The good people at Singapore Airlines invited me to a 70th anniversary dinner the other night. A free meal from a brand I once worked on and still think of as one of the few Asian brand icons; who could say no?
The event took place at Auckland’s MOTAT Aviation Hall and I found myself sitting beneath a De Havilland Mosquito, a World War II British bomber and, as I learned that night, an incredible example of creative thinking.
When the Mosquito was conceived, bombers were big and getting bigger. The RAF flew the Lancaster, a four engine, multi-machine gun monster with a crew of seven. The USAF had the bigger B17 Flying Fortress (crew of 10) and eventually the even bigger B29 Super-fortress (crew of 11).
Bombers were big and slow and could be out-run by enemy fighters and so they bristled with guns and gunners and learned to fly in huge defensive formations that were hard to organise and easy to spot and attack.
So when a tender for a new RAF bomber went out, the eponymous Geoffrey De Havilland, who had never worked for government before and so did not know better, approached the same problem – getting a big payload of bombs to a target and returning safely – in a very different way.
Where convention zigged, he zagged.
Don’t use guns to defend. Use speed.
Why not make the bomber smaller and lighter with a crew of just two and no machine guns at all. In fact, make it predominantly of wood covered in a stretched, doped fabric as steel and aluminium were heavy and in short supply. After all, England had many furniture factories and coach and cabinet makers to sub-contract, thereby relieving pressure from the traditional military supply chain.
A small, super-fast, unarmed wooden bomber!
Like all good creatives with a big and disruptive idea, he needed a sponsor at the client. Sir Alfred Freeman believed in the De Havilland’s vision and pushed hard against his boss Lord Beaverbrook, the Crown’s aircraft production czar, who three times ordered him to shut down early Mosquito manufacturing but was ignored by Freeman (full history here).
The result was a plane that could fly faster than nearly all enemy fighters and so did not have to resort to high altitude and, also because if its speed, was harder to hit by ground fire.
Despite entering late, it made a huge contribution to the war effort and has become the model for multi-role aircraft to this day.
“It makes me furious when I see the Mosquito. I turn green and yellow with envy. The British, who can afford aluminum better than we can, knock together a beautiful wooden aircraft that every piano factory over there is building. They have the geniuses and we have the nincompoops,” said German Air Chief Hermann Goering. In this case he was right.