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Flying colours – The value traits revealed by the memoirs of a First World War air ace

27/05/2016

Andrew Evans

Andrew Evans

Fund Manager, Equity Value

Air ace James ‘Mac’ McCudden VC is credited with 57 victories against enemy planes during the First World War. This total puts him seventh overall in a list headed by ‘The Red Baron’ himself, Germany’s Manfred von Richtofen, with 80 victories, and second among British pilots, where Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock VC is top with 61. 

One of the interesting things about McCudden, and the reason this article is going to focus on him rather than Mannock or indeed von Richtofen, is that shortly before he died in July 1918 at the age of 23 – when his plane crashed as he flew to take up a new command in France – he completed his memoirs. The posthumously published Flying Fury therefore offers a unique insight into his success. 

At a time when the life expectancy of pilots could be measured in weeks, if not days, McCudden was highly unusual – having started on the frontline almost exactly two years before he died. So why was he so good at what he did? Clearly great bravery and physical skill played their part but McCudden’s memoirs point to a number of other factors that caught our eye, here on The Value Perspective. 

The first of these was his extraordinary attention to detail. McCudden had been an engineer before he became a pilot and so he made a habit of checking his own equipment to make sure everything was working properly. Furthermore, he was also always looking for new ways to make improvements to the gear he used and planes he flew. 

McCudden was also a keen observer of enemy pilots and planes – from the ground as well as from the air. Rather than immediately engaging an opponent as soon as he spotted one, for example, he would observe them for a while to gain a better idea of how they thought and flew. His success rate showed the devastating use he made of the extra psychological insights he gained in this way. 

Finally, in a line of work populated almost exclusively by young men focused on aggression, glory and daring deeds, McCudden had extraordinary amounts of patience and self-control. Faced with the possibility of combat while out on a mission, he had no problem with flying away if, having taken stock of the conditions and his potential opponent, he concluded the odds were not in his favour. 

Regular visitors to our site will not need the observational skills of Mac McCudden to know what is now flying towards them out of a clear blue sky – and, of course, nobody on The Value Perspective is harbouring any ambitions to be a fighter pilot or indeed any delusions they could have survived a brush with The Red Baron as legend (and Wikipedia) suggests McCudden did in late 1916. 

Nevertheless, it is striking how the three attributes that contributed to McCudden’s success are also vital to the successful pursuit of a value investment strategy – keen attention to detail, a close observation of psychology and, above all, the discipline to engage only on your own terms and when the odds are in your favour.

Author

Andrew Evans

Andrew Evans

Fund Manager, Equity Value

I joined Schroders in 2015 as a member of the Value Investment team. Prior to joining Schroders I was responsible for the UK research process at Threadneedle. I began my investment career in 2001 at Dresdner Kleinwort as a Pan-European transport analyst. 

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