Make The Gutsy Move: Advice From A Combat Pilot

Courtesy of

[The following is the full raw transcript of a LEADx Podcast interview, which has been lightly edited for space and clarity.]

Kevin Kruse: On today's show, I talk to the first African-American female combat pilot. We talk about what it's like breaking new ground and getting ourselves the permission to engage. But first, today's tip is your stop doing list. We obsess over our to-do list, but just as important is your stop doing list. Jay Baer, the founder of the company Convince and Convert, he recommends a yearly time audit. His goal is to find a way to delegate at least 15% of what you're doing. Every year, take 15% of what you're doing and find a way to push it off to someone else.

You should outsource everything unless, one, you enjoy doing it, two, it's critical to you living your values, or three, it costs you more per hour to outsource it than you make per hour yourself. Otherwise, it should be outsourced. Now, you might say, “Kevin, I'm not an entrepreneur. I work for a big company. I can't outsource everything.” Well, first of all, at work, maybe there's ways you can time-swap with a colleague or outsource your attendance at a meeting. Have a buddy go or your assistant go.

And at home, realize you can outsource a lot. It doesn't take a lot of money, but you can outsource your childcare to a babysitter for date night once a week. Maybe you might want to outsource grocery shopping, as I do, to AmazonFresh. You can outsource part of cooking dinner to Blue Apron several times a week. You can outsource building that bookshelf this Saturday to TaskRabbit, and on Sunday, instead of mowing the lawn yourself, throw 15 bucks to that teenager down the street. Get it? What's on your stop doing list?

Our guest today is a former United States Marine Corps officer who's the first African-American female combat pilot in US history. She flew a SuperCobra attack helicopter, and served two tours in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. She's the author of Zero to Breakthrough. Our guest is Vernice “FlyGirl” Armour. Vernice, welcome to the LEADx show.

Vernice “FlyGirl” Armour: It is great to be here, Kevin

Kruse: Before we dive in, I want to thank you for your service. My father was a Marine. I never served myself, but I've got a lot of friends and family who are serving or recently retired. So thanks for everything you've done.

Armour: Absolutely. It was an honor to serve, absolutely an honor to serve.

Kruse: I would do that thing where I would start name dropping, like, “Well, do you know that Marine?” But none of them were in the air wing, so I don't think you'd know any of them

Armour: That's so true. When folks hear I'm in the military, they'll say, “Oh, do you know …” And yeah, they were probably stationed in Okinawa somewhere, or Texas or Florida. But you know what? Sometimes, it's a small world.

Kruse: Yeah, that's right. That's right. Well, the only one I'll even try, because he's fairly high profile, is General Ron Bailey. I don't know if you ever had a chance to work under him. He just retired this year.

Armour: Absolutely. I didn't actually work under him as a subordinate, but we did some recruiting command things together.

Kruse: Oh, yeah.

Armour: When he was a Colonel, and I was there when he got promoted to one star. And of course, he eventually went to two and three, and I'm standing on his shoulders. Just an amazing man, an amazing Marine American hero. And he has a great sense of humor. He's funny as heck.

Kruse: Yeah. Wow, yeah. I'm surprised there is the match there, yeah. I was actually there when he got his third star at the Pentagon, and there's signs all over the Pentagon. Like, you're not allowed to take pictures and stuff. Man, was I taking pictures in that room, and I wrote an article for Forbes about him getting his third star, because it was so moving that, when the Commandant said, “Who do you want to pin on your third star?” He said, “My mama and my brothers.”

Armour: Yeah.

Kruse: And there was Mama Bailey in the front row with his brothers.

Armour: Yep.

Kruse: And they got up, and it was just great to see.

Armour: Yeah, he's all about family and he's down to earth. But that's what it's about, right?

Kruse: Yeah. Absolutely.

Armour: Loving up on each other, helping each other, being there for each other. That's what it's about.

Kruse: That is what it's about. So take us back a little bit, and this is kind of a tradition of our LEADx guests. I want you to share a failure story from some point in your career. It's selfish, because I want to learn from your failure, so we'll start there and then talk a little bit more about your career in the Marines.

Armour: Yeah, absolutely. Well, there are a couple of insights to this experience for me, and the bottom line is, I flew attack helicopters in the Marine Corps. I was the only woman in my squadron that flew Cobras, and most of the guys in my squadron had … Well, any of the instructors and leaders had never flown with a woman before, right? Some of the guys that I went through flight school with had flown with me, but that's it.

Kruse: Right.

Armour: And at a certain point, when were deployed over in Iraq, it was after the war kicked off. Things were slowing down. We were wrapping up, trying to get all the Marines out of the country. And our lead tactics instructor said, “All right, we're going to have a tactics test.” And I'm thinking, “Whoa, wait a minute. I haven't been studying.” And he says, “Armour, we're having a test. You never know everything about combat or the aircraft, right?”

