The Book I've Been Avoiding Writing

The Book I've Been Avoiding Writing

The Death Burst

By Steven Pressfield | Published: June 20, 2014

One of the things I learned doing the interviews for The Lion’s Gate was that the best stuff often came when you least expected it.

The control stick and instrument panel of an Israeli Mirage IIIC.

It happened in breaks, or going to lunch, or after the formal interview was over. That was when people loosened up and became themselves. They brought out the insights and memories that they had kept in the vault because they deemed them marginal or “not important enough.” It was these stories that turned out to be the most fascinating and revealing.

Here’s one such nugget from Giora Romm. Romm was Israel’s first fighter ace. As a twenty-two-year-old lieutenant he shot down five Egyptian MiGs during the Six Day War.

He was in his kitchen making sandwiches for lunch when the following spilled out:

When you practice dogfighting, you go up against another pilot from your own squadron. You are both flying the same type of aircraft—in our case, a Mirage IIIC—so everything is fair and even.

In this kind of training, a kill is determined by the film in your gun camera. At the end of the day, every pilot’s film is developed. We all assemble in the briefing room to see how we have fared during that day’s training.

The rule at that time was that you had to have one full second of film—sixteen frames—with your pipper [gunsight] on the body of the other plane. But it was okay if the frames weren’t consecutive. You could have say, eight frames, then a gap, then another eight.

One day our squadron commander, Ran Ronen, who is one of the legendary fighter pilots in IAF history, called all of us together. “This is bullshit!” he said in that voice that could make you jump six inches out of your chair.

From now on, Ran said, to score a kill you had to have sixteen consecutive frames. No gaps. These sixteen frames would be called “the death burst.”

No pilot would be credited with a kill unless his gun camera showed the death burst.

We young fliers were all groaning when we heard this. Do you know how hard it is to get on another plane’s tail and keep him in your gunsights for a full second?

But the next day when we went up to practice, every pilot raised his game by 40%. It was amazing. You had to. There was no other way to produce the death burst.

And here is something else: it worked in combat.

The death burst worked.

Later, in the war, when you got a MiG in your sights and put a burst into him even for half a second, a quarter of a second, you saw an explosion, you saw a parachute, you saw a plane blowing apart and plummeting in pieces to the earth.

Giora himself knows what it’s like to get shot down. Two years and three months later, his Mirage was hit by an Egyptian missile over the Nile delta; he was captured, imprisoned, and somehow managed to survive. Now, in his kitchen, he continues his story of the death burst.

Later, after I retired from the air force, I became chief of Israel’s Civil Aviation Administration. This is the job I have today. I work in an office; I have lots of smart young people serving under me. They bring me, for my approval, drafts of memos and papers that they have written. These documents, I found, were invariably riddled with errors, typos, misspellings, which I had to laboriously correct.

Finally I couldn’t take it any more. I called everybody together. “This is bullshit!” I said, doing my best impersonation of my old squadron commander, Ran Ronen. I gave them Ran’s speech about the death burst.

From now on, I told my young people, I will not approve any document that has even a single error.

“Bring me only the death burst. I do not want to see anything that is not the death burst.”

We are back in Giora’s living room now, eating the sandwiches he had been making in the kitchen. Giora’s wife Miriam is listening and confirming with a laugh that everything Giora says is true.

From then on, my brilliant young people would hover at my shoulder while I proofread their memos and papers. “Is this the death burst, Giora? Did I get the death burst?”

You would not believe how wide their smiles would become when I would hand them back their document and say, “Yes, this is the death burst. You have achieved the death burst.”

Posted in The Book I've Been Avoiding Writing

7 Responses to “The Death Burst”

  1. Mary Doyle
    June 20, 2014 at 5:59 am

    What a great story! In essence, each of us is delivering The Death Burst to Resistance every time we sit down to work. I had to laugh at Giora’s application of this at the office and am thinking I might need to introduce The Death Burst to my students in the fall – thanks for a great Friday post Steve!

  2. george scarvelis
    June 20, 2014 at 6:11 am

    An excellent example of leaders setting high standards, which – in another context – is the best form of mentoring. Once again, Steven, superb. Thanks for this post.

  3. June 20, 2014 at 6:51 am

    Thanks Stephen – you’re right! This is a keeper. Maryanne

  4. Basilis
    June 20, 2014 at 9:13 am

    Fascinating in many ways!

  5. Elise Ackerman
    June 20, 2014 at 12:20 pm

    Stephen,

    Thank you for doing this blog and for the encouragement you give to other writers. I first heard about you from Robert McKee. The quote “resistance is a lying sack of shit” is pinned just below my monitor :-) I recently read Gates of Fire as an ebook and managed to snag a hard copy for my husband. I can’t wait to spend a weekend with The Lion’s Gate.

    I have a question on note taking which is something that I struggle with. I generally try to record interviews, because I like to get things down word for word. I want to get the cadence of the speech, I want to be present in the interview, and I want to be able to go back and double check that my memory is correct. When I take notes, I am replaying everything at the same time the conversation is moving forward. Of course, note taking is much more efficient.

    I am wondering what method you use, and also, what you do when these wonderful memories come out after the tape record (assuming you use one) is put away? Do you just listen really hard and then, at the first moment, jot them down?

    Thank you in advance,

    Elise

    • June 20, 2014 at 1:57 pm

      Thanks, Elise. I’m definitely a tape recorder kind of guy. In Israel I had at least two going in every interview. What I love about taping an interview is that, when you play it back, you hear the person’s voice, you hear their inflection, the whole moment comes back to you. Many times I found myself tearing up, listening to an interview.

      My process (if you’ll forgive that phrase, since I’ve really never done interviewing before so I can’t have a process) is to transcribe each interview from an audio file on my computer, so that I’m typing, listening, stopping the tape, typing some more, etc. I like this too because the words and the person really get into you unconscious, where you can work with them.

      Hope this helps.

  6. June 20, 2014 at 3:27 pm

    Steven, This story is so awesome, I just love the leadership technique and the clear team motivationing results. Thanks for sharing this jewel.
    Challen