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UMaine alum, pilot shares unique Sept. 11 story

Martin Richard has a unique perspective on what happened on Sept. 11, 2001. A 1989 graduate of the University of Maine, Richard started pilot training eight months after graduating and was heading out on a routine training mission the morning of Sept. 11 in Cape Cod.

Just minutes later, Richard was circling the smoky skyline of New York City with very little information as to what happened, what the objective of their route was and who they were looking for.

Along with hundreds of others obtained in the military and while flying fighter jets, this experience helped formulate Richard’s leadership lectures that he delivers around the country, mostly to businesses. He shared that experience Jan. 29 at UMaine.

Richard was brought in as a guest lecturer for UMaine adjunct professor Shawn McKenna’s business leadership class. He presented to a classroom of about 30 students the qualities he gained as a fighter pilot and how the principles can translate into business endeavors.

“It’s not who can go fastest; it’s who can manage their energy the best,” Richard said, comparing the difficulties in managing the finite amount of fuel in a fighter jet to the stress of multiple projects in the business world.

After McKenna introduced Richard, the former Black Bear and fighter pilot jumped right into lessons learned while in the sky.

“We practice, practice, practice, because when you go, you can’t mess up,” Richard said. “These axioms go back all the way through fighter aviation, back to World War I.”

The recurring theme of the lecture revolved around three axioms of fighter aviation: speed is life; lose sight, lose flight; and check six.

After explaining the importance of managing fuel while in the air, Richard applied the idea that speeding up and slowing down is a key component to business.

“I’m talking about momentum,” Richard explained. “Sometimes you’ll find in business the vast conspiracy to take you off the objective you have for the day. You need to be looking out for each other to keep that momentum.”

Using his unique perspective, Richard explained the importance of knowing how fast to go when responding to 9/11. That morning, Richard and three other jets were going to perform a training exercise: two jets would use techniques common in threats and the other two would work to combat the threat. Just minutes later, they got a call through their radio.

“[Our radio said], ‘You guys need to get back right now.’ We landed, and got a quick briefing of what was going on,” Richard said. “We were told, ‘There are at least eight jets airborne with bombs; We suspect there are at least 12 more. We don’t know where you’re going or what you’ll be doing, but you’re going to take off in 20 minutes and figure it out.’

“Think about it: I had gone to Dunkin Donuts that morning. I was about to fly around the flagpole, as we say, and just like that — I felt like I was in combat,” Richard continued. “We didn’t have access to the information we needed, our instinct was to get to ground zero as fast as we can. It took me 12 minutes that day to get from Cape Cod to New York City, but it happened at a cost. When we got there, the thing we really needed to do was stay there. We got there fast, and then we slowed it down.”

While in the air patrolling the New York skyline, Richard and his fellow pilots then needed to keep their eyes on the mission at hand, even though reports came rolling in that similar events were occurring in Washington D.C.

“On 9/11, we had that debrief with all the aircraft with bombs. But what we were getting was a lot of data, and what we needed was a lot of information. And it was our job on scene to turn that data into information,” Richard said. “We didn’t know the sophistication of the attack. What we had to do was get control of this data and maintain that ‘lose sight, lose flight’ [attitude] and pay attention to the mission at hand. Our mission was to be over New York City and stabilize that situation.”

The third axiom Richard used — “check six” — refers to the relationship between a fighter pilot and his wingman. While a fighter pilot can see in almost every direction while in their aircraft, directly behind them — “six o’clock” — is completely blind. It’s the wingman’s responsibility to keep a lookout directly behind his partner.

“[The saying] ‘have a good wingman,’” Richard explained, “that’s where it comes from.”

In business, “checking your wingman’s six” can prevent profit loss, company frustration and even paint you in a good light.

“If you have a responsibility to check your peoples’ six, lookout for them, make sure they’re in line with the company’s vision, then you don’t have a responsibility to make them do it,” Richard said. “It becomes their choice. What you don’t want to happen is be that guy that says, ‘Man, I knew I should have said something.’”

Richard’s emotions were tested on 9/11. After policing ground zero for some time, it was Richard’s mission to intercept United Airlines Flight 93 and do what was necessary to divert it.

“I can tell you that, on 9/11, I panicked. When I panicked was when they said you’re going to intercept, identify and divert United Flight 93,” Richard said. “What they said was — because they didn’t want to say it — ‘If they do not respond, be ready for the next action.’ They didn’t want to say what the next action was. To be honest with you, we didn’t want to hear it.

“I’d been in combat before. But as I was taking off, I was saying, ‘I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to do this,’” Richard continued. “That was a time I had to slow things down and say, ‘Look, here’s the deal: I can’t deal with those emotions right now. I will have time to deal with them later on. What I need to do right now is get my jet into a position where I can prevent what happened in New York City to not happen again.’

“If I had maintained those emotions, I could have made a serious mistake.”