Pressure cooker confidence

Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Kevin Sweeney knows how to deal with extraordinary stress.

With the Air Force song blaring, Sweeney told a Juneau audience Wednesday he loved being an Air Force pilot.

He spent 23 years as a combat pilot, and has been a business executive and college athlete. But it’s his story of losing two jet engines in mid-flight that captured a Centennial Hall audience, primarily made up of high school students from Juneau and Haines.

Sweeney was the second speaker in this year’s Pillars of America series, sponsored by the Juneau Glacier Valley Rotary Club.

As a fighter pilot, Sweeney flew combat missions in Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm. He recalled sitting in the cockpit of a four-engine KC 135 Air Force jet, in Saudi Arabia, the first night of Desert Storm in January 1991.

“You’re a 300,000 pound flying gas station. You’re going to fly along at 500 miles an hour carrying 31,000 gallons of jet fuel. Now that’s enough jet fuel to refuel 2,000 cars,” he said. “You’re going to deliver that jet fuel to fighters flying along with you at 500 miles an hour.”

Then on February 6, 1991, in mid-flight, the KC 135 lost both engines on one side.

The crew of four safely brought the jet down and no lives were lost. Now Sweeney uses the harrowing experience, and others in his life, to illustrate five principles he believes it takes to excel in today’s world: “Preparation, proper preparation, passion, focus, team and confidence.”

Sweeney marched back and forth on the stage, exhorting the audience to go the extra mile, stay focused, develop self-confidence, be a team player, and never give up.

At the end of his nearly one-hour-long speech, he harked back to that 1991 flight when he and his Air Force crew discovered the jet engines were gone:

“The engines had departed the airplane. Now what does that mean?” he asked the audience. “That means you’re about to have your final exam. That means you hear there’s heavy competition calling on your best customer. You call your key executive contact. They won’t call you back. That means you’re going to have to do more with less.”

Sweeney’s latest book is Pressure Cooker Confidence, How to Lead When the Heat is On.

This is the 20th year Rotary has sponsored the Pillars of America series, bringing 65 American motivational speakers to Juneau in that time.

The final speaker, on May 9th , is Olympian Rowdy Gaines.

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