Episode 301: The Magic of Chair-Flying. An Interview with Steve and Rob

Episode Summary

In this episode, Rob Shallenberger brings a fantastic tool fighter pilots use before their training exercises and combat missions – chair flying. Rob takes us through the step-by-step process of how pilots chair fly their missions, how it helps them perform better, and how we can chair fly our day-to-day tasks. We also share some practical examples of chair flying an entire presentation at a convention in front of over 100 people, a football game, and an important meeting with a State Level Coordination Committee. 

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners, wherever you may be in the world. We are delighted to welcome you to our show today. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger. We also have our special guest with us, Rob Shallenberger. Welcome, Rob. 

Rob Shallenberger: Hey, it’s nice to be a guest on our own podcast! 

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, I told Rob, I said, “We’ve got a great subject to talk about. How would you like to be the interviewee?” He said, “I’m in! Let’s do it!” So, this is gonna be a fun podcast. And it may not be our longest podcast, but what we are going to share today will be something that will contribute to your peace, your effectiveness, you’ll have higher-quality meetings, higher-quality results. So, first of all, you all know Rob, of course. Rob is the CEO of Becoming Your Best, a former F-16 fighter pilot in the United States Air Force, former advanced agent in working with the President of the United States in Air Force One to secure it in whatever locations they’ve traveled to. Rob has an MBA at Colorado State University, he’s an awesome father, he has three girls and a boy and a wonderful wife, Tonya, and it is so fun to work with Rob. So, that’s one of our treats of life is that we can do that. Not all fathers and sons can work together. So, that’s pretty cool, ain’t it Rob? 

Rob Shallenberger: It is awesome. Yeah, we’ve been doing that now for years and we’ve had some pretty cool experiences together.  

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, I’ll say. Alright, well, let’s get right into our subject of today. It is… Let’s hear the drum roll… Chair flying. So we’re going to talk about chair flying and the huge impact that it can have on so many things that you do. So Rob, can you introduce what chair flying is? Let’s talk about the application. And then, I have a couple of experiences I’ll share. I know Rob has some that are really powerful. And then, we’ll wrap it up with a few tips from Rob and conclude our show for today. So Rob, tell us about chair flying. 

Rob Shallenberger: Okay, yeah. So, chair flying is a powerful form of visualization. It’s a term that everybody knows in the fighter pilot world, but very few people to nobody has heard of outside of the fighter pilot world. And so, let me just walk through what chair flying is from a visualization perspective. And that is, we want to create in our mind’s eye whatever it is that we’re chair flying, so that we experience it mentally prior to experiencing it physically. And so, for example, as an F-16 instructor pilot, you know, we come back from a flight, and I had the chance to be an IP — an instructor pilot — for three years at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. I can come back from a flight and with about 97%-98% accuracy know whether my wingman — the student pilot — had chair flown the mission prior to flying the mission. And you could tell based on his or her performance in the air, how they actually did. And so, chair flying has a huge impact on our performance. And again, it’s going through it mentally prior to experiencing it physically. So it’s just another form of visualization. Yet a very powerful form.  

Rob Shallenberger: And so, I wish we could be together eye to eye. And for those that have attended our live conferences, you’ve seen us actually demonstrate chair flying, right? Sit in a chair and go through this. Now, I’m just going to do the same thing and you can imagine what this looks like in your mind, as I walk through and describe this. So let me take what a chair flying example might look like in the fighter pilot world and then we can tie this into your life and how it would apply to a relationship at work with co-workers, a supervisor, maybe an important client, with your son or daughter, spouse, whoever it might be. What it might look like to chair fly an important meeting you have coming up. What it might look like to chair fly your year, etc. So, let’s look at it through the fighter pilot lens first, and then we’ll apply it to each one of us.  

