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  • Writer's pictureDan Manning

What can a World War I hero teach us about applied creativity in today's world?

On 11 November 1918, the guns on the front lines in Europe fell silent as the ringing of explosive concussions was replaced by church bells from every steeple still standing. One hundred years later, much about warfare has changed. The weapons, laws, and warring parties are different. War, however, remains a demonstration of human failure to resolve differences and choose to turn our collective energies and industries towards destruction rather than the collective good. The crucible of war forces those embroiled in it to call on all resources, including creativity, to achieve victory. Using creativity to solve real-world problems is applied creativity. Combat in World War I seized Europe only 11 years after the Wright Brothers lifted off at Kitty Hawk, and while technology existed for combat in the air domain, the tactics were left to the applied creativity of those who fought on the new battlefield in the sky.

Eddie “Rick” Rickenbacker was one of those early tacticians whose applied creativity still resonates today. Only 13 years old when the Wright Brothers were flying on Huffman Prairie about 70 miles from his birthplace in Columbus, Ohio, Rickenbacker was largely self-educated and aggressively pursued what interested him. Before the war, his interests aimed towards speed and danger in automobiles, and he eventually completed the Indianapolis 500 four times. When America entered the war, Rickenbacker enlisted and, through dogged determination, was able to earn a training spot as a pilot, eventually entering the life of speed and danger on the front lines of the first air war in human history. He would go on to be the Ace of Aces in World War I and earn the Medal of Honor. Are the lessons Rickenbacker learned in a war fought with fabric-covered aircraft still applicable in today’s modern world? You decide:

Creativity and innovation are not limited to technology development

The aircraft of World War I were remarkable for their technology. Aircraft manufacturers were able to develop aircraft that could climb tens of thousands of feet into the sky. They were able to develop synchronized machine guns firing between the blades of the propeller without self-inflicted damage. Their progress was remarkable continued to evolve during the Great War. The engineers who built the aircraft did not fly them in combat, and those who flew in combat did not build aircraft. The pilots received a weapon, in Rickenbacker’s case a leftover one from the French, but unlike those fighting on the ground or on the sea, there were no experts in wielding weapons in the air. The pilots were left to develop tactics not only for a new platform, but for a new domain of warfare. Without the creativity and courage of the crews, the tremendous technological advancements in aviation would have been useless in battle. The will to develop creative solutions in the early days of aviation inspired Rickenbacker who said, “Aviation is proof, that given the will, we have the capacity to achieve the impossible.”

The stark realities of combat focus creative energies

Rickenbacker said, “In this business, you find the enemy then go after him and destroy him. Everything else is rubbish.” This single-minded focus pervaded every facet of his existence. In an autobiographical account of his World War I flying, Rickenbacker: Fighting the Flying Circus, Rickenbacker discusses his all-consuming approach to solving tactical problems.

Reed Chambers and I often used to discuss new tricks and wiles by which we might hope to circumvent the crafty Hun. Take it all in all, this whole game of war aviation is so new that any day some newcomer may happen upon a clever trick that none of us has before thought of. I suppose the Huns are sitting up nights the same as we are, trying to devise some startling innovation in the still crude science of air-fighting. At any rate Reed and I sat up late very often and rose very early the next morning to carry into execution some little plan which had enraptured us the night before.

Rickenbacker and Reed Chambers understood they were locked in a war of wits more than a war of machines. Aviators understand the technical limits of their machines and will endeavor to never engage in a fight they are not technically able to win. Success, and life, depended on out-thinking the opponent. This is the ultimate intrinsic motivation, and ultimately, this intrinsic motivation allowed Rickenbacker to not only survive, but thrive, in combat.

Rickenbacker applied (now) tried-and-true methods of creative problem solving

In his memoir, Rickenbacker recounts how he used creativity to attack a key element of the German war machine. The Germans tethered enormous, hydrogen-filled balloons called Drachen a few miles behind their lines as observation posts. These balloons were manned by observers who could improve the accuracy of artillery fire and provide early warning of an enemy’s advance. Because they were simultaneously incredibly visible and vulnerable, they were protected by an array of anti-aircraft guns. Rickenbacker describes his approach to creating a plan to go after these balloons:

I had been victorious over five or six enemy aeroplanes at this time and had never received a wound in return. This balloon business puzzled me and I was determined to solve the mystery attending their continued service, in the face of so many hostile aeroplanes flying constantly in their vicinity.

Accordingly, I lay awake many nights pondering over the stories I had heard about attacking these Drachen, planning just how I should dive in and let them have a quick burst, sheer off and climb away from their machine-gun fire, hang about for another dive and continue these tactics until a sure hit could be obtained.

I would talk this plan over with several of my pilots and after working out all the details we would try it on. Perhaps we could make 94 Squadron famous for its destruction of enemy balloons. There must be some way to do it, provided I picked out the right men for the job and gave them a thorough training.

