Punishing Innovation: Lessons from the Court Martial of Billy Mitchell

A grand old movie is “The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell” starring Gary Cooper as the aviation innovator Billy Mitchell. Billy Mitchell has a major airport named after him in Milwaukee and there is a small museum honoring him in the airport. Today his name is honored as one of the great champions of innovation that led to the United States developing air power for military advantage. His patriotism and his commitment to progress, though, resulted in a court martial by those in the military who were threatened by Mitchell’s ideas regarding aviation.

After World War I, hundreds of airmen in the military, including many friends of Colonel Billy Mitchell, were dying due to poor maintenance of the fleet. The military was neglecting aviation. The politically powerful Army and Navy saw no need for an airforce. Only a handful of functional aircraft were in the US military. But Mitchell had a vision of the future and recognized that aircraft must be an essential part of our future military strength. He argued, he cajoled, he carried out dramatic demonstrations of what aircraft could do, all at great risk to his career. He also predicted that there would be a military strike against us at Pearl Harbor, and that we needed to prepare more vigorously. His efforts to bring change resulted in court martial and a dramatic trial.

The opposition to military innovation was so great and yet his desire to make a difference was so strong that he chose to give up his military career and push for aviation as a civilian.

If the military had listened to Colonel Mitchell earlier, if there has not been so many innovation fatigue factors hindering Mitchell, many lives might have been saved.

Thank goodness, though, that Mitchell, like many great innovators, endured and was willing to sacrifice to bring about change. He should be counted as one of the great heroes of the U.S. and of innovation.

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