An MH-60S Seahawk helicopter prepares to land during a training mission at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Scott Taylor)

Watching Junior Officers Innovate

Landing in the Dirt with Habu and Feather

Capt. Ben Reynolds, Commander, HSC Wing Pacific

The approach to our landing was absurd.

Instead of looking through my night vision goggles and single-handedly flying the helicopter to the deck like I had trained my entire career, I hunched over and stared at the small acceleration gauge in front of me.

I made tiny control changes while three people gave me precise instructions. What’s more bizarre, I “gave” the other pilot the collective, and I just controlled the cyclic. That’s like asking your car passenger to push the gas and the brake while you hold the wheel.

And making it worse was the environment. We had progressed to more and more challenging conditions—a no-moon night to the sandiest, crummiest landing zone we could find in the Southern California desert, not the type of night the crusty old commodore would normally seek out for currency.

We were landing in the toughest degraded visual environment (DVE), and I couldn’t see a thing. In fact, I was so intent on my gauges, I was surprised when the ground came up to meet my tail wheel first and then my main landing gear. Lt. Alexander “Feather” Campbell, my weapons and tactics instructor (WTI), reduced the collective, and the aircraft was safe on deck. “Great—let’s take it around again, sir,” he said.

In 2014, naval aviators crashed four MH-60 Seahawk aircraft landing in DVEs. Every service has struggled with DVE mishaps, crashing dozens of helicopters in DVEs over the last decade. We were crashing aircraft in a specific maneuver, and we needed solutions. Naval Aviation attacked the problem by making several changes to training and doctrine. We even secured Naval Air Systems Command’s permission to fly the aircraft with the doors off, a very effective way to improve visibility close to the deck. But the most effective—and most radical—change has been adopting two innovative approaches: the “DVE Steep,” in which the aircrew flies the aircraft down a steep glideslope to the deck on gauges, and the “DVE Hover,” the control-swapping maneuver in which the crew brings the aircraft to a hover above the dust storm we create and then lands vertically through the cloud.

Today, the Department of Defense is encouraging a culture of innovation, an often challenging concept in a large organization. Yet these new approaches Feather taught are exactly the type of incremental “small-ball innovation” that drives us forward and makes a significant impact in our helicopter community.

While we value innovation, change is often difficult to embrace. A few years ago, several Army and Air Force special operations commands started introducing similar DVE approaches, but they never reached wide acceptance in any service. Aircraft differences and a lack of communication between organizations halted the progress. These approaches are not embraced because they are radically different from how helicopter pilots have always been trained. Most commanders don’t even get beyond the PowerPoint description of the maneuver before they dismiss the idea completely.

But Helicopter Sea Combat Weapons School Pacific, where Feather was a pilot, developed an environment that allowed strange ideas to grow. They cultivated an innovation lab from an existing organization without requiring a new structure or additional resources. They work out of an old building; they don’t have floor-to-ceiling windows, beanbag chairs or an indoor jump-around gym. But they keep coming up with good ideas that are just a little bit different and are ready to embrace change if it improves their tactics, techniques and procedures.

Maj. Chris “Habu” Walker, a U.S. Air Force exchange pilot, fit right into this environment. He came to the weapons school and described a radically different way to land the helicopter. The weapons and tactics instructors listened. They asked a million questions. Then, young aviators Feather and Habu took a couple of field trips to visit Army and Air Force commands. They decided, after a few adjustments to fit our aircraft and tactics, this radical idea could pay huge dividends for Naval Aviation.

Leading Innovation: Where We Can Help

Our Navy is hungry to tap into the innovative talent of 350,000 minds. We often pursue innovation by carving out distinct “change” organizations, but it doesn’t seem to work when we put 10 people in a room and tell them to deliver quarterly updates on innovative ideas to win wars. The simplest way for us to encourage innovation is to create an environment within our existing squadrons and ships where good ideas can germinate. But this isn’t easy, and it’s even harder to maintain this initiative over time.

For the helicopter community, this weapons school continues to be that special place. From developing new joint exercise opportunities on a shoestring budget to rebuilding our tactics and procedures for the maritime fight, the school repeatedly proved their incremental innovation is not a lucky break, but a sustained environment where good ideas grow.

