The heroic search for evidence of the missing aircraft under extremely difficult conditions in an area reported to have spanned, at one stage, nearly 3 million square miles is reminiscent of the WW2 search for German submarine U Boats which sank 3,500 commercial vessels and 175 warships in the Battle of the Atlantic.
Churchill’s unforgettable tribute to the RAF pilots who successfully fought the Battle of Britain against the Luftwaffe in 1940; “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” is often quoted. But few historians draw our attention to Churchill’s statement in his war memoirs; “The Battle of the Atlantic was the dominant factor throughout the war. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, on sea, or in the air, depended ultimately on its outcome.”
Almost every MBA student is taught about “Operations Research Methods” (OR) as the application of analytical methods to arrive at optimal solutions to complex decision-making problems in business and industry. But few realize that the name derives from actual applications in military operations.
And little is known about the small group of scientists known as “Blackett’s Circus” that used OR to make a pivotal contribution, not only to the successful outcome of the battle against the German U-boats but also to military procedures generally. The group led by Professor P. M. S Blackett applied OR to dramatically enhance the effectiveness of the then faltering campaign against the subs. First of all, as in searching for the 777, hunting for U Boats over a huge area, efficient search patterns and height are important, taking many variables into account such as weather, the tide, wave height and even water temperature. When the sea is calm, searches can be wider than during stormy conditions quite apart from visibility.
The illustration shows only one simple example of the many much more complicated search patterns that are evaluated in order to arrive at the optimal.
The Blackett group’s recommendation to paint the undersides of the attacking airplanes white, instead of the customary black, led to a great improvement in the vital necessity to remain unobserved as long as possible until ready to take offensive action against the targets that are detected. In addition OR was used to calculate the optimum depth of explosion and the distance between successive depth charges leading to an improvement by a factor of 10 in the success rate in attacks on the subs.
In addition to their contribution to defeating the U Boats, this group contributed to development of a greatly improved radar guidance system for anti-aircraft guns during the Blitz as well as to the code-breakers who analyzed encrypted German naval communications to facilitate U-boat location.
A mundane achievement of Blackett’s Circus is reminiscent of the father of time and motion study, T.B. Gilbreth of “Cheaper by the dozen” fame. They noticed a bottleneck when soldiers washed their mess tins in one tub, then rinsed them in another. Observing that washing took much longer than rinsing, they recommended the provision of three tubs for washing and just one for rinsing, thereby eliminating the bottleneck and saving much valuable time.