So I grabbed my tactical manual and my safety manual, various other manuals, flew up into Iraq for the next four days, did what I call studying. And when I came back down into Kuwait to our main base, we took the test. And I tell you what, Kev. 15 minutes into it, I knew I wasn't doing so hot. Next day, confirmed. I had bombed. I'd failed. And I'll be honest with you, I was devastated.

Kruse: Wow.

Armour: Because here I am, first black female pilot in the Marine Corps, America's first black female combat pilot, and the senior pilot in my cohort of 21 pilots. I'm the senior person, and I failed a tactics test. It was devastating. I knew people were watching me … “How are women going to perform in combat? How are women going to get along with the guys? How are women going to fly the attack helicopter?” So I felt like I'd let a lot of folks down, the Marine Corps down, black folks down, women down, but mostly the guys in my squadron down.

Kruse: Right.

Armour: Now, the next week, I passed the test with flying colors, right? But that wasn't the point. I didn't pass the test the first time, when everyone was watching. Now, something I don't usually talk about, that I think this would be a unique opportunity to share, is when I talked to my instructor the next day, because he pulled me into his office… Well, his tent.

Kruse: Right.

Armour: We were in Iraq, right? He said, “Well, Armour, why didn't you go to your counterparts, to the other co-pilots? I gave them all the gouge,” and the gouge is like the information, like the review, what's going to be on the test, right? And I said, “Well, sir, I didn't even know you had given it to them.” He's like, “Well, you should always be in contact. You should always know what's going on.” And I'm thinking, “You don't know what you don't know.” I didn't even know to ask, right?

Kruse: Right.

Armour: But your question was, what did I learn from this failure? Number one, I learned that I have to be responsible and accountable for knowing what I need to know to be the best whatever it is I'm going to be, whether it was a police officer on the street, a Marine on the battlefield, a combat pilot in the cockpit, or now, an inspirational leadership speaker sharing the information of the lessons I've learned over all three of my lives, that I call it.

So in that moment, did I get upset? Yeah, I was pissed, and I still held myself accountable, because I said, “You know what? I needed to know the information.” Now, because of failing that test, I also didn't stay on the fast track. Fast track looks like going to WTI, which is like the Marine Corps' Top Gun. Becoming a test pilot, being a flight instructor, or going on another tour to Iraq. I ended up doing the normal track, going to headquarters Marine Corps after my two tours. But what ended up happening is I was home when my dad passed away from cancer. He was a Marine.

Kruse: Wow.

Armour: Three times in Vietnam. My favorite … My Marine, my American hero, right?

Kruse: Yeah, yeah.

Armour: My favorite Marine. And there were times when I couldn't even go home for Christmas or Thanksgiving because I was thousands of miles away. So what I gleaned from that entire experience, from failing the test to being pissed that I didn't have, maybe, access … quote unquote, “access” to the information that the others did, holding myself accountable, looking back on the failure with regret. But after all, saying, “You know what? The detour is the path.”

A detour is only a path if we use it as a tool to the learn the lessons that life is trying to show us in that moment, because you can just keep making the detour again and again and again, or no regrets. No surrender, but the detour is the path, and you are where you are. And how do you learn the lesson from the failure as fertilizer to take you to that next step, that next level.

Kruse: Wow, I really appreciate this… It was such a vulnerable story, and I like that phrase you ended with, failure as a fertilizer and making the detour mean something.

Armour: Yeah.

Kruse: And in fact, before you joined the Marines, well, you mentioned the police. What were you doing before you joined the Marines?

Armour: Before I joined the Marines, I actually had some very defined steps before launching my military career. When I was in college … I guess you could say this is the start of the military career. I got involved in Army ROTC, went to leadership events camp, saw a black woman in a flight suit. That's where the seed was planted to become a combat pilot. I enlisted in the Army Reserves because I saw that as a way to move my career towards being a police officer, which I had always wanted to do since I was four or five years old. I wanted to be a cop that rode a horse downtown.

So for me, it was all about preparation, and how do I prepare myself, with deliberate steps, for the next level? I couldn't be a cop until I was 21, but I could absolutely be in the military. Why? Uniform, discipline, esprit de corps, physical fitness… everything that could help me get into Police Academy, excel once I was in, maybe even save my butt once I got out on the streets.

Kruse: Right.

Armour: So after joining ROTC as an actual cadet, right, because I wanted to leverage the military experience. So I joined ROTC as an actual cadet in college. I did, eventually, end up getting that invitation to Police Academy. I had already taken the civil servant's exam and withdrew from school, became a police officer, even rode horses downtown. Harley Davidson. I rode on a steel horse, right?

