Two-Star Admiral Kenneth AKA“Viper” Pettigrew asked Menlo College Students, “Do You Have the Right Stuff?”

Two-Star Admiral Kenneth AKA“Viper” Pettigrew asked Menlo College Students, “Do You Have the Right Stuff?”

“Do You Have the Right Stuff? was keynote speaker retired Admiral Pete Pettigrew’s topic at 2015 Menlo Connect Day. Pettigrew, a former Navy aviator, Vietnam war veteran, and Top Gun instructor, served as a technical advisor on the top grossing film “Top Gun.”

A Vietnam vet with over 375 combat missions, Admiral Pettigrew downed the top North Vietnamese fighter jet, the MIG-21, earned the Silver Star, the Joint Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit with Gold Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, and 33 other medals.

As a lieutenant commander, Pettigrew flew F-4J Phantoms with Navy Fighter Squadron 114 from the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk off North Vietnam. In 1972, he and his wingman engaged four North Vietnamese MIG-21 fighters. Low on fuel in a 90-second fight, he shot down one MIG, his leader got another, and both F-4s disengaged without an enemy shot fired.

“In the real world extraordinary things can come out of ordinary people,” he explained as he recalled the story behind “The Right Stuff,” which originated from a Tom Wolfe novel about naval aviators.

Admiral Pettigrew described one of the difficult decisions required of him in his service as a landing signal officer (LSO) on a warcraft carrier. As an LSO, he helped guide in the planes for landing on the ship. If he thought the plane was going to land poorly, the LSO had to “wave off” or get rid of the plane in order to save the ship.

In 1972, he was put to the test when a pilot with a wing on fire wanted to land the plane. The pilot was flying too fast and couldn’t extend the flaps on the plane to help it slow down for a safe landing on the ship. “There are times in your life when big decisions arise with little time to react to them,” he said. The plane had to crash into the sea, and the pilot managed to parachute to safety.

“The chain of command is a two-way street. The responsibility increases from the bottom up but the people at the top also have a responsibility to the people below them. The best way to learn leadership is to emulate good leaders and disregard poor ones,” he said.

In view of the troubles with Syria and the recent Paris attacks, he noted that he had “mixed emotions about boots on the ground” in Syria. He added that there was a difference between navy pilots he worked with in the 70s and now. “Pilots fly from ten naval carriers day and night, and although they still have the right stuff, they’re a different breed, having grown up with computers and technology.”

When asked what is the greatest life lesson he could share with Menlo students?

he replied “The doors are open in your life. Don’t be afraid to go through them. No decision is still a decision, so don’t be afraid you will fail. The more you succeed, the easier it will be to walk through a doorstep. Watch for the doors.”