After discussing the matter with Major Atkinson, our Commanding Officer, who readily gave me his approval, I sought out Reed Chambers, Jimmy Meissner, Thorn Taylor and Lieutenant Loomis. These four with myself would make an ideal team to investigate this proposition.

First we obtained photographs of five German balloons in their lairs, from the French Observation Squadron. Then we studied the map and ascertained the precise position each occupied: the nature of the land, the relative position of the mountains and rivers, the trees and villages in the vicinity of each, and all the details of their environment.

One by one we visited these balloons, studying from above the nature of the roadway upon which their mother-trucks must operate, the height of the trees above this roadway and where the anti-aircraft defenses had been posted around each Drachen. These latter were the only perils we had to fear. We knew the reputation of these defenses, and they were not to be ignored. Since they alone were responsible for the defense of the balloons, we very well knew that they were unusually numerous and accurate. They would undoubtedly put up such a thick barrage of bullets around the suspended Drachen that an aeroplane must actually pass through a steady hailstorm of bullets both in coming in and in going out.

Willie Coppens, the Belgian Ace, had made the greatest success of this balloon strafing. He had shot down over a score of German Drachens and had never received a wound. I knew he armed his aeroplane with flaming rockets which penetrated the envelope of the gas-bag and burned there until it was ignited. This method had its advantages and its disadvantages. But another trick that was devised by Coppens met with my full approval.

This was to make the attack early in the morning or late in the evening, when visibility was poor and the approach of the buzzing motor could not be definitely located. Furthermore, he made his attack from a low level, flying so close to the ground that he could not be readily picked up from above. As he approached the vicinity of his balloon he zoomed quickly up and began his attack. If the balloon was being hauled down he met it half-way. All depended upon the quickness of his attack, and the sureness of his aim.

Rickenbacker understood that developing a creative plan first required expertise. He gathered all of the intel available to devise his plan. Then he spent time using divergent thinking to consider possible tactics before converging on a single option.

On the day of the attack, Rickenbacker and his team executed as they had planned. For his part, Rickenbacker flew across the German lines at 15,000 feet with his engine off to avoid detection. He completed a long, silent glide, spotted his prey, and closed in without a sound. As he centered his sights on the Maltese cross and fired up his engine while hammering down on the trigger. A hail of bullets screamed out of his gun, impacted the balloon…and fizzled out. The sudden noise attracted the attention of the anti-aircraft guns and a hail of explosions fired around him. He was lucky to escape with his life.

When he finally landed, the story was the same from the rest of his team. No one scored a single victory against the lumbering gas-bags.

Rickenbacker let failure be a teacher

After the failed balloon attack, Rickenbacker began his own internal debrief on the flight home. Chuckling to himself about the surprised look on the German observer’s face in the wicker basket on the balloon, Rickenbacker recalled stories of morning dew suppressing the fire of his incendiary bullets. While he concluded that his balloon-busting team was “the rottenest lot of balloonatical fakers that ever got up at two-thirty in the morning,” he was determined to learn from failure.

Just three months later, those lessons would be put to the test when Headquarters tasked his squadron with destroying a share of observation balloons arrayed along the front. Destroying these balloons would enable the Allied push and rob the enemy of a critical capability. This time, he prepared five wingmen instead of four. Rather than tasking one aircraft against each balloon, he ensured the six aircraft would concentrate their fire on two balloons.

This time, they were successful. Not only did they destroy the two balloons they set out for, Rickenbacker was able to down a German fighter as well. Before the war was over, Rickenbacker would be credited with downing 5 balloons. This approach made his unit the top aerial squadron in the war with 70 victories and eventually earned him the Medal of Honor.

One of the most important lessons Rickenbacker teaches us is about vision. In an interview 38 years after the war, he sums up his view of the creativity and innovation demonstrated by America’s earliest combat aviators in a statement as true today as it was then:

“A few men glimpse the future and fly it out. Whatever the official and public attitudes may be, this has been true ever since the early days…from the Wright Brothers and the beginning of airpower”

Are you among those who can glimpse the future? Aviation technology was important in World War I, but applied creativity turned the tools of technology into victory. Today’s space and cyberspace technology will not determine the victor in the next conflict. The applied creativity of today’s Rickenbackers is far more important. America needs leaders who develop, nurture, and encourage creativity not only in research and development, but also in tactics, operational design, and strategy.

Developing creativity requires practicing creativity. How much time do you devote to training creativity skills? Do you make it easier for the men and women on your team who glimpse the future to “fly it out” or do you slow their progress? Someone, somewhere is sitting up nights, just as the German aviators did in World War I, using creativity to devise an innovation that will bring them a step closer to victory whether in business or in war. Are you working as hard as they are to apply creativity to solve your problems?

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