Teamwork at 8,000 feet and 500 MPH

What does a high performance team look like? Can you give me a working example? To these often asked questions, I reply, “There are many examples of organizations, business units, sales teams, sports teams that produce great results because of the commitment to teamwork and leadership.” However, there is one team I commonly refer to that gets many people excited and intrigued to learn more and see this team in action for themselves.
I like to add a bit of intrigue once in a while, so I begin with clues:

  • Eight pilots
  • Four support officers
  • 120 active duty military personnel
  • Six Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcons

Who is this team? The U.S. Air Force Demonstration team – THE THUNDERBIRDS.

Thunderbirds In Action

Most individuals who attend a performance by the Thunderbirds come away awestruck at the precision, focus, and energy that this team exudes in their 40 minutes of in-flight action packed demonstration. The audience sees the immediate ground crew and pilots, which might look like a total of 10-20 individuals during a normal Thunderbirds performance. What most people do not see is the approximately 120 other individuals that make up this team called the “Thunderbirds.” Each one of these individuals serves in a function that drives at the first class performance they are known for. These functions include support aircraft, mechanics, technicians, flight surgeons, ground crew, and others who often arrive days before a performance to coordinate all the details needed for a safe, well executed performance.

The Performance

During their amazing show of thunder and near sonic booms, the team demonstrates approximately 30 maneuvers where planes fly just a few feet from each other traveling at 500 mph. While they make it look like easy, it’s not. It requires complete dedication to the team, focus, and commitment.

Behind The Scenes

Before you see them fly a show, they have already flown the show on the ground many times. In preflight briefings, the Thunderbird pilots walk through the sequence of events to ensure that each team member knows every detail of the flight; safety issues, surrounding geography, altitudes, distances, rates of speed and weather conditions. Once the team is done shaking hands with the crowd following the demonstration, the Thunderbirds are not done with their day. They engage in a post flight debrief where they discuss all aspects of the team’s performance and provide feedback regardless of rank or experience.

Ask any of the pilots what it’s like to be a Thunderbird and they’ll tell you it’s like being a part of a family. There is total dedication to the team environment, they will work out together, eat together, train together, and fly together. They make it a point to be a TEAM and put safety as top priority.

Watch Them Streak Across The Sky

To see this high performing team in action, go the Thunderbirds website and access their show schedule. I guarantee you will not be disappointed. The “Sneak Pass” at mach .98, will help you understand why Native American culture speaks of the Thunderbird “with great fear and respect”. You will feel fear from the deafening roar and come away with a greater respect and deeper understand of teamwork, even if your office isn’t traveling at 8,000 feet and 500 mph.

Take Away

Try using these couple of tips and ideas next time you discuss your teams performance:

  • Debrief your performance or execution. Talk about what went right and what didn’t
  • Be open to giving honest and constructive feedback to team members
  • Be accepting of feedback from others. Well intended feedback is only meant to help you
  • Identify areas where the overall team can improve
  • Most importantly take action to make changes or improvements to the areas identified above

To help your team function at peak performance much like the Thunderbirds, you need to make the dedicated effort!

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About the Author

Chris Stowell

Christopher Stowell is currently serving as CMOE’s Vice President of Sales and Marketing where he works with multi-national organization to develop their people. His special interests lie in coaching teamwork, strategy, e-learning, and assessment design, and delivery. Chris has a special talent in helping companies assess their organizational effectiveness and identifying key issues and opportunities in order to advance their performance and achieve long term results. Additionally, he has extensive experience in designing, coordinating, and facilitating customized adventure based experiential training events for high performance teams.