Lessons from Fighter Jet Pilots

What Fighter Pilots Can Teach You About Thriving At Work

Jonathan was the world’s youngest fighter pilot and would have turned professional but his mum told him to come in for tea…(this bit may not be entirely true…)

John Boyd’s work is a focus for much of the book. There’s so much great work that he did, I will be writing more about it here and in books 2 and 3. One area that I really wanted to include but was persuaded to cut by the editorial team was more about his work with fighter jets.

Boyd’s ideas on winning air battles were so good and so elemental that you can use the principles to help you win almost any conflict—any stressful situation. Boyd worked out that whilst speed was important, tempo (speed and direction) was more important. Also, the cost of making any change in tempo was crucial. In jets, this “cost” could be seen in a loss of energy and in an increase in fatigue in the pilot/machine.

In addition to choosing the right jet, Boyd argued (and proved) that you need to find ways to reduce the time your opponent has for effective decisions and also to impair your opponent’s thinking so that any decision made is both poor and slow. This effectively increases the time you have available to make your next move (or two moves to their one) and creates a favourable mismatch in time perception that impairs your opponent’s ability to shape or adapt to change and increases your chances of winning. To do this:

  1.  You must find a way to make fast movements or “fast transients” (change speed, direction, or altitude) faster than your opponent for less cost.
  2. Your actions need to appear ambiguous and they must be difficult to predict. This will then generate confusion and disorder in your opponent’s mind and inhibit their ability to adapt.
  3. The crucial piece is not your speed but the impact your actions have on the way your opponent uses the time they have. You can take longer to respond if your actions result in your opponent’s thinking descending into chaos.

As Boyd developed his theories about air combat and then combat, one series of data appeared to contradict them. The data in question were the relative kill rates in the Korean War between the US F-86 Sabre and the Korean/Russian MiG 15. On paper, both planes looked fairly similar. In fact, many experts suggested that the MiG was the better aircraft. However, for every one Sabre shot down, the Koreans lost 10 MiGs. At the time, this result was put down to superior training of US pilots even though intelligence suggested relative parity. Boyd insisted that anyone working with him should “do their homework[1]” and test their own ideas. Demonstrating a willingness to take his own advice, Boyd looked at the planes again.

Before we move on, take a look at these pictures of the F-86 and the MiG 15 taken at National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington DC.[2]  First the F-86 Sabre.

This is the MiG 15.

Boyd discovered that the F86 pilot had much greater visibility than the MiG pilot. The F-86 pilot sat up higher in a taller, wider “bubble canopy,” giving him all around visibility with the space under his jet as the only real blind spot.

The MiG 15 had a much smaller and narrower dome shaped canopy. Instead of seating the pilot up high, the Russian designers had placed them lower down and installed thick metal plates attempting to protect the pilot from gun fire. There was even a plate behind the seat—that’s the black oval shape that looks like the seat. This protection impaired all round visibility, so the pilot’s blind spots we more numerous and much larger. This was especially true from behind. In a time before onboard radar and cameras, this design often became a literal fatal flaw.   

On the Benefits of Being Fast, Sneaky, and Lethal

Many movies of the First World War and even the Second World War have fighter pilots as the last bastion of chivalry-the gentlemen sword fighters of the skies. Their world is actually one where being fast, lethal, and sneaky have disproportionate benefits. So a clearer, wider perspective was the first major advantage.  All this visibility created far more opportunities for the Sabre pilot to sneak up on his opponent. Attacking your opponent from their blind spots is the safest and fastest way for you to win. So greater observation helps you in an attacking and, in a defensive sense, as you can see them coming and they can’t see you at all.

What’s Your Visibility Like?

Thinking about your work for a moment, how much easier is it to deal with a threat if you can actually see it coming? If you hear a rumour of a potential reorganization or lost opportunity for you and your team, having a little time to prepare a defence can be immensely valuable. What about the value of superior market intelligence—perhaps hearing that a client is thinking of buying what you have to offer—gives you time to prepare and think about how best to approach them? So imagine the difference if you and your organization were embedded in your environment with reliable networks providing information on what was happening with customers and competitors whilst your competition had 1/3 of the perspective you had?