Kruse: And downtown was Nashville, right?

Armour: That's exactly right.

Kruse: Right, cool.

Armour: That's exactly right. And after several years being on the department with the police department, I just couldn't forget about that woman on the horse. So I left the department, became a Marine…You don't join the Marines. You become a Marine. We don't take applications. You just become one, all right?

Kruse: Love it.

Armour: And that's when my military career really took off full speed.

Kruse: And I'm wondering, at what point did you realize you were going to end up as America's first African-American female combat pilot? Like, did you know, “Hey, now I'm in training. I've been accepted for this pilot school, whatever you call it, and as long as I get out, I'm going to be the first?” Or when did it occur to you?

Armour: I didn't step into my first job, right, planning to be America's first or even joining the military to be the first. After I started the flight test, the officer selection officer, OSO… It's the recruiter for officers, said, “Hey, did you know you are going to be the first black female pilot ever in the Marine Corps?” And I said, “What?”

Kruse: Wow.

Armour: Right? And after doing the two tours in Iraq, and when I went on Oprah's show, right?

Kruse: Right.

Armour: That's when I found out, now I had become America's first black female combat pilot, because legislation had just changed, allowing women to fly into combat back in '93. Sarah Deal was the very first female aviator in the Marine Corps, and I joined the Marine Corps in '98. So it was really just because of legislation removal of some of the combat exclusion laws and being in the right place at the right time.

But still, to this day, even though I'm no longer flying as an attack helicopter pilot, it's all about service, not being the first, or the first black chick to fly motors or drive motors on the police department with Nashville, or the first black female police officer in Tempe, or the Marine Corps' first, or… I just wanted an amazing, epic, juicy, adventurous life.

Kruse: Right.

Armour: Right? And one of service, so that's why I created my company, to be able to serve, just on a different battlefield. Now, I say, “I fly the mic.”

Kruse: You “fly the mic”? I like that. I like that. And what great goals for all of it, right? Like, an adventurous life and a life of service. I think if you do those two things, I mean, what more can we ask for, right?

Armour: Absolutely, and how do we help those around us improve and take their lives to the next level? Helping people, companies, organizations achieve their personal and professional goals, because if we're not doing that, why are we here?

Kruse: Right. Right. Now, I know you flew a lot of combat missions in Iraq, but in your speeches and in your book, you talk about one mission in particular in Jaffa, I think, that stands out for you. What happened on that mission?

Armour: Right. We were in the Jaff. We were taking out a building that was known to have munitions in it. We were out for a little over an hour. We got a call from the ground controller that said, “Hey, we have some Marines and soldiers pinned down north of the cemetery.” At that point, acid bomb exploded in my stomach. Why? Because we had been out for a little less than an hour, so we only … or a little more than an hour, so we only had 20 minutes of fuel left and one missile left on our aircraft, because we'd already been taking out that target.

But when your Marines and soldiers are in trouble, you answer the call. And now, this was a gutsy move, as well, because we just didn't have that much fuel, and the missile we had on board was known to be sometimes unreliable in close proximity to our troops. But again, Marine soldiers on the ground, in trouble, getting ready to go into hand to hand combat if we didn't come through. We fly up to the north of the cemetery. We're able to lock onto our troops, the squad that was down there. We started getting attacked from the enemy, circle around, pull the trigger. Missile doesn't come off. Reset. Pull the trigger.

And it was our last attack. Why? Because we did not have the fuel to come back around for a re-attack, so it was essential that it came off this time. Pull the trigger. Missile comes off. Takes out the target. We head back to base. Marines and soldiers come home that night. Absolutely amazing. You would think that's the end of the story, right?

Kruse: Right.

Armour: Several months after getting home from the deployment, I am at the military hospital for a routine doctor's appointment, standing in line, talking to the Marine in front of me. And when he found out I was a Cobra pilot … well, I asked him, “Why were you there?” He said he had some shrapnel in his left leg. I'm like, “Whoa, shrapnel? Were you recently deployed?” “Yes, ma'am, 11th MU.” I said, “Hey, I was on the 11th MU. I was your Cobra air support.” He said, “Oh, man, you fly Cobras? Man, I was in Iraq. We were in the cemetery. We were pinned down. A Cobra came in and shot a missile.” I'm thinking, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute. That sounds like the mission I was on.” Paired it up. Same mission, same aircraft, same missile.

Kruse: That's amazing.

Armour: And we started hooping and hollering, right? And we were not in the psych ward yet. And he just stopped and he stared at me, and he said, “Ma'am, you saved my life.” It was huge, and–

Kruse: –When you talk about … again, we started talking about … the Corps is so big. I mean, small compared to the other services, but it's so big. And then, what are the odds that you actually meet someone that you literally saved his life–

Armour: –Right.

