When the worst-case scenario occurs or when the big call comes in, is your team ready? Former astronaut, Bill “Borneo” Gregory, tells the story of his space mission that could have never happened but how he was prepared when it did. He shares the simple, logical techniques business teams can use to ensure they are prepared for the predictable threats and once in a lifetime opportunities.
[Below is a transcript of the episode.]
Thor: I’m really excited about the conversation we’re going to have this week. Very often we talk about the value proposition that Afterburner and our team of former elite military personnel like fighter pilots and Navy SEALs. The value proposition that we can offer to the business world is that we can help them to operate in very complex, very dynamic, very high-stakes environments because that’s where we came from. And we know that’s where a lot of the business teams are in right now, and as we note that the environment that they’re encountering, that they’ve got to navigate effectively. The gentleman we’re going to talk to right now, spent most of his career on the cutting edge of a high-stakes dynamic challenging environment where his life was on the line every single day, first as a fighter pilot, then a test pilot, and then finally as an astronaut as he flew into space. Bill Gregory, welcome to the Thorcast.
Borneo: Hey Thor, thanks a lot, appreciate it.
Thor: Well, we’re really excited to have you here and let’s get the most important question out of the way right up front. Your call sign is Borneo. Why is your call sign Borneo?
Borneo: Well, in the fall of 1976, I was a member of Cadet Squadron 33 Cellar Ratz at the Air Force Academy. We had a weekly award for the grossest, most decrepit act of the week. I won it two weeks in a row. Somebody started calling me Borneo Bill kinda like Barnacle Bill the sailor. Anyways, it was Borneo Bill and it stuck. So long before there was a Maverick or a Goose, there was a Borneo. So over 40 years now.
Thor: Do we wanna ask what the grossed out stories were that you’re able to achieve this illustrious call sign with?
Borneo: You can ask away but there isn’t enough alcohol in the State of Georgia to find out.
Borneo: Nobody remembers and I’m not telling.
Checklists and Contingencies to Overcome the Unexpected
Thor: Gotcha, all right, fair enough. Well, suffice it to say, that we always say behind closed doors that there’s a two beer minimum for the majority of our call sign stories and that the real story is always more exciting than the cover story that we present. The same is true for mine as Thor and someday I might reveal that, but I appreciate and respect the fact that you’re not ready to give up the story for Borneo. So what an opportunity, where do we start with your career and all the experiences that you’ve had first as a fighter pilot, then as a test pilot, and finally as an astronaut along the way? Let’s begin with a story from your fighter pilot days and you talk to the listeners about a challenging environment that you find yourself in, something that scared you, something that tested you and what you took away from that as a fighter pilot or a test pilot.
Borneo: Well, of course, fighter pilots never get scared. What you’re really asking me is something that got my attention.
Thor: There you go.
Borneo: So I’ll tell you about something that got my attention and it’s kind of funny because in the F411 with no visual outside, we were flying night low level through the mountains. As low as 200 feet was the lowest setting. And so normally you would think that that’s where you would be susceptible. But actually in those situations, you’re all keyed up, you’re ready to go. One that got my attention was during a normal part of flight, take off. And normally, take off’s pretty routine. And I was in the right seat acting as the instructor. I had a senior lieutenant colonel in the left seat, a friend of the wing commander. And he was going through re-currency training and we took off. He brought the gear up and right after, we got a wheel well hot. And what that meant was we had bleed air pouring into the wheel well, which is about this higher risk with the exception of an inflate fire because you have two things that are very combustible.
Borneo: You’ve got the main tires, which are huge tires on the F411 and if they started on fire, that is a major problem. And then you also have these fuel mines that are about four or five inches in diameter carrying fuel to the engines right there in the vicinity of this bleed air. And so what you need to do is go from your routine of, “Hey, we just took off. We’re heading to where we need to go to” to suddenly, “Now I have to get this on the ground because it can light us on fire.” And you remember the amount of fuel you had in the F15. Well, we carried 34,000 pounds of internal fuel, which is kinda like the total weight of an F15 or an F4.
