Basic Airman to General by Pete Piotrowski

It’s not easy to become a four-star Air Force general, especially if you start as a basic airman. But Pete Piotrowski did it while giving thirty-seven years and eight months of his life to military service. Anyone who aspires to wearing even one star—or simply to becoming a better leader—should read Basic Airman to General: The Secret War & Other Conflicts: Lessons in Leadership and Life (Xlibris, 717 pp.$26.99, hardcover; $14.95, paper) by General Pete.

The book is a chronological account of the author’s life. The General concludes each chapter with a short list of “Lessons Learned.” (He also provides photos at the end of most chapters.)

The advice reflects many principles taught at Maxwell Air Force Base’s Air University and other advanced military schools in the United States and England—places where Pete Piotrowski studied, along with Harvard. Fundamentally, he writes, “life is a continuum of learning,” and “higher education is essential in the professions.”

That, however, is not the primary message I gleaned from the book. As I see it, General Pete’s secret to success was threefold. He put Air Force needs first in his life. When he saw a problem, he solved it. And he fought for what was best, even if a new way contradicted “how we’ve always done it.”

Along with following those three active attributes, the General practiced an important passive one: He suffered the idiosyncrasies of fools who outranked him. Which leads to the conclusion: “If you won’t follow, you can’t lead.”

General “Pete”

General Pete served in the Air Force from 1952-1990. I served from 1955-1976. I was awed by how perfectly his book captured USAF practices and manners of the late 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, the time period when our services overlapped. For old readers, the book is a walk down memory lane; for young people, it teaches a history lesson about the pre all-volunteer military.

The book’s first half centers on Captain and Major Pete. As a pilot and munitions officer, he became the First Combat Application Group commander’s go-to-guy in the Jungle Jim program. For three years, he labored over the nuts and bolts of armament and aircraft performance, made two trips to Vietnam, and flew B-26 combat missions that turned theory to practice.

In a follow-on assignment with the Fighter Weapons School, he innovated Walleye delivery tactics that he later validated by busting North Vietnamese bridges. This portion of the book contains a wealth of excellent flying stories.

Following a tour at the Pentagon and below-the-zone promotions, Colonel Pete became commander of the 40th TFG at Aviano. In a down-to-earth style, he explains mistakes he made—and success he achieved—as a rookie commander.

From there, the book focuses on his ever-expanding responsibilities and earth-bound duties. Another below-the-zone promotion started him on fifteen years as a general officer, culminating with Commander in Chief at NORAD and USSPACECOM.

General Pete’s recall of people and actions from long ago is virtually limitless. He must have kept a copy of every piece of paper that crossed his desk. Memory alone seems inadequate to explain the depth of recollections. But his stories are fascinating. And he writes like a pro.

—Henry Zeybel