Innovation takes guts

  • Published
  • By Maj. Billy Pope, Jr.
  • 81st Communications Squadron
The innovators who pepper the history and culture of the U.S. Air Force bind us in a common heritage of boldness, exploration and ingenuity. 

When Lt. Col. James Doolittle led his fleet of B-25B bombers in the Pacific, for example, he accomplished far more than a glancing blow on mainland Japan.  He expanded that which could be accomplished through the air in war.  When Brig. Gen. Charles "Chuck" Yeager first stared down the airspeed indicator of his Bell X-1 as it surpassed Mach speed over the California desert, he could not have fathomed how far his sonic boom would travel through the course of flight test history. 

These Airmen understood that clinging to the status quo would only foster mediocrity.  By pushing the limits, seeking new and better solutions to tough problems, and asking hard questions, these men fastened our Air Force in for a rocket ascension to greatness. 

They are some of the Airmen that Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III refers to when he reminds us, "Innovation is what we're all about - we always have been."
Keesler is no stranger to airpower innovation. 

The base's own namesake, 2nd Lt. Samuel Keesler, was among the first group of daring Airmen to take flight in war.  The efforts of 2nd Lt. Keesler and those like him helped prove the importance of airpower, leading to the Air Force as we know it today.  Leading airpower pioneers have long been attracted to Keesler and its innovative mission set. 
Men like Maj. Gen. John Sutherland, Keesler's Technical Training Center commander from 1957-1959, crossed through Keesler's gates several times in his career as he shuttled innovative techniques out to America's battlefields and brought experiences back to the classroom. 
Yet, the real story of innovation in the Air Force requires we peel back one more layer and look into the mechanisms that allowed these iconic heroes to succeed.  The story of Lt. Gen. George Kenney and the Airmen assigned to the Pacific theater in World War II illustrate this point. Kenney was appointed as the commander of all air forces in the Pacific under Gen.  MacArthur.  Kenney was charged to integrate aircraft and air-mindedness into a theater that was completely consumed by land and sea forces. 

As the swift island-hopping campaign in the Pacific gained momentum, Kenney and his Airmen faced several technological and logistical challenges.  One issue was the large trucks used by American land forces that did not fit into transport aircraft. This slowed the Army's advance from island to island and presented a major strategic hurdle. 

Fortunately, Kenney was a leader who fostered a culture of innovation.  Airmen under his leadership had the freedom to push limits and expand possibilities.  Someone deep inside Kenney's organization - presumably a hard-charging noncommissioned officer or an eager company grade officer - concocted a plan to saw the trucks in half, fly them to their destinations, and weld them back together at the distant end. 

Undoubtedly, many people dismissed this absurd idea at first pass, but someone persisted...someone understood it was a viable option that could help the American forces succeed.

Real innovation comes from people who have the guts to share their wild, out-of-the box ideas, knowing they will face ridicule from naysayers. 

The unnamed person who suggested sawing a truck in half in the middle of a war because he knew this risky option was better than the alternatives had guts! 

The supervisor who took the idea up the chain of command for consideration had guts!  The leader who gave final approval, knowing the risks, but understanding that the status-quo was not good enough had guts! 

While we may celebrate the airpower pioneers whose legendary stories are written in history books, our culture of innovation is built on a foundation of Airmen who were courageous enough to innovate when others would not.

Today, the responsibility to innovate is yours.

Our 81st Training Wing leadership drives this point home through the "Ignite the Fire" campaign.  Our Air Force faces significant challenges in terms of manpower, funding, and strategic uncertainty. 

The status-quo is not good enough.  We need your crazy, creative and even absurd concepts.  Do not wait for good ideas to flow from the top of the chain, neatly packaged and ready for you to implement.  Every Airman is an expert in his or her own way, and every Airman has good ideas about how we can improve upon the multitude of pieces and parts that make our mission happen. 

Be that Airman who has the guts to recommend innovative ways to solve our pressing problems. 

Be that supervisor who dares to champion someone else's new concept in the face of resistance.  Be that leader who is willing to carefully calculate and accept risk where doing so can help our service succeed.  Best of all, be willing to collaborate across functional areas to spawn new ideas that only come from coordinated efforts.  All of these actions fuel a culture of innovation that will cement our place as the most powerful Air Force on earth.     
At some point, Lieutenant Keesler could have let another early pilot prove the usefulness of aircraft over the trenched battlefields of Verdun.  Doolittle could have passed off the responsibility for his daring mission to someone else.

Yeager could have stepped aside and let someone else cross into the unknown realm of supersonic flight.  Kenney could have told MacArthur that the trucks he needed so badly just could not get there in time. 

These leaders, along with the men and women who dared to innovate under their watch, showed that they had guts.  As our Air Force faces uncertainty and challenges in our own time, the opportunity to be boldly innovative rests squarely on us.