Borneo: We had about 20,000 pounds of fuel right there, ready to get lit. So what we needed to do was I needed to run the bold face procedure. We had to get the landing gear immediately down and turn off the air source selector. So hopefully shut off the flow of hot air. Get the landing gear out of that wheel well, so that you would get cool air circulating in there. And then of course just get the plane landed as soon as possible. So we really didn’t have time to dump fuel. What we just did was we just brought it around, did a visual approach, and we had it back down on the runway in probably about three minutes. So we landed with almost a full load of fuel. And so we were weighing about 80,000 pounds, about 30,000, 32,000 pounds of fuel still up onboard. And managed to actually land and didn’t have to use the hook, and didn’t end up with hot brakes. So it all worked out pretty darn well.
Thor: So looking back and just kind of translating some of the airplane speak for the listeners, the bleed air is one of the biggest emergency procedures that you could ever have inside of an aircraft. And what that really means is you got a blow torch somewhere inside of your airplane, and that blow torch which is just incredibly hot fire could be pointed at fuel lines. It could be pointed at your tires which are explosive and you have this gear up inside the aircraft. And so there’s a chance of those tires are gonna explode. And at a minimum make it unlandable, and in a worst case scenario explode the entire airplane. And so there are few things in an airplane that give you more pause or make you more afraid than seeing a bleed air malfunction, which is exactly what Borneo’s referring to here.
Thor: Here’s what I take away from this, that I think the listeners would appreciate. We talk to teams a lot. I just talked to a sales team last week in charge of about $700 million worth of sales. And they are opening up to new opportunities, and the market’s opening up for them. They talk about the escalation of the CIO, where all of a sudden this tech team has access to larger budgets, larger opportunities in the marketplace, because every company and every industry is talking about using technology as a strategic leverage point for their teams. And so the CIO all of a sudden, who used to be the one that just kept the email running and the lights on, is now somebody who has a strategic seat at the table with the leadership. And tech companies love that because they get excited about the opportunity and selling it to a larger budget. But here’s what they keep bumping into, they keep being challenged by the fact that the stakeholders in the sale, the number of stakeholders have increased.
Thor: In other words, it used to just be somebody within the CIO’s vertical they’re selling to, sometimes the CIO himself. And now, they are having to sell into lines of business along with the CIO, with this deal. And it’s breaking a lot of these deals. Here’s the parallel I’m driving for this. You had what is a very unlikely situation but a predictable one in the bleed air light challenge. And they knew that in the past we had seen this type of thing before in aircraft, and you had a checklist waiting for you to execute to be able to land safely. Why don’t you tell one more time, what did you do as soon as you see this bleed air light you said, “I went through the bold face.” What does that mean for the crowd that’s listening about your response?
Borneo: Sure. Right, so part of the checklist, the immediate response items you have to commit to memory, word for word. And so that was the first thing that I did, air source selector knob off, running gear handle down. Okay. So those two things you need to accomplish absolutely positively as soon as possible. And then of course land as soon as possible. So having that checklist very much similar to the checklist that we try and teach companies. Having that checklist in place and referring to it, and believing in that checklist was hugely important. And I think part of the thing is, this occurred during a very normal, very relaxed part of flight, not one of the more intense parts of the operation that day. So I think it’s important for people to realize, in business, you get opportunity sometimes when you least expect it. You’re always on your game when you’re giving a presentation or when you’re working on a proposal team. But sometimes with a chance meeting, when you’re least expecting it, that’s when you have to perform. And that’s when the checklist worked for me.
Thor: Yeah, great example, because it could be a good or bad. It’s called contingency planning in our world, typically for emergency procedures. Of course, it’s a bad scenario we’re trying to mitigate and very often with the teams that we’re supporting, they’re looking to mitigate bad scenarios as well. But if you listen closely to what Borneo said, he didn’t have the entire landing mapped out from start to finish for what he was going to accomplish after this emergency occurred but he did have his initial actions mapped out. And so when we start to see, let’s go back to my analogy with the CIO escalation and new opportunities that are coupled with more stakeholders and more people that say no to your deal that are involved. When you start seeing those initial signs for that bad scenario developing or there’s too many stakeholders and your deal’s in jeopardy, you should have the initial actions mapped out for your team.
