30 June 2009

Letter from Karachi, 1942

My recent research at the Air Force Institute of Technology brought me to the archives of the USAF Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB. The archive is located in a warehouse, straight out of an Indiana Jones movie.

One of my favorite discoveries during my hours in the archives is a letter from one Col. Homer L. Sanders, Commander of the 51st Fighter Group at Karachi Air Base. It's dated 26 Aug 1942.

The subject of the letter is simply "Fighter Airplanes," and in this letter, Col Sanders asks the Commanding General of US Army Air Forces in India and China to send him a new plane called the P-51 Mustang to replace the P-40's his squadrons are currently flying.

He writes: "It is an extremely simple airplane and has such perfect handling qualities as to put a smile of joy on the face of any fighter pilot." He goes on to write "It is requested that this Group be equipped with P-51 airplanes as expeditiously as possible. The P-51 is requested in preference to P-47 because of its smaller size, ease of maintenance, economy of operation, range, and because many of the accessories for it are already available in this area... engines, guns, radios, instruments, and many other parts are the same as those used on P-40..."

The P-51 is famous for its simplicity, speed of production, low cost and, most importantly, complete dominance of the air. It's a great example of the FIST (Fast, Inexpensive, Simple, Tiny) approach in action. Given the P-51's epic effectiveness, I wonder why we have not insisted that subsequent aircraft be just as simple. Probably because simplicity is hard to do... and complexity looks impressive.

The Col also reported on some impressive production stats, explaining that North American (the aircraft company) was"... building only 3 1/2 per day, but could raise the production rate to 10 per day within three weeks after being given the go ahead signal by the Air Corps." Ten aircraft per day? Gosh, they must have had some really good Total Quality Management systems, and a solid basis in Lean Six-Sigma practices to achieve that kind of efficiency and speed. I bet they were a real Process Enterprise. I wonder where they keep all their detailed and rigorous process diagrams. No doubt they were CMMI Level 5 and relied on the Program Management Deskbook of Knowledge...


Maybe it's not fair to expect today's aircraft developers to be as fast, inexpensive, and efficient as we were during WWII. I mean, those guys got to use notebooks and sliderules and make stuff up as they went along. We have to use computers and follow Best Practices. Plus, things today are so much more complex than they used to be, now that the Complexity Maximization Law got passed, effectively banning simplicity from our organizations and technologies.

And finally, in the Some Things Never Change category, the Col points out "It appeared there was a tendency by the Materiel Division to hinder the development of this airplane, which can only be accounted for by the fact that it was strictly a North American project, and Materiel Division could claim no credit for it."

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