Boyd’s insights into superior information gathering and environmental connection are entirely consistent with the near obsessive focus on spies and ensuring accurate intelligence in the Sun Tzu. Both Boyd and the Sun Tzu were relentless about the need to understand what is going on around you—the opposite of how most of us simply observe to confirm previous understanding and how when we get stressed we tend to focus internally rather than on our external environment. You need to re-establish your connections with the external environment to understand what is really happening. Also, the best intelligence is the type that is most difficult to write down. If you are relying on spreadsheets to understand your markets, you need to get more subjective assessments from experienced colleagues. Changes can be seen long before they work through into the numbers if you are open to more conversations. Regardless of the promise of the latest IT systems, there is no substitute for going and seeing things for yourself and for trusting able leaders in the field. (The USMC’s Warfighting is a brilliant exponent of this.)

What Can You Do with Your Power?

So our Sabre pilot had an advantage of dramatically superior visibility. Was there anything else? Yes, Boyd found that even though the MIG was supposed to be faster on paper, the Sabre was much more agile and was able to maneuver much more effectively (i.e., it could apply its power much more dynamically). Straight line speed is far less important than an ability to turn and change direction quickly. This agility was largely because the F-86 had hydraulic controls (power steering for planes). The MIG had the old manual controls. Both could still be maneuvered but one could be done with finger tips and the other required a significant physical effort. Whereas the F-86 pilot could go from one move to another with no real exertion, the MiG pilot would become quickly fatigued and fall behind the moves of the F-86 pilot.

Boyd defined agility as the ability to get inside your opponent’s decision making cycle. I will come to that in a little while. It simply means that in a competitive environment (such as a dog fight, a sports match, or a competitive product launch), you seek to understand your opponents thought processes so well that you can figure out what they are thinking as they are thinking it. This allows you to disrupt that thought process with conflicting or confusing data or with a least expected action from you. Such surprise causes them to slow down or to make a catastrophic error you can then exploit. Between the Sabre and the MiG, this slight advantage per maneuver would build through a series of moves and then the F-86 pilot would effectively get a “free move” often causing a catastrophic result for the MiG pilot.

Lessons for Us–Perspective and Agility Are Key

So perspective and agility are key to success in the fastest moving environments on earth. What are the lessons for us in our less dangerous but still turbulent environment? The principles still apply—to be successful, perspective is critical. Keeping your head down may feel safer and even protect you from stray bullets (or angry CEOs!), but it won’t protect you from a concerted attack, which will be much more likely as your secure position makes it impossible to see what is coming. So to be successful in turbulent environments, you have to be willing to stick your head up to see what is going on. This approach will give you the most time to prepare for the challenges that are on the horizon, and it may even give you the ability to figure out how to avoid them altogether.

The second principle is agility—you must find ways to respond to stressor events more quickly and with less cost. How can you apply more effectively the speed and maneuverability you have? How can you minimize the cost of making one adaptation or innovation and still have the resources to make another and then another and then another?

Get Ahead of the Situation

For those of us without a clear opponent, the important thing is to get ahead of the situation so that you can start to shape it to your advantage. This insight is why you have been doing so much work on anticipation and preparation. In effect, you need to be able to do one thing in a way that makes the next activity easier. This is the only real way to master stress—tackle today’s stress in a way that makes you stronger and tomorrow easier.

Do Your Thinking in Advance

In actual conflict pausing to think about what is happening is usually severely punished, so you need to have done your thinking before the event so that it can be intuitive in the conflict situation. In business, it is extremely rare to have such a consequential situation. It may feel like your life is threatened and you may have stress levels to suggest that, but the threat is largely in your mind even if your body is paying for that delusion. So for us, it is important to be able to observe our thoughts and actions so that we can monitor and correct them as we go. It’s crucial that you can spot your mistakes before your competition does.

I hope this has given you some appreciation of where Boyd was coming from.



[1] Robert Coram, Boyd, The Fighter Pilot Who Changed The Art of War, Back Bay Books, New York, (2002)

[2] This is on permanent exhibit at the fantastic National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.  It’s a few miles from Washington Dulles International Airport. Well worth a visit if you get chance.