Thor: You should know exactly what next steps to take, whether that’s elevating this to the executive team internally that you’ve got, and taking the executive team and going CIO to CIO or even CEO direct and having this conversation more aggressively. Whatever the steps are, you need to at least have those first initial steps. What’s your bold face that you’re gonna use for your team for these predictable threats? And you’re saying, “Yeah, but they’re not that predictable, it’s different every time.” I disagree, I do the debriefs with these sales teams, with these software development teams, with these med device operations teams. And when you do debriefs, you’ll start to see trends emerge and you’ll see that you’re bumping up against the same problems on a pretty reliable, predictable basis. And if it’s starting to be predictable, we can figure out a way around it, at least the initial steps for the team.
Thor: So great example, you saved a fighter aircraft from crashing, from blowing up, landed it in a very challenging configuration when it’s extremely heavy and did it very quickly because you knew the proper steps to begin executing as soon as the emergency occurred. So what everybody really wants to hear about, and I know what I’d like to hear about as well, an astronaut. First of all, how did you get chosen to be an astronaut, Borneo? What was that process like?
Prepare for Launch
Borneo: Well, they didn’t just come pluck me out of the background. [chuckle] First, I had to apply through the United States Air Force. I was selected to go ahead and be available to apply to NASA. I was very fortunate. I was selected the very first time I applied, so it was a good deal all the way around.
Thor: Wow. That’s amazing. And this is at the height of the space shuttle program. This is at the height of challenges as well, the Challenger going down in 1986. You’re brought into NASA a couple years later as an astronaut and tell us about the days and the training leading up to your flight in a space shuttle.
Borneo: Well, it’s kind of interesting as you’re training, you train for about a year, but it’s in low level initially and then as you get closer to the mission you get the highest priority in the simulator. Two weeks before the launch, you go to the Kennedy Space Center and you climb in the actual vehicle and you run through a practice launch, which is TCDT, terminal countdown test. And so you do everything, you’re all suited up, you do it just like it’s “The Real McCoy.” The difference is, the vehicle is basically inert. It’s dead. There’s virtually no power on it, it’s a beehive of activity, a lot of people are working on it getting it ready for the launch. On launch day, once they load the fuel, the liquid oxygen and the liquid hydrogen, it’s a bomb. It’s just too dangerous to have people out there. And so the other side of the coin is, now the vehicle is coming alive. It’s got electricity on it, it creaks and it moans because of the cryo, the liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. And so it’s this beast that’s slowly awakening as you approach the launch.
Borneo: And as you start powering things up, you get more and more activity, more and more noise, less and less reliance on the outside world. So what was going on is we had bad weather. The weather in our board sites was fine but the weather at the Kennedy Space Center was poor. They gave us a one in five chance or 20%. In fact, it was predicted bad enough, early enough, that my congressman, who was a new congressman, he’d never had an astronaut from his district. His aide told him don’t bother going, they’re not gonna get off. We’re sitting in the vehicle and you have to understand we get in the vehicle five hours prior. We get a weather brief but we can’t see outside because it was a night launch, like 1:30 in the morning. There are these big spotlights shining on the windows so we can’t see outside. All you see is the brightness of the lights.
Borneo: So we can’t see what’s going on with the sky. We’re getting weather briefs over the radio. As we’re coming down, it sounds like it’s only going to get worse. And so as we work our way through the checklist, get closer and closer to the launch, it’s pretty obvious that if we don’t get off, in the beginning, the early portion of the launch window, then that’s gonna be it. It sounds like we’re going to use the nasty S word scrub. And of course in the back of your mind, what’s going through your mind? “Oh my family’s here and oh they’re gonna be so disappointed. I had like a hundred guests there for the launch. They’re all out there.” So now you’re thinking about, “Oh, Jiminy Christmas. Now they’re all gonna have to go back on the buses, back to the hotel. We’re gonna try this again tomorrow. What a mess this is gonna be.” And so all of this stuff, because there was a big party that I threw beforehand, of course, I’m not there, the guest of honor isn’t at the party. It’s like a wedding but you’re not at the wedding. And so everyone’s excited. They went from the party straight to the launch and all the enthusiasm is riding high and here Mother Nature is trying to deny you.
