In sport — particularly in highly technical worlds like cycling, sailing and rowing — performance directors are constantly searching for the tiny fractions that will give their athletes the winning edge. The same is true in the world of combat aircraft where the Eurofighter Typhoon continually evolves to keep its air forces ahead of the curve. We speak to BAE Systems Chief Test Pilot Steve Formoso, and five-time Olympic medallist Sir Ben Ainslie — the most successful Olympic sailor of all time and currently leading the British challenge in the America’s Cup — about the search for ‘marginal gains’.

Incremental gain is not just theory — it’s crucial to staying in front.

When the margins are fine everything counts: split seconds, fractions of a heartbeat, tiny movements, they all make a difference. The race is always on to achieve. There’s a constant need to go faster, be lighter, be more efficient, have greater endurance, cut down the reaction time. And it’s all to gain the edge over your opponent … one per cent at a time.

Sir Ben Ainslie

Sir Ben Ainslie, the most successful competitive sailor in Olympic history.

When you are working to seize an advantage and when every split second counts, how much is that down to seeking marginal gains?

Steve Formoso: Everything you do with the fighter aircraft like Eurofighter Typhoon relies on having that edge. Incremental gain is not just theory — it’s crucial to staying in front. If you’re in an Air-to-Air engagement then you’re trying to get your weapon off faster than your adversary. 

You’re also trying to stay as far away from your adversary as possible. That’s why incremental gains are so vital. Those fine margins — how quickly you can detect something, how quickly you can target something, how quickly you can get the weapon system to support a weapon — make a real difference. In the fighter jet world split seconds can be important because two aircraft closing in on one another can be doing a combined speed of up to 30 miles a minute.

What are the small differences you’ve introduced that help keep you successful?

Sir Ben Ainslie: We’ve worked with BAE Systems on on-board communication headsets, developing a bone conduction system that’s significantly better than what we had before.

When you are doing in excess of 40 knots, with constant spray coming across the boat, being able to communicate clearly and without shouting to someone 10 feet away is a big advantage – but not easy to achieve.

Steve Formoso: While on the outside the aircraft looks pretty much the same there have been constant enhancements throughout its life that continue to keep Typhoon ahead of the pack.

One of the most striking developments has come with the helmet. Its capabilities have progressed a long way. It has changed the way you use the weapon system, makes many things a lot quicker and allows you to utilise the aircraft to the limits of its capability far more effectively. From having to interpret what you see by looking at a display and then potentially matching up what you see with the outside world, you can simply look at a target and if it’s within the weapon system’s field of regard, then you can put that target straight into the weapon system.

All the time we’re developing Typhoon and, at each enhancement, we also improve the man machine interface. That’s important because it’s all about allowing the pilot to use the capability that Typhoon gives them as quickly and as effectively as possible.

Bone Conduction Technology Gives Ainslie’s Team Cutting-Edge

BAE Systems is adapting cutting-edge bone conduction technology for Sir Ben Ainslie’s British Land Rover BARs sailing team, as it seeks to boost the team’s bid to win the America’s Cup in 2017.

The technology, which uses the body’s natural ability to transmit sound through bone conduction, is being applied at Land Rover BAR as a way of dramatically improving communication between crewmates and support boats.

BAE Systems’ expertise in bone conduction technology, used elsewhere to aid armed forces personnel on the battlefield, has allowed it to develop a communications device that enables users to keep both their ears free so external sounds can be heard, whilst providing the ability to communicate clearly with crewmates despite the harsh and noisy conditions.

How much is the America’s Cup a test of boat and sail design as well as sailing skills?

Sir Ben Ainslie: Traditionally it’s always been as much about the boat and sail design as about the sailors and that hasn’t changed with the new design of foiling multihulls.

If the America’s Cup is a test of boat and sail design as well as sailing skills, how much is your world a test of the engineering skills or the piloting skills?

Steve Formoso: Every time you use the aircraft operationally it’s a test of the whole team. But it’s not just about the pilot in the cockpit, it’s also about all of the background work that gets the aircraft airborne and keeps that aircraft airborne. Can we make the aircraft quicker to turn around, can we make it easier to maintain, and so on? All of these things are looked at and refined constantly.

