Written by: René Jakl
Photo: René Jakl
The commander of the 41st “Tiger” jet fighter squadron, Major Michael Borůvka, claims that most corporate teams would envy his pilots’ teamwork and motivation. At times, relying on each other in flight formation is crucial.
It is difficult to imagine a more hierarchical structure than the army. Is it possible in military operations to apply anything other than directive procedures?
In terms of our experience, we are more or less on the same level in the squadron. Each of our pilots has the ability to run the squadron, and knows precisely what his assignments are. Besides maybe one beginner, there is no need to tell the pilots what they should do and when they should do it. I mainly just carry out control activities and, in the event of structural changes, I set forth new work methods. So it is not a classic command. It is also connected with the great motivation of the pilots.
How do you explain their motivation, and how does it manifest itself?
Everyone wants to fly as much as possible and receive the best theoretical preparation for the work of a pilot-fighter. For the pilots, flying is both a job and a hobby, you could also say entertainment. It’s hard to compare it with other professions. I understand that many people don’t like working very much, and that their bosses have to motivate them to perform better. But paradoxical phenomena appear here – for example, it’s hard to get pilots to go on vacation. They send their wives to the ocean and go to work.
How important do you think family background is for maximal, error-free pilot performance?
It’s an individual matter; it has a different effect on everyone, but in principle it’s very important. If someone has serious family problems, consideration must be given to a break from flying, for two months, say, for his own safety and that of the others, too.
What do you fly, and how large is your squadron?
We fly obsolete Russian MIG-21s, the only supersonic planes in our country. I can’t tell you the exact number of planes or personnel, but our team is unusually small, on the order of twenty persons. This is mainly because our planes will be retired in two years, and there would be no sense in training more people.
Do you use a modeling technique in your training?
All army training is built on modeling. Model situations are always taken from a broader context. Actual battle is a complex activity involving huge numbers of people, and that can never be replicated in training. So today not only flying, but leadership itself is practiced on simulators.
To what degree does training approach the limits of human and machine capabilities?
These limits are reached only in battle, never in training. There is always a certain safety buffer zone that is adhered to.
Do you ever practice ejecting, or is that a last resort? If a pilot has already made mistakes and a crash is unavoidable, why not bail out at the critical moment?
Yes, that was recently the case for a pilot in an L-159 trainer, True, we don’t practice ejecting in training, but its technique isn’t fundamental. Far more important is psychological preparation. The pilot must recognize the moment after which bailing out will no longer be possible.
Sometimes flyers are spoken of as the army’s elite. When in command do you have any problems with pilots being show-offs or know-it-alls?
Flyers may appear like that to other members of the army. But I have not encountered it here. It would be hard for one pilot in the squadron to act superior towards the other pilots, because they are discerning, and they know their weaknesses.
You went through Squadron Officer School in the US. Did that help you in commanding the squadron?
It is basically preparation for commanders so that they can put their teams together. It was interesting for me to make comparisons in the US, because they are all individualists there. The goal of the training was to teach the participants that they must support the weakest part of the group, because that is the most important thing. This isn’t such a great problem with Czechs; it’s easier to form a team here. I have spoken with soldiers who served in the Royal Air Force during WWII, and they say that relationships then were the same as those of today in this country. Strong individualism is coming here for the first time. So we will have to conduct a similar course in our army.
How do the flyers communicate with each other? Do they use a certain language in the air as a universal means of communicating?
Unlike the French, the Germans use English even when talking with each other. Sometimes we use Czech, and sometimes specialized aviation English. For example, in Czech “I see/I cannot see” is easy to confuse over the radio, so we use the aviation English equivalent, “visual/blind”.
How do you select people for the squadron?
There used to be a very efficient pilot selection system, with about 80 pilots going through an exercise and testing program each year. At the end about eight pilots were left, and they joined the squadron. We don’t do that any more. As I’ve already said, our planes will be retired in two years, so we aren’t training pilots any more, with a single exception. Before I accept someone I have no chance to check him out, but I still have to be sure he won’t quit after two years of training.
So what criteria do you base your decisions on?
Basically, I make choices according to the opinions of the given candidate’s instructors and commanders who recommend him. Unfortunately, the others don’t even get a chance to go through the selection process.
What is your greatest problem as a commander?
The fact that there is no military aviation concept. If the task is unknown, our role is not delineated, so it’s hard for me to substantiate exposure to even minimal risks during our training. Then my supervisor reproaches me for doing something that no one wants us to do. This is hard on my morale. There isn’t any feedback that could justify the performance of more demanding, riskier assignments. In fact the only feedback in an army is war. If there aren’t any wars, an army doesn’t develop, and it is hard to push through any changes.