In 1982, offensive lineman Dave Schreck was coming to the end of his college football career. His team had gone 8-5 and beat Vanderbilt University in a bowl game. It was the first winning season in over ten years at the Air Force Academy and the team not only beat Army and Navy to win the coveted Commander in Chief’s trophy for the first time, but also scored their first victory ever over a ranked Notre Dame team. Schreck finished the year being inducted First Team All-WAC (Western Athletic Conference) selection—and was also one of ten players nationwide selected for a scholarship by the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame. He garnered these athletic and academic accolades not at some “football factory” school, but at The United States Air Force Academy. Now, that’s noteworthy.
His success both on—and off—the field at the Colorado Springs academy would open up a new world in a coming Air Force and corporate career for the young cadet who hailed from the quaint town of Coon Rapids, Iowa. “My goal was not to get out of small-town Iowa. I loved small-town life and where I grew up, but the Air Force Academy opened a new set of doors for me that I never knew existed. Looking back on the chain of events that started with my graduation from there just amazes me—the Air Force gave me so many opportunities,” Schreck says. “For example, I never dreamed I’d work in the White House, but the Air Force gave me that opportunity. I’ve traveled to all 50 states in my career, as well as over 25 countries. Up until age 17 my sphere of travel was limited to states adjacent to Iowa.”
For Schreck, his Air Force and corporate path has not only been well traveled in miles, but also simultaneously the road less traveled as not many travel through an elite academy to reach the rank of Colonel and top management in a top-tier aerospace corporation.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at the academy, Schreck obtained his master’s in that field at the University of Illinois. With those solid academic credentials, he was well prepared to serve as an engineer in missile warning systems and space operations for the first seven years of his Air Force career and then moved into military leadership roles. Schreck summarizes, “I was in command and control communications. I spent three years working in the White House, led a combat communications group during the 9/11 attacks, and finished up in a couple of headquarters roles in Space Command and Education & Training Command.”
He retired out of the military in 2005 and went to work at Rockwell Collins. Schreck started out his corporate career in strategy for the government-systems sector and moved from there to run the precision weapons business for four years. Then he took a job on the East Coast as site leader in the Rockwell Collins unmanned aerial systems (UAS) business, but returned to Cedar Rapids two years later to lead marketing, strategy and mergers and acquisitions for their government systems and international business. In 2016, Schreck was selected as the vice president general manager of airborne solutions, which transitioned to his current role as vice president general manager of military avionics and helicopters for Collins Aerospace (Rockwell Collins was acquired by United Technologies Corporation to form Collins Aerospace).
It may seem surprising that an officer from a predominantly fixed-wing military branch winds up in helicopters. However, Schreck confesses, “I’ve always found rotorcraft interesting; they beat the air into submission with a rotor blade. It’s amazing to takeoff vertically.” He’s also enamored with the utility and variety of missions undertaken by rotorcraft, and motivated by the challenge that breadth presents. “Just in the military sector alone, rotorcraft fly a wide range of utility and attack missions, moving large payloads, transporting troops, and bringing battlefield effects key to successful missions across all the armed services. In the civil sector, there’s not only corporate flight, but also paramilitary missions flown in law enforcement as well as air medical services. When you think about the rapid change in all these areas, it’s just an astronomical challenge to position yourself to do it very efficiently and effectively.”
It’s a challenge he believes Collins Aerospace is meeting. “I’ve been extremely impressed with our teams at Rockwell Collins, and now at Collins Aerospace, to meet these challenges. When I was in the Air Force, I was a consumer of these capabilities and didn’t really think about what it took to create what we were using. When I first came to Rockwell Collins and saw our engineering labs and manufacturing processes, it really dropped my jaw.”
No ‘I’ in Team
However, meeting that challenge requires more than engineering expertise, an innovative spirit, and state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities. It also takes the right mindset that Schreck has valued since his high school football days. “I always try to focus on teamwork. Everybody has a role to play. Everyone should know what their role is and how it fits in with the overall team mission. That mission is the priority and sometimes team members need to subordinate their own personal desires to focus on the greater team. My high school and college football coaches really drove teamwork into the core of how I work and interact with others.”
Schreck believes an essential ingredient for teamwork is effective communication. “I’ve known people who could walk into a conference room of 15 people and in 10 minutes have 14 of those people mad at them,” he says. “On the other hand, there are others who are much rarer, who walk into a room and win everybody over to work together and align on a common objective. When I look back on a great team leader, nine times out of 10, the trait that made them stand out was that they communicated effectively. Communication is key, both internally within a team and externally with our customers. Part of effective communication is listening to learn people’s needs.”
A Flexible Future
Schreck and Collins Aerospace are currently spending a lot of time trying to meet the U.S. military’s needs on what Schreck sees as his team’s biggest challenge and opportunity— the U.S. Armed Forces Future Vertical Lift program for the next generation of vertical-lift aircraft. It is rather an open-ended program that his business is participating in from an integrated flight-deck perspective. Schreck says, “Even the name ‘Vertical Lift’ hints at the size and scope of this generational opportunity, as the military didn’t want industry to be constrained to only rotary-wing concepts. It’s not just one program but a combination of several programs that really challenges how we think about vertical lift and meeting the warfighter’s challenges. It’s a suite of capabilities that require technical innovation from our teams in order to meet the needs and requirements of our customers in a very challenging environment. It’s an area in which I think our Collins team is exceptional. What’s really interesting is that the architecture we’re building, a ‘digital backbone’ if you will, creates an open environment designed to meet a rapidly changing threat environment with more timely and effective solutions.”
The military may have intentionally been flexible in its broad parameter of “vertical flight,” but Schreck keeps one clear, definite goal in mind. “In all of this we try to keep the pilot’s eyes up and out. We don’t want to just throw more and more data at the pilot and consume every last brain cell. The pilot will eventually become more of a mission commander and let the aircraft do a lot of the flying on its own by leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning. Today, we’ve got a lot of the technology that’s maturing rapidly, and in parallel we now we have to focus on the psychology of how we implement that technology safely.”
It is interesting to hear an electrical engineer, by-the-book military man whose decades-long career has been bolstered by hard data use a broad word like “psychology.” Yet, the more one listens to Schreck, one senses that he is also a multifaceted man whose interests lie beyond technological inputs and trajectories. This is reflected in one of his favored hobbies “I like to read autobiographies and biographies to learn about how people lead,” he reveals. “One I recently started is not exactly a new release; it’s The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.” A tried and true classic of a once young man who ventured from humble beginnings to travel in ever-expanding circles of distance and influence. It’s a story that the young man from Coon Rapids reprised and made his own—and it’s a good one.