That’s how you get a much more effective product. The quicker you can turn the aircraft around, the quicker it becomes available again and hence the more effective it is for them. How do you ensure each element— the crew, the designers, the boat builders — stay at the top of their game?

Sir Ben Ainslie

Typhoon is doing the jobs it is being tasked to do and doing them exceptionally well. It’s world class!

Steve Formoso: This process is all about the whole team coming together. It’s not just about having the aircraft there and the guys going off flying. It’s about the various design teams understanding how the aircraft is used and then being able to exploit the weapon system to its optimum. Then we make further incremental gains to improve the performance.Sir Ben Ainslie: In the last two years we have gone from a small core team to more than 130 people. It’s a lot of growth to manage while keeping everyone motivated and at the top of their game. We’ve relied on good communications within each department and having an open and honest feedback policy. If there is an issue we get through the issue together as a team, work through it together and make changes together.

And it’s a process that’s going on all the time. There’s no point in a pilot simply jumping in an aircraft and going for it. To exploit any improvements properly, you have to be trained. And I’m sure that’s the same for Sir Ben and his crew. So, we’re always working on a training solution in parallel with what we do with the aircraft design. We train so that we’re comfortable with what we need to do to exploit the weapon system to its best advantage.

How does the feedback loop between designers and sailors or pilots work?

Sir Ben Ainslie: We have a couple of people who work on both teams, and they, along with the coaching and performance analysis teams, are the main bridge between design and sailing. But we also have a capture meeting after each day’s sailing and testing that includes everyone with an interest in what happened from either the design or the sailing side.

Steve Formoso: It goes on all the time as we look to refine the product. People sometimes get the wrong idea about the role of a test pilot. Yes, just getting in and flying an aircraft to its absolute limits would be nice but you’re not going to get much out of it. You need to know exactly what you’re trying to achieve before you start out each test flight.

You need to know where the improvement is in the weapon system and how to exploit it.

Throughout the design phase we work with the operators, like the RAF pilots who will fly the finished product. We get them involved because they look at the operational tasks the aircraft might be asked to do so at every stage there’s a pilot in the loop.

How do you test the effectiveness of the changes you want to introduce and how quickly can you implement these?

Sir Ben Ainslie and team on the sailing boat

Sir Ben Ainslie and team aboard the Land Rover sailing boat

Sir Ben Ainslie: We have put a lot of resource into simulation processes to test ideas without having to build everything. These include the normal Computation Fluid Dynamics that you’d expect on a design that relies so heavily on aero and hydrofoils, but extends to bespoke race modelling that we have developed internally. 

How quickly we can implement something depends a lot on what it is. Our hydrofoils are very sophisticated items and take a long while to build so the whole design strategy is planned out a long-time in advance whereas something like a control system’s software change can be done overnight by our engineers.

In between we have partners that help us with rapid prototyping for smaller items in metal additives and these can be turned around in a few days.

Steve Formoso: We look at how we do things all the way through the process. Initially we talk something through and see if it makes sense. If it does, we model it and take a first look at it as a general concept. We’ll end up modelling those and seeing if they work, demonstrating gains and improvements, then we’ll actually put it into code.

If, for example, it was an avionics change then we’ll look at that on a rig before putting it in the aircraft and seeing what it does in the baseline operating environment. We may go back and refine it during the process. We’ll also get the RAF Test and Evaluation team to look at it in as close to the operational environment as they can get. Then we will refine it further as much as we can.

How important — in terms of winning and losing — is the marginal gains approach? Are there examples in previous America’s Cup races that you can discuss?

Sir Ben Ainslie: I think we won the 34th America’s Cup with Oracle Team USA in 2013 because we were willing to keep developing right through the competition. We went from having a significant speed deficit in some areas to a clear advantage and that was because we kept chipping away at it, one marginal gain at a time.

And for you Steve — just how important is making marginal gains?

