Mentoring For BogiDope Pilots (Part 2)

Last week we looked at mentoring from the perspective of the protege…the person receiving mentoring from someone more experienced. We identified some of the reasons that these relationships form, and we noted both good and bad ways to treat these relationships.

Most importantly, a successful mentoring relationship needs to have some sort of purpose, an overall Why. We also noted that while the mentor may not get as much obvious benefit from the relationship, he or she often decides to help anyway simply in hopes of seeing the protege achieve greatness.

You may have also noticed that I’m not a big fan of mentorship programs imposed by organizations from the top down. With few exceptions, I find these programs to be ineffective wastes of time. That said, there are some things that experienced aviators can do both as mentors, and as leaders in their organization, to help productive mentoring take place. Here are some of the methods we’re going to look at today:

Table of Contents

  1. How to Know You’ve Become a Mentor
  2. Ideas for Mentors
    1. Long Term Perspective
    2. Focus on Listening
    3. Don’t Spoon Feed
    4. Follow Up
    5. Celebrate Successes
    6. Don’t Commit to a Mismatch
    7. Humbly Share Successes With Your Peers
  3. Ideas for Organizations
    1. Discuss Mentoring Publicly
    2. Discuss Mentoring With Key Leaders
    3. Make Individual Mentorship Recommendations
    4. Create a Conducive Mentoring Environment
  4. Conclusion

How to Know You’ve Become a Mentor

As we discussed last week, the worst way to start a mentoring relationship, in most cases, is for someone to ask “Will you be my mentor?” Thankfully, that’s extremely rare. As an experienced aviator, you’re not likely to hear this request worded in that way. (If you do get the request worded this way, be sure to ask lots of questions to understand what your potential protege really needs before committing. See more on this below.)

So, how do you know you’ve become a mentor?

It usually starts with a question. It might be something inane they could have looked up before on their own…”What’s the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?” Usually, it’ll be something more involved. It could be a question about career progression, assignments, or a difficult situation encountered while flying or trying to deal with someone else at work.

If you take the time to have a conversation and give a good answer, then congratulations! You’ve done some mentoring.

If you just listened to a question and gave a valuable answer, then you’ve done some mentoring.

This doesn’t commit you to an ongoing relationship yet. You don’t have to do anything else unless asked for help, though you can choose to follow up with the individual if you feel you’d be able to help more in the future.

You’ll know for sure that you have formed a more lasting mentoring relationship when your protege returns to you with another tough question. From that point, it is worth employing some of the principles we’ll mention below to make sure that this relationship is beneficial to your new protege.

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Ideas for Mentors

Mentoring isn’t a responsibility to take lightly. In a half-decent kung fu movie called The Monkey King, the titular Monkey King gets assigned to teach a Western scholar as part of the plot to save the world. This king is overwhelmed by the honor and responsibility of being a teacher. Several other characters commend him on this important promotion. It’s notable that in his culture, being a teacher is a greater honor than being a king.

It turns out, aviation has a similar mentality. A pilot can upgrade to Aircraft Commander, Captain, or 4-Ship Flight Lead, and command crews or formations in doing every mission the organization has. And yet, the positions of Instructor Pilot, Line Check Airman, or Flight Instructor are considered even higher qualifications. A pilot could be the best 4FLUG or AC ever, but not be selected for IP because he or she lacks the personal skills to safely and effectively teach.

If you get the opportunity to serve as a mentor for another pilot, you should feel honored and take your responsibility very seriously.

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Long Term Perspective

One of your key responsibilities as a mentor is to maintain long term perspective when giving advice. It’s easy to want to solve the immediate issue at hand. However, part of the reason your experience is so valuable as a mentor is that you can see longer-term implications to any given decision. Your goal is to help your protege not make the mistakes you have made or seen.

Another important point here is that your goal is to ensure your protege’s long term personal and career development. As we’ll see shortly, you’ll have a lot of opportunities to teach mindsets and overall strategies while also answering shorter-term questions. Take advantage of these opportunities because they’re a huge benefit that your protege probably doesn’t even know to ask for.

