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Belle, Bombers, & Bullet Holes

“How long can we fly on one engine?” -Lt. Luke Sinclair | Memphis Belle “I don’t know, I guess we’ll find out.” -Cpt. Dennis Dearborn | Memphis Belle

The movie “Memphis Belle” tells the story of the first American Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress crew to complete 25 missions over enemy territory in World War II. The feat of completing 25 missions was a milestone that meant that the crew had completed their tour of duty and were eligible to return home. It was also rare, as the survival rates of bomber crews at that point in the war was terrifying low. Of every 100 airmen, 45 were killed, 6 seriously wounded, and 8 became prisoners of war. In fact, of those who began flying at the beginning of the war, only 10 percent survived. The success of the crew of the Memphis Belle gave the Allies hope and bolstered the war effort at home. But it’s more than just an inspirational story, and I’ve recently begun watching the movie in a different light.

My PGA colleagues Kevin Walls, PGA MP and Ted Eleftheriou, PGA often discuss Abraham Wald’s connection to the story of bombers in WWII, and specifically how it relates to professional development. The story is simple, yet intriguing. Due to incredible losses being suffered by the Army Air Corps, the military had been tracking the location and frequency of bullet holes on bombers as they returned to base. At first, they wanted to reinforce those areas that were riddled with bullet holes, thinking these were the area’s most often targeted by enemy planes. Wald and the Statistical Research Group were brought in to analyze the patterns and determine how to best up-armor the bombers to increase survivability.

Wald pointed out that this was the damage pattern on the planes that made it home! Instead, he suggested that additional armor be added to areas with no bullet holes at all, because those are the places where the planes that didn’t come back were likely hit. This phenomenon, called Survivorship Bias, is a logic error where you focus on things that survived when you should really be looking at things that didn’t.

A great movie, and an interesting history lesson, but how does that apply to personal and professional development? Looking in the mirror, one might be wise to ask;

“How much time and effort do I dedicate to becoming better in the parts of my life that, if tested, would keep my bomber from getting home?”

It’s an uncomfortable but important question to consider, as well as one that’s not easy to answer. That’s why mentors become so important along your journey. Of the many mentors you will have along the way, Kevin Walls, PGA Master Professional, identifies 5 that can make an immediate impact:

  1. The Mentor Above You. The person who is ahead of you professionally will be able to help guide you.

  2. The Mentor Below You. The one who may have less experience than you can offer a unique perspective on your journey.

  3. The Mentor Who is Honest with You. The person who always tells you the truth will help keep everything in perspective.

  4. The Mentor Who Supports You. The person who gives you a dose of external confidence that inspires us to keep going or to take a risk.

  5. The Mentor Who Connects You. Oftentimes, a simple introduction to another contact is more beneficial than advice or counsel.

The Captain of the Memphis Belle didn’t fly those 25 missions alone, as he relied on the 9 other members of his crew to fly, defend, and navigate the bomber on its missions. That does not include the hundreds of others needed to train, guide, service, supply, and protect the Belle on the ground, as well as the thousands at home who funded and produced the aircraft. In short, he was surrounded by a massive network of influential people; including those who trained him and his crew (The Mentor Above You), his 18 year old tail gunner who covered his blind spot (The Mentor Below You), his co-pilot and engineer who did damage assessments as enemy fighters and ground to air fire tore apart the plane (The Mentor Who is Honest with You), the ground crew that made sure the Belle was ready to fly (The Mentor Who Supports You) and the strategist who designed the aerial formation that provided each bomber with a wingman, whose intersecting fields of fire protected the Belle from threats they couldn’t see (The Mentor Who Connects You). All these people helped the men of the Memphis Belle return home.

So, how long do you think you can fly on one engine, and who is in your bomber crew?

Jason Boaz, PGA

PGA Certified Golf Professional

PGA Career Consultant

Illinois and Wisconsin Sections of the PGA of America


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