Rob Shallenberger: So let’s imagine that you’re doing a low-level to a target. That means you’re typically flying it around 500 knots, 500 miles per hour-ish, and 500 feet. So you’re moving. You know, the jet’s cooking right along. So when you’re chair flying, you want to involve all five senses. The more senses that we can involve, the more realistic it will be. The more we can put ourselves in the situation, mentally, the more familiar it will be when we’re there physically for the first time. So, what we do is we close our eyes — and again, you’ll just have to imagine me doing this sitting in a chair — we close our eyes and we ask, you know, what does it smell like? Alright, well you can smell the cockpit. You can smell the exhaust from the JPA. Alright, what do you feel temperature-wise in the cockpit? It’s hot. It’s a low-level through the desert. Alright, what do you see? I look to the left and I see my wingman a mile line abreast. Okay, great. What do you see in the gauges and in the cockpit? Alright, I see my heads-up display in front of me, all of the instruments in front of me. And as we’re flying along, now, I know in my mind that we’re going to check right 20 degrees at five miles. 5.0. So, 5.0, 20 right. 5.0, 20 right. 5.0, 20 right. There’s 5.0 check. 20 right. 170 on the heading, max AB, nose up 20 degrees. Nose up 20 degrees, nozzle swan. And I’m gonna roll in at 6.2, 6.2, 6.2 — I should spot my wingman float from left to right. There’s 6.2 on the altitude, roll in, set 20 degrees nose low CCIP. Hold, hold, hold airspeed, check airspeed, and pickle. Off target. Team L left. 5G is in two seconds. AB as 5Gs hold, hold two seconds, rollout E-Grass heading 060 wingman should be floating down from right to left, there’s the wingman. And off target.  

Rob Shallenberger: Alright, so that’s an example of what chair flying would look like. Now, we were actually looking at each other and you could see that happen. You see me sitting in a chair with my eyes closed and my in-flight guide on one leg and checklist on the other, just like I would really fly. And so, that’s a form of visualization. In other words, chair flying and going through it in our mind’s eye before experiencing the real thing. And so, what do you think happens to performance? You know, if I’ve done that once or twice prior to the flight, now I’m ahead of the jet instead of being what we call behind the jet and playing catch up with the jet. You can use this, really, in any walk of life. And then I’ll let you take it from here. But that is a very basic background of what chair flying is – it’s just that visualization in your mind’s eye and it’s creating the mental reality prior to the physical reality. What does it look like, smell like, feel like, involving all five senses and putting ourselves in that situation.  

Rob Shallenberger: Just one more example. You know, if you’re going to have an important conversation with someone, it’s way better to chair fly that conversation in advance and what it might look like, sound like, and feel like than just winging it and going into that high-stakes conversation without having chair flown it. So that’s a very basic background on chair flying and then dad, I’ll let you take it from here and see where you want to take this.  

Steve Shallenberger: Alright, well, perfect, Rob, that’s a great foundation. I’d like to give two illustrations of this that might help teach it a little better and reinforce it in our minds. The first one has to do with pre-week planning. Pre-week planning, of course, you go through this simple process sometime during the weekend from Friday afternoon but before Monday, and you think of your week in terms of your vision, upcoming calendar dates, you think about that, but you have in front of you this template. And it could either be a paper-based template where you see your roles across the top — five to seven roles that you actually place in there — or it could be our digital Google extension or Outlook extension, or you could do it either way. But the process is the same. And then, you think about your roles for the week, you see meetings that you have committed to, and the week is starting to shape up. And then you think about, well, what are the actions by each role that will have the biggest impact where I can create excellence and this magic by each role? What really matters most? And you get those fixed in and then you put them into your calendar — when you’re going to do them — so you shape up your calendar. If you say that you’re going to exercise four or five times, when will you do it? And if you say that you’re going to write a thank-you note to somebody, when do you see yourself doing this? And so, you place them all in the calendar and after 30 minutes, you’ve got a really good plan for the week, and now is a great time to sit back and chair fly because you’ve done all the work. You have the plan in front of you and now look at it one more time and close your eyes and just visualize each of the roles. Visualize the days rolling in and out of one another and the meetings that you have set up and the preparation that needs to take up to help you stay in quadrant two and just see the execution going in and out of it, see the surprises, the unexpected coming up and how you manage through those and stay at a point of peace and confidence as you move forward. So, that is one of the applications to chair flying that Rob has taught that’s been helpful for me. You take a plan that’s already good and now, because your chair fly, you can take it to a whole other level because you may come up with some things that you forgot about, you hadn’t considered and that just now really take good to a lot better. So that’s one application that I really like. I don’t know if you have any additional comments on that example, Rob? 

Rob Shallenberger: Not on that example. I think you got that one right. I have two other stories, but not on that example. I think you got that one. 

Steve Shallenberger: Okay. So, I love that. That really helps me to be centered, decreases the stress amazingly. And all of these things, of course, affect your health, your well-being, your effectiveness, your relationships with other people. So these have pretty good ramifications.  