Feather and Habu’s example demonstrates a few simple innovation principles for leaders at every level to consider: set a vision, cultivate an innovative environment, wrestle with the risk and follow through. We must do all these things for a new idea to take root.

Set a Vision

As leaders, we must set clear intent without constraining how our people meet that intent. There are times we need to give narrow guidance. When possible, however, we should make the boundaries wide and be prepared for new approaches and different solutions. This isn’t easy. Feather, Habu and their fellow WTIs feel free to attack issues with a clear understanding of our purpose. But, they often come up with a different solution that wouldn’t occur to me or our commanders.

Cultivate the Environment

Cultivating and maintaining an environment for innovation takes untiring, focused effort. It is often less efficient in the short run. We have to create habits of an innovative culture by constantly testing ideas, citing examples and embracing innovative solutions. Habu’s idea was unusual. The weapons school only considered his idea because leaders spent precious time cultivating an environment where initiative is valued.

It’s just as hard for leaders within an organization to provide this space as ideas percolate. Most ideas die under the pressure of the big, grinding organization before they have a chance to show their benefit. Adm. Scott H. Swift, Pacific Fleet commander, calls this “the frozen middle”—the level of bureaucratic leadership that resists change and stifles potential innovation. The frozen middle repeats itself at every layer of our large organization.

Wrestle with Risk

Grappling with risk isn’t merely an academic concept within our Navy. In our organization, risk has a real cost measured in mission failure, dollars and lives. As leaders, we must confront risk continuously. We also must continue to develop our capacity to tolerate risk if we want our people to innovate. In this situation, we continue to wrestle with risks as different squadrons and different pilots learn the new approaches Feather taught me.

Follow Through

We struggle most with follow-through. All too often, those of us who generate change and innovation are too quick to move on to the “next great idea.” We see countless promising ideas and “lessons-learned” that don’t take hold. These new ideas are fragile and need to be shepherded into practice. This requires sustained effort and persistence to codify a new approach into an institution that prefers to rely on trusted practices.

Our Navy has a rare opportunity. Our senior leaders today genuinely encourage innovation and are willing to accept risk associated with innovation. Young men and women join the Navy today to make a difference, and they are ready to contribute. We should embrace this rich resource of human ideas. As leaders, it’s our responsibility to provide a vision, cultivate an environment for ideas, confront risk and ensure the new, fragile ideas don’t die before they take root.

At the end of the flight, Feather and I sat in the aircraft and ran our engines as our maintainers finished the water wash. We were tired. Feather told me about his recent visit to the Naval Academy where a few midshipmen remarked cynically that it’s hard for junior officers (JOs) to make a difference in a big bureaucratic organization. Feather disagreed. He was a JO on his second tour. He was a part of a great organization. He was training pilots to fight and win in combat. Feather was clearly making a difference for his nation, and he was also part of a special organization that kept coming up with crazy, incremental improvements that rippled through our big, ungainly organization. Feather is an innovator.

Capt. Ben Reynolds is commander, Helicopter Sea Combat Wing Pacific.

(U.S. Navy photo by MC3 Kelsey L. Adams)

Capt. Ben Reynolds is from Jones, Oklahoma, and graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1992 with a Bachelor of Science degree in economics. He reported to flight school and earned his wings in November 1994.

Reynolds’ previous operational assignments include tactics officer and assistant officer-in-charge (OIC) in Helicopter Combat Support Squadron (HC) 6, deploying twice in support of operations in the Balkans and Africa. He was tactics officer, maintenance officer and detachment OIC in Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 26 where he participated in Haiti relief operations. Reynolds commanded the “Island Knights” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 25 in Guam. He deployed twice to Iraq while at HSC-25.

Reynolds’ last staff assignment was operations analyst and executive assistant on the CNO’s Assessment Division (OPNAV N81 and N00X). Previous staff assignments include: operations action officer on the CNO’s staff; flag aide to the deputy CNO for plans, policy and operations (N3/N5); flag aide to commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/U.S. Fifth Fleet; joint staff action officer in the Joint Operations Directorate, J-3; and as executive assistant to the joint staff deputy director for regional operations.

Reynolds is a 2014 graduate of the National War College. He also holds a masters in systems analysis from the Naval Postgraduate School, and a masters in international affairs from George Washington University. His personal decorations include the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Air Medal and other unit and campaign awards.