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Cover image for Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War by Robert Coram

Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War by Robert Coram

Sandor Dargo
Happy father. Principal Engineer. Author. Creator of dailycppinterview.com
Originally published at sandordargo.com ・7 min read

I found this book in the monthly reading list I receive from Ryan Holiday. I was not sure what the biography of a fighter pilot would offer to me, but the subtitle of the book is The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War. A fighter pilot, who made a difference way beyond his field. That must be interesting. I cannot express with words how fascinating his story is. If I just think about this book, I feel thrilled deep in my bones.

I have read many good books, but I feel that this one have a deep impact on my life, on my work.

Tragical family life

There is some tragedy in this book, in Boyd's life. He came from a family of 5 children. They were not poor when he was born in 1927, in Erie, Pennsylvania. Sadly, Boyd's father passed away early and that left them in serious trouble.

I don't want to list all the ill conditions that he encountered among his siblings or later his children, I only want to mention one dreadful illness, polio.

We are so lucky.

We are so lucky to have modern medicine, to have vaccines and we don't have to worry about such terrible illnesses as polio. Of course, there are still many terrible conditions, but there are so many which are either curable or preventable with a damn vaccine.

Boyd's life also cannot be put into context without the effects of polio. Obviously, having a sister with polio affected him deeply. But having his first-born son catching polio changed his life even more as he based some of his career moves based the vicinity of treatment for his son.

Now you might think that Colonel John Boyd must have been a great father, but that's the complete opposite of the truth.

He achieved so much in his life, he was probably the best fighter pilot at least of his era, but arguably the one with the biggest effects of all time. He fought the bureaucracy of the Air Force, of the Pentagon, changed the science of aviation, he contributed so much to the F15 and even more to the F16 and even to the F18. Oh and he even contributed to how to fight a war in general. The Marines can also thank him a lot, and we haven't mentioned that the extremely effective strategy of Operation Desert Storm was coming from him as Dick Cheney relied on him, the retired strategist. The Desert Storm had one failure, right at the point where a certain general didn't dare to do what was requested. Anyways.

At the same time, Boyd was a terrible father who didn't care enough. The Washington DC apartment where they spent more than 2 decades was close to the Pentagon, but it was small and the neighbourhood was degrading. Once, Boyd was promoted to colonel, they would have had the money, but he didn't care to move his family to a better place. He was called the Ghetto Colonel.

Once he retired from the Air Force, they didn't have much money, but that's only because Boyd worked for free, he gave lectures all around the states only for the travel costs, but he often forgot to cash in the checks.

On his deathbed, he was barely talking about his family, but mostly about his colleagues.

No big surprise that when his time was approaching his family couldn't get prepared for the 15-minute drive to the hospital. He spent his last hours with her favourite daughter Mary Ellen. Of course, he said on his deathbed that he loved her, he loved his children. It was not that much welcome.

Use it as a memento.

If you express your feelings only on your deathbed, it is way too late.

Boyd and his heritage

Many people with great effects on history were such bad parents. Boyd is one of them. Now let's talk about how he changed the world.

After the Korean War, he was invited to attend the Fighter Weapon School in Nellis and then he stayed there as an instructor. He got the nickname "40 second Boyd". He said that anyone could start a dogfight from his six and in 40 seconds they would be hosed. Many tried, nobody succeeded.

There he wrote the first air fighter tactics manual which became The Bible of the fighters. Later he developed some new theories called the Energy–maneuverability theory which first helped to work out tactics against - superior - enemy aircrafts and later to design new ones. Boyd had great influence over the design of F15, F16 and F18 aircrafts.

He never stopped researching, there was always something on his mind.

Rubber ducks

What never changed was his late-night or even early-morning (for him, very late night) phone calls. He had an idea, a "breakthrough" and he called his "Acolytes", his faithful followers - no matter when. Probably he didn't even realize it was 1 AM or even 4 AM. Or he just didn't care.

