During my conversation with Israeli pilot and war veteran turned entrepreneur Kobi Regev, I suggested that he make a specific addition to the lessons and methodology that he and his team impart at The Squadron. But I’ll come back to that in a minute.
The Squadron is a popular destination for companies looking to improve workplace culture and communication through a series of workshops based on lessons that Kobi learned from decades in the Israeli Air Force. Both of The Squadron’s locations are equipped with high-end flight simulators, which are the heart of the workshops, but in some ways, only the beginning.
The Squadron’s training sessions teach participants how to continually learn, evolve and excel. Through a series of F-16 and F-35 flights and debriefings, participants learn how to identify solutions and apply lessons quickly and successfully. The experience is unique, as well as productive. In fact, many companies become repeat customers.
Although I have yet to experience The Squadron for myself, I told Kobi that something important is missing from his workshops: his personal background, especially how he started his business career at age 50. That, I said, is something that must be shared.
A key element for change is recognizing that it’s never too late to begin again. Too often, we limit ourselves by focusing on our past failures or a seemingly bleak future. Kobi’s strongest lesson is the example he set personally—that you can begin again and be successful.
We discussed the intricacies of his career in the air force as well as some of the lessons taught at The Squadron. For example, you might soon be implementing debriefings in your work life. The lessons here are meaningful ones. Enjoy! -Nesanel
I was born in Haifa, Israel. I had terrific parents; they both came from Iraq and worked very hard. My mother was an accountant and my father worked in a factory that dug for rare jewels and other valuable materials. He managed one of the largest departments in the factory.
“We were traditional Jews—we celebrated Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, we fasted on the major fast days, lit Chanukah candles, went to synagogue, and had bar and bat mitzvahs. I am the middle child and I have two sisters.
“Unfortunately, my father passed away six years ago in a car accident. He was crossing the street when he got hit by a car. He was in great shape, and losing him that way was a shock. My mother is 85 years old, and she’s still in great shape too. My paternal grandmother passed away at the age of 105, so we have very good genes.
“I had a great childhood. In the fifth grade, I started playing classical piano, and I became one of Israel’s top ten pianists. I was part of a band, and we would travel all around to play. I played the piano until I joined the air force. Music is still a very important part of my life. In fact, we have pianos in both of The Squadron facilities.
“The world of music is totally different from the world of a fighter pilot. As a pilot, you have to be very precise. Feelings can interrupt your thoughts, so you have to be hyper-focused on the mission and the objectives. But with music, you can touch people through the emotions that you create when you play. In fact, that is what makes a good pianist—the ability to have emotion and reflect those feelings to your audience. What music and flying have in common is that you have to be highly professional. You have to work very hard because talent is not enough.
“When I was young, I went to a high-end private school in Haifa. When I graduated, I enlisted in the Israeli Air Force, where I spent the first two years immersed in intense courses. Back then, 34 years ago, the most difficult thing was the process of the course. It had an effect on our mental health. We were screened each day, and if someone was not good enough, they were kicked out. Today, it is not like that. If you are not good enough, the instructor gets part of the blame for not teaching well enough. But back then, things were different.
“I saw many of my friends fail, day after day. There were a lot of ground exercises that were highly difficult. They would throw us in the desert for four days and tell us where we needed to end up. They would say, ‘Good luck, we hope nobody catches you on the way.’ We would run and hide, and just try to make it through. They would put us in extreme environments and then watch to see if we could still think and plan to execute missions while dealing with those kinds of elements.
“At the first training, there were about 15,000 students. After the first two weeks of ground exercises, we were down to 1,000. When we started the flight course, we were down to 200 people, and when we finished, there were only eight fighter pilots left.
“Two months after I started flight school, they put me on my first plane. It was a Piper, which is a very small aircraft. Three months later, I started the intense, massive training. We flew hundreds of times on a very strong jet engine called a Tzukit. This was in 1987.
“We had 15 flights with instructors, and the rest were solo flights. I remember the first two being a disaster—I thought they were going to throw me out. Until I finished the screening, I always felt like I wasn’t doing well. I was really hard on myself because I didn’t know what to expect or what was considered a good level to be at.
“A few years after you finish the flight course, they let you look at your scores from when you began. I was very surprised to see that I had high scores. During the training, I felt like I was constantly on the verge of being kicked out of the program.
“I retired six years ago, after 32 years in the Israeli Air Force. During those years, I flew mostly F-16s. A lot of the flights I flew were operational missions. I commanded two F-16 squadrons, mostly from the front-flying squadron. I flew an F-16 about 4,500 times in total. My last flight was about a year and a half ago. In Israel, pilots only stop flying F-16s when the body says enough. In the US, pilots usually stop flying between the ages of 32 and 36, and the average F-16 pilot around the world flies between 800 and 1,000 flights.
“The body is at its peak at the age of 30. Then we begin to slowly decline. When you are in an extreme environment, you feel these cognitive issues more intensely. But after the age of 30, you gain so much experience as a fighter pilot. As a leader, you have a lot of experience on the battlefield. You do a lot of secret missions, whether they are big or small. This experience gives you an edge. The decline of your physical ability is less important than the experience you gain.
“Finishing the basic flight course was a peak milestone in my life. I was able to overcome something that was considered impossible. It gave me a lot of confidence in my abilities, who I was, and how far I could go. I learned how to do the basic element of flying in combat. I wasn’t operational yet because I was only flying the basic aircraft. They still didn’t allow us to do anything but practice. It takes another two years of practice for cadets to gain the confidence and professionalism necessary for the army to be able to count on them to carry out missions. So in all, it takes four years before a pilot receives his first operational mission.
“Of the eight of us who completed the training, we all stayed on for at least another eight years. Five pilots stayed until at least the age of 40, some even to 40-plus, and the other three stayed until they were 35. The army expects pilots to stay for at least six years; it is a very strong commitment.
“From year two to year four, the new pilot is the youngest in his squadron, and he flies a lot—two to four times a day—because he needs the experience in order to become operational. They expect each pilot to be at a high level of performance every day. Although the intense training period is necessary, it is also frustrating because the operational pilots are going out on missions while the relatively new pilot is still doing exercise flights.
“By the way, in the US, the training period is only three years. Our training is longer because they put us in the most difficult situations a pilot can encounter in the Middle East. It’s an intense region, and we have to be prepared.
“I finished my army service when I was 24 years old, and I chose to stay to serve on missions. The Air Force wanted me to stay long term. There were some benefits, and they promised me that I would become a deputy squadron commander very quickly. It was very tempting, even though my dream was still to become a pianist. I decided to sign up for several more years.
“They sent me to do half a year on the Israeli aerobatic team. They wanted their best pilots there because it was very difficult work. I continued to fly the F-16, but for three days out of the week, I flew with the team. Then I became a deputy squadron commander.
“Money was not really a factor in choosing my career. I wanted to feel fulfilled, and I wanted to do something unique. Sure, I could go into business, but to be a deputy squadron commander was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I wasn’t thinking about it from a financial perspective. Even today, my thought process is not ‘How much money will I get from what I am doing right now?’