Sir Ainslie's team aboard the Land Rover sailing boat

Sir Ainslie's team aboard the Land Rover sailing boat

Steve Formoso: Incredibly important. We’ve always got to strive to make those gains because everyone else is doing it. In our world it’s the person who can make those capability improvements the quickest, that wins. That’s not just winning in the context of a dog fight but it’s also about aircraft sales and the utility of the aircraft for a customer as well.

A good example is the Defensive Aids Sub System, which we are always looking at refining the performance, but it goes across the board, it really does. Even with the Phased Enhancements we are always refining those as we go through and we learn from our experiences. We’re always taking the lessons learnt and trying to improve.

In your view, what areas are most important — human factors or technology innovations?

Sir Ben Ainslie: They are both essential and inextricable to the process of winning the America’s Cup. 

Steve Formoso: The human factors are all important because if you can’t use a technology innovation, or if it’s difficult to use, then it doesn’t give you any advantage. So, it has to be usable and the only way you can do that is with effective human factors. It’s about being as efficient as possible right from the design to the human in the cockpit and I’m sure it’s the same with Ben and his team. 

Do you ever look outside the world of sailing to see if there are any things you can introduce — whether that’s diet and nutrition or advanced engineering and specialist technologies. Can you give us any examples of this?

Sir Ben Ainslie: I’ve already mentioned the bone conduction communication system developed with us by BAE Systems, but there are plenty more examples. I believe that Britain leads the world in some areas of engineering like aviation and motorsport and we’ve made big efforts to reach out to those people and see if what they are doing can help solve our problems.

So we have extensive technology partnerships with everyone from title partner Land Rover, to metal additives specialist Renishaw.

Steve Formoso: We have an advanced engineering relationship with some automobile manufacturers and look at advances they’ve made. We’ve looked at that in terms of the baseline aircraft designs as well as potential production improvements. So, just as our team spends a lot of time refining how we test the aircraft, I know the production team spends a lot of time refining how they produce the aircraft to ensure we have a serviceable aircraft as quickly as possible.

We’ve also got links with universities and other technology companies. We’re always looking at how innovations and emerging technology might be useful. We can’t rest on our laurels or just work in a little bubble of the combat aircraft. You have to look outside. If you’re the first company to take advantage of a new technology, then that might give you the operational advantage in the longer term.

RS43072 150724 ACWS Portsmouth 118

We’re always looking at how innovations and emerging technology might be useful.

If you’re forever incrementally pushing the boundaries to gain that extra 1% – when are you ever satisfied?

Sir Ben Ainslie: I don’t think we are, that’s the way we’re going to win the America’s Cup.

Steve Formoso: You can never really be satisfied. It’s a never-ending race for perfection and our adversaries — be they a terrorist on the ground, a hostile aircraft, or a commercial competitor — are always making iterative changes to what they do. If you don’t develop what you do, if you stand still, then you risk losing any advantage you may have enjoyed and it can go the other way.

As this article looks at the parallels between how marginal gains are applied in the military fast jets world and the world of sport, what could pilots learn from sportsmen and vice versa? Ditto the engineers from both areas?

Sir Ben Ainslie: We don’t have anyone shooting at us, which makes quite a difference. But we still have plenty of pressure to perform in an environment which requires split second decision making and tiny differences in performance. So I would imagine that the physical and mental requirements are quite similar for pilots and America’s Cup helmsmen, and we could spend a lot of time profitably comparing notes about how we go about improving our own performances.

We still have plenty of pressure to perform in an environment which requires split second decision making and tiny differences in performance.

We have a structural engineer working with us, seconded from BAE Systems’ Military Air business, and he’s been teaching us a lot about refining our manufacturing processes. And from talking to him, I think he’s been learning from the speed with which we have to react. We are a much smaller organisation so that makes it easier, but we will design, build, launch and sail four test boats and one race boat in three years. I understand it took a lot longer to design and build the Typhoon.

