When Experiential Education Saved the Fleet

The planes are all in the boneyard or museums now.  And the once bustling organization that managed the maintenance, repair, and operation of a fleet of giant cargo aircraft exists only in the memories of a few gray heads.  But it faced a crisis in its heyday and the C-141 Management Directorate became involved in experiential education quite by accident – and was surprised beyond all expectations. What follows is an account of how a military organization’s experiment with experiential education as a corporate training tool created dramatic change in the organization itself, in the workforce, and in the lives of individual employees.

The C-141 STARLIFTER was the backbone of the nation’s long-range military airlift capability since its introduction into service in 1962. It was the last of the nation’s “bargain” aircraft, despite the increasingly heavy maintenance and repair workload required to keep the aging workhorse viable. With an originally designed service life of 30,000 flying hours, modifications and repairs gave the fleet a new lease on life with continued service expected through 45,000 flying hours. The C-141 Management Directorate was an example of excellent stewardship of taxpayer dollars. Maintenance, modification, repair, and world-wide logistics support were accomplished at Robins AFB since the aircraft’s introduction into service. The STARLIFTER Team always met and exceed customer expectations. Innovative and unique repair techniques and procedures evolved to meet the aircraft’s changing mission needs and support requirements.

The team’s support of this aircraft was at a level unparalleled in either military or industry. Constant and effective communication between the depot, customers, designers, and supporting community ensured world-class maintenance and support to keep the C-141 one of the safest, most effective, most economical aircraft ever bought and used by our country. Examples of its performance ranged from world-wide military operations (Desert Shield / Desert Storm) to world-wide humanitarian efforts (Restore Hope). The value of this aircraft to the nation was far beyond its cost. Equally valuable to the nation was the dedicated, experienced workforce that took pride in maintaining the aging mainstay. Despite trends in industry that sometimes cause employment to be viewed purely as a business arrangement, the STARLIFTER Team represented a loyal, dedicated, and proud work force – in some cases second and third generation Robins Air Force Base employees.

Aging aircraft can be roughly compared to the more mechanically familiar aging automobile. As planes and cars get older and accumulate more miles (or flying hours), they become more difficult and more expensive to maintain. Heavy demand and usage, plus age, results in a formidable workload in maintaining these aircraft. After months of meeting every challenge with a “whatever it takes” attitude, work force burnout became a very real possibility. We began searching for a way to step back, regroup, refocus, and to become proactive again, instead of reactive. The fires were out, or smoldering rather than blazing, and we needed to again focus on our traditional strong points such as quality, productivity, planning, etc. We wanted to corporately shift from a fire-fighting mode to a more detailed, methodical, and process-conscious mode. We found it hard, however, to shift from a crisis mode. We chose a very natural and very common solution of conducting team building classes. But, we got lucky on the method of delivery.

We stumbled upon experiential education because we were searching for a way to make our training a fun, enjoyable, memorable experience, which would contribute to the shift back to a cohesive team. Using experiential education as a corporate training tool, we did all that and more. We developed an experiential education-based curriculum that helped the C-141 Management Directorate continually improve the performance of maintenance, repair, modification, and world-wide logistics support of the fleet of C-141 STARLIFTERS. As those familiar with experiential education know, experiential education dates back to World War II, when the Royal British Navy discovered, contrary to expectations, that survivors of enemy submarine attacks were older sailors. This discovery was puzzling, as the younger sailors were more fit, in better condition, and would be expected to survive in greater proportion than older sailors. To capture the mental toughness, grit, fortitude, and survival skills of the older sailors and transfer this knowledge to the younger sailors, the Outward Bound (a nautical term referring to ships departing from harbor) School was formed. This was one of the earliest recorded formal uses of experiential education.

In the Sixties and Seventies experiential education was used mostly in clinical settings to treat behavioral problems, juvenile offenders, chemical and alcohol dependencies, etc. Clinicians observed, however, that the groups being treated displayed behaviors that are desirable in the work place, such as improved ability to function as a cohesive group, increased diversity awareness and respect, greater creativity in problem solving, and better leadership and followship skills. These results, reported in medical and psychiatric journals, went largely unnoticed by the business world. With the focus on teams and teamwork of the eighties and industry’s increased usage of motivational speakers (many of whom had clinical backgrounds), the use of experiential education as a corporate training tool began to increase. It became widespread in use in such companies as Saturn, Exxon, IBM, AT&T, Digital Equipment Corporation, Du Pont, Schering-Plough, Canadian Tire, General Electric, and Westinghouse.

Our use of experiential education produced outstanding results. We found it got the employees involved in their training through active participation. It was fun, relevant, effective, and provided the employees with a memorable experience. It helped bridge the communication gaps in a very diverse workforce. The C-141 Management Directorate had approximately 1500 employees in nearly every skill or profession except for sales and medicine. We had secretaries, clerks, acquisition and procurement personnel, several disciplines of engineers (aeronautical, mechanical, electrical, systems, structural, and industrial), managers, executives, all disciplines of aircraft mechanics (electrical, hydraulic, sheet metal, aircraft, etc.), information systems professionals, accountants, item and material managers, facilities managers, operations research analysts, corporate trainers, equipment specialists, production managers, workload schedulers, and human resource personnel. All these different people, with different skills and jobs, sometimes found it difficult to talk with each other with a common language and an understanding attitude. Experiential Education helped. It did it with props and training aids such as giant beach balls, darts and blow guns, hula hoops, race cars, tennis balls, parachutes, blindfolds, eggs, green buttermilk, twenty-pound rocks, utility poles, ropes, kid’s play tunnels, water guns, cotton balls, hand lotion, pizza, and fun. If you didn’t hear the discussion and facilitation going on, it looked a lot like play. But make no mistake, it accomplished, in exemplary fashion, our training goals. Our training techniques invited and supported growth – individual, interpersonal, and organizational. Participants learned new skills, or improved and enhanced existing skills, in the areas of team building, conflict management, creative problem solving, leadership and followship, and gained both a greater appreciation for diversity and enhanced self-esteem. If you haven’t yet tried experiential education as a corporate training tool, you should. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.