Life Lessons From a Legendary Air Force Pilot

Reginald Dieudonne
10 min readJul 12, 2021

We have only minimal control over the rewards for our work and effort — other people’s validation, recognition, rewards. So what are we going to do? Not be kind, not work hard, not produce, because there is a chance [we don’t get the adulation we feel we deserve?]

-Ryan Holiday

John Boyd (1927–1997) is one of the most influential men in U.S military history. The fighter jets he designed in the 70s (the F-15 and F-16) are still being flown to this day. His insights on war strategy — on controlling the pace of combat and disrupting the enemy’s decision-making process — have earned him worldwide acclaim. Yet despite contributing so much to the Air Force, he was fiercely hated by most of his higher-ups. Virtually none of them paid their respects at his funeral.

Not only would Boyd have expected this outcome, he had long made peace with it. After serving in World War II as a fighter pilot, Boyd’s primary focus in life was ensuring the success of the “fighting man,” the soldiers risking a grizzly death on the battlefield. He wanted to give them the best training, weaponry, and combat mindset possible, even if it meant clashing with his superiors.

As Boyd transitioned into becoming a flight instructor, then later an engineer and war strategist, he realized, while many of his Air Force seniors presented themselves as honorable and patriotic, they shamelessly angled for promotions or covered up their awful mistakes.

Boyd is partly to blame for the countless enemies he made during his career. As his friends would later say, “When [Boyd was pissed], his preferred speaking distance was three inches from your face.” He was a frequent smoker and cared little for his appearance, so his higher-ups were often astounded as this foul-smelling, unkempt man tore into them for being spineless, ego-driven “weak dicks.”

Boyd passed away in ’97, so why think about his life today? The reason is this: even though Boyd directed classified missions knowing he’d get zero recognition, worked ungodly hours to best serve future generations of warriors, and got screwed out of numerous promotions, he still devoted his all to providing value to others.

In an age where many of us are desperately seeking a bigger platform, a wider audience, and more followers, Boyd unintentionally achieving world-renown as a war strategist and aircraft engineer is remarkable. He simply focused on doing the best work he possibly could, and the strength of his results spoke for themselves. Even when his colleagues mistakenly received credit for his work, he often didn’t care, he was just happy others found his contributions worthwhile.

Boyd wasn’t a saint by any means — he rarely spent time with family, was hot-tempered, and to quote his biographer Robert Coram, ”[spoke] as if he learned English in a New Orleans whorehouse.” But he deeply inspired the men he mentored, and his ideas are still discussed in military academies and Fortune 500 companies around the globe.

Two periods in Boyd’s life — his time developing a physics formula that revolutionized aircraft design, and his agonizing, titanic struggle to create the F-16 fighter jet, are worth examining further. They can teach us a great deal about reinventing ourselves, rebounding from undeserved, crushing defeats, and evaluating the impact of our work.

A Breakthrough in the History of Aviation: The Energy-Maneuverability Theory

John Boyd during the Korean War

With the Korean War well underway in 1952, the instructors at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada were under mounting stress. They couldn’t afford to handhold their student pilots before sending them overseas; their training would have to embody all of the barbarous realities of war.

The wives of the young pilots lived in the Nellis housing quarters, and at least once a week, they’d be gripped with terror as a siren screeched across the Air Force base. The deafening wail usually meant one thing: somebody’s husband just flamed out and crashed his jet, and he was either badly wounded or dead. The carnage at Nellis was often so staggering that the official death count had to be falsified.

As dangerous and high-stakes as these aerial drills were, Boyd, a trainee at the time, couldn’t help but push his F-86 jet beyond its limits, to test how quickly it could really accelerate and maneuver. Boyd could never view a jet as a lifeless machine; he always strove to become one with the aircraft, to gain an intuitive feel of its inner workings. It was common for him to uncover shortcomings and capabilities in a jet that the original manufacturers never knew existed.

This concept of fingerspitzengefühl, of attaining an instinctual, 360° understanding of a subject or practice, was central to Boyd’s life. His grasp of aerial maneuvering led him to publish the definitive Air Force tactics manual at age 33 (which would later influence air forces worldwide). But in 1960, after fighting in the Korean War and spending years as an instructor, Boyd sought to provide a mathematical underpinning to his air-to-air combat theories.

Boyd would often wake his friends up at 2–3am, shouting excitedly over the phone, “I’ve had a breakthrough! I’ve had a breakthrough!” While studying engineering at Georgia Tech, he began to devise a physics formula to compare the performance of separate aircraft at different altitudes and speeds.

After graduating, Boyd was ordered to work a lowly maintenance job at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. He took it in stride, sensing he was on the verge of something groundbreaking. Even if he had to work after-hours, without pay, to refine his “Energy-Maneuverability” theory, if it was correct, it meant the Air Force would know the ideal positioning to outmaneuver and gun down enemy aircraft.

Visual depiction of the E-M Theory. The red and pink areas show the speed and altitude where the Soviet MIG-21 had the maneuvering advantage in battle, and the green and olive areas show where the American F-4 had the advantage.

Many of Boyd’s colleagues thought he was nuts, nicknaming him “The Mad Major.” But looking past his sloppy appearance and constant ranting, a statistician at the base was convinced Boyd had something special in the works. He secretly granted Boyd access to Eglin’s high-end computers so he could refine his theory. A few years later, the supposedly wacko Mad Major had the country’s highest-ranking Air Force generals flying him out to present the E-M theory.

At the time, the Air Force was obsessed with making planes that flew “higher-farther-faster.” They only considered a limited number of metrics when designing fighter craft. The E-M Theory proved their planes weren’t as great as they thought; Soviet jets could easily outmaneuver them. It became undeniable that the Air Force needed to rethink how they designed their jets.

