A Fighter Pilot’s Guide To Making Better Decisions

If you break it down, the job of an Air Force pilot is to make decisions. To look at variables, understand systems, deal with myriad fluctuations, and make various split-second adjustments to complete their missions. And while the vast majority of us will never sit in the cockpit of an F-16, the methods pilots use to make quick decisions in extreme, high-stress environments can benefit us all. In his new book, The Art of Clear Thinking, Major Justin “Hasard” Lee lays out the various procedures that allow pilots to, among other things, keep themselves calm, correctly assess situations, and make quick choices without falling prey to certain psychological traps.

A decorated combat pilot who flew more than 80 combat missions in Afghanistan, Hasard was hand-selected to pilot the F-35, the most advanced weapons system in history. He was also the Chief of Training Systems for the largest training base in the world. Now a popular YouTube personality and speaker, his videos reach millions of viewers.

In The Art of Clear Thinking, Hasard weaves plucked-from-experience personal narratives with explanations and examples from psychology and business to explore the Air Force’s decision-making systems as well as his own methods of making informed choices. Eisenhower’s Four Quadrants of Importance is featured heavily, as is the Air Force’s ACE Helix and Colonel John Boyd’s OODA Loop. The result is a practical, exciting guide that serves as a genuinely useful roadmap for thinking through scenarios and arriving at the best choice, no matter the arena.

Fatherly spoke to Hasard, who is the dad of two young children, about making smart decisions, mental toughness, and the connection between fatherhood and flying fighter jets.

What is clear thinking and how do you define it?

Clear thinking to me is stripping apart all the noise out there. And this doesn't just apply to flying fighters. We're all inundated with a lot of noise. Emails. Slack notifications. Meeting invites. Clear thinking is stripping all of that down to the essential things you have to focus on and executing on that. To me, the greatest compliment someone can give another is not that they're smart, but that they're a clear thinker.

You've been in countless high-stress situations. Dogfights. Engine flameouts. Tough landings. I was hoping you could walk us through a particular moment when you were in trouble and needed to make a clear decision.

There is one that really stands out to me that I write in the book. For a time, I flew on the graveyard shift. I would take off around 11 at night and return around four or five in the morning. One time, my wingman and I had just executed a long night mission. We were getting ready to land when suddenly it looked like a glowing orange hose was going up into the sky.

At first, I thought sweat had run into my eyes. Then I realized that it was the base’s mortar system going off. We have Gatling cannons stationed around the base. This was in Afghanistan. We were getting mortared all the time. And so the Gatling cannons started going off shooting these large 20-millimeter shells that are like miniature grenades up into the sky.

There were two or three glowing ropes, and I was going right at them. So, I plugged the jet into maximum afterburner. A giant 30-foot flame came out of the back of my jet and I climbed above it. The problem was that the maneuver burned the remaining fuel reserve, so I was very low on fuel.

The Art of Clear Thinking: A Stealth Fighter Pilot's Timeless Rules For Making Tough Decisions

Your brain must’ve been working overdrive.

I had to go through a bunch of different decisions. I could have done what we call a sky hook of going high and trying to glide it into another base. Unfortunately, the nearest base was closed and the airfield that we were at had taken some damage from the mortars. So, we ended up doing this high-risk air refueling. We have airborne tankers, which are essentially airliners filled with fuel. I was able to refuel with just maybe a minute left.

How many decisions do you think you had to make in the span of that time?

The entire incident lasted maybe 15 minutes, and I had to make probably about 50 different decisions, including three or four critical life-changing ones. Because if we had gotten it wrong, me and my wingman would've had to eject.

The mountains around Bagram are truly spectacular. They're over 15,000 feet. It puts the Colorado Rockies to shame. But the problem is if you eject in the middle of the night above those mountains, there's a good chance that nobody's going to be able to rescue you because helicopters can't fly that high. And then you have the enemy chasing after you.

When you're in a situation like that, what are the things that you do to keep yourself focused and make the clearest decision possible?

There’s a saying we have in the fighter pilot community: “As soon as you put on your helmet, you lose 20 IQ points.” And I think we've all felt like that at the moment. When you're giving a presentation at work or standing up in front of a large crowd, I think we've all felt a little bit dumber. To counter that, it’s all about training.

In the Air Force, we rely on a structured approach to making decisions. We break down our decisions into what's called the ACE helix. It stands for assess, choose, and execute. By breaking down decisions into phases, we can then focus on the most important aspects.

What does that process look like?

The assessment phase is important. If you're not able to see the problem clearly, you're not going to be able to consistently make good decisions.

As pilots, we call it our crosscheck, but there are ways that everybody can increase their assessment of the problem. One of the concepts is finding different power laws for important variables because you really want to focus on the important things and get rid of the noise.

