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Lies Your Pundit Tells You

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The fabulous Bill Sweetman, who I’d love to have on the podcast sometime…

If you’re on any social media and are interested in aeroplanes (and this clearly applies to you), then you know this story. Some typically dumb military officers approach Abraham Wald, a mathematician working with airplane survivability, with data showing how bombers get shot by fighters in their wingtips and tails, and asking him to help work out how much armor they should add there so that they will lose fewer bombers.

Wald then points out that the airmen are looking at the bombers that survived and that those that were shot down were hit somewhere else. Enlightened, the Army Air Force installs armor according to Wald’s ideas and more bombers survive.

The story is usually accompanied by the same drawing (see above)

I first saw this story no more than a few years ago, and I thought, wow, I never heard that before. Which, given that I wrote a book about the A-10 and read the Good Book on aircraft survivability, and attended a conference or two devoted to survivability, piqued my curiosity, not to mention my amour-propre.

There was another piece to the tale that did not fit. The aeroplane in the universally used drawing is a Lockheed PV-1 Ventura. Nothing at all against the Ventura, but almost the entirety of its career was spent chasing submarines or shooting up ships with the Navy, rather than getting shot down en masse over Germany. Why would it be the focus of a survivability study?

Since I have an ADHD proclivity for internet rabbit holes, off I went and found more.

I won’t claim prescience on this, but I will say that I’ve been seeing that graphic a lot over the past couple of years and I’d begun to grow skeptical of the story; it fit too well with the idea that military officers and aeronautical engineers were too stupid to understand basic statistics, which has always appealed to a certain intellectual set. Turns out that the story has very little evidentiary foundation, notwithstanding its real value as a teaching narrative. As they say, read the rest…

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