In 2001, “Ate,” as he likes to be called, became Europe’s youngest pilot at age 15. Between 2010 and 2018, he flew 18 combat missions in war zones, including deployments in Iraq and following the French terrorist attacks of 2015. Today, Ate is a commercial airline pilot and entrepreneur who applies lessons learned as a fighter pilot to the business world.
We discuss the mental state necessary to fly combat missions, including turning anxiety into performance fuel, what it’s like to land a plane on an aircraft carrier, and his thoughts on how accurate the movie Top Gun really is.
Additionally, Ate and I talk about how suffering a stroke at age 31 actually improved his life by forcing him to transition to a new career and better understand his body, in particular the importance of sleep and recovery.
3:23 – Born to Fly. “My first school was when I was 4 years old on a British Royal Air Force Base with jets flying around my head all the time.”
4:54 – Becoming Europe’s Youngest Pilot. How did he do it? “It all starts with books.” He flew on his own for the first time on the day of his 15th birthday.
7:10 – First Aircraft Carrier Landing. “Basically you’re so stressed that your brain erases what just happened. It’s a really good opportunity to take ownership of your fate.” During training they watch videos of failed attempts that led to fatal crashes. Because of wind and the boat moving, “every single landing is different.”
11:25 – Mental State. “Part of the training is getting to understand how you work as a human being, and how you work under stress. You learn how to use anxiety as a way to prepare for the stressful event. … After a year or two of training it just feels natural.”
12:45 – Turning Anxiety into Fuel. Ate likens it to building a damn that converts water from melting snow flowing down a mountain into energy. “It’s all about being able to drive this flow to something productive.”
14:31 – Visualization for Combat Success. “Sit in a chair, close your eyes, and imagine exactly what you’re going to do. … You’re going to live it before in your brain, and then you go through all the ‘What ifs.’” He’d also wake up an hour early and visualize while drifting in and out of sleep. “I’m trying to think of scenarios that wouldn’t normally come to my mind of what could happen during a combat mission.”
18:10 – Impact of Flying on Your Brain. “We have a saying in aviation that every time you step in the aircraft you’re about 40% dumber than you are on the ground … because of the stress, lack of oxygen, etc. We’re not designed to fly, the body is not used to it.”
18:56 – Thoughts on Top Gun. “I like Top Gun, there are several layers. … We never fly with a picture of your wife and kid, you don’t want to be distracted. Part of our job is to be able to remove all the external stressors.”
21:02 – Hardest Stressor to Avoid. “Being responsible of the life of special forces on the ground.” As a dad himself, he thought about how it was on him to bring other fathers back home.
23:10 – Learnings About the Body from Combat Missions. “I think it’s interesting to see how fast the human body can adapt to situations. Basically a week before the [2015 terrorist] attacks I was doing air shows. … From the 3rd mission it feels natural to go to combat [after the first 2 were extremely stressful], I thought combat would be stressful all the time but you can adapt to anything.”
25:25 – Preventing Mistakes. “You never, ever fly alone. It’s always a minimum of 2 jets so we can cross check each other. We’re going to make mistakes, we’re human. Anything that isn’t perfect is a mistake. At the end of the flight you want to debrief yourself and learn from the mistakes that’ve been done.”
29:09 – Commercial vs Combat. “It’s all about the mission. In training, my mission is to train without breaking anything. In combat, it’s to provide support to troops on the ground. With a commercial aircraft, it’s to go from point A to point B with 100% safety. If I can’t get there with 100% safety, I don’t go. We see it as a contract, not only with the passengers, but also with the family of the passengers.”
30:12 – Flying, Tactics and Leadership. The 3 elements of combat flying. “You have to be a leader the other guys want to follow into combat … make sure he is willing to max perform.” Shooting itself is just a small part of the tactical stuff, “Pulling the trigger is like closing the deal if you’re a salesman.”
33:10 – Combat Mission Preparation. “Going to combat is the end of a very long process. … It’s all about getting to know yourself.”
35:37 – How and Why You Have to Pee in Flight. “If you have to eject, it might be dangerous for your body” if your bladder is full.
36:40 – Ejecting. “It’s like jumping from a 2 or 3 story building when you land” while parachuting, although he’s never had to do it. The ejection itself can also be quite dangerous.
40:17 – Caffeine Prior to Flying? “No, I started drinking coffee when I started entrepreneurship. My mindset was ‘I don’t need any external help,” because he didn’t want to become dependent. “We don’t have to remain awake for 3 days like Navy SEALs do.”
43:03 – Post Combat Mission. What happens to his body? “It’s still amped.” He eats a protein bar every two hours while in the air and likes to run on a treadmill after flying “to get the blood flowing in my legs because I haven’t moved for 8 hours.”
44:38 – Moving On. “I was very tired from my 9 years,” and he had a stroke at age 31. “I damaged my neck during an air show” 14 months earlier, and then when right back to combat. “You’re mission focused.”
48:20 – Stroke. “I was alone with my two kids. I was giving them the baby bottles and I couldn’t swallow properly.” The he realized one side of his body wasn’t responding. “It wasn’t painful at all. … They don’t really have a cause, they think it’s related to stress and fatigue.”
51:40 – New Career. “The stroke forced me out of the cockpit for a minimum of 1 year. It brought me a new career I wouldn’t have dreamed of. My life has been much, much better since I had my stroke.”
52:09 – Getting on WHOOP. “As an entrepreneur I basically do consulting, keynotes and workshops. We’re expanding quite a lot. It’s very difficult to manage your time. I realized I was getting like 4 hours of sleep every night. I knew I needed something external to track my recovery, but also how fatigued I am. I really now use WHOOP as an external way to discipline myself. It’s like having a coach yelling at me to go to sleep.”
54:24 – Aviate, Navigate and Communicate. “I wrote a book called D.BRIEF that is around those 3 themes. You can adapt it to your everyday life. WHOOP helps me aviate on a daily basis.”
57:07 – Bouncing Back from Poor Recovery. “Take my goals, and break them into a lot a small achievable goals. No goal is too small, and it’s all about maintaining a positive mindset.”
59:46 – Power of Positive Interaction with Others. “Sometimes just engaging with people gives you more energy.”
1:00:26 – Fighting Jet Lag. “I anticipate it.” He tries to stay on the same time zone schedule when traveling: “The Circadian Rhythm Sleep Hack.”
1:02:27 – Alcohol. Ate doesn’t drink. “Last time I drank alcohol I got married in Vegas.”
1:03:14 – Effects of Altitude that the rest of us don’t know about. “When you fly in a commercial aircraft you should drink water, and you should walk. Make sure you take at least 14 steps. If you do less, it’s been proven the flow isn’t going to come back from your legs.”
1:06:36 – Goal Setting. “We have a saying, ‘Lose sight, lose the fight.’ Never lose sight of what your objectives are.”
1:04:23 – Learn More by visiting Ate’s website, dbrief.org.