By Len Vermillion
More Than Just the ‘Black Hawk Down’ Guy
You know Mike Durant as the pilot shot down and captured in Somalia in 1993, but did you know he’s now become an American business success story? He’s been named 2013 Vetrepreneur of the Year by the National Veteran Owned Business Association (NaVOBA) and Vetrepreneur magazine.
Mike Durant wanted back in the cockpit, and he wasn't about to let the Army tell him he couldn't fly anymore. Certainly, his injuries were very severe. He understood that fact. Hell, he couldn't even walk in the beginning, and he knew he’d have to start over – one foot in front of the other – but he was determined. So he decided how he’d show them he was ready to fly again. He’d run a marathon.
And that he did.
After getting his legs back under him, he endured 10 months of grueling training. And he showed them, all right. He even beat several guys from his unit. It took him only 3 hours and 37 minutes to finish the 26.2 miles. Not world class time, but certainly faster than the average runner. He’d come a long way, but at the finish line, he just wanted to get back in that cockpit and fly once again.
“I sent my race time with a request for a waiver up through the chain of command and it eventually got approved,” Durant recalls. “I got back in the cockpit and flew with my same unit for five more years.” It’s a remarkable feat for just about anyone who had been seriously wounded in combat.
But to know Mike Durant’s story (and you do) is to know that people can overcome the most disastrous of situations—the kind that nearly get you killed—and one day fly again. And before you know it, you’re soaring to even new heights in a position you never dreamed you’d be in.
WHY DOES THAT NAME RING A BELL?
You might recognize the name better in this context, “Mike Durant, we won’t leave you behind.” It is repeated over and over by an unnamed helicopter pilot in the movie “Black Hawk Down.” You see, CW4 Mike Durant was one of two Super Six-Four MH-60L Black Hawk pilots who were shot down over Mogadishu in October 1993. He survived but was severely injured in the crash. He was beaten by a mob on the streets of the city and endured 11 days of captivity by a Somali warlord. When a video of him – severely beaten – was released by his captors, he became the face of what would become perhaps the most infamous U.S. battle since the Vietnam War. It’s a horrifying image that has endured until today, particularly as we head into the 20th anniversary of the mission this fall.
But Mike Durant is also something more than the “Black Hawk Down” guy. He’s the quintessential American success story. Now 51 years old, he’s used his military experience and leadership skills to become a business leader as co-founder and president of Pinnacle Solutions Inc., an aviation simulation and training company based in Huntsville, Ala. His five-year-old company has already grown to annual revenues of more than $10 million and has come in at number 88 overall, and number six for government services, on the Inc. 500 list. His success is built upon that same perseverance and determination that got him through the helicopter crash and his captivity, the marathon, and back into a helicopter cockpit. And it has now brought him one more accomplishment. Mike Durant is our 2013 Vetrepreneur of the Year.
The roots of Durant’s perseverance and determination date back to long before he ever stepped foot on the African continent and subsequently became a national hero. As a teenager in Berlin, N.H., during the 1970s, Durant had already begun his fascination with flying. “I was exposed to aviation around 14 years old and just thought that was the greatest thing in the world,” he says. “I’d already thought that if there was somewhere I could do that as a profession, that’s what I would like to do.” His fascination grew out of family camping trips. “There was another family that camped at the same place with a fellow named Joe Brigham. He was a warrant officer pilot and he had his own aircraft,” Durant recalls. “I worked with him one summer and got to go flying. On that flight, the first time we went up in the helicopter, I realized that this is the greatest way to make a living that there can be.” He wanted to learn to fly and even though his family didn't have the kind of money it took to attend a flight school, he was still going to be a pilot. He’d find another way. “The best and most likely way I was going to make my way to the cockpit was to do it through the military,” he says. And even though he was initially told that he wouldn't be able to attend flight training immediately, he decided to join anyway. So instead of hovering in the air, he monitored airwaves. Instead of becoming a pilot, he became a Spanish Voice Intercept Operator stationed at the 470th Military Intelligence Group at Fort Clayton, Panama. He spent two years there but never gave up on his dream of flying. He applied for flight school and, eventually, was accepted.
It was 1983, as a E-5 SGT, Durant arrived at Fort Rucker, Ala., to finally get his wings. During flight school, he learned on the TH-55 trainer and UH-1 helicopters. And he was a natural. “I was fortunate that Black Hawks were fairly new and I was an honors graduate. There was one Black Hawk spot open and I got it,” he says.