Steve Shallenberger: The other one is an experience that we had about four to six weeks ago and it was at the annual ATD International Convention. This particular one happened to be taking place in Salt Lake City, but we’ve held them all over the country, literally. And we have something that’s called “the author’s chat”, which is a major keynote, really, a part of the American Training Development Association. The attendees to this are really high-profile stakeholders in the training and development world. So, these are people that are committed to training, lifting, helping people achieve their best within their various organizations around the world. And so, the stakes are pretty high. This, of course, was a pandemic COVID year — the first time they had met since COVID hit, the pandemic hit – and we were excited to be together. They had a unique format. Because of this, they spaced the chairs six feet apart, and they had pre-registration of about, I think it was 47, but pretty high-level people. And so, as we were getting ready, we just didn’t know what to expect. I mean, we were prepared, going to really launch the assets of our newest book, Do What Matters Most. And so, we were really trying to be well-prepared and give them the best that we had.  

Steve Shallenberger: So, about 12 minutes, 15 minutes before, six people were in this large room that we had. And they actually had throughout for the conference about 100 chairs set up. But, you know, they’re setting it, letting a limited number in. And so, six people about 10 or 15 minutes before. I was a little worried, but I went by and met each one. And of course, they were way spread out. But I can only control the things I can control and Rob was there and Jamie Thorup was there — our vice president of client services. And so, I decided to go behind the curtain and just chair fly the next hour and what it would look like in my mind. And so, I just forced myself to do that, I quieted myself, I closed my eyes, sat in the chair — just as Rob explained — and went through the entire presentation coming out of the curtain and seeing the room full, imagining myself reading to people and then going through the whole experience, involving them, using names of people that I’ve met, engaging with them around the Do What Matters Most content of vision and annual goals, pre-week planning. But it’s with their own life and seeing them engaged and appreciating it, having a few breakup meetings where they could share what they were learning, and then the invitation of potential next steps of how they could become certified trainers and how they could leverage this in their various organizations to get excellent results and consistently do the things that matter most professionally and individually, how they could see the fruits in their own life. And then, my conclusion, the wrap-up, and finishing on a high point, a high note. And then I opened my eyes and I walked back through the curtains and the room was full. There weren’t 47 people there. There were 125 people. Every single chair was full, there were people sitting around the edges, and we had a great experience. I was at peace and felt confident and the end result is what we hoped it would be. So, this is really a great example of using chair flying, and rather than just sitting out there and being apprehensive, I think the people there could feel it as well. And as a result, we had a great experience there and developed many new friends and contacts.  

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, well there are a couple of examples right there and Rob may have a couple of examples he’d like to end and when he’s done, let’s just see any final thoughts that you have Rob? And then, we’ll wrap up our podcast for today. 

Rob Shallenberger: Yeah, perfect. So, there you got a good idea of what chair flying can look like in different settings. And the question you might be asking yourself is, what does this mean to you? In other words, how can you use this in your day-to-day life? And so, let me just share two brief examples, illustrating how you could use this personally or professionally, maybe with a son or daughter, you know, in the various settings that you find yourself in. So, we have a friend who’s an executive — he happens to be the president of a large construction company. Well, he attended our two-day conference and went through, you know, all 12 of the principles. Well, at the end, he said, “Man, I got so much out of this conference”, and we just had a great experience together. But it was two weeks later when he wrote and said, “Of all of the things that came out of it, it was chair flying that had the most direct impact on our business.” And he went on to elaborate that just after the conference, he was going to meet with a committee at the state level that was going to fund a project. It was a multimillion-dollar construction project. And typically, what they would do, is they would get numerous different bids and then they’d have a week to two-week waiting window where they went through the different bids, they deliberated and then they would choose, you know, the winner who’s going to have the construction project. Well, what our friend said was, typically, what he would have done is he would have appeared before the committee, answered their questions, and then left. In other words, just winging it. Once he had learned about chair flying, he decided to sit down and come up with a list of all the questions he felt like that committee could ask him and he came up with approximately 20 questions. And then he went through every one of those answers — chair flying his answer as if he was sitting in the seat in front of the committee. What did it look like? What did it smell like? What did it feel like? Who did he see on the panel? And he answered those questions, and I loved how he said this. He chair flew through the answers until he couldn’t get it wrong. I thought that was awesome. That takes a lot of deliberation and practice. And so, he went through each of these answers until he felt like he had it dialed in and locked in. Well, he appeared before the committee, and exactly as you would guess, they asked the majority of the questions that he’d come up with. He said, “Man, I felt so prepared, I literally just knocked it out of the park, because I had chair flown these answers. I was totally ready. I wasn’t winging it.” And he said it was amazing because as soon as he was done, rather than this committee taking it back and deliberating for a couple of weeks, they were so impressed with his answers, they were so impressed with his responses that they gave him and that company the multimillion-dollar contract right there on the spot. So, he said chair flying had an immediate multimillion-dollar impact on his organization and he would have never had that kind of approach or performance in front of the committee had it not been for chair flying. It’s the same in the F-16. You can tell a student pilot who chair flew versus who had not chair flown when they come back from their mission, based on their performance, how they did in the air. With this executive, there’s no doubt that chair flying had a big impact on the way he showed up in front of that committee.  

