Leadership in the Air: The Fighter Pilot, Part I


The U.S. Air Force is in the midst of a crisis — and it’s not the much-publicized pilot retention problem. Divisions between the flying and non-flying communities have, in recent years, created a leadership crisis of sorts. There is a growing perception that the Air Force has shifted away from valuing operational leadership — the thing that allows all of its high-tech equipment (and battlefield airmen) to actually do what they do.

A lot happens between take-off and landing that a majority of airmen will never see. Historically, this realm of operational leadership has been poorly articulated, and often gets relegated to an infatuation with the equipment aviators operate or the outcomes they produce — the numbers of sorties, hours flown, and weapons employed.

It’s time to shed some light on how leadership in the air enables the outcomes that everyone in the Air Force sees. This exploration must start with the fighter pilot — not because the world revolves around them, but because that’s where flight leadership was born.

In the Beginning

“Four brave men who do not know each other will not dare attack a lion. Four less brave, but knowing each other well, sure of their reliability and consequently of mutual aid, will attack resolutely.” Col. Ardant du Picq, 19th century French Army officer and theorist

In an era when airplanes were made of canvas, wood, and wires, World War I rapidly advanced airpower, but at great cost. In the United States, for every 18 flying officers that completed training, one died in an airplane accident. Collectively, half of all pilots killed in the war died in training, not combat. Those who made it to the battle didn’t fare much better.

During the war, when airplanes of opposing sides were in the same piece of sky surveying the battlefield below, pilots began attacking each other — first by throwing rocks or bricks, then towing grappling hooks, tossing grenades, and even shooting their pistols. When these efforts failed, gentlemanly pilots often waved or saluted before returning to base. On April 1, 1915, French pilot Roland Garros took to the air in a plane outfitted with a forward-mounted machine gun, established the five-kill benchmark of an ace, and changed air warfare forever. The illusion of “knights of the air” was shattered, and war became the hell that it was for everyone else on the ground. For the rest of World War I, an Allied pilot life expectancy in combat averaged just 17.5 hours. This turmoil led to the creation of the squadron roll call, a tradition that prevails in air forces around the world today.

German pilots had some of the same beginnings, but quickly evolved. Luftwaffe ace Oswald Boelcke, considered the father of air tactics, was the first to develop what would later be known in combat aviation as mutual support. Seeing aircraft attrition rising to unsustainable levels, Boelcke realized that in order to increase survivability and lethality, groups of fighters would have to work together. By October 1916, his tactics had almost singlehandedly turned the tide of air superiority on the western front. He had successfully transformed air combat from individual acts of bravado and survival to highly capable warfighting teams. By the end of the year, the British had adopted formation flying and by 1918, everyone else in the war had, too. Flight leadership was born.

Whereas Allied squadrons relied on officers known as flight commanders to lead the men in the air, the smaller Luftwaffe squadrons were typically led by their squadron commander into battle. One of these Luftwaffe commanders provided one of most enduring symbols of flight leadership. This aviator, a student of Boelcke, was a young man named Manfred von Richthofen. When he was promoted to squadron commander at the age of 25, he did something that would make him a legend.

Remember that airplanes of the time lacked radios — they used colored flares, hand signals, wing rocks, and wing flashes to relay information and commands (the wing rocks and flashes are still used today). After thinking about how to better lead his wingmen in combat and ensure that his wingmen could always find him in the sky, Richthofen took the unusual step of having his entire aircraft painted bright red. Richthofen — more famously known as the Red Baron — would go on to become the leading ace of World War I. More importantly, his formations became lethal fighting teams, and many of the highest-scoring Luftwaffe aces came from his unit. Others adopted similar practices, often painting a distinctive tail for the leader to be easily seen. This symbol of flight leadership persists today on the commander’s aircraft tails in fighter squadrons in the U.S. Air Force (embossed lettering) and U.S. Navy (colorful tail decorations).

While many advances in airplanes happened during World War I, and flight leadership evolved at a similar pace, airpower did not determine the outcome of the war. During the interwar years, the Luftwaffe continued to mature and evolve its airpower and flight leadership, whereas the Allies arguably rested on their laurels. This would prove to be a deadly mistake.

