Last summer, I read Malcolm Gladwell's book, "Outliers." In this book, the author makes a case that success is not so much a factor of Chosen Genius but an alchemy many factors. Successful people were born at the "right time" and capitalized on opportunity to learn more about their passions and adapt. And learn and adapt. And learn and adapt.
If Gladwell ever meets Hank Snow, by his own barometer, he'll be meeting one of the most successful fighter pilots alive.
The first time I met Hank was on a hotel shuttle in Washington D.C. I'll spare you the circumstances, but what struck me most was how the guy looked like Buzz Lightyear - and he had that same bigger-than-life presence. You know the type - big handshake, booming voice, giant smile - the uncle who shows up every Super Bowl Sunday with a big pot of "special recipe something" and a dollar for all the kids. I liked him right away.
But, though Hank has the vibe of someone who's competent at something, his jovial positivity doesn't exactly holler, "I've flown 666 combat missions in three wars."
If that sentence didn't make an impact, let me put it this way - Hank flew mortal combat in 3 different conflicts - unique in systems, enemy, technology, mission and tactics. And, he not only survived, but thrived with the distinction and deep respect of his superiors and peers (see way below).
Put in work-a-day terms, it's like a Teacher excelling in a one-room, coal-heated school house, then moving to a public metro High School and finally ending teaching internet classes - and all the while winning the awards & accolades afforded to an expert.
Now, I brought up my first impressions of Hank because it bears a point - when the popular notion of a fighter pilot comes up, Hollywood has ensured the image of big, boisterous and devil-may-care. Just like Hank appears to be. But you have to know - staying alive in a high-speed, intense combat arena is not a place for the "big, boisterous and devil-may-care" temperament. Those people tried, for sure, but they usually died.
"There are old pilots and there are bold pilots but there are very very few Old Bold pilots."
Hank Snow is a living example of Gladwell's formula for success: Circumstances + passion+ continual learning + a willingness to adapt.
Now's a good time to look at the numbers behind Hank's expertise:
16 different military type aircraft from Stearman biplane to F-4 Phantom supersonic jet
1,602 combat hours in WW2, Korea and Vietnam
5, 436 non-combat hours in military aircraft
24 different civilian type aircraft from the Piper Cub to the Lear jet.
7,679 hours of civilian flight time
14,717 total hours in 40 different aircraft
There are a number of civilian pilots today who can boast a greater number of hours. But none (that I can imagine) that can boast the sheer diversity and magnitude of Hank Snow. And therein lies the answer to the question that always comes up after learning of Hank's 666 combat missions: "Wow! How'd he stay alive?!"
Not through recklessness or wild-eyed risk taking. Nor was it from circumnavigating hard work or duty. Hank simply did what he enjoyed doing, over and over and over again; staying current with technology and not resisting changes in culture or mission. In other words, Hank made a life-long science of being a fighter pilot, without prejudice or cynicism.
When I look at Hank's Korean-war Sabre, I see a man mid-stream in his experience, doing what he enjoyed doing regardless of any guarantee.
If that's not a lesson for success, I don't know what is.
*Hank's Awards & Honors
Legion of Merit
6 Distinguished Flying Crosses
24 Air Medals
Air Commendation Medal
Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star
Vietnam Staff Service Medal
2 Presidential Unit Citation
Air Force Outstanding Unit Award
Oh - top to bottom: Hank in China-Burma WW2, Hank in Korea, Hank in Vietnam. Notice Hank's gray hair in the last photo.