Chris Hirst: What leaders can learn from a real-life Top Gun

Colonel John Boyd showed that it's not enough to be fast, you have to be faster than your competitors.

by Chris Hirst

In 1953, then second lieutenant John Boyd completed an unremarkable tour of duty for the US Air Force in Korea. On his return Boyd was invited to attend the US Air Force’s Fighter Weapons School where he graduated top of his class. 

He stayed on as an instructor and rapidly earned the nickname Forty Second Boyd. His party piece was to challenge all comers that he could meet them in aerial combat from a starting position of disadvantage (for example at a far lower altitude) and defeat them in under 40 seconds. The equivalent of a boxer offering to fight with one hand tied behind their back. Boyd always won. Forty seconds is less time than it will take you to read the first three paragraphs of this article. He was a real-life Top Gun. 

Aviation history is dotted with charismatic individuals like Boyd; those who were somehow just that bit better than the others. Perhaps the best known of these is the Red Baron, the German flying ace Baron Manfred von Richthofen so named for his characteristic scarlet painted aircraft. The highest scoring ace of the First World War, he remains a semi-fabled figure even today. Although he is now perhaps best known as Snoopy’s imaginary foe in the Peanuts comic strips. 

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