Alex Kroman

What the F-86 can teach us about software development

13 Jan 2008

40 second Boyd

During the Korean war some of the most intense fighting took place in the sky between US pilots flying the F-86 and Russian and North Korean pilots inside of the MiG-15. The two planes were evenly matched with the MiG being able to turn faster and the F-86 having a higher top speed. Despite being equal on paper the F-86 won 9 out of 10 dogfights shooting down over 700 MiG’s during the war.

40 Second Boyd

US Air Force Colonel John “40 second” Boyd was puzzled by this statistic and set out to figure what was it about the design of the F-86 that made it so superior to the MiG.

40 second Boyd


In the 1950’s Boyd was a pilot in the Air Force and was cocky even by Air Force standards. He got his nickname by betting any pilot $40 that he could be on their tail in 40 seconds. Legend has it that he never lost a bet. Boyd decided that there were four activities that a pilot did during a dogfight that together formed what he called the OODA loop.


In a dogfight a pilot goes through the OODA loop hundreds of times. The pilot observes a plane on his radar, he orients himself by understanding that this could be a threat, he decides to move above the advancing plane into the sun, and he acts by moving the flight controls. This is one iteration of the OODA loop.

Conventional wisdom said that to be a better pilot you would need to improve at each of these activities but according to Boyd being good at each activity in isolation didn’t matter – what mattered was how fast you went through the loop.

Getting Inside the Loop

After his “40 second” dogfight bets Boyd liked to talk about how he got “inside” his competitors OODA loops. If he could get through his loop faster he could take more actions. Boyd short circuited his competitor’s loop by forcing them to continuously observe and reorient themselves to his latest move instead of being able to decide and act on their own.

Speed of Iteration Beats Quality

So why were pilots able to go through the OODA loop faster in an F-86 than a MiG-15? Boyd realized the key advantage of the F-86 was that it’s flight controls were mechanically assisted. F-86 pilots could make more maneuvers (more trips through the loop) not because their plane was faster but because their arms didn’t tire as quickly from operating the flight controls. The MiG pilots had to use more force to turn the plane and during the course of a short dogfight their iteration speed slowed down enough to allow the F-86 pilots to get “inside” their loops and win more fights.

Speed through the loop beats quality.