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Teaching Strategic Thinking Skills to Air Force Pilots

An Interview with Major John Webb, U.S. Air Force

Major John Webb of the U.S. Air Force teaches strategic thinking to pilot students with Concepts and his iPad.


"I've found that teaching a student how to get to the same answer I have is far more valuable than showing the answer."

My name is John Webb, and I’m a pilot in the U.S. Air Force. I started my Air Force career through the Texas A&M ROTC program and entered pilot training in 2011. In 2012, I was assigned to fly the KC-10 Extender, an in-flight refueling platform. As a normal progression in the KC-10 career field, young pilot training graduates begin in the right seat, learning the nuances of their weapon system, such as flight characteristics, aircraft systems, and mission employment. After a few years, the copilots graduate to become aircraft commanders, and in due time, are then selected to become instructors. That’s where I am. 

I’ve been an instructor in the KC-10 since 2016 and have since been developing my skills to usher in the new generation of military aviators. In my opinion, the three most important skills any pilot can have are flight discipline, cockpit/crew resource management (CRM), and situational awareness (SA). Flying is much like music or dance, in the sense that you rehearse and rehearse in your head, and when you’re in the airplane, it’s time to perform.

My typical setup in a mission planning/briefing room. Due to COVID, the office is minimally manned at the moment, but during mission planning, I’ll AirPlay my iPad to the TV in the planning room and the crews can all brief and visualize the mission.

Most of my briefings (classroom teaching) are done on a whiteboard, and I diagram out in-flight scenarios or aircraft systems on the board for my students. The advent of COVID has made that teaching style a challenge. This is where the Concepts app shines. With my 10.5” iPad Pro and first-gen Apple Pencil, I’m able to screen share with my students via Zoom or Jitsi from the social distance of my couch and still be effective.

The beauty of this setup is that it’s extremely flexible. Nearly all of my classroom instruction is done at an ad-hoc basis, so I must be ready at any time. I can use my setup in flight, on the ground, remotely, however the situation dictates.

An in-work pilot-level electrical diagram of our aircraft.

While teaching, I let the student choose the topic and the starting point. For example, for visual traffic patterns (diagram attached), students typically pick the point of rotation. From there, we progress through the pattern, periodically stopping to answer questions like “What do you expect to see? What is your pitch and power? What’s coming next?” Basic questions like these train the students how to think while operating a 200-ton airplane. Proper thinking instills flight discipline and increases SA, thereby keeping everyone safe.

Traffic patterns diagram.

I also use the same method discussing aircraft systems. Having good knowledge of aircraft systems allows pilots to deftly assess in-flight malfunctions and resolve them thoroughly and expeditiously.

As far as teaching insights are concerned, I’ve found that teaching a student how to get to the same answer I have is far more valuable than showing the answer. Developing thorough and methodical, disciplined thought patterns is by far the best way to train safe and effective pilots. It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort, but it’s worth it in the end. 

John Webb is a Major in the U.S. Air Force and is an Instructor Pilot in the KC-10 Extender, a tanker aircraft that is designed for in-flight refueling. He is responsible for the daily operation of his unit and is part of an elite team that is responsible for training and developing the next generation of military aviators.

Interview by Erica Christensen


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