In World War II, the stark contrast between the two sides’ flight leadership would be seen in the largest air war in history up to that time—the 1940 Battle of Britain. During the four-month battle, over 3,000 aircraft were shot down. Thanks to a home-field advantage, early warning radar, and command and control, the British ultimately won the battle. But, they learned a valuable lesson: Their flight leadership had languished.

In the interwar years, the Luftwaffe had embraced a new fighting formation called the Finger Four. This was made up of two pairs of aircraft working together, with one flight lead outranking the other. In battle, the Finger Four quickly proved superior to the British Vic formations, in which one flight lead had two (and often several more) wingmen. During the Battle of Britain, the Germans became well aware of the limitations of a single leader controlling several wingmen — they referred to the Vic formations as idiotenreihen (“rows of idiots”). The Finger Four was soon adopted by all Allies, and is still used in virtually all air forces in the world today.

While aggressiveness and precision were had in spades in World War II, they were no longer the sole determinants of a fighter pilot’s success. Mutual support driven by airmen leading interdependent teams had become a proven formula for combat effectiveness.

This idea of a mutually supportive team carried over to the Pacific, too. In 1941, the Navy’s front-line fighter was the F4F Wildcat. Initial intelligence reporting revealed the slower-turning Wildcat would be no match for the agile Japanese A6M Zero fighters the Americans would soon encounter. To overcome this, Lt. Cmdr. John “Jimmy” Thach developed what would become known as the Thach Weave. In a break from the prevailing norm, his tactic overwhelmingly relied on mutual support over individual aircraft performance or pilot capability. The Thach Weave used successive weaved turns between a flight lead and wingman that would always place the pursuing enemy aircraft within a gun solution to the un-engaged wingmen. It was first used in combat during the Battle of Midway in June 1942, where it proved to be an overwhelming success. After the technique shocked the Japanese over Guadalcanal, it was adopted by the Army Air Force.

Connecting Tactics to Leadership

Through two world wars, command in the air evolved as groups of airplanes transformed into highly effective teams. Some may call these tactics forged in battle, but that would be oversimplified.

On the ground, how a force is organized and equipped directly affects the way a leader is able to guide his team to shoot, move, and communicate. For example, the foundation of U.S. Marine Corps small unit leadership is a direct result of the fire team — a combat formation implemented during the crucible of combat in 1944. Today, this leadership ethos strongly influences the culture of the Marine Corps, and this resonates across all occupational specialties.

Much like the Marine Corps’ brand of leadership and its cultural links to the infantry, there is great value in the Air Force embracing the ethos of flight leadership. The attributes of effective flight leadership should be considered a fundamental part of the service’s DNA — as much as the “airman” namesake and the sky-blue uniforms.

Leadership, Not Technology

A generation of airmen seems to have forgotten a simple lesson from history: For a majority of its existence, the Air Force has not had a superior technological advantage in battle. Historically, the service has fought during periods of technological parity where victory was not preordained. It was leadership, not fancy equipment, that made the difference. And despite the promise of future technological game-changers, current trends indicate that future conflict will mirror the past. Technological advantages will ebb and flow, but leadership in conflict will endure.

While technology has slowly shifted the point of autonomy — from bullets to short-range infrared missiles, then to longer-range radar missiles, and now remotely operated aircraft — for our lifetimes the primary weapon of war will still be the human.

As British Field Marshal Archibald Wavell famously noted in World War II: “The more mechanical becomes the weapons with which we fight, the less mechanical must be the spirit which controls them.”

It is often said that leadership is more of an art than a science. I submit that flight leadership is an art enabled by science. And this applies to all fields of operational leadership in the Air Force — on land as well as in air, space, and cyberspace.

In the next installment, I’ll further examine the evolution of flight leadership by showing that fighter pilots are not infallible superheroes or zipper-suited sun gods, but ordinary people with a lineage of determination, courage, brilliance … and at times, stubbornness and outright stupidity.


Maj. Mike “Pako” Benitez is not a pilot, but serves as a fighter pilot performing duties as an F-15E Strike Eagle Weapons Systems Officer. He is a prior enlisted Marine and a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Lance Cheung