He completed the UH-60 Black Hawk Aviators Qualification Course and was assigned to the 377th Medical Evacuation Company in Seoul, South Korea. “Even though I was a fairly young pilot, I was the first Black Hawk pilot to get to my unit in Korea,” Durant says. “I got to basically bring the new aircraft to life in Korea over the next couple of years.” And the flying was everything he imagined and more. “Helicopters are just fun to fly. They go into so many different missions and have such amazing capabilities,” he says. “It certainly lived up to my expectations.”
He liked it so much he decided to get into Special Operations in 1988. It was a decision that led to him flying with arguably some of the best aviators in the world. He flew in the Persian Gulf in Operation Prime Chance, where the mission was to stop the Iranians from mining the oil routes used by U.S.-flagged tankers. He also went back to Panama and took part in Operation Just Cause, which ultimately deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. In 1991 he was deployed to Operation Desert Storm and then in 1993, he ended up in Somalia.
OPERATION GOTHIC SERPENT
“There are things that aren't exactly right, but overall, it’s pretty much what happened,” Durant says of the account of the Battle of Mogadishu that most of us are privy to – the movie, “Black Hawk Down.” Durant has also detailed his experience as a POW for 11 days in his own best-selling book, “In the Company of Heroes.” Officially called Operation Gothic Serpent, the mission put U.S. Special Operations Forces, made up of U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force commandos, in Somalia to target and capture approximately 50 people associated with the militia of warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. The militia was creating famine in the country by seizing food supplies during the country’s civil war. “It was a lot like the operation in Iraq with the manhunt for Saddam Hussein and his sons,” Durant explains. “We had conducted a number of missions [in Mogadishu] and on the seventh mission we encountered heavy resistance.” All told, the Special Ops unit ended up with 19 dead, several wounded, and one captured. More than 1,000 Somalis died in the battle that was waged on the main thoroughfares of the country’s capitol. There were five aircraft shot down that day, including Durant’s. “Ours was the only one that was isolated and crashed basically in enemy territory so we were overrun,” Durant says. He and the small crew survived the crash and fought from the downed aircraft against the approaching and armed Somali mob, until help arrived. But they were on their own as no rescue was immediately available. Durant was the lone survivor of the gun battle on the ground until he received the only help he would get from two courageous snipers. “It was at my crash site where [Master Sergeant] Gary Gordon and [Sergeant First Class] Randy Shughart were killed. They were posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor,” Durant points out. Gordon and Shughart famously volunteered to be dropped into the fight on the ground to aid the crew. They attempted to secure the site while Durant, unable to move due to his injuries – he had a broken leg and broken back – fired away from his location on the right side of the aircraft. Gordon and Shughart initially held off the mob, killing 25, but they were soon overrun and died in action. “As I've always said it was one of the most courageous and selfless acts I've ever heard of or witnessed for sure,” Durant says of his fallen comrades. “They knew the odds were stacked against them and still volunteered to come in and help us. We were vastly outnumbered and despite their heroic actions, it didn't happen. They were willing to give their lives for guys they hardly knew. There’s no greater act than that.”
SOLVING THE PROBLEM
In times of adversity, there are two ways you can go. You can panic and give up or you can fall back on your training and calmly solve the problem.
When the rocket propelled grenade took the rear propeller off of Durant’s aircraft, the experienced pilot knew there was one course of action. He needed to get the helicopter to the ground and land it upright. There’s a much better chance of survival when landing on your “wheels.” It was another form of perseverance and determination for Durant that ultimately led to his survival. “I think most people with that much experience focus on solving the problem, and not what a terrible situation this is,” Durant says. “I try to compare it to getting a flat tire on the interstate. Your primary focus is getting the vehicle off the road. It’s not, is my insurance up to date or how am I going to get out of here?”
It wasn't until he regained consciousness on the ground and shook off the fog that he realized the enormity of the situation, he says. He says that the fight on the ground lasted about 15 minutes before he was captured. When he was left alone with the crowd he was faced with another test of his perseverance. “That’s probably the one time I thought I would surely die,” he admits. “They didn't have a reputation for being humane. I knew in the middle of an assault mission like that they were going to be fired up against us, and they were. Fortunately, someone realized I had value as a prisoner and stopped the mob.” Durant spent the next 11 days in captivity. He tells the story of his captivity in his book, but to summarize he harkens back to his childhood. “I used to watch “Hogan’s Heroes” (a comedy about WWII prisoners of war in Germany from the 1960s.) It was about as opposite of that in which you can possibly imagine,” he puts it. Or to put it another way, it was, in a word, brutal. He says he called upon what he could remember from survival school, “and in the end it all worked.”