Borneo: As we got closer and closer to the launch time, we kept progressing through the checklist and that includes doing some things like starting the hydraulic units, the auxiliary power units. And once you start those off, there’s a certain amount of time they can run and then they have to be re-serviced. So when they had me go ahead and do the pre-start, which was not such a big deal, like seven and a half minutes out, then at four minutes or so, they had me start those APUs. Then it was obvious, “Okay, so now we’ve started a clock. We only have so much time to get this bird off the ground.” So by God, they’re shooting for the beginning of the window and they’re just gonna call it because it’s not gonna get any better, it’s only gonna get worse. We keep counting down two and a half minutes, we close our visors, turn the O2 on, our oxygen on the suite, the gantry moves away and it’s like, “Wow, they’re really taking this down to the limit.”
Borneo: But we in the vehicle, we had no real indication that we were gonna get off the ground. And the reason was we couldn’t see outside. And what we didn’t realize was the skies had parted and the stars were out. And it had stopped raining, it had been raining this whole time. And for us, nobody ever said, “Hey, we’re gonna get this thing off.” Because everyone’s being professional, they’re running this stuff, they’re looking at the weather. As you get down, you get to T-minus 31 seconds. The T-minus 31 seconds you go to auto sequence start. Which means, the vehicle’s now in charge. Mission control has taken over, launch control has relinquished command. And so now, the vehicle is in charge of the launch and it’s counting down. We’re just, we’re watching, we’re monitoring, with the computer running the show.
Borneo: And only at that point did I realize, “Holy Christmas! We’re gonna go.” And so with 31 seconds to go, then suddenly I thought [chuckle], “Oh my gosh, we’re actually gonna go today.” And it’s funny because everything was so routine, so routine, everything was automatic. And then all of a sudden, we’re expecting to abort and all of a sudden we get this auto sequence start and it’s like, “Well time to catch up!” And so 30 seconds goes pretty quick, especially when 24 seconds into that the engines start.
Borneo: Seven seconds to go, the engines and the whole vehicle start shaking with the engines. And the next thing you know, we get the boosters lit. I watched the tower go by the commander’s windows and away we go.
Thor: Wow. And just so the listeners can really experience this, you are laying on your back right? You’re looking straight up and you’re on your back for hours, correct? Who knows how long this is gonna be. You’re looking straight up at bright lights from the launch pad. And these lights are in your face so you can’t see the clouds above you. When you got strapped in, the clouds were terrible, the weather’s terrible. And then by some miracle, the clouds part momentarily, we call it a sucker hole as pilots, the hole in the weather that occurs. That goads you in to launch and you go from daydreaming and waiting for them to abort the mission to all of a sudden hearing that in 31 seconds you are going to be departing Mother Earth in a space shuttle, is that right?
Borneo: Yeah, absolutely. And, boy, if you talk about waking up in a hurry, it was like we were being lulled into this. And you have to understand, the crews don’t want to abort for a variety of reasons but one of them is, the quickest way out of that spacesuit is to go to space.
Thor: Yeah. [chuckle]
Borneo: Because if they have to come out and get you out, it’s gonna be a couple of hours of pulling you out. One person at a time. Whereas, it’s eight and a half minutes from liftoff to orbit.
Borneo: Yeah, it’s very quick. And of course, everything happens fast. And what’s funny is, there are so many wires in the computers, it actually takes several seconds for the data to get through all the sensors, all the wires, through the computers, and on to your display. So there really isn’t anything pressing to see in the first couple seconds. And so that’s why I was looking out the window and I could see everything. And then by the time we cleared the tower, everything’s black outside ’cause we’re away from the spotlight. And then all we could see was the displays inside. And then away we went and you’re busy monitoring all the different equipment and checking to make sure that everything is working.
Thor: And then what do you see? This is the most interesting thing to me when you’ve told me this story in the past. What do you see moments after that? So it’s all black, you’re in just darkness in the night, what do you see next?
Borneo: What happens is as you get higher and as you get faster and further out of the atmosphere, what ends up happening is there’s no airflow going by the vehicle. And you have all this propellant coming out of the trailing end of the engines. And it wants to go anywhere because it’s high pressured. And so what ends up happening is, that propellant, all those balls of flame, they start coming around the vehicle and slowly engulfing the vehicle in flames.