The second phase is choosing the correct course of action. One aspect of that is coming up with multiple solutions. In the Air Force, what we do to increase creativity — that's one thing that can give a high return for a little amount of effort — is come up with more solutions. A lot of people like to just jump to conclusions and start running towards a solution. But in the F-16, we have a thing that we teach new pilots: “There’s no problem so bad you can’t make it worse.”

To counter this, we have a little wind-up clock. Nobody ever uses it. It's a holdover from the 1970s when the jet was built. But whenever anybody has an emergency, the first thing we say is wind that clock. It doesn't do anything. Most of them are broken. But it just keeps you from pushing buttons and screwing up the situation. It gives you time to make an assessment and then to come up with multiple solutions.

What a smart way to help someone focus. And so, the last step of the ACE helix is execution.

Yes. And that step is going forward with the best course of action. Sometimes there will have been a thousand people that have touched this mission. People from spies on the ground to intelligence operators to satellite operators to cyber people hacking into different computers to tankers launching from other continents, all to be able to get us over the target on time. And with modern communication, you can imagine the joint operations center, your sensors are up on the giant board, and everybody's staring at what you're doing.

How does your experience making decisions in the cockpit translate when you are making regular decisions in your day-to-day life? Do you just feel this sort of calm and you're able to do it in a sort of reflexive way? Or are everyday decisions tough for you as well?

It depends. It depends on the amount of time you have. As fighter pilots, we'll sometimes make those split-second decisions because our closure rates are about a mile every three seconds. You have to make really quick decisions. But we'll also plan missions that are sometimes months or even years into the future. So, we must make these long-term decisions as well. It's a lot like project management in the civilian world.

What I talk about a lot is finding the few key decisions and going after those through a method where you're essentially graphing importance versus urgency. And that comes up with four quadrants and through what's called the urgency effect. We're all drawn toward what's urgent. The notifications on your phone, the emails — those are what are urgent. But I cite a study in the book that if you can just graph all your tasks on importance versus urgency, you can increase your ability to prioritize by over 60 percent. Those urgent tasks aren't necessarily important. They're drawing you away from that deep-focus work that will help you achieve your goals.

A crucial component in all of this, and which you cover extensively in the book, is mental toughness. By necessity and through training, you've cultivated a lot of it. What are some ways you keep yourself sharp?

The first concept is training. Everything comes back to training. There's no such thing as a shortcut to prevent the training. There’s a saying, “You don't rise to the level of your expectation, you fall to the level of your preparation.” So, you need to train yourself. You need to overtrain yourself because as I said before, when you put on the helmet, you lose 20 IQ points. Once you've trained for a scenario, now you can start adding these techniques that'll give you 2%, 5% gains in mental toughness.

What are some techniques?

An important one is visualization. So as fighter pilots, we will visualize through an entire sortie, and it's important to bring in as many senses as possible. And you want to visualize it perfectly the first time. If for whatever reason, your brain goes off on a tangent and you think about something not going perfectly, keep re-visualizing it until you get it down perfectly. Everything from how you're feeling, thinking, what it smells like — everything to make it as realistic as possible. That will not only prep your brain for interweaving all these different concepts together, but it will also increase your confidence because you essentially are telling yourself you've done it before.

Another is being able to calm yourself down so that you can be in the optimal zone of performance. As I said earlier, we have these airborne tankers that are filled with hundreds of thousand pounds of fuel. Throughout your career, you're taught not to ever touch another aircraft, and now you're intentionally doing it at 350 miles an hour with hundreds of thousands of pounds of fuel between you and the tanker. New pilots will get nervous, and they'll start flying a little bit erratically. Breathing is really the best thing to do to calm yourself down when you're in the moment. Box breathing — five seconds in, hold for five seconds, five seconds out, hold for five seconds.

Another is just wiggling your fingers and toes because when you get really uptight, you're squeezing, as we say, the paint out of the stick. You're not going to be able to focus on what you're doing and you're not going to have the fine motor skills that are needed to fly in close formation.

And then lastly is to try to get yourself out of tunnel vision. Literal tunnel vision. What I teach new students is you really want to look out of the corner of your eyes. That helps you to detach and allows you to look at the situation separately and that helps to calm you down, to be able to make more rational decisions.

You’re the father of two young kids. What are some big lessons you’re trying to teach them?

Two things. I want them to be confident and I want them to be clear thinkers. It's challenging because I think as parents, a lot of people's first instinct is compliance. Children are difficult to raise, but I always come at it through the lens of: how do I want them to be in 20 years or 30 years as an adult? I want them to be independent and I want them to thrive, not just when they are under my roof, but when they are outside in the real world. And sometimes those are two competing interests, so I always try to lean on what I want them to be when they are adults.

Looking at the big picture.

I try. And now that I think about it, being a fighter pilot's a lot like being a father. Its minimal sleep, a lot of chaos, a lot of incomplete information, and lives are on the line.