Kruse: On that mission?

Armour: It's crazy. Well, this is even deeper, Kevin. I was speaking for an organization about a month ago, 5,500 people in the audience. Like, just huge, massive. And the gentleman comes to welcome me offstage right after my keynote, and he whispers in my ear and shows me this text message on his phone. And a woman in the audience was there with her husband. Her husband had to leave the convention center, walk out the doors, because he was actually a Marine in that squad.

Kruse: Oh, wow.

Armour: And they came backstage after I walked… I mean, crazy.

Kruse: Wow.

Armour: It is a small world, and just to know that the message and the lessons carry on, that one mission, one goal, one team. We're all in it together, and again, just helping each other along the way. That's what it's about. He came up to my book signing afterwards, and I turned around, and I just… I saw him. He wasn't standing in the line.

Kruse: Right.

Armour: He was just standing outside the rope, and we made eye contact, and I just knew that was him. And he just mouthed the words thank you, and well, he couldn't even really talk.

Kruse: Yeah, that's incredible.

Armour: Yeah.

Kruse: Now, I'm kind of surprised … again, not knowing about this stuff, I thought that the Cobra … Like, I would've thought a lot of your missions were doing close support for troops in combat. That wasn't the case at the time?

Armour: It was. That actually was one of our main missions, of supporting troops and close air support tasks, CAS, close air support.

Kruse: Okay.

Armour: Yes.

Kruse: I see. Yeah, yeah. And then, this one, though, your primary mission was taking out that other thing, and that's why you ended up with not a lot of fuel and only that one rocket?

Armour: Right, and we were taking out that target because it had a bunch of munitions and explosives in it. So missiles, rockets, land mines, C4…Everything they were using to create improvised explosive devices, IEDs, right?

Kruse: Right.

Armour: So when you think about traumatic brain injury, amputee, and unfortunately, loss of life… All my brothers and sisters didn't come back. We were vigorously trying to take out that target.

Kruse: Right. Now, this, for most of us, we clearly aren't going to encounter the things that you encountered as a pilot in our everyday careers. But what are some of the lessons that we can learn from what you learned in your more extreme work environment?

Armour: I want to give two main concepts that are the lessons that I really took away, right? So the first one is that magical phrase I got out in the desert. Before we could shoot our missiles or rockets or whatever, the ground controller would say, “You have permission to engage,” clear-cut. Well, here at home, there are no ground controllers in life. You are your ground controller. If you don't give yourself permission to engage, who will?

So how are you, are we giving ourselves permission every day to take action? And many times, we're needing to take action on what I call a gutsy move. What's a gutsy move? In your gut, you know it's right, and it takes guts to do it. It's more than just a risk, right?

Kruse: Right.

Armour: It's not a hazard risk. It's not just stepping off, right? But it's courageous, with courage, power, and grit. If there was no risk or fear involved, it wouldn't be courageous. It wouldn't be gutsy, and gutsy has that edge to it. Which takes me to gutsy leadership, and in this day and age of our companies, technology advancing things forward…Look at Kodak, right? When their folks developed the technology for the digital camera, and they said, “Nah, we're a film company.” When, really, they didn't get it. They were a memories company. We just saved our memories on film at the time. Gutsy move to move into a bleeding edge technology that wasn't even developed yet, and here, their whole empire is built on film, right?

Kruse: Right. Right.

Armour: Or Yahoo, or AOL, or any of the other companies we can look at in recent history that have been eclipsed by another company that made a gutsy move. But you've got to take action. It's not a gutsy thought. It's a gutsy move. Gutsy leadership. It's putting courage, power, and grit into action, period, end of story. And that is what we're asking our leaders to step up and do. In the military and then in aviation, we always say, “Complacency kills.” If you don't think that competitor or that enemy is coming after you and your market share, you have another thing coming. How are we stepping up, taking it to the next level every time? And it's a series of gutsy moves. Not just one, just like working out.

Kruse: Right.

Armour: Not just like a once a year plan. It doesn't work so well.

Kruse: LEADx listeners, this is at a great takeaway. As Vernice said, I mean, our challenge of the day, how we're going to get 1% better today, is to pause and think about, where do we need to take action? What is that thing we know in our gut that we should really be doing? Give ourselves permission to engage, and take that gutsy move. Vernice, thanks for coming on to the LEADx show.

Armour: Absolutely, and hopefully your folks can reach out, keep in touch with me. If I can help them at all with making their gutsy move, figuring that one thing they need to give themselves permission to do, social media, website, I look forward to being in touch with folks.

Kruse: Perfect. Thanks again, Vernice.

Armour: I appreciate it, Kevin. Thanks.

Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.

CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at