Borneo: And so eventually, you start seeing the flames licking the windows above your head. And of course, you don’t see this on TV because we’re so far away. We’re just a dot at that point. But in the vehicle, you see these flames basically engulfing the vehicle. So it’s really nice to know about this ahead of time.
Borneo: And of course, that’s just for the four of us up on the flight deck. There’s three people who are downstairs and all they see is a bunch of lockers shaking in front of them.
Thor: They’re hanging on every word. I had no idea that people were in the space shuttle in the basement while you guys were taking off. [chuckle]
Borneo: Yeah, it’s called the mid-deck. There’s three people down there. And the minimum crew, you normally have a minimum of five and a maximum of seven so that you’ve always got one person down there. Because after Challenger, they came up with a procedure where you can, if you’re gliding but you’re not gonna make it to a runway, you can blow the hatch, put this pole out and then you attach your parachute to a pole. And what the pole does is it guides you underneath the leading edge of the wing so you don’t end up like bugs stuck to a hot radiator, sticking to that leading edge. The pull is just enough to get you into the airflow that it carry you under the wing instead of into the wing, which is a good thing.
Thor: That’s amazing. And the visuals I get when you tell me this story, of you sitting on your back, bored hoping nothing’s gonna happen, but knowing it probably won’t, staring into these bright lights for hours on end. The congressman’s not there. The family’s sitting outside under umbrellas. This isn’t gonna happen. You’re disappointed. And then all of a sudden you hear, “In 31 seconds, we’re gonna be airborne,” and by the way in 24 seconds the engines are gonna start and you’re gonna get the rumble of your life. So your hands better start moving now to start executing the takeoff sequence and getting the machine ready to leave the Earth’s gravitational pull. And then you start moving up, the lights go away, because the launch pad’s gone. It becomes completely black and the next thing you see are those flames licking the window. And the other thing you told me that was amazing, is you’re now watching the sunrise because there is no darkness in space. Right? It’s daytime again basically as you’re going outside of the shadow of the Earth at the same time. Is that right?
Borneo: Right. Absolutely, because you’re heading east. You’re heading toward the sunrise and as we got over the Atlantic, then suddenly we hit. It’s referred to as the Terminator, where you start to get the sun. But, yeah, so all of a sudden…
Thor: The Terminator.
Borneo: Yeah. Eight and a half minutes and boom, there’s the sunrise. And all of a sudden beautiful sunlight and you can see the Earth for the first time.
Thor: Wow, that is amazing. All right, so you are now in space and by the way you guys set some amazing records during this space shuttle run that wasn’t supposed to happen because of bad weather. What were you guys able to accomplish during this particular trip?
Borneo: Oh, yeah. We were actually the longest space shuttle mission ever up until that point. And nearly 17 days, 262 orbits, 7,000,000 miles, about 400 hours in space. And so we had three ultraviolet telescopes on board and we were looking at distant galaxies. In fact, the furthest galaxy was 130,000,000 light years away.
Borneo: So the light that came into our telescope had been traveling for 130,000,000 years.
Thor: Wow. So you are seeing a picture from the past 130,000,000 years ago as you look through that telescope. That’s amazing. What was the most startling, surprising thing about being in the weightlessness of space for you?
Borneo: It’s funny, because as soon as you get to Zero-G. We’re going from 3 G’s, through our cast instantly to Zero-G’s. It’s instantaneous transition where you go from 3 G’s being pushed back in the seat to all of a sudden everything’s floating.
Thor: That sounds disorienting.
Borneo: Well, that’s the problem. All this blood that has been in your legs and your arms now travels to your midsection and your head. And then your semicircular canal, it’s the little hairs in that. Now it’s frantically trying to find gravity. So the last thing that you wanna do is move abruptly. So what you do is you move very slowly and very deliberately trying not to trigger any sort of negative response from your body.