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Focus on Listening

The most important thing any mentor can do is listen. The more experienced I get as a pilot, the more I realize that when I was a young aviator I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. If a young pilot tries to ask a question, he or she might have trouble expressing his or her real concern. In fact, he or she might not even realize what the underlying problem is.

Your responsibility as a mentor is to get to know your protege, and to understand his or her needs. You cannot learn what you need about this person if you start spouting off your knowledge the moment he or she finishes asking an initial question.

Learning to listen is a critical skill for any mentor.

I’ve watched many mentoring sessions where the mentor spends 5-60 minutes explaining what he or she thinks the protege wants to hear. After the mentor finally shuts up, the protege tries to  essentially restate his or her original question in a new format because the last answer failed to address it. Don’t be that type of mentor. Don’t waste your protege’s time, and certainly don’t waste your own!

One of the best ways to keep yourself safe from this pitfall is to focus on asking questions. Any time you feel like giving an answer, wrack your brain for questions that could unearth hidden facts pertinent to the issue at hand. You might even make the goal of any mentoring session for your protege to spend more time talking than you do.

These questions will help you identify the underlying fears, motivations, or root causes of your protege’s question. You’re both far better off dealing with root causes than third order effects.

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Don’t Spoon Feed

Last week, we noted that it’s easy for our proteges to become dependent on their mentors. As a mentor, it’s your job to help make sure that doesn’t happen.

The quickest way to turn your protege into a mindless, dependent zombie is to quickly and easily give them everything they ask for. This may seem a little counterintuitive at first, but bear with me.

It takes energy to look up the answer to any given question. As a more experienced pilot, you presumably already put in that energy at some point in your flying career. If you answer a question by quickly and easily supplying the answer, your protege will learn that he or she can get answers without having to put in the energy that’s normally required.

As pilots, we’re naturally all a little lazy. The Wright brothers started as bicycle makers because they were too lazy to walk. They invented airplanes because pedaling a bicycle was still too slow and too much work. If you give your protege a way to get questions answered for less effort, he or she will tend to use it every time.

That may seem fine as long as you’re around, but what happens when he or she is the Aircraft Commander of a Q200 in the middle of Africa and never bothered to learn the details about fuel planning, fuel economy, your aircraft systems, and your procedures? In the case of one crew from Air Force Special Operations Command, this had catastrophic consequences in 2009.

United States Air Force Accident Investigation Board Report. Class-A Mishap, Bamako, Mali, 19 November 2009. Photos of a Bombardier DHC-8/Q200 assigned to the 524th Special Operations Squadron, 27th Special Operations Wing, Air Force Special Operations Command, that crash-landed 61 miles North-northwest of Bamako, Mali in Africa on November 19, 2009. These images were part of the US Air Force Aircraft accident investigation board report. The plan departed Nouakchott Airport Mauritania en route to Bamako-Senou airport Mali. The plane ran out of fuel during the flight, causing the mishap. (Air Force Photo)

You want your protege to understand how to look things up for him or herself. You cannot be the go-to source of all information.

Practical considerations should make this principle obvious, given enough time. You probably have your own responsibilities, your own answers to figure out, and your own plans. If you’re constantly bombarded by questions from your protege(s), you won’t ever have time to take care of your own stuff.

The better answer here is that when your protege approaches you with a question that can be answered by looking something up, you say “Let’s go find that.” Then, you sit down together, crack open a book (or an ePub on an iPad) and go through the process of finding the information. After seeing you do this enough times, your protege will build a valuable habit pattern. Or, if your protege is trying to be lazy, he or she will realize that coming to you with a question takes longer than looking it up on his or her own and quit asking you these lazy questions. Either way, you’re helping.

This doesn’t mean you can never give an easy answer, or that all answers can be found in a source publication. Your true value as a mentor is helping to answer questions that don’t have easy answers. If you can condition your protege to focus your interactions on these types of issues, he or she will get more overall benefit from your relationship.

Remember, though, that this isn’t you pontificating. When trying to answer a difficult question, you need to listen, ask questions, and ideally help lead your protege to the answer.

