DC Flyover Reminds Us that Math is Cool

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6-23 dc flyover
WWII aircraft over the skies of the Capital commemorate Victory in Europe and showcase the evolution of aviation and early attempts at portfolio optimization.

Last month, Washington, DC, marked the 70th anniversary of the formal surrender of Nazi Germany with a flyover of the national mall by more than 50 World War II aircraft. Residents, DC commuters, amateur iPhone photographers and visitors alike were treated to a display of aviation technology dubbed “The Arsenal of Democracy” and flown in chronological order to each plane’s participation in the European theatre victory. P-38 Lightnings, B-17 Flying Fortresses, P-51 Mustangs, C-47 Skytrains and the last known flying B-29 Superfortress nicknamed “FiFi” (of the type that dropped the atomic bombs on Japan) took turns among others, flying from the Lincoln Memorial and over the scaffold covered Capitol building before banking and rolling out over the Potomac river. This event on a beautiful spring day reminded us not only of the Allies’ sacrifice leading up to V-E Day 70 years ago, but also of events that elevated the United States to unrivaled global super power status as it emerged from decades of economic depression and world war.

The need to address the many existential challenges of the 1940s spawned advances in industry both new and old, manifesting in exponential leaps in newer industries like aviation, as witnessed with the flyover, as well as more classic industries like mathematics and operations. Mathematical programming as it was called in the 1940s before programming became synonymous with computing power, was a discipline with centuries old roots but one whose advances paralleled aviation’s and equally transformed industry for decades to come.

This history on display in the skies over the District was also telling an important story of the increased need to satisfy war time objectives as efficiently as possible and with limited resources. The move from lower flying, slower, lighter payload B-24s to higher flying, faster, heavier payload B-29s was just one example of the Allies’ progressing needs to maximize efficiency of bombing raids (enemy loss) while minimizing aircraft and lives lost. The advantage of higher aircraft flight along with heavier payload capacity was that Allied aircraft could better evade Axis anti-aircraft forces while delivering more pounds of explosives to targets. Unfortunately, with higher altitudes and faster flight came less accuracy and the need to exhaust more resources that risked pilots and crew. This raised the ultimate question of how to optimize for maximal enemy loss and a swifter end to the War subject to constraints around “acceptable” Allied loss, other finite resources, and political will. Such attempts at optimization were also evident in the Pacific theatre where the low-level incendiary bombings of Tokyo inflicted more damage than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima but resulted in heavier Allied losses and a hit to moral.

After the War, the U.S. military continued to understand the importance of mathematics in maximizing efficiency and thanks to the wider use of computers, more complex constraints could be constructed and solved given a set of finite resources and clear minimizing/maximizing objectives. As the mathematical theory behind efficiency continued to develop, the practices found their way into wider industry in the 1950s. Today, there is hardly an industry that doesn’t use mathematical optimization to make objective, fact-based decisions including the Program & Portfolio Management space.

DC Flyover

The next time you help your company create portfolios that select an optimized set of projects based on finite resource, cost and technology constraints, it’s cool to remember that events 70 plus years ago played a significant role in shaping the math we use and what are now established best practices for PPM and business decision making in industries across the globe.