Vernice “Fly Girl” Armour made history when she became the first black female pilot for the United States Marine Corps, and the nation’s first black female combat pilot.
Armour finished two tours in Iraq, and now runs a consulting firm and delivers motivational speeches. She is also the author of “Zero to Breakthrough - The 7-Step Battle-Tested Method for Accomplishing Goals That Matter.”
The Root DC recently spoke with Armour, who is based at Quantico in Stafford, Va. Among other things, her first choice to play her in a movie is Jada Pinkett Smith is her first choice for any future movies about her.
What made you decide to write the book and take this turn into motivational speaking?
Well, I’ve always enjoyed motivational speaking, even when I was a police officer doing Career Day, or as a Marine going back to schools. When I came back from my first tour of Iraq, I found out I’d become America’s first African-American female combat pilot. More folks started asking me to [speak to] their organization, and the message just started developing when people said “How did you create the breakthrough?” And so many folks wanted to create breakthroughs. They just didn’t know how. So I said, ‘I need to really share this information.’ But honestly my cousin who is a published author wanted me to write a book when I first got in the Marine Corps and became the Marine Corps’ first black female pilot. And I was like ‘Cuz, I haven’t done anything yet. Let me do something, and then let’s see about writing a book. And that was back in ‘99, ‘00. And Sept. 11 happened in ‘01, and I ended up going to two tours overseas, and standing on the Syrian border at 2:00 a.m. on a satellite phone - I said ‘Okay, I’m ready to do it.’
What is the main takeaway of your speeches?
If I could only say one thing in life is [have that] breakthrough mentality. And the definition of “breakthrough mentality” for me is refusing to settle, even in the smallest of moments, and demanding a breakthrough life, a breakthrough career, a breakthrough company if you’re an entrepreneur, a breakthrough relationship with your spouse or kids. But the biggest thing there is refusing to settle. People want to play it safe, so we tend to settle for less than what we really want, because we don’t want to risk what we have.
That’s really true.
And that’s deep when you think about it like that. And the second component which really ranks right next to that breakthrough mentality, is engagement. I tell folks ‘You have permission to engage.’ That’s the biggest thing I want to jump out at people. How many folks have you heard say “Oh, when I - when the kids get out the house and I get that promotion and you know, things slow down a little bit I’m gonna do this.’ But that, that time, never happens, and people just never give themselves permission to just go for it.
I think one idea that holds people back is that they are afraid of criticism.
That’s exactly right. And really, I don’t even call it criticism. I used to call it productive feedback and I still do, but that’s the second piece of it. The first is it’s all information. It’s just data. You don’t want an optimistic engineer building the bridge you’re gonna drive across. You want the pessimistic guy who’s going to say ‘You need more concrete, you need more steel.” And when you go back and look at your plans and say “Wow, I did need more concrete, didn’t need more steel,” you’ve now built a stronger bridge for all of us to drive across. But if you put up that block [saying] “I don’t want any criticism, this is my bridge and I’m building it how I want to,” there could have potentially been flaws. So, let people say things and fight people to say things and use that data and turn it in to productive feedback. That is going to help you build a stronger plan. And I don’t think - many people don’t look at it like that at all.
Growing up, both your father and stepfather were military pilots - what was your mom’s reaction to the fact that you wanted to pursue a similar career?
I like to say I gave my parents all their grey hair. I had no aspirations really on going into the military my whole life. So when I ended up getting involved in ROTC and the Army it was really a huge surprise to my family. And when I wanted to be a Marine, my stepdad, who was a Marine, did not want me to be a Marine at all. He [did] three tours in Vietnam. He was a crew chief on a 46, got shot down a couple times, but his chief concern was he didn’t want me being treated like he saw the women in the Marine Corps treated when he was in. And I said, “Dad, if I don’t do it, and things need to change, who will do it?” At some point someone has to. If not me, who? If not now, when?
I felt really strongly in that. I had three brothers, and [I] played in the trombone section and been around guys most of my life. I knew there would be tough days. I knew there would be hard days. I knew it wouldn’t be easy by any means. I also felt that I had what it took to make it work because I like being a team player. I like helping people. And when you work as a team you can do anything.
How did you mentally and physically prepare to fly these dangerous and adventurous missions?