In some of the most effective mentoring sessions I’ve ever witnessed the mentor didn’t ever give any concrete advice. He or she just asked questions that helped the protege work through things on his or her own. This is the best you can do for your protege. Answering a question is like giving a fish. Helping your protege figure out how to solve his or her own problems is like teaching how to fish.

I’ll caveat this technique with one caution: I’ve seen this idea taken too far in the wrong direction. Some well-intentioned mentors will try to pose questions to lead a protege to the answer. However, these questions either aren’t quite right or the protege just isn’t getting the point. The protege repeatedly gets stumped by these poorly developed questions, the mentor ends up frustrated, and the conversation becomes hostile or patronizing. The mentor ends up browbeating the protege to a conclusion, but no learning has taken place.

Try not to pass up an opportunity to help your protege learn how to answer his or her own questions…ideally by checking the source publications first.

If you find yourself in a conversation like this, ask fewer questions, and try giving an example instead. If that doesn’t work, just make your recommendation and move on. Ultimately, your goal is to have a productive relationship and help your protege make a good decision. If the process you want to use to achieve those goals isn’t working, then abandon the process!

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Follow Up

Personally, I find following up to be one of the toughest parts of being a good mentor.

The reason your protege sought you out is that you have a lot of valuable experience and knowledge. This probably means you have a lot of responsibilities and have to deal with a lot of people at work. And yes, you might also get to do some flying of your own.

You’re going to be too busy to keep up with every detail of your protege’s life or career. In fact, it will be very easy for you to forget that you even had a recent conversation with your protege.

Like it or not, if you want to be a good mentor, you need to find a way to ensure you follow up with your protege. This isn’t out of obligation, it’s because you want your counsel to prove effective in helping your protege learn and grow.

Though it’s not an interrogation, you should at least try to get some of the following answers any time you’ve had an important discussion with your protege:

  • What did you decide after we spoke?
  • How did you implement your decision?
  • How did it work out?

Beyond this, a great mentor who really cares about a protege won’t wait for the other person to initiate contact every time. Don’t be afraid to stop by your protege’s desk or office and just check in. This doesn’t have to be anything fancy or formal. Just see how they’re doing.

A good mentor follows up with his or her protege to find out how things went.

When I got promoted to Assistant Operations Officer and then Chief Pilot in my T-6 squadron at Laughlin AFB, TX, I found myself with few defined job responsibilities and some extra time on my hands. I decided that my job description included providing both mentoring and top cover for the rest of the squadron, but especially the flight commanders.

Thankfully, these flight commanders felt free to bring issues my way for discussion. However, they were busy enough that it didn’t always occur to them.

I made a point of walking through the squadron at least a few times a week, if not every day, and just chatting with each of my six flight commanders. We were already friends who’d been flying together for a while, so it usually felt like nothing more formal than stopping by to shoot the bull. However, there were numerous times when I’d show up to find a Flight Commander agonizing over some important decision, or his subordinates freaking out about how to handle a situation because the boss was out flying.

In these situations, I was able to interject a little mentoring and help them figure out the best solution to their problem. Sometimes that involved just listening, asking questions, and offering alternatives. Sometimes, it meant me offering to accompany the Flight Commander to talk to someone…my presence being nothing more than a symbolic suggestion of approval and authority. It always felt like I was able to work as a force for good without micromanaging.

Don’t be afraid to get up out of your chair and talk to people.

If you now live far away from an old protege, don’t forget to occasionally pick up a phone and call. Worst case, keep up correspondence through text or email. You never know when your protege will be facing something difficult and need help, yet be afraid to ask. A quick visit or call from you may prompt the conversation that lets you make a difference.

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Celebrate Successes

This may be one of the easiest parts of mentoring. Pay attention to upgrade lists, assignment lists, and other achievements in your community. When your protege’s name shows up, send your congratulations.

Although it can be this simple, you can make your organization better by taking this further. Sometimes, your protege will achieve a success that your organization doesn’t necessarily track. It could be something family related, or an off-duty physical or educational achievement. Maybe he or she just homebrewed a fantastic batch of beer.

