues and the first to spot anything wrong when you came in. They listen to your thoughts and concerns. They stay and work long after you have your after flight beer. Your success was dependent on their attention to detail. As a test pilot you have one specific crew chief…as a CEO you have hundreds or thousands. If you want them keeping you safe tomorrow, you better thank them today!


Bruce Dewitt
President and CEO

Did you enjoy these “rules of the road (or air)” from our CEO? You should check out our white paper on the rules for establishing a company culture that succeeds in the digital/connected product environment.

View White Paper

Categories Aerospace & Defense



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