Epilog - What is the “Right Stuff” for a fighter director? - Chapter 14 of Radar and the Fighter Directors

By David L. Boslaugh, Capt USN, Retired

In his analysis of the graduating students of the first San Diego fighter director school class, Captain Nicholas Hammond tried to find some common qualifications or background that would have caused them to be selected for the same class at the Naval Reserve Midshipman’s School, from whence the entire class was sent to the FD school. He found none. There were some who felt that a successful FDO needed an aviation background, such as LCDR John S. Thatch when he returned from the Pacific in the summer of 1942 to visit the Bureau of Aeronautics in Washington. He recommended that former fighter squadron commanding or executive officers would be the most qualified to be FDOs. This was seconded by the Commander in Chief, Atlantic Fleet, in June 1943, who proposed also that personnel with actual flying experience were the only ones qualified to be FDOs. The problem was, experienced aviators were in great demand to help form and train new squadrons, or to serve as instructors at flying schools, in addition to the growing demands of combat. In any event, there were nowhere near enough free aviators to fill the growing demand for FDOs. Student FDOs would have to come from elsewhere. [45, p.41] [13, p.42]

In the beginning there were no criteria for selecting those who might be most adept at the job. The Bureau of Medicine and Surgery reviewed British FDO selection tests but did not recommend their use. As time went by it was realized that the most successful FDOs seemed to have come from some occupation that required them to work intensely with other people, and to make themselves well understood. The following were found to do well at fighter direction: salesmen, lawyers, newspaper men, stock brokers, insurance people, and teachers, and they did not seem to need a technical background such as math, science, or engineering. What became apparent was the FDO had to be able to keep track of a large amount of changing details and make quick decisions based on the present situation and conditions. He was a manager of assets, and had to make best use of those assets in real time. He could not focus on any one aspect of the situation to the detriment of loosing track of the big picture, and he had to appear to others as being in complete control, and ahead of the situation. [13, p.42] [45, p.41]

Some criteria eventually evolved. Fighter Director training detailers found that any one who had made more than $30,000 in total over the past three years made good candidates because they had demonstrated they were pretty good managers. (In 1942, $10,000 a year was a lot of money.) They also devised tests to see how well a person could express himself when under mental duress. With the criteria forming up, the FDO schools inducted a lot of professional writers, stockbrokers, salesmen, lawyers, and teachers. In the case of teachers, they waived the $30,000 rule. Most of the FDO inductees were less than thirty years old. The first few weeks of the three-month FDO schools were very intense and students were mercilessly weeded out. Those who graduated were usually assigned as assistant FDOs under an experienced fighter director. Many rose to positions of great responsibility very quickly. [45, pp. 41-42]

One would think that the FDO in charge of task force or task group fighter direction operations would be a very experienced senior officer, most likely at least a commander. But this was not the case. It appeared that ability and results were more important than seniority. Some examples are LTJG John Connally, the Task Group 38.3 FDO at the Battle of Leyte Gulf; LT Stan Foote, ADM Marc Mitscher’s Task Force 58 CIC Officer during the Okinawa Campaign; LT John McGinnis, ADM Frederick Sherman’s TF 38 CIC Officer; RADM J. J. Clark’s TG 58.1, Fighter Director Officer LT Charlie Ridgway; and LT Nicholas Hammond, another task group FDO. There must have been yet another dimension to the characteristics that made a good FDO; could it be relative youth? CAPT Nicholas Hammond, in a 6 January 1989 letter to another former FDO, CAPT Robert P. Foreman, said the following:

Gathering some more reference books from the library the other day, I picked up Carrier Admiral by Admiral J. J. (Jocko) Clark, USN (Ret).... It will give you an insight on Fighter Direction that only a few of the admirals appreciated. Chas. Ridgway is given the plaudits he deserved, and it mentions also the positioning of jr. officers over their seniors because of experience and talent. This was done in Air Groups early on in the war and ADM Mitscher also did it (with ADM Nimitz approval I would presume) in the fast carrier groups. It was done in Radar Plot/CICs early on - started when the Yorktown went through Pearl on the way to the operating area and went through what later became ORIs [Operational Readiness Inspections]. Jack Griffin, CO of the Pearl/Camp Catlin School, came aboard and put the CIC crew through its paces and then recommended to the CO and PacFlt the removal of those incompetents and/or placing in charge of CIC someone jr. to the senior types in CIC. We followed on the Bunker Hill a few months after the Yorktown, and after a private meeting with Jack Griffin and our Air Boss and XO after our ORI period, the three guys senior to me were given orders back to the States. When I later was on the staff of ADM Ballentine, he was CO of the Bunker at that time, he told me it went against his training to do such a thing, but he had to concur with the XO’s recommendation.

[26]

A 17 April 2014 article in the Washington Post by Christopher Ingraham gives more insight to the question of age and its relationship to talent for the job of fighter direction. It is titled At age 24, brainpower begins to fizzle out, and it is about a research study done at Simon Frazer University in Canada. The study showed that there is a measurable drop in quick thinking performance that starts at about the age of twenty-four and it deteriorates with age. The researcher’s measurement tool was a computer game called Starcraft II, a very fast paced game that calls for the player to do three things simultaneously, namely: get new resources, build up a fighting force, and defeat your opponent; while your opponent has the same objectives with respect to you. The players must concentrate on gathering resources to supply a large fighting force, and at the same time give commands to hundreds of fighting units. The person who can do these things most accurately and fastest with their mouse and keyboard wins. Does this sound like an FDO’s job? The researchers found that the delay from the time a player scanned the playing field and when they made a decision was lowest among twenty-four year old participants, and beyond that age, the lag increased proportionately with years. They found that in a fifteen-minute game, the difference in totaled time lags between a thirty-nine year-old and a twenty-four year-old was thirty seconds, a very significant delay in a game where the players must perform hundreds of actions per minute. The researchers also found that experience or expertise could not make older player’s performance any better; they could not substitute experience for speed. Could this be why relatively junior, and young, FDOs showed up so often in charge of the extremely responsible task of running task force and task group air defense? [33]