When something like this happens, you can be the one to mention it around work. Celebrating successes costs nothing. However, it makes the person you’re celebrating feel good and it can raise overall morale in your organization. Hopefully, your protege is humble enough that he or she doesn’t go around bragging all the time. It’s not bragging if you do it without prompting though, so it’s okay for you to mention this stuff every once in a while.

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Don’t Commit to a Mismatch

It’s flattering when someone asks you for some mentoring. You’ll probably want to help no matter what the situation is. However, sometimes people just aren’t good matches. Other times, the potential mentor is just too busy to provide effective mentoring. In these cases, don’t commit to a mentoring relationship that isn’t going to be a positive, productive force in your lives.

It’s okay to tell a junior aviator that you’re just too busy right now, or that you’re not the right person to answer that question. You can make this choice without having to give a flat, “No.”

If you think this person’s concern is important and that he or she is worth helping out, why not refer him or her to someone else? Believe it or not, you aren’t the only smart person on Earth. I guarantee that someone else in your organization is capable of providing good mentoring for the person who just approached you with a question. Sometimes, being a great mentor is nothing more than introducing a protege to a mentor other than yourself.

This doesn’t have to mean that you never provide mentoring for this particular person. You should follow up with both the other mentor and the protege to see how things went. Just showing that concern communicates the fact that you’re interested in the protege’s wellbeing. You may find yourself with more bandwidth in the future, and that protege may try approaching you with a question again. That future relationship will be even more effective if you gave your protege a good referral instead of mediocre mentoring in the past.

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Humbly Share Successes With Your Peers

One of the reasons formal mentoring programs have so much trouble at an organizational level is that it’s tough to demonstrate how the good ones are working. These interactions are generally one-on-one, and the concerns you deal with can be very personal. It’s not like a squadron commander or chief pilot can publish a list of all the mentoring sessions that occurred in the past month, along with the issues discussed and courses of actions chosen.

However, since mentoring is effective on an individual level, I’ve found that it’s effective to discuss it with your peers on an individual level.

These peers are also potential mentors. They may not know how to do it, they may think it’s not effective, or they may not even know that there’s a need. You should absolutely share your positive mentoring experiences with them so that they can see how a good mentoring relationship works.

You don’t have to (read: must not) divulge your protege’s personal secrets to explain that you just helped him or her answer a tough question. You can explain, in general terms, the question that started the conversation, then detail the questions you asked to get to the root cause. Finally, explain what your protege decided, in general terms if necessary, and how things worked out.

Even if your peers are already expert mentors, they’ll benefit from hearing about your positive experience. They’ll believe they can also make a difference as mentors, and may learn a thing or two about being more effective.

As you share these experiences, make sure that you’re not bragging about yourself. Although being a great mentor is something to take pride in, you should never share your experiences for self-aggrandizement. Make sure that when you talk about these experiences, your focus is on celebrating the existence of a successful mentoring relationship and inspiring potential mentors to pursue mentoring opportunities of their own.

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Ideas for Organizations

If you’re in charge of a flying organization, the last thing I want you to do at this point is rush out and try to set up a formal mentoring program for your pilots. As I’ve repeatedly stated, that almost never works.

However, if you think your organization would benefit from more mentorship occurring, there are several ways you can help that happen.

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Discuss Mentoring Publicly

The first thing you can do is a more public version of the last point we just made for individual mentors. You should take opportunities to discuss effective mentoring when you communicate with your organization.

This can be something as simple as devoting 2-3 minutes at a commander’s call or a couple of paragraphs in a fleet newsletter to one of the principles we’ve discussed in these articles. Ideally, you’ll have a story from your past where you used that principle to make a difference in someone else’s life (or where one of your mentors used it to help you.)

Commander’s calls like this one are the perfect opportunity to promote good mentoring within your organization.

Another way to increase mentions of good mentoring is to ask a person if he or she would like to thank anyone else as you hand out an award. This works best if you know a mentor has been actively working with the award recipient lately.

You might be able to word your question along these lines: “Stan, we’re really impressed with what you’ve done this year and this award is well received. As hard as you’ve been working, I know you got some really great advice along the way. Is there anyone you’d like to mention?”