INTO A NEW WORLD
Huntsville, Ala., is known to many as “The Rocket City,” primarily because it is home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. It is also home to the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command and Redstone Arsenal, two important pieces of the entire aerospace and aviation industry. After 22 years in the military, Mike Durant figured Huntsville was an ideal place to be in retirement. “I think anyone who transitions out of the military knows that it’s a big transition,” he says. Durant was comfortable with his life in the military, even though it once nearly cost him his life. He labored over his decision to retire and enter civilian life. “There were just a lot of unknowns,” he admits. “There’s help and assistance out there, but it’s certainly a big transition.“I decided to come to Huntsville because for a former military person, the job market is pretty good here,” he continues. “If you work hard and have basic skills, you can probably find a job here. So it seemed like a logical spot.”
As a master aviator, he figured the aviation industry in the city made it doubly attractive for him. And it didn't disappoint. Durant initially hooked up with a small company in Huntsville. “It was very similar to the Special Ops world,” he says. “Everyone had a lot of responsibility and autonomy.” However, he says that company was purchased by a larger business and Durant wasn't a fan of the large business culture he was suddenly in. “For the first time in my life I didn't like my job,” he admits. Always the problem-solver in tricky situations, he decided it was time to start his own company, and Pinnacle Solutions was born.
Pinnacle Solutions is now a growing part of the aviation industry. The company’s business falls into three buckets, according to Durant. Those buckets are: training systems development and modifications, engineering services and logistic support analysis and services.
The company initially focused on training systems, which Durant describes as everything computer-based training applications all the way up to flight simulators. The company’s engineering services entail sending engineers to customer sites to keep systems operational. The logistics business is primarily developing operator manuals for weapons to fixed-wing aircraft and everything in between. “Today, technical manuals are not what they were before,” Durant says. “It’s a single electronic repository.” Durant says the company has had steady growth from the start. He believes 2013 will be another big growth year. “ We've really hit our stride,” he says. “When you’re a company in DoD contracting, it’s hard to get started. It’s really based on relationships.” He says as a small company his networking was the most important aspect to getting the initial contracts. “Now we've reached the point where we have the infrastructure and record needed to pursue larger opportunities,” he says. “Sequestration aside, there’s business that still has to be done and customers are still going to go to companies who provide value.”
Pinnacle has done some prime contracting, but to this point has mostly been a sub-contractor. Durant says the company has reached the point where it is going more actively after prime contracts.
In addition to his work at Pinnacle Solutions, Durant does quite a bit of motivational speaking. He talks extensively about how those experiences from not only Somalia, but also all of his military experience, impact his success as a business executive today. “It comes down to, in particular, my experience in Special Operations,” he says. “It’s really set me up for the role I’m in now.”
Pinnacle now employs 72 workers. Durant says slightly more than half of the company employees are veterans. And he believes that the people within the company are one of the top reasons it has garnered so much success so quickly. The value of people is something he learned up close in Mogadishu and throughout his military career. “People make our military great. That’s what makes Special Operations great. I am a strong believer that it makes any organization great,” Durant says. “At Pinnacle, we focus on those people. We try to find great people. We’d rather leave a position unfilled versus filling it with the wrong person. Then we treat people right so we can retain them. I learned all of that in the military. I didn't know that before I joined. I didn't look at life in that lens, but after spending 22 years in the military, I saw great leaders and how effective organizations treat their people. That’s what we've applied here.”
He also points to leadership skills learned through the military that are also vital to success. “And that doesn't mean just me,” he points out. “That means leadership throughout the company. That’s something that’s very different about the military than companies out here in industry. In the military, you learn about leadership from day one. “In industry what happens is that people don’t know anything about leadership until they are in a leadership position, and then they are trained to be leaders,” he says. “I think people with a military background have a distinct advantage in that regard.”Durant’s company employs several engineers and other technicians that he says weren't in the military. As a company, Pinnacle has done its part to try to expose them to the same type of leadership training military employees got while serving.
Durant has been living and working in Huntsville for 12 years now. He says that locally, he’s “just Mike” to most people. “There’s no real association with Somalia unless I happen to meet someone I never have before,” he says. He admits that it sometimes tiring to be known as “the Black Hawk Down Guy,” but it is a part of American history now and he realizes that will always be a part of him. “Someday I’d like to be the ‘Pinnacle Solutions Guy,’” he says. Perhaps if his business keeps growing at the rate it is, he may one day be just that. Or, at least, more people will know him as just Mike.