In our recent discussions about Air Force squadron organization and your career progression both as an officer and as a pilot, I’ve intentionally withheld details on what may be the most important non-flying pilot job of them all: that of Snack Officer or Snacko. We’re going to do justice to this critical position today.
Flying squadrons are busy places. The pilots who fly there love their jobs enough to work long hours without even realizing it. They’re so busy studying, mission planning, and flying that they don’t always have time to run out and eat a big meal. They need something to sustain them during their marathon mission planning sessions and debriefs, which means that most squadrons have a snack bar. Somebody has to make sure this snack bar is stocked, and that person is usually one of the junior pilots in the squadron.
At its most basic level, Snacko is a terrible, thankless job. It’s the kind of job where doing everything right means you don’t get noticed, but screwing up one little thing will have all hell raining down on your cranium before you know what’s going on. Although doing well may not lead to immediate praise, it will unquestionably set your initial reputation within the squadron. So, in the immortal words passed down through several generations of combat aviators, “don’t suck!”
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The Bad – Story Time
As a proud former Snacko, let me give you an example. The realm of the Snacko usually doesn’t stop at the snack bar door. You’re also in charge of the squadron’s Heritage Room (aka: bar) and any other forms of refreshment in the building.
The men and women of the world-famous 34th Bomb Squadron at Ellsworth AFB, SD, drink a lot of coffee. I was responsible for a coffee pot that lived in the hallway where all the Flight Commanders’ offices were located. I was not a big coffee drinker at the time and when I first got the job, I figured that the first coffee drinker to show up in the squadron would brew the first pot every morning. Oh, how I was mistaken.
The next morning someone from that hallway bellowed, “Who’s the Snacko right now?”
You see, as a new pilot in a flying squadron, you’re so inconsequential that you don’t even have a name. Many squadrons refer to their new pilots as FNGs. Ours was a little more welcoming. The squadron is the Thunderbirds (the kind that actually go to war) and so we noobs were called Eggs.
Someone bellowed back, “I think it’s Egg Depew.”
Great. I sheepishly reported to the Flight Commander hallway and acted contrite while my patriotism was brought into question based on my dereliction of duty. From then on, I made coffee every morning.
Everything went smoothly for a while, which means that nobody paid any attention to me. Then, one day, the coffee ran out!
You see, not only did the crews of the 34 BS drink a lot of coffee, they only drank a very specific type. Vanilla Hazelnut, hand ground by the Snacko at Costco. I know what you’re thinking: that’s pretty frufru for a bunch of combat aviators. I thought the same thing. That didn’t stop the hell from raining down like a salvo of 2,000 lb GBU-31s.
It’s not like I’d tried to cause a problem here. I didn’t realize we were low on coffee until I’d gone to make some that morning. We had a large canister of emergency coffee, Folgers or something, and I’d made a pot of that. I needed to do something, maybe study jamming techniques and countermeasures for use against the SA-8, and was planning to make a coffee run later that day. I chose poorly.
“What the **** is this ****!?” soared from the Flight Commanders’ hallway. I knew better than to wait for whomever it was to come find me. I wandered over there and took my lumps. The dude actually spent about 5 minutes telling me why it was so important for me to make his vanilla hazelnut coffee.
Yes, in case you’re wondering, I’d trained my entire life for this job. I’d worked hard in high school, spent four grueling years at the US Air Force Academy, graduated from the $1,000,000 training program called UPT, then completed a B-1B initial qualification course that I conservatively estimate included burning 300,000 gallons of jet fuel. America had put all its hopes and dreams into me, and here I was getting berated for brewing the wrong kind of coffee.
At this point, you may be thinking that Snacko sounds like one of the worst jobs in the Air Force. Given the context we have so far, you’re probably right. In fact, the warrior philosopher rock band, Dos Gringos, has a song all about this. It’s appropriately titled, “At Least I’m Not the Snacko.” (Warning: Standard Extreme Vulgarity!)
Although this job can absolutely suck, I actually believe that Snacko is the best job in the Air Force. There’s plenty of good to balance the bad.
In a flying squadron so busy that it needs its own snack bar, life can get a little intense. It’s okay to leave for lunch, and you’re expected to spend enough time at the gym to stay fit. However, any time a young pilot isn’t in the squadron, someone will wonder why. Too much wondering about you is a bad thing.
The Snacko, however, is immune to this danger. That snack bar doesn’t stock itself, and I made a run at least once a week to Costco (or was it Sams?) I’d usually take a friend with me, and we’d return with a pickup truck or SUV loaded to the windows with flats of cokes, and boxes of every snack you can imagine. It was always a big show to park as close to the front doors as possible, walk through the squadron recruiting fellow Eggs to help carry stuff and make trip after trip through the squadron’s hallways carrying everyone’s favorite snack.
Unloading is only half the battle. Once it’s in the snack bar, you have to arrange everything so that it looks nice and remove excess packaging to the dumpster. This process takes a while, and you’re physically in the way of anyone looking for a snack until it’s over. It’s true that you almost never get praised for doing a good job, but that doesn’t mean your efforts aren’t noticed.
