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July 31, 2014

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Coaching skills honed in the cockpit carry over

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Steve Marcus

Jan O’Brien says she coaches 1,100 real estate agents at Prudential Americana Group to remain upbeat, despite the housing market collapse. Coaching proved a solid management tactic in her previous job — Black Hawk helicopter pilot and Army commander.

Jan O’Brien’s job is to keep the 1,100 Realtors under her management upbeat and passionate about their careers — a tall order these days, given that three out of four homes on the local market are in foreclosure. It helps that O’Brien found her hover button flying Army Black Hawk helicopters.

O’Brien is general manager of Prudential Americana Group, the big real estate outfit. She describes herself as more coach than administrator, charged with infusing the troops with enthusiasm and guiding them to reach their full potential.

It sounds kind of touchy-feely. But the style worked for her in her previous management job — as an Army officer. You don’t always tell enlisted warrant officers how to do their job when they might know more than you, she says. But yes, you can coach them.

Her eight-year Army career ended in 1992 when the Army was downsizing. She signed out as a captain and company commander and moved to Las Vegas to get into real estate.

And that would be the end of her career as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot.

She set her sights on that job after, as a University of Georgia freshman, she watched the movie “Private Benjamin.” The next day she walked into the ROTC office on campus. The Army picked up the balance of her college tab and she graduated with a degree in special education — and her pick of an Army specialty. She chose aviation, knowing that for all intents and purposes, the only thing the Army flew was helicopters.

“That was the most exciting and challenging and adventurous option,” she said. “And flying a helicopter sure sounded better than driving a truck.”

The Black Hawk is the Army’s utility helicopter, replacing the iconic Huey of the Vietnam War era. It carries personnel and materiel, and generally stays clear of combat.

O’Brien’s last Army assignment was running the company that maintained Black Hawks at Fort Ord in California. She was a test pilot: “My mechanics would fix ’em, and then I would take ’em out and fly ’em.”

Flying a helicopter is roughly similar to patting your head and rubbing your stomach — and dancing the waltz — at the same time.

“You have to manage three controls at one time,” she explains. “The stick between your legs with the grip on it, that’s the cyclic. It controls the rotor’s tilt so you can go forward, left and right.

“Then you’ve got the stick at your side. That’s the collective. It’s the throttle that powers the helicopter up and down.

“Then there are the pedals. They redirect the tail rotor so the tail moves to the left or the right when you’re hovering.

“So it takes coordination, to balance all three. You’ve got to have a feel for it. Some people call it seat-of-the-pants flying. The instructors, they call it ‘finding your hover button.’ It’s when you’re able to feel the controls and manage all three.”

So that’s today’s lesson in coping with life: Find your hover button.

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