Thor: Yup. I remember the exact same sensation in the centrifuge, when it would slow down and you feel it go from 3 G’s to Zero-G’s very quickly. And it’s the most disorienting feeling ever as your head tries to make up or down of the world as the fluid’s spinning in your semicircular canals inside your ears. So you’re weightless now. What was…
Borneo: Yeah and one of the things along with it, very similar to what you’re saying, is for instance if the space vehicle, if the orbiter is upside down and you come up the stairs from the mid-deck from downstairs, you come up the stairs, and then you come through the hatch into the flight deck, and then you see your outside view is, “Oh my God, I’m upside down. I’m actually not climbing the ladder up. I’m actually climbing the ladder heads down and all of a sudden your brain is like, “Oh my goodness.”
Thor: Trying to make sense of this visual that you’re seeing but you are not feeling it at the same time. Wow!
Borneo: Exactly. Just like in business when all of a sudden you get thrown a curve ball. You’re expecting one thing and you see the exact opposite and you think, “Oh my gosh, how am I gonna recoup here?”
Be Ready to Take Advantage of Every Opportunity
Thor: Nice segue. I wish we could sit and talk about the flying this entire time, but I do wanna bring it back to business lessons and how this applies to groups that we’ve worked with. One of the most striking things that I take away from Borneo stories, he was not expecting to takeoff that day. He was not expecting this to be his big opportunity. He was expecting to have to unpack, go through the hour and a half to be removed from the shuttle, get your suit off, and maybe try this again another day. And hopefully not be told that they’re just scrubbing this team altogether and they’re gonna go with a new one, because it’s taking too long for this to take place. But he got his shot. He got his opportunity and he was told, “In 31 seconds, you are going to be taking off in the space shuttle.” And that was his first notification that this was really going to happen. But the thing was, he had prepared for this so well, that when the call came, his hands starting moving, he started taking actions, he started going into the launch sequence so that he could succeed. And it seems like there’re so many times when I’ll run into business teams that are not ready for that big opportunity.
Thor: It’s not just about mitigating the emergency. It’s not just about stopping the bleed air light when you’re taking off in your fighter plane. It’s about also taking advantage of the opportunities that you get when you are in front of the executive leadership team at the other company. When you do have access to this new strategic opportunity internally within your company, are you gonna be prepared? If you’ve got 31 seconds to articulate the value proposition for the direction you think things need to go, are you gonna be able to do it in an efficient way to be able to take off your plan as well? Borneo, this is amazing. I gotta save some for the next time we’re gonna talk, because we obviously could do this for two or three podcasts. Any last words, or anything else you’d like to share from your experiences as a test pilot, as an astronaut, as an Afterburner facilitator, before we give you back to your day?
Borneo: For the last four and a half years, I’ve been flying again, but for 14 years I was a business executive. I was working business development for Honeywell and a couple of smaller companies that supported it. And what I was able to do is I was able to take these experiences and then apply them to the business world, because it is a very protracted affair. Sometimes, as we both talked about, you have to be able to respond in an instant. And then other times, like some of the proposal efforts, can go on for years and it’s like dragging on like a long battle. And so it’s interesting that you wouldn’t think that you could make these parallels between preparing to fight and the battle that you do in the business world, but actually it’s very closely related. And the preparation, and the checklists, and the ability to transition when you get thrown something that wasn’t expected, it was a possibility but it wasn’t expected. Those kinds of things. There’s some very distinct parallels between the two worlds.
Thor: Well said, and I couldn’t agree more. You’ve just articulated the value proposition that Afterburner brings to the corporate world. And we’re constantly striving to help teams build their contingency plans and identify those predictable, maybe low likelihood threats, but predictable ones, that we can help them mitigate and come up with at least the initial actions, at least the bold face that takes care of the aircraft, and takes care of the opportunity, and keeps it safe, and maneuvers it to the next phase. And then when you are presented with that once-in-a-lifetime shot, when things are working for you that day, are you prepared to take advantage of it? Do you have the initial steps in your checklist to leverage the big opportunity and to launch things for your business at the same time? These are the questions that we should be having with our teams, just like we did when we are fighter pilots and when you are an astronaut.
Thor: Borneo, thank you so much for being on the show today. Fantastic insights and even better storytelling. And I can’t wait to bring you out on the next one because there’s so many other questions I have for you about your experiences.
Borneo: Thanks, Thor. I really enjoyed it.
Thor: We did too. Well, take care.