It’s 1964, and the Cold War is in mid-flight. General Walter Campbell Sweeney Jnr, head of the US Tactical Air Command, has heard an alarming rumour. A new theory by one Mad Major John Boyd is making a joke out of the recently developed fleet. His theory claims that the new American F-111 aircraft are inferior to the soviet planes that they are fighting over the skies of Vietnam.
Understanding the risk of being court-martialled if his data is wrong, Boyd proceeds with his presentation to the General. As Boyd’s 20-minute slot grows into a two-day emergency meeting where he bats away critics the General is sweawting it.
The new theory stands, and his planes are inferior.
Boyd knows he has won the battle in the room. His tone changes. When the General finally gives in and asks him what to do with the new fleet, he answers,
“General, I’d pull the wings off, install benches in the bomb bay, paint the goddam thing yellow and turn it into a high-speed line taxi.”
John Boyd – Fighter Pilot
John Boyd was born into a Middle-class family in 1927 in Erie, Pennsylvania, but when his father passed away on his third birthday, the household finances deteriorated. Amid the Great Depression and with no income to support the 5-member household, his mother launched herself into action. She baked cakes, made cards and pursued any other form of monetised craft
to keep her household fed. She instilled into her children a philosophy of endurance and not letting other people define your value.
Over a 30-year career, John Boyd made remarkable contributions to the Air Force, the Marines and industries beyond the military. Some contributions were welcome; others were fiercely fought over. Robert Coram’s Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed The Art Of War is a brilliant read that thoroughly covers his achievements.
As a writer, I was most inspired by Boyd’s use of creative thinking to drive big change. This blog looks at a few of his tactics and stories that speak to the power of a creative approach to life.
There’s a whole world of people out there willing to tell you what you’re good at and what you’re not. Teachers, doctors, relatives, friends, some are even trying to help out, others not, but it takes an exceptional level of confidence to ignore it all. I was reminded of Michael Jordan in The Last Dance in Boyd’s habit of weaponising doubt and limitations others tried to put on him. Coram’s book gives two early incidents that seemed to have driven Boyd on throughout his life.
Both occurred at high school. The first involved a teacher telling him that he would never amount to anything more than becoming a salesman. Affronting on two counts – firstly, who was this teacher to decide Boyd’s future? And secondly, Boyd’s absent father was a salesman and his early death related to this role. To be condemned to this fate was not conceivable to Boyd.
The other was an IQ test when he was fifteen years old in which he scored a scathingly low 90. The school offered the chance to retake the test, but he refused; instead, he used it as a defensive shield in places like the Pentagon. He would pull out the IQ 90 card to make people relax and then present them with his ground-breaking theories.
The next time someone tries to make you doubt your capabilities think of John Boyd’s approach. Acting with creativity involves courage, and other people’s limitations can erode that courage.
Smashing Assumptions Apart
“You gotta challenge all assumptions. If you don’t, what is doctrine on day one becomes dogma forever after.”Coram, p285
Amongst the stories of Boyd smashing through assumptions are two huge pieces of work.
Fighter Weapons School Tactics Manual
After finishing his training at the renowned Fighter Weapon School (FWS), Boyd was approached to become an instructor- being asked to remain was a privilege that the school gave only to a few star pupils.
He agreed on the promise that he be allowed to tweak the school’s training manuals which were sorely lacking in air-to-air combat theory.
With the period’s focus being nuclear rather than aerial warfare, no one paid much attention to the fighter pilots. Bombers were the reigning fashion. When Boyd requested time off from instructing duties to finish the manual, an FWS colonel denied him.
But instead of shelving his mission to improve the fighter pilot experience, he dedicated evenings and weekends to the manual. He had already realised that his degree in economics could not help him with the strategy, and he enrolled in an Industrial Engineering degree.
When he finished his manual, it came in at 150 pages and was the labour of blood, sweat and sleepless nights. However, when Boyd proudly presented it to the Colonel, he waved it away, rejecting it in favour of a hastily constructed 15-page manual created internally.
Risking a severe dose of retribution, Boyd went over the Colonel’s head. He sent copies of the two manuals to the head of the tactical air command, who saw what was evident to Boyd that the in-house training document was severely inferior to the new manual. At first, the Colonel shouted and screamed at Boyd over the telephone. Then he stopped to read it and issued a prompt apology.