If there really was great mentoring going on, Stan will be glad for the opportunity to publicly thank his mentor.

Another way to encourage mentoring is to offer your services as a matchmaker. Mention some of the benefits of mentoring, your acknowledgement of the fact that it’s too much of an individual thing for you to shove down your pilots’ throats, and encourage them to pursue mentoring relationships on their own. Then, mention that sometimes it’s tough to find the right mentor or a little daunting to ask that first question. As the organization’s leader, you can offer to help a young person identify a good potential mentor and make the introduction that will start a conversation.

I think this is the best alternative a leader has to setting up a formal mentorship program.

One last thing a leader needs to do when promoting mentorship is to remind potential mentors of their responsibility. It’s critical to encourage potential mentors to welcome younger aviators and try to help them. The US Air Force Weapons School preaches a mentality of being “humble, credible, approachable” to its graduates. This is exactly the mentality a good mentor needs. As a leader in your organization, never pass up an opportunity to celebrate and encourage that mindset!

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Discuss Mentoring With Key Leaders

One of the reasons there have been so many failed mentoring programs at the organizational level is that your boss has to compete against his or peers within the larger organization. When a Squadron Commander attends the Operations Group staff meeting, he needs to be able to talk about something meaningful going on in his squadron because you know his peers around the table will be.

It’s nice and flashy to be able to say, “I’ve recently set up a formal mentoring program for 127 pilots. Everyone gets to give and receive mentorship to someone. It’s going to be great. It’s going to be wonderful. It’s going to be the best mentoring program anyone’s ever seen. Everyone’s going to be jealous. You’ll see.”

In general, it’s not flashy to say, “I chose to not implement a squadron-wide mentoring program because I’ve found such things ineffective. Instead, I’m trying to foster mentoring on a more individual level.”

I imagine a statement like that being met with the kind of derision that poor General Mark Naird constantly suffers at Joint Staff meetings in the Netflix masterpiece, Space Force. No squadron commander is going to advance his or her career with this approach.

The fictional Joint Chiefs staff meetings on Netflix’s excellent show Space Force show the kind of pressure many leaders feel to measure up to their peers. Highlighting individual mentoring successes is a great way to look good here.

However, I believe it’s possible to win this situation with a focus on sharing individual successes. When Marine Corps Commandant, General Stramm boasts about his corps-wide mentoring program, Naird could reply, in his signature, nasal Steve Carrell voice, 

“Yah, programs like that suck. You’ve just wasted hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars. Good job. My organization just had a great success with mentoring though. I helped pair a young officer with my deputy. They’ve been discussing leadership development and career options for several months. Last week, I put the young officer in charge of a big assignment and she did a great job. A year ago, she would have failed miserably, but with a little mentoring she’s turned into a fantastic asset.”

A positive, successful, individual story like this will always win the conversation over some announcement of some big sweeping program that has yet to be proven.

Take advantage of opportunities to tell your peers about the individual successes of mentors within your organization. You’ll inspire other organizations to take your approach and both organizations will benefit.

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Make Individual Mentorship Recommendations

I’ve already alluded to this, but as the leader of a flying organization, you shouldn’t be afraid to play matchmaker when appropriate.

You should know all of your pilots. You have unique insight into their backgrounds and their records. If you identify someone in need of mentorship, you should know better than anybody which other aviators in your unit would make good mentors.

When you think you see someone in need of mentoring, start by approaching the potential mentors. Ask each one if he or she has the time and interest in helping out this protege. It doesn’t even have to be as formal as, “Would you be willing to mentor Kate?” It could just be, “I’ve noticed that Kate might need some help considering her assignment options. She’s considering a track you went down. Do you mind helping her look at some of her options?”

There’s a fine line here between stepping in when a little nudge can make all the difference, and being the overbearing matchmaker who starts trying to find a match for everyone. As you play this role, try to give things time to work themselves out.

More than once, I’ve had a mentor in mind for someone only to discover that the young aviator found a different mentor all on his own. Don’t feel bad that you didn’t set this up. Feel proud that you’ve fostered an environment where these relationships can form naturally!

