Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Clearing the Air (Part 2): Overcoming a Crisis through Trust, Agility, and Learning by Doing

(continued from Clearing the Air, part 1)

For the pilots of the Israeli Defense Force’s 109 Squadron, the early days of the 1973 Yom Kippur War did not go as planned. The invasion by Egypt and Syria was hardly a surprise attack, but the orders that were coming down from Israel's Air Force (IAF) headquarters—having the pilots fly into zones heavily defended by anti-aircraft missiles just to take out a pontoon bridge, for example—didn’t seem to make a lot of sense. No one was going to disobey those orders, but it was clear that the squadron’s leaders would have to come up with their own solutions to many of their problems.

A major problem was the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk’s tailpipe, which the enemy’s heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles were zeroing in on, thereby damaging the nearby elevator (pitch-control) cylinder, which often caused the aircraft to crash. Captain Giora Ben Dov, looking around for solutions, thought of his friend Ben Z. Bezalel, who was deputy CEO at RAFAL Advance Defense Systems, a leading defense technology company. “They have smart people over there,” Giora thought to himself at the time. “Together, we should [be able to] come up with something.”

Ben got right on it, organizing a task force that analyzed the problem as described by Giora. And one of the solutions the task force came up with was a radar countermeasure element called chaff, which, when ejected from an aircraft, forms the electromagnetic equivalent of a smoke screen, temporarily rendering an aircraft invisible to radar. Attached to the aircraft’s exterior, it was deployed from inside the cockpit using a knob on the takeoff handle that was originally designed for takeoffs from aircraft carriers. Given that the Israeli Defense Force didn’t have any aircraft carriers, the knob was available for use.

There being nothing like a war to speed up the delivery process, RAFAL had 60 units fully operational within 10 days, and these had a significant impact on the conflict’s outcome. In fact, it became standard operating procedure to deploy chaff right before ascending to assault position, when an aircraft, no longer flying low to avoid radar, was suddenly more vulnerable to enemy fire.

Problem solved? Like any leader worth his salt, Giora kept looking for more solutions. “On the downtime between missions, I went to the repair shed to check on an aircraft that had gotten hit by a Strela (anti-aircraft missile),” he says. “I remember thinking that we suffered from missiles on our tailpipes because they were hot, so why not extend the exhaust pipe and clear out the elevator cylinder so the aircraft could withstand a hit without crashing?”

Why not indeed? Giora pitched the idea to his squadron leader, Lt.-Col. Yitzhak David, who approved it right way, trusting that his team knew what it was doing. And so the first-ever modification was done in the wing itself, with local technicians and metalworkers. They used the aircraft that had been hit by a Strela, and when the modification was completed, Giora volunteered to be the test pilot to see if the aircraft could still fly. It couldn’t. During the first test—taxiing down the runway at full throttle—the external piece failed to remain attached. “I looked back,” Giora says, “and it seemed as if the aircraft had gotten hit by another Strela.” 

The test was nevertheless an incremental step in a process that continued to improve the Skyhawk’s missile resiliency even after the Yom Kippur War. And the modification to the tailpipe remains the standard for all Skyhawk aircraft to this day. It so happens that chaff is also still operational—modified from what RAFAL first came up with and not necessarily made by RAFAL these days. But the solutions that Giora and the rest of the 109 Squadron came up with changed the whole way the IAF looks at these kinds of assault maneuvers. Today’s pilots still employ the sequence developed during the early days of the Yom Kippur War.

Perhaps none of this would have happened had there not been such a strong collaborative ethos within the 109 Squadron, an ethos built on trust, not to mention friendship. Remarkably, the squadron leader, Yitzhak, so trusted Giora that Giora was allowed to pursue his project with RAFAL without any involvement from David. “I had Giora,” RAFAL’s Ben, who never met David, would later say, “and my objective was to do anything in my power to help him as a friend. If I was the deputy CEO of Osem (an Israeli food-processing company), I would have supplied the squadron with cookies.”

Gil Wang conducted the study leading to the current blog post and the previous one. Gil, a Naval Architect, is a former yacht designer and project manager at Dykstra Naval Architects, an Amsterdam-based superyachts design office. From 2006 to 2014, Gil led numerous cutting-edge projects from concept to completion. Today, he is pursuing his PhD, examining the feasibility of expanding costal cities to their adjacent maritime environment.

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