These late-night phone calls were often not discussions, but monologues. He shared his thoughts, he listened to himself and then he found the missing points and went on working. Essentially he used the others as his rubber ducks. Is that familiar to you?

We explain to our peers our coding problems, concerns, possible solutions and one in the middle, or maybe right after, we have the "aha!" moment. While we might think we seek help, but in reality, we just want to synthesize our thoughts.

Probably that's what Boyd was looking for as well.

The difference is that his thoughts were more revolutionary than those of an average software developer.

Apropos, software development...

Boyd and Scrum

Recently I wrote a book review about Jeff Sutherland's Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time.

He wrote about the OODA loop, a principle of 4 elements:

  • Observe
  • Orient
  • Decide
  • Act

So no, it's not about Object-Oriented Design Applications.

Sutherland learned about the loop in the army as a fighter pilot and he considers it saved his life. It's basically the blueprint of our decision-making process. It was taught for making time-sensitive decisions when both time and information are scarce. The idea is that you try to get inside the decision loop of your opponents and you became the one who leads the events so that you disrupt their decision cycle.

The technique is now also widely used in the business world.

In Scrum.

And guess what. The OODA loop was developed by Colonel John Boyd. We'll learn more about it in the coming weeks.

Schwerpunkt

A little detour, before I explain the above German word.

As I mentioned, after his retirement he also worked with the marines and with the army so that they can rebuild their doctrines. During the first half of the 80s, he frequently met a certain general from the Army, Brigadier General Huba Wass de Czege.

When I read his name, I was astonished.

I was staring at the name and said, it cannot be a coincidence. And it is not. He is considered a highly innovative thinker, a military strategist. When the US Army tried to redefine its goals and strategies, at the beginning of the 80s, he was working on the new doctrines. And he is indeed the son of the important 20th-century Hungarian author, Albert Wass.

His story confirms that having the right upbringing is more important than being rich. While this general was born into a rich family, they clearly lost everything. Their wealth, their home, their country, their mountains, yet with grit and the right education the family survived and has served their new home with pride.

So, the last item, the last concept, I wanted to mention from [the book] is schwerpunkt.

Schwerpunkt is something known and used in the German army since the 19th century in order to make the right decisions regarding priorities. It's an expression that is difficult to translate, one might call it the centre of gravity, the focal point, or the point of main effort.

It's about knowing what is the most important for an organization, an army, at a given point in time and why that is the most important. Each and every unit must keep that in their mind and support that point of main effort.

If you think about the overwhelming efficiency of blitzkrieg, the schwerpunkt was to concentrate on one point of the enemy frontline, instead of battling the whole enemy. All the units knew what their goal was, where they had to break through the lines and then surround the enemy.

If an organization has a schwerpunkt, it can make a huge difference. Instead of taking one step into a hundred directions and reaching nowhere, the organization can make those hundred steps into one direction and attain great success.

This is not only true for organizations, but also for individuals. Furthermore, it's not only valid for big strategic goals, but also for tactical ones.

Knowing your most important goal at a time and concentrate your resources on that can make the difference between average and success.

It's not a coincidence that Peter Drucker said that if you have more than 5 goals at a time, you have none.

It's not a coincidence that Benjamin P Hardy doesn't suggest having long to-do lists, but to set no more than 3 goals for a day, for a week or a quarter.

You have to know where you want to go and you cannot go everywhere.

Know your schwerpunkt and become unstoppable.

Conclusion

Boyd kept telling his associates that one has to choose between being someone and doing something. It was his famous "to be or to do" speech. He never became a general, but his results, his legacy are still with us, not even in the military but in the business world too.

He clearly decided to do.

He could have been court-martialed at least a dozen times, he was threatened to be fired, to be relocated, yet he had ever-lasting effects fighter tactics, aeroplane design, military and even business strategy.

I got highly interested in some of his concepts, so you'll read about his name in the future on this blog.

A highly recommended read!

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