AQoL Oct 2020 | World War 2 Bombers That Did Not Return
At the height of World War 2 officers of the United States Air Force was grappling with a difficult problem. USAF bombers flying over Europe needed protection from flak and German fighter aircraft. The Allies did not have long-range fighters to provide escort support.
A simple solution was to armour plate vulnerable parts of the planes. But armour adds to the weight, makes planes less manoeuvrable, and planes consume more fuel. Armour had to be added optimally in places where they would keep bombers from going down.
The military analysed planes that had returned from bombing runs over Europe. They found 1.11 bullet holes per square foot around engines. Fuselage, wings and other parts had 1.73 to 1.8 bullet holes per square foot.
Some of them had been shot up so badly it was a wonder that they had flown back at all. USAF officers proposed armour plating parts of the fuselage and tail sections where the planes had suffered the most hits. Abraham Wald proposed engines be armoured instead.
Wald was born in 1902 to the Jewish family of a kosher baker. From a young age, he took a shine to mathematics. He studied the subject at the University of Vienna.
When Nazi Germany occupied Austria, he moved to the United States. He was a professor of mathematics at Columbia University. He was also a part of the US military’s Statistical Research Group (SRG) during the Second World War.
As a mathematician and decision theorist, Wald spent most of the war helping solve difficult problems to aid the US war effort. It was in this capacity he addressed the problem of armour plating bombers.
Planes that went down
USAF officers had assumed that the planes that had returned were a random sample of all the bombers that had flown over Europe. Wald argued they were not a representative sample. What about the planes that had been shot down? They may have suffered damage to critical areas such as the engine and crashed. He suggested that engines should be armoured. His recommendation was accepted and continued to be used through the Korean and Vietnam wars.
The human intuitive system quickly makes up coherent and plausible stories based on available information. We are often misled by the obvious and become susceptible to cognitive bias. Sound decision-making involves examining information that is available and looking for what is not. Wise and effective decisions are thoughtful. Owing to his expertise, Wald was able to help officers overcome their bias.
You would not normally consider it a story of leadership. But it is. The work of leadership is helping others make effective decisions. Great leaders value objectivity and pursue it.