Not only are your efforts as Snacko visible, you execute your duties by spending the morning away from the constant crush of the squadron. You can stop for some (real) coffee, or breakfast, or whatever, and you’re regarded as going above and beyond for the squadron while any other pilot skipping out for a few hours would be considered lazy. It’s nice to get that break every week.
Although people will usually act like they don’t notice your work, their praise isn’t always absent. Every once in a while, I’d overhear someone wishing for a certain type of drink or snack that wasn’t sold in flats of 72 at Costco. I’d take a few extra minutes to stop by a regular grocery store and pick up Wild Cherry Pepsi or Master’s favorite flavor of Hot Pockets, and quietly make sure the new items were visible on the shelves or in the fridge. Invariably, when I did this, the person who wanted that item would track me down and thank me.
A lot of people are under the false impression that two people following each other on Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn is a significant form of networking. I think that absent any meaningful personal interaction, being linked on social media does very little for you. However, the networking that happens when one of the pilots you look up to thanks you for making sure he has Diet Cherry Vanilla Doctor Pepper, is real. It’s you showing that you care about another person’s desires, that you’re a team player, and that you’re good at your job. Guess who’s going to pick you to be his copilot when he heads up to Red Flag Alaska for two weeks of awesome flying?
No other pilot in your squadron has this type of opportunity. Being the Snacko can do things for you that will make all the other Eggs jealous.
Beyond The Snack Bar
You can make a big difference for your squadron by keeping the snack bar fully stocked. Doing a great job at that may even help you form some relationships that others don’t get. My favorite part about being the Snacko revolved around the squadron bar and Roll Call every Friday.
Roll Call is one of the best parts about being a combat aviator. (It’s going to get its own article someday.) Every Friday, the entire squadron gathers together in the bar to relax, celebrate their heritage, and joke around. The event is overseen by a Sheriff and his or her Deputy, but as the Snacko you play a significant role in the success of each event.
During your weekly Costco run, you’ll make sure to pick up some gargantuan-sized bins of pretzels, snack mix, and cheese balls. (Yes, some of the aviators at the 34th love balls.) A roll call without snacks is an immediate travesty. You are the lynchpin here.
You’re also in charge of stocking and supplying popcorn for Roll Call. (My squadron dual-hatted me as the Popocorn-O. I tried to get the position called CornholiO. It never really caught on, but that shouldn’t stop you from trying too!)
Every squadron bar has a professional-grade popcorn machine, and aviators use a specific recipe for their corn. It involves flying some pickled jalapeno peppers in the oil before adding the seeds, and then using seasoning salt when everything has cooked. There’s an art to making this corn well. You want the fruit crispy, without being charred. Producing corn with wet, droopy jalapenos is probably a sign that you’re a commie who dreams of Kim Jon Un when you go to bed at night.
Popping this corn is probably hazardous to your health. Within moments of adding the jalapenos to the pot, the fumes cause uncontrollable coughing. A good batch will have your eyes burning, and necessitate leaving the room every few minutes to catch a breath. It’s glorious!
The door to the bar can’t contain those fumes, and the entire squadron knows when you start popping corn for Roll Call. Roll Call at the 34th BS begins at 1534 hours, every Friday. It takes a lot of corn to supply an entire Bomb Squadron for Roll Call, so I’d start working on the corn early…usually right after lunch. As I was there working, the door would always creak open to reveal a pilot or WSO with a large cup in his or her hand. We’d give each other the “whassup?” nod, immediately start coughing in unison, and he or she would grab a cup of corn to eat back at his or her desk while finishing up work for the day.
Every once in a while, I’d get busy doing legitimate work (or even flying) on Friday morning, and wouldn’t get a chance to start the corn. I tried to delegate to a fellow Egg, but I was frequently told that people missed me starting the corn early on Fridays. It was another one of those ways that I realized that I really was noticed and appreciated as the Snacko.
These benefits extended outside the squadron into my romantic life as well. My future wife didn’t love Roll Call because it was a weekend evening that I was at work instead of hanging out with her. One time, I brought her a bag of popcorn as a peace offering. She loved it, and I had to start setting aside a bag of corn in a desk drawer before Roll Call because if I attended the event on Friday and then showed up without any corn, I was in even deeper trouble. I still make jalapeno popcorn for her at home, and it ends well for me every time.
I hope I’ve convinced you that being the Snacko offers you unique and enjoyable opportunities. If all you did in your position was be good at what I’ve described here, you’ll be fine. However, if you get creative, you can really maximize the benefits you get while having a great time.
When I inherited my snack bar, it had an IOU system. There was a pen and a squadron roster hanging on the front of the refrigerator. If someone needed a snack but was short on cash, he or she could just put a tick mark on the roster and pay it back later.
