Weight was the issue. The B-25B, carrying a full combat load, was just too heavy to takeoff from the deck of the USS Hornet.
While the nation was still reeling in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, Chief of Staff of the Army Air Force, assigned Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle to conduct a bombing mission on Tokyo to disrupt Japanese aggression and momentum and embolden the American public for the task ahead.
A seemingly impossible mission, as the United States had no aircraft with enough range to reach the Japanese home islands from any U.S. or allied nation’s runways.
The attack would have to be launched from the sea. However, carrier-based aircraft could only carry one or two small bombs each and had such short range that one of the U.S.’s precious few carriers would have to approach dangerously close to Japan, making it an easy target. The mission was seemingly over before it began.
Until the Airmen examined the problem from a unique perspective – perhaps a longer range B-25B bomber, never designed to launch from an aircraft carrier, could be stripped of enough excess weight to launch at sea, bomb the target and then fly on to friendly airfields in China.
On April 18, 1942 Doolittle’s Raiders did just that, launching off the deck of the Hornet, with wooden broomsticks in place of machine guns to save weight and extra fuel tanks to make the journey, and successfully completed their mission over Japan.
While bombers haven’t flown off a carrier since, the same spirit of innovation and trust in Airmen that made the Doolittle raid possible is still alive and well in today’s Air Force.
Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David Goldfein has challenged leaders across the force to take risks, trust their people and embrace failure as a way to learn and grow.
One unit, the 99th Reconnaissance Squadron, welcomed this idea with open arms.
“The path that we’re making for our new initiatives is actually modeled off the Doolittle Raider patch, and we actually look to that for inspiration,” said Capt. Syed, 99th RS reconnaissance systems officer. “They achieved something in a moment of national crisis, and really lifted morale and mood of the nation by doing something everybody thought was impossible, and what we’re trying to do in our little squadron with a few people, is to change the make up and the culture, so that when people come into work they’re happy, they feel empowered, and the leadership has enabled that.”
Syed saw a need in the aging U2 and T-38 airframes around him that could be met by using off-the-shelf products. One was a GPS-style aviation watch that would aid pilots and collect inflight data to help with training, tracking physiological aspects of the pilots and, in some instances, aid in safely returning an aircraft when mishaps occur.
“It wasn’t anything that I did, it was really what the culture and the environment of this organization allowed us to do,” Syed said. “We were able to go from thought to having it on our wrist in 100 days. And in other organizations of the Defense Department, I think that’s almost impossible.”
Discover the future: A simple but powerful charge put forth by Lt. Col. Matthew Nussbaum, 99th RS commander, has invigorated his squadron with the willingness and enthusiasm to seek out what is possible within the constraints of the DoD.
“There’s those that value initiative, mission command, execution, freedom of maneuver, but there’s a law of physics, so to speak, a law of humanity that bureaucracy grows. In the U.S. military, and the Air Force in particular, that bureaucracy has grown, and slowed us down,” said Nussbaum.
The culture of innovation being developed at the 99th is driving change, agility and initiative while disempowering the bureaucracy and putting the power of decision-making and freedom of maneuver back in its member’s hands, says Nussbaum.
In many ways, the 99th RS is similar to most Air Force squadrons, but what makes it stand out is its quest for information and learning.
“Knowledge is the key to everything,” said Maj. Ray, 99th RS pilot. “For us, in the case of being able to self resource and self heal, we’ve gotten into different areas to which we aren’t familiar like U.S. code, the defense, federal and Air Force acquisition regulation, and all these different entities, and what we’re discovering is that knowledge gives you the freedom to maneuver.”
Ray and Syed credit their leadership with giving them the leniency and the freedom to be able to try and experiment, discover, learn and learn about learning. This symbiotic leader-follower relationship has allowed the team to progress rapidly.
“It’s a dynamic instability, F-16s are agile airplanes because they’re inherently unstable,” Ray said. “We’re not trying to destabilize command and control of the organization, what we’re trying to do is effect that same command and control at the user level – at the level of those who are out fighting and defending their nation. To resource them, and allow them to resource themselves, in ways people previously did not think was possible.”
Freedom of maneuver isn’t without challenges, though. Some of the toughest challenges come from the individuals themselves and learning to work as a team.
Nussbaum cautions people who think the frozen middle is a place that exists in a certain group of people but instead that it is in all of us. A whole team approach is key to mission accomplishment and having the tolerance to let others try problem solving in their own way is vital. Allowing everyone to have a chance to participate and come up with solutions adds a sense of ownership and fun to the process.
Like Doolittle, the 99th and the Air Force face many challenges that require new approaches and open-mindedness. Untethering unit members to give freedom to explore all avenues of problem solving is a progressive way ahead and one the Air Force is taking seriously.