One thing could be better
There are special moments of human interaction that are unexpected, unforgettable and unique. I’m about to tell a story about one such occurrence in my life. It is an event that I’m determined to write about while I’m still of sound mind. Should I ever be confined to a nursing home and I were to tell this story, I’d very quickly be labeled as demented.
Early in my business career I was very fortunate to become a part of the senior management team at Taft Broadcasting, a public company based in Cincinnati that was so rich in assets that it was the subject of an unwelcome takeover in 1987. All of us, about 50 strong, that were part of this management team lament that this happened. Part of the distinctive culture of this company was the semi-annual management meetings that were held at attractive resorts which were designed for information sharing, innovation and team building. And, those goals were achieved. As proof, this same group of individuals, now scattered to the four winds, makes an effort to recreate those meetings every year – no business purpose intended. The team building was that strong.
This is the story about one of those management meetings, held in 1985 at the Homestead, a well-known resort in Hot Springs, Virginia. Part of the story relates to the difficulty that travelers from around the country had in reaching Hot Springs. There is a small airport and only a handful of commercial flights, all puddle-jumpers. So, to address this problem the company enlisted our corporate pilots to shuttle managers from headquarters in Cincinnati to Hot Springs a day before the meeting. It all worked quite well because we had flexible schedules and if you arrived a little early there was always a golf course to mitigate the discomfort of leaving home a little early. The return trip was a little more challenging, since everyone wanted to get back to their normal lives immediately after the meeting was over. So, there was a bit of a scramble for seats back to Cincinnati. Those of us with less time and grade were designated for later flights, a feature of being lower on the totem pole. But then an interesting thing happened.
Our corporate pilots were arranging all the details. One member of our Board of Directors, also from Cincinnati, had flown his own plane into the small local airport. He volunteered to take three of us back home in his four-seat Beech Bonanza. This plane was a single-engine prop job, and much slower than the Learjet that was being used to ferry the top brass. So, it was arranged and I was assigned to this flight with my friends Benjie Diesbach and Nick Miller. An hour and a half crammed into a tiny plane, with no toilet, over desolate mountain terrain with a single private pilot and no back-up. You might wonder why I would fondly remember an event like this. Oh, did I mention that the board member, our pilot, was Neil Armstrong?
As a little background, it must be mentioned that all of us in the company had become friendly with Neil over the years. For a couple times a year we were all just part of the same “band of brothers,” with a couple “sisters” thrown in. So Neil was someone that we knew in business, at social events and on the golf course. Before you ask, I’ll also tell you that Neil Armstrong is a wonderful person. His intelligence and good judgment is only eclipsed by his humility. In fact, if you met Neil and you didn’t know in advance who he was and that he was the first man to walk on the Moon, you’d never be able to guess it. He has shunned publicity, signs no autographs and is embarrassingly modest about achieving one of the most memorable feats in the Twentieth Century (along with Buzz Aldrin).
Neil was also an accomplished combat and test pilot before becoming an astronaut. So, all things considered, we thought we were in pretty good hands when we crammed ourselves into his plane. We were advised by our pilot to take one final bathroom visit before we departed. The voice of experience was speaking. The next thing I remember was rolling down the runway and just as the plane lifted we were looking over a deep valley. The airport in Hot Springs is short, and it was built by flattening the top of a mountain. This was as close to a carrier takeoff as I’ll probably ever experience.
For almost three hours the conversation was relaxed and cordial. All of us were trying to remember every move our esteemed pilot made and all the things that were said, to tell our grandchildren. Sadly, today I can’t remember all that much. We eventually made it to Lunken Airport in Cincinnati. Before Neil took off for his own airstrip in nearby Lebanon, Ohio, I remember that he did a full inspection of his plane, the discipline of years of military training. Impressive. Then we watched in awe as he taxied down the runway and flew off.
Just as the plane was disappearing into the clouds my friend Nick uttered one of the most incredible things. He said: “Only one thing could have been better than that.” Benjie and I glanced at him, incredulous. What could have been better than that? His answer: “We could have crashed and lived.” That’s the part of the story that they’ll never understand in the nursing home.
But it raises an interesting business point. I’ve witnessed some incredible successes over the years. Some were enterprises that I’ve been part of. Some relate to the success of friends. Some were pure dumb luck that couldn’t be explained by any rational person. In almost every case there is one person who isn’t quite satisfied. There is someone who thinks that with a little more luck or effort things could have turned out even better. Certain people are just never satisfied.
The purpose of this chapter is to tell you not to be one of those people. Enjoy success and good times when life favors you with a memorable moment. Make those moments special for all the people around you. They are incredible opportunities for teams to bond forever. And if you are able, create those moments for other people. They will not forget the time or the place, or the person who made them possible.
My friend Benjie now owns the very same airplane that Neil Armstrong owned and flew us in. Nearly 25 years later, Neil is still going strong. He tells us that he has flown over 100 different aircraft. He counts Apollo 11 as only one of those. My friend Nick is still the subject of friendly ridicule. This is because, all along, we knew he was kidding!
Copyright, Mark O. Hubbard, 2009