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Vol. 9, No. 11
(626) 350-1500 Ext 102  

©2001, 2012 William A. Cohen, PhD 

Dare the Impossible – Achieve the Extraordinary.


Dare the Impossible

© 2001, 2012  William A. Cohen, PhD

Clarence “Kelly” Johnson was the famous business leader who built and ran “The Skunk Works” for Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. This all got started when Johnson was an aircraft designer at Lockheed in 1943. The U.S. Army Air Corps asked Lockheed to pull out all the stops to design and produce a fighter after battle reports that the Nazis had flown their own high-speed jet fighter in the skies over Europe. Johnson was only 33 years old when Lockheed President Robert E. Gross gave him the job., but the truth is, few Lockheed engineering managers wanted the job, because there was one big catch. Lockheed was supposed to deliver a flyable prototype in only six months!

Johnson got permission to raid other projects for engineer-commandos. He quickly built a team of twenty-three engineers and 103 shop mechanics working in a small assembly shed at Lockheed in Burbank. He called it “The Skunk Works,” from Al Capp’s “Li’l Abner” comic strip. This featured a “skonk works” where “Li”l Abner and friends, all Appalachian hillbillies, threw in skunks, old shoes, discarded clothing and other assorted oddments to brew up a powerful and intoxicating drink called “Kickapoo Joy Juice.”

Johnson and his commando team delivered the prototype, which eventually became America’s first operational jet fighter in just 143 days, with 37 days to spare.


Johnson and his commando team at the Skunk Works went on to design many outstanding aircraft, including the world’s fastest and highest-flying aircraft–the SR-71 Blackbird, which made him a legend both here and abroad. He won many prestigious awards, including being elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1965 and enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1974.


What was the secret of Johnson’s success? Let’s look at a military operation and see if we can’t see a similarity.

It was July 4th, 1976. As the United States celebrated its 200th bicentennial year, the national news networks suddenly interrupted programs in progress over radio and television to make an incredible announcement. Israeli commandos had flown 2200 miles across Africa and Lake Victoria to land in Uganda and free more than a hundred Jewish and Israeli hostages threatened with death by their terrorist captives. Not only was this an amazing feat, but it came after a long series of aircraft hijackings by various groups seeking to gain publicity through terror in the sky. Israel’s commando operation demonstrated that the world need not put up with these activities and what could be done by those who dared.

This particular hijacking had started several days earlier on June 27, 1976. Air France flight 139 with 246 passengers traveling from Ben Gurion Airport in Israel to Paris via Athens was hijacked by terrorists who boarded during the stopover. The hijackers, armed with guns and grenades, ordered the plane to divert to Benghazi, Libya for refueling. When the plane took off again, the terrorists ordered it to a pre-designated objective: Entebbe, Uganda in Africa. The operation had been carefully planned by Dr. Wadia Hadad’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a branch of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The landing in Uganda was with the approval and assistance of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Though a Muslim, Amin had visited Israel earlier and promised peaceful relations with the Jewish state. He even wore Israeli paratrooper wings on his military uniform after his visit. But now he needed money. Seeking economic aid from other Muslim states, he sought to change his image of being friendly toward the Jewish state.

On landing, the terrorists separated the passengers into two groups:  Jews and non-Jews. Non-Jews were released. The French aircrew was also released, but they refused to depart until such time as their Jewish passengers would be released as well.

The terrorists demanded that 53 convicted terrorists who were serving sentences in Israel, France, Germany, Switzerland and Kenya be released. They threatened to execute the remaining 105 Jewish and Israeli hostages if their demands were not met. A forty-eight hour deadline was set before the executions were to begin. Eventually, the deadline was extended until 2:00 am on July 4th.

Meanwhile, planning for rescue by Israelii commandos under the overall command of Brigadier General Dan Shomron, who later became Chief of the Israeli General Staff, was initiated as soon as the hijacking became apparent. It was complicated by the fact that the aircraft was a foreign carrier and that the hostages were held in an unfriendly foreign country several thousand miles away. Moreover, the Israelis knew that they didn’t have a lot of time to either plan or rehearse the raid. The risk was great, and surprise Israel’s only ally. They decided to dare to do the impossible.

The plan that evolved was for a night attack by the Sayeret Mat’kal, an Israeli special operations unit reporting directly to the Israeli general staff, along with a few commandos with special skills on loan from the elite Golani infantry brigade. Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan (Yoni) Netanyahu commanded the 200-man assault force. Lieutenant Colonel Netanyahu was the Sayeret Mat’kal’s commander and brother of later Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had earlier served in the same commando unit.

The assault commandos would be airlifted by four C-130 Hercules aircraft.  One C-130 included a deception team. To deceive the Ugandan soldiers assisting the hijackers, a black Mercedes limo, identical to the one used by Idi Amin and Land Rover vehicles typically employed by Amin’s army would be lead the assault force. A fifth C-130 was to carry the rescued hostages to freedom.

Overhead, an Israeli Air Force Boeing 707 would circle to provide overall command and control of the operation. Another Boeing 707 contained hospital medical teams and landed at nearby Nairobi, Kenya and were prepared to take-off for Entebbe at a moments notice.

