John Posner
John Posner

In military terminology, weapons on an airplane — from bullets to bombs — are called “ordnance.” Use of those weapons is “employment.”

Throughout his 34-year Air Force career, fighter pilot John Posner employed ordnance.

“I think I was influenced like maybe a lot of kids in my generation by the space program and the first lunar landing,” said Posner, 57, who flew the majority of his combat missions out of Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Southern Watch.

That operation ran between 1991 — the end of the Gulf War — and 2003, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when the United Nations and NATO created no-fly zones over Iraq patrolled by pilots such as Posner.

“Saddam was sort of given an ultimatum: You cannot bother the Kurdish people in the north and some of the minority Muslims in the south,” Posner said.

During that time, Posner flew a F-15 Eagle fighter jet. If you’ve seen “Top Gun,” you are familiar with the basic look of the jet — Tom Cruise’s character flies an F-14.

Posner had 27 assignments in 34 years and spent more than 200 hours in combat. His career straddled eras; his first mission was defending U.S. and Canadian airspace against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and he finished his career in March 2014.

He was also a pilot instructor who spent 3½ years teaching a few classes annually, and a two-star general who spent 13½ years at or near the Pentagon on matters ranging from national-security policy to personnel and recruiting for the Air Force.

Now, the retired two-star general who once monitored activity from 50,000 feet will have the metaphorical 30,000-foot view as CEO of a Chicago law firm.

Combat runs in the family

On Aug. 3, 20 years after earning his J.D., Posner began his legal career as CEO of Harrison & Held LLP.

He will not practice.

Instead, he will pilot the 12-year-old firm.

“You want to do something that you know is worthy of your time,” Posner said, who earned his J.D. in 1995 at George Mason University School of Law in Virginia.

“Certainly I think this type of law is of great service to people in their times of need.”

Posner’s military background, which helped secure the position, comes from his parents, who met in Marseilles, France, after serving in World War II.

His father Jack was a combat pilot. His mother Geraldine, or Geri, was an Army nurse.

All five Posner children followed their parents’ paths. Posner’s sisters — two older, one younger — became combat nurses with older sister Jacqueline also becoming a lawyer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps.

Like Posner, younger brother Joe became an Air Force pilot. Joe flew alongside his brother in Operation Southern Watch, literally: He flew tanker missions, or “flying gas stations” as Posner calls them, which fly next to combat aircrafts in friendly airspace to provide fuel.

As a pilot instructor at Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas, Posner’s biggest challenge was simply getting students to relax.

“Flying is just three-dimensional driving,” he said.

“As soon as you can get a student comfortable with the fact that a vehicle can go not only forward and back but up and down, they became much more comfortable and could assimilate skills and knowledge much more quickly.”

“Top Gun” provides an accurate window into, well, a cockpit’s window, Posner said.

The 1986 megahit swapped Pentagon script-approval for discounted use of military aircrafts, giving it “a lot of good scenes from the pilot’s perspective,” Posner said, even if the storyline was “kind of Hollywood.”

The film worked — it grossed more than $350 million worldwide, tops that year, and led to an enrollment increase in the Navy.

It’s not the military’s only high-profile recruiting tool, though. About 1.7 million people in Chicago this weekend saw another.

Recruiting for the future

In the summer of 1989, during his two-year assignment flying with the Air Force’s Thunderbirds, Posner flew in Chicago’s Air & Water Show.

“Their big mission is recruiting — to let people see what the military can do and generate some interest among some of the younger folks in the audience,” Posner said.

“We’d talk to people who were entering the military and a huge majority would say, ‘Yeah, I remember when I saw the Thunderbirds or the Blue Angels and I was so impressed and from that experience I wanted to be a member of the Air Force.”

Though unable to catch the show this weekend, Posner watched the Blue Angels practice on Thursday and Friday.

“When you see what the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds do, they are choreographed maneuvers so they are close to the crowd, but those are all basic flight maneuvers — rolls, loops, hard turns, inverted flight,” he said.

“All that stuff is the stuff I would teach when I was back in Del Rio.”

The challenge specific to Chicago is that pilots do not have runways as an orientation landmarks. About 99 percent of Posner’s Thunderbird flying was done over land.

“And most of the places where you fly, you don’t have the Willis Tower in your way or a skyline like that,” he said, “so the combination of no runway, operating over water and then that fairly imposing skyline just to the west makes this a little bit more of a challenging venue for the air show folks.”

It’s also what makes Chicago a great place to perform. All the better for recruitment.

“You get a lot of good will and recruiting value from the demonstration team,” Posner said. “That’s the bulk of their mission. And with military folks, it’s all about missions.”

His new mission

Harrison & Held was at a crossroads.

The firm founded by Louis S. Harrison, Robert S. Held and partner Emily J. Kuo grew from a three-lawyer shop in 2003 to, as of today, with two more associates joining, a 53-attorney operation with nine practice areas. The firm’s primary focus is in trusts and estates.

The firm needed another leader, someone to bring a “fresh approach,” Harrison said.

“I really didn’t think that there were a lot of people out there to deal with lawyers and force them out of their status quo bias and force them to do things differently,” he said.

Held, the firm’s managing partner, viewed Posner’s resume and cover letter as so intriguing and “far out of the box” that he called Posner the moment he received it.

“General,” he recalls asking, “did we get this by mistake?”

No, Posner said.

After retiring, Posner wanted to explore something “completely different” than the standard career path of a retired general, namely defense consulting.

He learned about the opening at Harrison & Held and contacted the firm, which he called “nontraditional,” “edgy” and “pioneering.”

“An organization is an organization,” Posner said. “They were looking for someone with a unique set of skills — and I believe they found it in me — to work in a very unique law firm.”

Like Posner, Held served at the Cannon Air Force Base outside Clovis, N.M., and was a fighter pilot who flew F-111s. Though any comparison to Posner “would overstate my importance in the military.”

“My background really is nothing compared to the retired major general John Posner,” Held said, who described his eight-year military experience as “a mundane, classic one stint in the Air Force.”

All three men spoke enthusiastically about the addition.

“Every time you try something new, it may be a success or it may be a colossal failure,” Harrison said. “If it were easy to take risks, everybody would do it.”

Posner, he said, possesses the “patience and energy” to push the firm in new directions.

Like a fighter pilot entering enemy territory, you prepare yourself and then trust your training.

“It’s going to be very interesting,” Harrison said.