Rob Shallenberger: Now, on a more personal example, how do we use this? Well, you know, my dad mentioned that I have a son and three daughters. My son used to play football. He’s now out of the house. But I remember before different games, we’d sit down and chair fly before the game what that looked like. And so, I’d ask him, “Robbie, what do you see in front of you?” “I see another player. I see the sidelines. I see the fans in the stadium.” “Okay, great. What do you smell?” “I smell grass. I can smell the dew on the grass.” “Okay, awesome. What do you hear?” You see, we were involving his senses. And he’d say “I can hear the fans cheering in the stadium.” “Okay, awesome.” “I hear the players on the other side talking.” “Great. Alright, now your defensive back. So, you know, the player lines up, the wide receiver lines up. Now, what do you see?” “Okay, he’s gonna run a fade route.” “How are you gonna guard him? When are you gonna turn your head and look back for the ball? You know, imagine that you’re in front of him, that you stay a step ahead of him? What does that look like?” And he said it was amazing how many times he’d go into the game and the players would do exactly what he had just chair flown. In other words, he was so much ready, just like our executive friend, just like my dad in front of the ATD group, and just like the student pilot in the F-16. He was ready for what the wide receiver did and it made him respond in such a more proactive way, rather than just reacting to whatever might have shown up. So, that’s the power in chair flying. We can use it in so many different circumstances.  

Rob Shallenberger: You know, I mentioned a conversation earlier. If you need to have an important conversation with someone, before jumping into it, imagine the setting in which you’re going to have that conversation. What does the room look like? Where are you going to be sitting? What does it smell like in the room? What does the discussion look like? You know, if they respond a certain way, how will you then respond? And how much better will you imagine that conversation going after having chair flown it? And so, you know, this is a great topic. I love it. And it’s a good reminder because chair flying is one of those things that we intuitively know works, but it’s very easy to let this slip out of our habit patterns. And so, it’s such a great thing to have a podcast like this where we can bring that back to the forefront of our minds. And, really, it was my dad’s idea to do this podcast and the credit goes to him because, you know, this is such an important thing — to chair fly, whether it’s that conversation, you know, whether it’s your week after pre-week planning, whether it’s an important talk or anything else that you’re doing. This is a valuable arrow that you can now add to your quiver of resources and draw on when you need it. 

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, well, perfect, Rob! Those are really some great examples. And we’re so honored and just salute you because we know that you’re making such a difference. I’m talking to our listeners. Now, Rob is too. He’s making a difference as, you know, it’s great to work with him. But you are too, wherever you are, in your organization, in your own life. And so, hopefully, this will be a great tool that you can use that can move it up a notch and help you feel more at peace, help you be more focused and more effective. That’s really what we want to do is provide those kinds of tools for you. So Rob, as we wrap up today, do you have any final tips that you might like to offer? 

Rob Shallenberger: Yeah, you know what? If you have our new book, Do What Matters Most, there’s an example of chair flying in chapter eight, and you can read more about that, and how that applies to our lives and pre-week planning, and everything else. So, if you haven’t already read Do What Matters Most, I invite you to get that, read it, and especially zero in on pre-week planning in chapter eight, and what that might look like in your life, and then actually do it. You know, don’t let this be one of those things you just think about and say, “Ah, that’s a great idea.” Actually do chair flying. Think about something right now that’s important to you. And if you’re in a place where you can do it — which means you’re not driving — close your eyes for just a couple of minutes and chair fly. Chair fly something. Maybe it’s just finding peace in your life, but chair fly something and get a sense of how powerful that process is. In other words, the art is in the start. You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great. Just do it and get some experience under your belt with chair flying and see how powerful it is in your life. 

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, Rob. Well, thank you, and thanks for being a special guest today. 

Rob Shallenberger: Yes! 

Steve Shallenberger: A lot more fun just being interviewed, isn’t it? Great. Well, we wish each one of you, our listeners, the very best as you, too, are making a difference in the world. And thank you for listening today and being part of our lives. And so, we wish you a really great day. This is Steve and Rob from Becoming Your Best, wishing you all the best. 

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best
CEO, executive, corporate trainer, and community leader.

Rob Shallenberger

CEO, Becoming Your Best

Leading authority on leadership and execution, F-16 Fighter Pilot, and father

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