Israeli Air Force pilots practiced landing their C-130 aircraft and operating totally in the dark late into the night of July 2. Meanwhile, the deception and assault teams rehearsed their roles. Only when satisfied that the operation could be successful did General Shomron recommend to his superiors that they actually implement the plan.

At 1:20pm on July 3rd, the assault force took off. It split up on take-off and flew off in different directions to mislead unfriendly eyes that may have watched the take-off since the military airfield was adjacent to International  Ben Gurion Air Port. Out of sight, the attacking armada then headed south at low level to avoid radar detection by Russian ships and Egyptian Radar. They avoided the easy direct route and flew through stormy weather over Lake Victoria to get to Entebbe. About a third of the route they were escorted by Israel F-4 fighters, but eventually, the fighters had to break off and returned to base due to fuel limitations. It was thought that aerial re-fueling would make the procedure unduly complex and could compromise the mission.  The Israelis force flew on, arriving at Entebbe about 11:00 pm.

Although the Israelis had prepared to land in the dark, amazingly, the landing lights at the Entebbe airport were on. Without permission from the control tower, and after a seven hour and forty minute flight, the aircraft landed only one minute off of pre-planned schedule. As the aircraft turned onto the taxiway leading to the old airport terminal, the rear cargo ramp of the leading aircraft was lowered and the black Mercedes and two Land Rovers drove out. Ugandan flags flew from the Mercedes and all 35 commandos on the deception team were dressed in Ugandan army uniforms.

The first Ugandan guards were passed without incident. But then a suspicious guard challenged the force and a firefight broke out.  Netanyahu immediately ordered the assault on the old terminal where the hostages were held and guarded by the terrorists. Meanwhile, Israeli armored personnel carriers isolated the airfield from Ugandan reinforcements. Other commandos secured all access to roads to the airport and took over the new terminal and the control tower.  Aircrews took fuel pumps off one of their planes in preparation for refueling from Entebbe’s own supplies for the return trip.

The assault on the old terminal building was completed within three minutes after the lead plane landed. This was quicker than timing done on mock-ups in practice in Israel.

Within seven minutes the hostage passengers and crew of Air France 139 were evacuated onto IDF planes. The old terminal building was left deserted except for the dead bodies of the eight hijackers.

As the C-130 with the hostages took off, other commandos destroyed Ugandan MIG fighter aircraft on the ground to prevent any pursuit in the air. The commandos took their own wounded, two wounded hostages, and their single killed in action casualty.  They reloaded their vehicles and equipment and the last Israeli plane departed. From landing to departure, the raid lasted only an hour and forty-eight minutes.

The cost in killed among the commandos was only one commando killed in action, but it was nevertheless a heavy loss for the Israelis. A sniper had killed Lieutenant Colonel Netanyahu, the commander of the assault force. One hostage could not be rescued. She had been moved earlier to a local hospital. She was later executed on orders of Idi Amin.

The daring raid, with impossible logistics and unbelievably limited preparation time, insured a complete surprise, and helped to make this rescue a great success. As noted in one report, “It was a setback for terrorists everywhere since it showed that a determined nation could successfully mount counter-operations to defeat them with no gain for the terrorists at all. The success also weakened the dictator Idi Amin by emboldening Amin’s opponents. Sabotage and resistance increased and by 1979 he was deposed.

What did the two events of building a jet plane that hadn’t been done in this country in six months and freeing the captives in Uganda have in common? Both were impossible tasks under the constraints and requirements at that time. Kelly Johnson and the Israeli leaders involved had dared the impossible in both goals and subsequently achieved the extraordinary. Everything is impossible until we do it.


Recent Linked Articles by Dr. Cohen not  Published  in the Journal of Leadership Applications:

Guess Who is Accountable? from Human Resources IQ, Customer Management IQ, and Six Sigma Management IQ

The Value of Drucker’s Contributions Today, from Human Resources IQ, Customer Management IQ, and Six Sigma Management IQ

Don’t Buy People from Human Resources IQ, Customer Management IQ, and Six Sigma Management IQ

There is no such Thing as an Irrational Customer from Human Resources IQ, Customer Management IQ, and Six Sigma Management IQ

Drucker’s Five Deadly Marketing Sins from Human Resources IQ, Customer Management IQ, and Six Sigma Management IQ

Do the Right Thing at the Right Time from Human Resources IQ, Customer Management IQ, and Six Sigma Management IQ

Exploiting Demographic Change in Your Organization from Human Resources IQ, Customer Management IQ, and Six Sigma Management IQ

Drucker’s Billion Dollar Reality Test  from Human Resources IQ, Customer Management IQ, and Six Sigma Management IQ

Marketing and Selling May Be Adversarial from Human Resources IQ, Customer Management IQ, and Six Sigma Management IQ

Success by Abandoning Success from Human Resources IQ, Customer Management IQ, and Six Sigma Management IQ

Why What You Thought about Heroic Leadership is Probably Wrong from Integral Leadership Review

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“Who Dares, Wins” – Motto of the British SAS