Even though Boyd’s discovery was of immense benefit to the Air Force, he was now under investigation for his illegal use of the Eglin computers. A guilty verdict in military court would lead to imprisonment and expulsion from the Air Force, but Boyd was ready to own up to the consequences, truly believing that fine-tuning his theory was worth the career risk.

There was no denying that Boyd accessed the computers without proper authorization. But the investigative committee excused him for his misconduct, crediting the E-M Theory’s “overwhelming significance to national defense.”

The “Fighter Mafia” and the Creation of the F-16 Jet

In 1965, having received countless awards for the E-M theory, Boyd thought it was a no-brainer he’d be promoted to lieutenant colonel. But his fiery clashes with his higher-ups (sometimes justified, sometimes not) led them to grant the honors to obsequious, less accomplished men. As devastated as Boyd was about this, the Pentagon (U.S military headquarters) was now requesting his services to help design a new fighter jet. It was time for Boyd to stop wallowing in his misery, drinking himself senseless, and return to serving his country.

Many upstanding men and women work at the Pentagon, doing their best to protect the homeland. Yet it is also true that its operations are largely controlled by the weapons manufacturers and defense contractors. As a top general once told a friend of Boyd’s, “our [main] job is to see that the flow of money [to the defense industry] is uninterrupted.”

While working at the Pentagon, Boyd created the prototype for the F-15, a deadly, highly maneuverable jet, but was horrified with the end result. The defense companies pressured the Air Force to “gold-plate” the jet, to include tons of pricey, unnecessary add-ons to ensure they got paid. Although the F-15 was an elite fighter, it was now much more bulky, expensive, and difficult to maintain. Boyd poured so much of himself into designing the aircraft, and was heartbroken to see it diminished.

Boyd never hid his anger towards the defense contractors, once barking at one, “You are the dumbest piece of shit that God ever made!” His wife would later mention how Boyd’s mood worsened while employed at the Pentagon. The corruption, ass-kissing, and power-plays he witnessed daily made him nauseous. But as outraged as Boyd was, he couldn’t shake his feeling that the Air Force needed a lightweight, agile jet that could be mass-produced. The F-15 was too costly to be made in large numbers.

By 1969, Boyd amassed a small following from within the military establishment, a group of men who called themselves “The Fighter Mafia.” Working deep into the night for months on end, without any pay or assurance their efforts would bear fruit, they sketched out a model for the F-16 Falcon, a newer, improved version of the F-15.

Even though the Fighter Mafia immediately felt the F-16 was extraordinary (as of today, it’s the best-selling fighter jet in the world), they knew they’d face fierce opposition getting the proposal approved. Air Force generals are often bribed by the weapons companies to secure them sweetheart deals, so they would fight like hell to ensure the F-16 didn’t steer money away from the gold-plated F-15.

It took five long, miserable years for the Fighter Mafia to get the F-16 greenlit. Most of the Air Force generals tried to thwart Boyd at every turn. His phone was tapped, and spies were ordered to track his activities. At one point, the generals thought they had stamped out the F-16 proposal for good, but unbeknownst to them, Boyd had gone over their heads and convinced a member of the President’s cabinet to approve of its production, thus winning the grueling slugfest.

Younger pilots often called Boyd and credited his combat manual for saving their lives while fighting overseas. Hearing from them was one of his greatest joys, so he felt a powerful duty to aid them in whatever way he could. If he had to deal with excruciating losses and enormous difficulties to give them the best chance to succeed, so be it.

Many of Boyd’s acolytes are still alive, and they gather from time to time to celebrate his life. It’s nearly impossible for them to do so without mentioning his famous “To Be or To Do” speech.

Whenever Boyd came across a young military officer showing great promise, he would pull them aside and basically tell them, “At some point in your career, you will come to a fork in the road. You can walk down a path that guarantees you promotions, lots of cash, and favorable assignments, but appeasing your higher-ups will have to be your main priority, even if it means betraying the country you swore to protect.”

He would pause for a moment, then continue. “Or, you can walk down a path where you’re doing work that’s truly beneficial to the nation, but risk being passed over for promotions, receiving shitty assignments, and standing alone when going against the party line. Do you want to be someone who obsesses over their image, or do meaningful work and risk not receiving the notoriety and adulation you feel you deserve? To be or to do, the choice is yours son.”

To be or to do. This is what we must ask ourselves.

If we’re a business owner, parent, or content creator, do we want to invest our energy into cultivating a favorable, yet false image of ourselves? Or are we willing to do the gritty, exhausting work of providing genuine value to others, even if it involves delayed gratification and brutal setbacks?

There are examples everywhere of people who, despite being world-class in their field, still don’t feel they get the appreciation or monetary rewards they deserve. It’s very likely we’ll feel similarly at some point. If we do, we must choose whether to take pride in the people we do positively impact (even if the # is less than we’d prefer), or toss our dignity aside, stooping to pathetic lows to gain more recognition.

If Boyd was fixated on his image, he never would’ve worked late nights (again, without pay or anyone forcing him to do so) tweaking the E-M Theory or sketching out the F-16. The moment his ideas started receiving pushback, he would’ve quit out of fear of being mocked. We will almost certainly find ourselves in identical scenarios in life, clueless as to how a demanding project we’re working on will be received, and risking a great deal just to bring it to completion.

If our current life situation isn’t as glamorous as we’d like, we can’t assume we aren’t doing incredible work in the meanwhile. Stop worrying about having a crowd around to applaud you. Just focus on giving the world the best you can possibly offer, and you may be rewarded more than you ever hoped for.