Fighter Mafia Part 2: Pierre Sprey, A-10 Close Air Support Aircraft Developer
Articles dedicated to Colonel John Boyd, Thomas P. Christie, Pierre M. Sprey, Chuck Myers, Colonel Everest Riccioni, Harry Hillaker, Dr. Raymond Leopold, James Burton, Colonel Mike Wyly, and Franklin “Chuck” Spinney – the Fighter Mafia and Acolyte core; an independent, free-thinking group of pentagon analysts, pilots, and engineers that demonstrably changed the culture, theory, and production of air combat assets.
As the second installment in the Fighter Mafia series, (please read the first article in series Colonel John Boyd– if you haven’t yet), we explore a true game-changer, legend, and visionary – Pierre Sprey (pronounced “Spray”). As a result of talking with Pierre Sprey we made some changes to the first article to accurately reflect historical events and capture even more about John Boyd.
Author’s personal note: As a relatively poor youth reared in Kansas, I knew I wanted to make a difference in the world. Many of us in the aviation world probably grew up the same and desired more out of life and truly wanted to become better people and change lives around us. After talking with Pierre, I remain humbled that due largely to his (and others) passions, desires, and commitments, he changed history for the better and made a difference. Few ever get that chance and we should celebrate those that selflessly took stands that made greatly impacted history!
At the age of three Pierre Sprey emigrated to the United States in 1941. Under threat of German occupation of France moving south, Pierre’s family escaped France at Nice and traveled on one of the last steamers from Casablanca to New York. Growing up in Queens, Pierre attended Forest Hills High School. After graduating in 1953, Pierre sought a Mechanical Engineering degree from Yale and spent summers interning with Grumman, bucking rivets on the F11F Tiger and working in the experimental machine shop building wind tunnel prototypes.
A Numbers Guy
Originally desiring an Aeronautical Engineering degree to design aircraft (not available at Yale), Pierre understood after his third summer internship working in Stability and Control at Grumman, that the likelihood of designing his own airplane would be 20 years away at the earliest. Pierre, a numbers guy, found a niche the fourth summer working in the Research Department with mathematicians and statisticians and decided on a new path diverging from aircraft design. Pierre graduated Yale in 1958 with a B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering with a Minor in French Literature.
The Ultimate Numbers Guy
With a new purpose, Pierre attended Cornell for a M.S. in Operations Research and Mathematical Statistics and set upon a blazing path using numbers and data to encapsulate and solidify national defense decisions. Grumman wanted and needed a numbers guy and Pierre became a one-man number-crunching consultant within the company during graduate school. Since few engineers could apply statistics to practical problems, Pierre’s work blossomed thanks to peer demand throughout Grumman’s departments, thereby aiding Pierre in understanding the true complexities hidden within aircraft design. Pierre graduated Cornell in 1961 and converted from consultant to full-time employee at Grumman.
One benefit for single-handedly operating a practical applications statistics shop was in 1965 Pierre became the natural selection from Grumman to attend the relatively new, prestigious Hudson Institute’s seminar, attended by major airplane manufacturers and hosted by founder Dr. Herman Kahn. At the seminar, Pierre became acquainted with Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Robert Valtz, who hired Pierre into the Pentagon for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) for Systems Analysis (known internally as the “Whiz Kids”). The Whiz Kids had been established in 1961 by then-new Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The group consisted of smart young economists, MBAs, and mathematicians who addressed major defense budget questions posed by McNamara. When he joined in 1966, Pierre was the Whiz Kids’ first aviation-experienced engineer.