Preparation and training. And the Marine Corps - a lot of folks will say it is the elite fighting unit of all the services. And that’s for a reason, because we train and train and train. And it’s just like football. When you get out there on the gridiron, by the time you are running those plays, the plays are muscle memory. When the hole closes up, you roll to the outside - you still take it to the end zone. The training just gives you a foundation to be able to adapt and be flexible in the midst of combat and to be able to make those decisions, those life and death decisions, in the blink of an eye.
How do you help someone get over the hurdle to assist them in pursing their dream?
Your “why” has to be big enough. Why do you want to do it? Are you doing it for yourself, or are you doing it for dad or family or peer pressure? It’s really the why. Once you get the why down, you’re in enough pain where you are, and usually that’s the breaking point for people.
Again, step number one, you always have to have it - create the flight plan. Where are you - where do you want to be? Number two, you mitigate the risk. That’s where you do that pre-flight and you look for all the data that can help you create a better plan. And when you get to step three, which is the takeoff, if you can imagine the shuttle, all the fuel it needs to get off the launchpad, what is the fuel that we need?
Whether it’s emotional fuel to stand the stress and pressure; monetary fuel to get our business off the ground; or to pay our bills, network, relationships, family support fuel to help us emotionally get through that hard time? And then you get into execution mode, when you’re navigating the minefield and the obstacles. And the obstacles are inevitably going to come up.
And you review, recharge, re-attack. There are only two ways to succeed: the first time, or again?
What is your favorite part of doing your motivational speaking?
You know, I don’t even look at it as motivational speaking. I don’t call myself a motivational speaker. I am really a personal trainer in the big gym of life.
It’s true! There’s all this equipment - you walk in, you’re overwhelmed, you want to work out, you wanna exercise, but oh my gosh - you’ve never been in a gym before. Where do you start?
And that’s really kind of like life. There are so many options - with a personal trainer who’ll find out what your specific goals are, and then show you how to navigate the different circuit training systems. Do you need a cardio class? And help you assess your needs, and get you a plan. But you have to do the push-ups. You can have the best plan in the world, but you have to do the push-ups.
Is there anything you have missed away from being a pilot?
I don’t even consider it time taken off. When I went into the military, it hadn’t been my childhood dream to be a pilot. I saw a black woman in a flight suit and I said “Hey, that looks exciting.”
When I was a college student and years later, after being a police officer, I said “You know what, I still remember that chick in the flight suit - I think I want to try that out.” And I knew it would be for the adventure, for the fun, and it wasn’t a 20 or 30 year career. I said whenever it was time for me to move on, I would know it. I would get a sign, and that’s what happened. And I said ‘Okay, I’m ready for that next step.’ And by then I had already really developed a passion - a huge passion - for speaking.
Are you planning to slow down anytime soon?
(Laughs) I will be running my company for the rest of my life. I am certifiably unemployable. But I don’t look at speaking as my job. The keynote - it’s way more than going out and speaking for Bank of America or Lockheed Martin. That is part of it. What is the purpose, the reason I’m doing this?
In the beginning, I did say ‘motivational speaking.’ Now, if I had to put a word on it, it would be business leadership or inspirational, because I want people to feel it on the inside and make an impact. I don’t want to just motivate someone and now they’re excited for two days. How do you get the fire lit on the inside, where someone can replenish themselves with their fire again and again and again?
...I’d like to leave it with a little quote: “Do what average people do, you’ll have what average people have.”
And I don’t want to be average, do you?
That’s what most people say! So what are we doing to break us out of the pack? My last line - You have -and my emphasis is on have - you have permission to engage, and once you make that choice, you’re cleared hot.
I left out my main point -
That’s okay, we’ve still got time -
That I want Jada Pinkett to play me in the movie!
Why Jada Pinkett?
She’s feisty. She’s hot. She’s smart, she is - what do you call it when somebody can just move with the flow - she’s dynamic, to say the least. It just feels like she could handle anything. Even if Will Smith was a drill sergeant or something. He would just clear any obstacle. I think her presence is just very cool - great role model.
Vernice “Fly Girl” Armour’s book is out now. She is scheduled to speak at the Global Woman Summit in Washington Oct. 8