It was a decent idea that had gotten out of hand in the execution phase. There were several aviators in the squadron with tabs over $20, and they chewed their way through chocolate mini-donuts like they were going out of style. I decided that I should try to recoup some of these debts, and launched my master plan using a clever combination of sarcasm, PowerPoint, and public ridicule.
When I was there, the 34 BS started every workday with a morning brief. It covered weather and NOTAMS for all the crews flying that day and was a time for squadron announcements. There was usually a slide or two about a system, tactic, or threat, occasionally briefed by one of us Eggs. I think this brief was partially just an excuse to force everyone to show up by 0800, and it was pretty boring. I happened to be friends with the Captain in charge of preparing the slides each day and got him to include something like this at the end of the deck one day:
It worked like a champ! The entire room erupted in applause, and people actually walked up to me with money in hand and thanked me for turning an otherwise mind-numbing briefing into something worth paying attention to.
From then on, my most important duty as Snacko was to deliver one slide for the morning brief by 1500 hrs each day. I continued to receive great feedback, and the squadron’s overall debt level decreased significantly.
The story doesn’t end there though! A few of the worst IOU offenders seemed unmotivated by my slides in the morning brief. Put together, they accounted for a couple of hundred dollars of IOUs, and I was determined to do something about it.
I approached the squadron’s Roll Call Sheriff about getting on the agenda for that Friday. He wondered why an insignificant Egg would risk such a thing until I explained that it was Snacko business. He’d seen my slides and had an idea of what was coming. He grinned and put me on the schedule.
You see, Roll Call is very fun, but it’s also very challenging. No pilot, not even the Commander, is immune from some good-natured public ridicule. As long as you only suffer your fair share, it’s all in good fun. However, a pilot who is screwing up at life, or not respecting the rules and traditions at the event, will suffer. Penalties come in the form of shots. Jeremiah Weed (Vulgarity Warning) is common, though it’s the brine from the jalapeno bottle if you aren’t a drinker. Either option is terrible. No Egg or FNG with half a brain voluntarily stands up and makes a presentation, because things always seem to get turned around and you end up tipsy and embarrassed.
In this case, however, I knew I was good. I swaggered up to the bar with my Snacko mug in hand (yes, the job comes with a special Roll Call mug) and publicly called out the squadron’s IOU bandits. Heckling ensued, and they all did shots. The Sheriff made sure I paid a toll for taking part of his time, but he had my back and led the heckling on my behalf.
Part of this master plan was just using the resources at my disposal to be a good Snacko. Part of it also ended up being a way of making myself known in the squadron. After seeing my slides every day and then my risky move at Roll Call, everyone knew that I was interested in making our squadron a great place and that I had the confidence to handle myself in a variety of situations. There were probably other ways to demonstrate this, but being Snacko made it easy.
I hope I’ve convinced you to embrace your lot in life if you’re lucky enough to be designated as the Snacko in your squadron. As a parting thought, let me suggest that this job is a perfect time to learn balance in your life.
It would be very easy to take advantage of your unique position to maximize your notoriety and influence on the squadron as a new Egg or FNG. However, you absolutely must make sure that it doesn’t impact your ability to employ Air Power in your aircraft! Take care of what you need to, but spend lots of time studying, practicing, and flying. All else being equal, an extra hour in the simulator or the vault is more valuable than spending an extra hour in the snack bar.
Having said that, if you’re the Snacko you have to be a good one. Let’s fast-forward a few years to the 85th Flying Training Squadron at Laughlin AFB, TX. I was the Chief Pilot and our Snacko was a young FAIP whom we’ll call Trantor.
At the end of Phase II, each UPT flight votes on their favorite IP and presents him or her with a plaque. Trantor was a fantastic and hardworking IP…he won the favorite IP award for several classes in a row. You’d think that would have helped set him up for some impressive career progression down the line. Unfortunately, Trantor was failing in his duties as a Snacko. People were noticing and complaining. It was starting to affect his reputation and would have impacted his career progression within the squadron.
Thankfully, he’s a smart and hardworking dude. I stopped by his flight room one afternoon and we had a chat. I explained the perceptions that were flying around and discovered that he hadn’t even realized how bad things had gotten. He fixed his issues, progressed well, and is now flying combat missions in a fantastic airplane…all because he was able to achieve a balance between his flying and ground jobs.
This lesson applies to jobs other than Snacko, from working in Training to commanding a Wing. As military aviators, we have parallel career tracks and must attend to all of them. You cannot and will not have credibility as a leader if you suck in the aircraft. However, the wheels won’t keep turning unless everyone takes care of the painful stuff on the ground as well. It’s a constant struggle to be good at both, but it’s worth the effort.
If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to look back on your career and remember how good (and bad) you had it when you were the Snacko.
The shot of coffee drinkers if from: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/6111745/portuguese-us-leadership-meet-during-ftd-2020.
The wall of mugs at the 37 FTS is from: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/3092070/37th-fts-turns-pedestrians-into-pilots.
The picture of the 36 AS’s bar is from: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/5437038/36th-airlift-squadron-reinstates-pilot-day.