The tactics manual was an enormous hit with the senior leadership at the FWS and among the pilots who had never been able to engage with the complexity of aerial theory they considered detached from their flying experience.
When Boyd wrote the tactics manual, he had not completed his second degree in industrial engineering but armed with a new degree from one of the most demanding engineering institutions; he set his site on something entirely more ambitious. His quest was to understand the performance and capabilities of all US aircraft.
His first obstacle was access to computers. Experimenting with equations by hand would take him too long. Still, the only computer on the airbase was controlled by a civilian who was indignant at the thought of spending valuable computer resources on a Major.
Boyd carried on, only slightly discouraged. He would tell his theory to anyone who would listen. The implications were huge to those who understood the art of air-to-air combat. Then, finally, he met a collaborator, Tom Christie, who passionately believed in what Boyd was doing and had unlimited access to the computer time on the base.
With data at his disposal, he developed the Energy Manoeuvrability (E-M) theory, which was a new way of measuring the capability of an aircraft using specific energy rather than speed alone. When he proved the hypothesis, they realised that it worked for the entire fleet of US planes and on enemy craft.
This new way of measuring aircraft capability soon uncovered another discovery, this time worrying. Running his EM theory on soviet planes, it became apparent that they were superior to the US craft. This news was a bitter pill for Sweeney and those who believed in the might of the new F111 fleet and the superiority of their Air Force.
It was a long time coming from Boyd’s presentation to Sweeney in 1964 to using EM theory to design a fighter plane, but it was the beginning of a brand-new way of looking at the art of war.
Boyd’s ability to think creatively also helped those students who came underneath him. One such man was Ron Catton, a plucky first lieutenant with a burning desire to be a fighter pilot, the best fighter pilot. He had dreamed about this for his entire life, but a silly incident threatened to destroy this desire.
Enrolled at the FWS, he wanted to follow in Boyd’s footsteps and be invited back as an instructor after graduation. Still, after only two days at the Nellis base, he went on a bender with some buddies and was arrested for drunk driving. On his way into Las Vegas in his red corvette, he was approached by a police officer, and his indignant claims not to be drunk were discredited when he puked on the station floor.
Back on the base, disgraced and threatened with a court-martial if he were to have one more screwup, he was feeling very sorry for himself. His dreams of graduating from the FWS and being called back as an instructor were flying out the window.
He turned to Boyd for advice, delivering his predicament with an air of melancholy that must have stirred something within the old warrior. Boyd gave the situation some deep thought.
“No one has ever gone through this school with a perfect academic record. But if you do, you will get their attention. If you don’t, you can forget your dream.”Coram, p 108
This was no small feat; the FWS course was one of the toughest already in the Airforce. There was a good reason no one had graduated with the perfect academic record.
This quest and advice transformed Catton. He stopped drinking, hanging out with friends, visiting the bar and anything that didn’t involve his pursuit of academic perfection. A bond was forged between Boyd and Catton; the two men had a secret. No one else knew of Catton’s endeavour, just the master and his student.
Catton put in a superhuman effort, and the entire base was rockin’ with stories of the screwup Catton smashing his classes. Boyd watched with pride and admiration; Catton’s quest was a secret between the two of them. Catton’s final test drew a crowd of students and instructors who watched painstakingly as the Captain gave his grading. It was a near miss as the Captain misunderstood Catton’s answer but finally, with a silent crowd, he revised his mark.
With Boyd’s encouragement, Catton had achieved what no other fighter pilot had ever done. Coram’s book describes an emotional scene when Catton drops in to give Boyd the news.
“A fighter pilot doesn’t’ cry, especially if he has just become the first fighter pilot in history to ace every academic course at the Fighter Weapons School.”Coram, p112
To-Do Or To Be
“In life, there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be, or to do. Which way will you go?”Coram , P285
Boyd lived up to the speech he often gave to his colleagues at a crossroads. The cost of pursuing his ideas was promotion, recognition and hot air from a growing crowd of enemies.
I highly recommend you read the complete biography by Robert Coram. But for now, I hope you take inspiration from these thoughts:
- Boldly own your capabilities; don’t let others define you
- Always challenge assumptions
- Lead through creativity
- Do you want to do something or be someone?
Thanks for reading. If you’re interested in another real story, you might be interested in Lucie Aubrac: Refusal, Disobedience and Liberty.