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Create a Conducive Mentoring Environment

Speaking of that environment, what can you do to make your organization more conducive to mentoring?

First and foremost, you need to ensure that privacy is respected. This may require some very pointed discussions with your senior aviators who are the bulk of the potential mentors. Encourage them to help others, but emphasize the fact that they need to honor the confidence shown them.

Part of this means making sure there are places in your building where private conversations can take place. If your office isn’t set up that way, then make sure your people feel free to venture out to a library, restaurant, or other venue where they can get the privacy needed to have a serious discussion. Some organizations act as if a pilot isn’t chained to his or her desk all day long, he or she is a bad patriot. It’s a terrible policy that decreases productivity in the long run.

You also need to make sure that your potential mentors feel encouraged and empowered to take time for mentoring and offer their advice. If people in your organization constantly monitor each other and report any perceived wrongdoing to authorities as a likely crime, people will be afraid to be seen “chit-chatting” on government time. Stamp that mentality out right now!

Make sure that your squadron has spaces conducive to mentoring, and that your leaders feel empowered to take the time for it.

Another important thing to do is make sure your people have at least a little leeway in how they spend their time. If you’ve assigned them so much administrative bullshit that every moment of every day is spoken for, they won’t have time for mentoring. (I believe this is one of the second order issues that has significantly impacted military aviation over the last couple of decades. People are so busy with mindless queep that they don’t have time to take care of each other.)

It’s also important to give your people time to make decisions. I’ll never forget how I found out about TAMI-21, the program that involuntarily sent 200 fighter and bomber pilots away from their aircraft without recourse. I was at home while my squadron was deployed. I was at a local airport on a Saturday when the in garrison commander, a Captain who only slightly outranked me, called screaming at me for not submitting my preferences yet.

“What preferences?”

“You have to say whether you want to fly drones for the rest of your career or not. And it was due yesterday!”

I instantly found myself in desperate need of some mentoring, but there wasn’t enough time to get any. Although this was a complete surprise to me, I have to imagine my leadership had known about it in advance. If my squadron commander had any interest in fostering an effective mentoring environment in his squadron, he might have at least mentioned the new program in time for us pilots to ask for advice about it.

The last thing to do is just talk about mentoring so that it is on people’s minds. We mentioned this earlier, but it doesn’t even have to be formal. If you’re chatting with a department head or shop chief, just ask if there’s any good mentoring happening in that department/shop. If so, offer profuse praise for that behavior, and encourage the manager to keep it up. If not, ask if there’s anything you can do to help him or her foster that environment. Just the fact that you’re asking about it will prompt your manager to look for opportunities to mentor his or her people.

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Mentoring has the potential to serve as a powerful force for good. At an organizational level, it will make your people more effective at their jobs. The proteges will appreciate the help and will have lower overall stress in their lives by feeling like their decisions are based on some meaningful data. The mentors themselves will take pride in their ability to do good in the world. They’ll also take pride in their proteges’ accomplishments and increased capability.

There’s a lot we can do to help foster these relationships. Always remember that mentoring isn’t about aggrandizing a person or an organization. It’s about caring at an individual level to make everyone better.

That said, it’s good and even important to celebrate your successes. While it’s almost always impossible to force mentoring on an organization, it’s absolutely possible to inspire an increase in good mentoring. Share stories of mentoring successes with your peer mentors, with your organization as leaders, and with your peer leaders at higher organizational levels. Show them how effective mentoring can be when done the right way for the right reasons at an individual level, and they’ll try to repeat your success.

Good luck with your mentoring. If you’re young and need help, find someone and ask good questions. If you see someone who needs guidance, offer your services or help introduce them to someone who can provide it. Mentoring costs us nothing, but increases the amount of excellence in the world. That’s something we should all aspire to. Now, go get to work.

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Image Credits:

The mentoring in our feature image is from:

The listening Navy Captain mentor is from:

The photo of the Q200 crash is from Torch Magazine:

The mentor helping his protege look up info in the source publications came from:

The welcoming mentor is from:

The commander’s call picture is from:

The shot from Space Force is a shameless screen grab. Go give it a watch.

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