Written by Phil Cerroni
Black Hawk pilot shares life’s lessons she learned while achieving goals in the U.S. Army
By Sissy Courtney
Black Hawk pilot and entrepreneur, Elizabeth McCormick, who received the 2011 Congressional Veteran Commendation, spoke at the Greater Irving-Las Colinas Chamber’s Women’s Alliance luncheon Sep. 19 at La Cima Club in Irving, taking her audience through a high-flying adventure on how to increase, influence and improve their leadership skills.
During her years as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot and Chief Warrant Officer for the United States Army, McCormick flew air assaults, transported VIPs, worked in Command and Control, and gathered military intelligence. In 1999, she supported the UN peacekeeping operations in Kosovo.
Following a career ending injury, she was released from the military and is an advocate for disabled veterans. She is a founding member of the John Maxwell Team of speakers and an award winning sales consultant. She was recently filmed for a segment of 20/20.
Following her introduction McCormick said, “All that buildup, and I have to tell you, I almost failed flight school.” Then she told the rest of the story.
She said she had a degree in art, a minor in mathematics and an associate’s degree in engineering and was living in Fort Polk, LA with her Army husband, and the only job she could find was working in a pizza place.
“After all that college,” she said. She decided, if her husband could be in the military, so could she.
“I took that ‘why not attitude’ and decided to join the Army.” McCormick said. “I had a college degree, so I could do anything (in the Army).”
But she was not sure what she wanted to do, so she interviewed soldiers at Fort Polk and asked them how they liked their jobs and what they would have done differently. Over and over, she heard being a helicopter pilot was the best job.
“I had never even considered it before,” McCormick said. So she went to the flight line and asked the lieutenants and captains, “If you had it to do over again, what would you do? If you could do ANYTHING, what would you do? And they said, ‘I would go with warrant officer pilot.’”
She said that officers – lieutenants, captains, generals – who are helicopter pilots, are leaders first, pilots second. Warrant officers are part of a special corps that receives their appointment based on technical skill.
“They are the ones that run the nuclear program; they’re the ones that are helicopter pilots and fixed winged pilots for the military,” McCormick said. “Would you rather fly with a warrant officer, whose only job is to be tactfully and technically proficient in their job, or a commanding officer who only does it once in a while? No question, right? The warrant officer.”
So she went to the warrant officer’s lounge area.
“They’re all sitting around studying with their flash cards and note cards,” McCormick said. “I asked them, ‘If you could do anything different, would you do anything differently?’ They all said, ‘No,’ and I said, ‘That’s the job for me.’”
She said the first step in the process was going to the recruiter, who she told she wanted to go into the warrant officer flight training program, but he immediately told her, “You can’t do that. You have to have perfect eyesight.”
“Got that,” McCormick told him.
“You have to be in perfect physical condition,” he said.
“Yeah, I got that,” she said.
“You’d need a college degree,” the recruiter said.
“I said, ‘Ha, ha. I’ve got two and a half,’” McCormick said. “And he goes, ‘Well, you need leadership.’
“So, I go, ‘I started an honor society on my college campus, was president for two years, and my last year served on their national board. Does that count?’”
When she went for her flight physical, the flight doctor said, “Little girl, do you know how hard it is to get into the flight program? Are you sure you’re not wasting my time?”
After passing the physical, McCormick passed other entrance hurdles and then had to take a flight aptitude skills test called the FAST test, and numerous other tests, and at every turn, there was somebody trying to convince her she was not good enough, strong enough or smart enough to be a helicopter pilot. But finally, she made it. She found out later that there were only two slots available in the entire nation when her packet went to the Pentagon. She said it was belief in herself that helped her prevail.
McCormick taught her audience what she called her five lessons to Soaring to Success.
Lesson 1: Believe in yourself.
“You get to choose,” McCormick said. “Choose to believe in yourself.” She was Number Two in her basic training class; she finished at the top of the Warrant Officer Training School; she almost failed flight school.
Lesson 2: You don’t have to be first to win. Only compare yourself to yourself. McCormick said she was last in her flight class, but it did not matter because she passed and became a pilot just the same as the person who was first in her class.
“I went from being first to last, and I don’t think I’ve ever been happier about anything,” she said. “When we compare ourselves to someone else, we’re the loser, so why even bother? All comparison does is suck the joy out of our lives. You get to choose what success looks like in your business and in your life. Why let comparing ourselves to somebody else steal our joy?”
Lesson 3: Take care of yourself.
McCormick told her audience, “If you work at peak level, you will have ups and downs, but if you keep yourself at your optimal level, you will perform at your best all the time. If we don’t take care of ourselves, who takes care of us? You have a responsibility to take care of yourself first, so that you can be there for everyone else; so that you can be your best self; so that you can perform at your optimal level every day. It’s not selfish. You’re giving your family and your business your best self. They deserve that, so take care of yourself.”
Lesson 4: “C.A.N. is an aviation term,” McCormick said. “There are three things as a pilot that you have to do. If you always do these three things, it will transform you.”
C: Communicate. McCormick said not to assume people know what you want.
“Communicate what you need,” she said. “Giving proactive, positive communication will make a difference in your life.”
A: Aviate. “Aviating is action,” McCormick said. She said most aircraft accidents happen when the pilot becomes fixated on a problem and forgets to fly. “In a helicopter, there is no autopilot. Your life is the same way; you cannot check out; you have to be proactive and present in your actions. Don’t fall into analysis paralysis, where you get stuck analyzing a situation but end up doing nothing.
“Any step is better than none, and if it is wrong, you can learn from it and move on. Sometimes you have to take a risk, step outside your comfort zone, and learn something new. That’s what makes amazing things happen. Aviate it. Take the actions.”
N: Navigate. McCormick made the point that now with GPS and gas prices, most people know where they are going when they get into their cars.
“In a helicopter, it was intense,” she said. “We had to do a flight plan with the FAA, risk assessment, safety brief, preflight, check our map, fuel check, operations briefing, crew briefing, passenger briefing. We did two or three hours of planning for a simple training flight. If we were flying a Congressman or the Secretary of Defense, we would actually plan three days in advance and fly a full rehearsal day to make that mission happen. We navigated; we knew where we were going.
“Do you know where you are going in your life?” McCormick asked. “Do you know where you are going in your business? Do you have a vision? A mission? Do you know what your legacy is going to be for your family?”
McCormick encouraged her audience to spend some quiet time alone to figure out the answers to those questions, and she said that without doing that, they are missing the clarity to reach their goals.
“You’re using somebody else’s flight plan if you’re not navigating it yourself,” McCormick said. “Do you want to spend your life on somebody else’s flight plan? You get to choose your actions…your communications. No one else is riding those controls but you.”
Lesson 5: Lead from where you are.
“You have a responsibility to lead,” McCormick said. “Don’t wait to be asked. Don’t wait to be appointed. You have the ability, the capability, but most importantly, the responsibility to lead from where you’re at right now, every day, and when you do, you can make a big difference. And isn’t that what we’re here for? To make a difference? To make things better?
“Choose to lead from where you are.”
McCormick is a Best Selling author for her book Succeeding in Spite of Everything and her new book Soaring Further will come out this year.