Steve Formoso: It’s a difficult one because I don’t know too much about Sir Ben’s world but I’d guess we probably operate in similar ways. I think a lot of it is in the mindset and know-how. In our world we try and package what we do so that we always know what we’re going to do next and have a very structured view on how that’s going to work. It’s about knowing the best way to exploit your machine and you train to a high level. It’s much the same approach as a sportsman. You don’t just go down to the running track and decide you’re going to be the 100 metre sprint man. It’s going to take you years of practising, training and improving things. It’s the same for pilots and it’s the same for us as a business.

What do you consider the parallels between industry and sport to achieve optimum performance? For instance, the use of simulators for training and other technologies and techniques.

BAR Bermuda

Sir Ainslie's team aboard the Land Rover sailing boat

Sir Ben Ainslie: The use of simulators is a clear parallel, I’m sure both groups utilise simulation and simulators to improve performance. But there are much broader similarities

in that we must develop a full-grown business to conduct our challenge for the America’s Cup. We have design, research, marketing, communications, administration, finance and commercial departments just like many other medium-sized businesses and we have to learn the best practice in all those areas as well as the sporting side.

And as America’s Cup teams become much bigger organisations we can absorb a lot of lessons in management and the way people design and develop cutting edge technologies in aviation and motorsport.

Steve Formoso: I guess for me it boils down to the pursuit of excellence. The Holy Grail is the perfect performance. That’s what we’re always striving for.

You’ve got to try to get the best performance you can out of an aircraft. A lot of that is the practice, the rehearsal, the visualisation.

For example, we use simulators a lot and practise events before we do them. That way, even before we’ve climbed into the cockpit we’ve got the muscle memory and we’ve learnt the control inputs, we’ve learnt what it’s going to look and feel like long before we actually see it.

Do you think there are any similar challenges that engineers have to tackle when
developing technologies for sailing boats and combat aircraft?

Sir Ben Ainslie: If we look at the structural engineering, then both groups are pushing for the lightest possible structure that will do the job. Of course, just defining what the job is – i.e. the physical stresses that the boat or aircraft will be subject to – is hard enough, and

then you have to find innovative ways to engineer and build it. In the case of something like the Human Machine Interface (HMI) – another area that BAE Systems have helped us with – then the problems are very similar.

The pilot and helmsman must both have ways to control the machine that minimise the mental effort. The easier it is to fly or sail, the more time you will have to worry about the opponent.

Bermuda Bar boat

The easier it is to fly or sail, the more time you will have to worry about the opponent.

Steve Formoso: There are some fantastic contributions going on in hangers that could be described as marginal gains: in the production process, in the logistics side. These all contribute. The pilot is just one part of it but to focus purely on him or the engineering would be wrong because there is a massive pyramid of incremental gains going on.

It’s about being as efficient as possible right from the design to the human in the cockpit. It’s the same with Ben and his team I’m sure. And it’s all about a much broader team. Just as it would not be possible for Sir Bradley Wiggins to win the Tour de France on his own, it wouldn’t be possible for a pilot to operate to his best without the whole of the team working alongside him.

Sir Ben Ainslie
Fact File

Sir Ben Ainslie is the most successful Olympic sailor of all time. At his first Olympic Games, aged 19, he won an Olympic silver medal and went on to establish himself as the world’s best by winning consecutive gold medals at the next four Olympic Games.

Following his success in the 2012 London Olympics, he turned his focus to the next challenge, competing with Ben Ainslie Racing (BAR) on the 2012/13 America’s Cup World Series. In the summer of 2013, he went on to join ORACLE TEAM USA on board for their defence of the 34th Cup. He helped the American team win the event, 9-8, against Emirates Team New Zealand and in doing so was instrumental in one of the greatest comebacks sport has ever seen.

Now he is Land Rover BAR Team Principal, Ben is leading the British entry into the 35th America’s Cup.

Career highlights

  • 2013: Winner of the 34th America’s Cup, San Francisco – USA with ORACLE TEAM USA
  • 2013: Broke the ‘Round the Island Race Multihull record’ with J.P. Morgan BAR in the AC45
  • London 2012 Olympic Games: Gold Medal
  • Beijing 2008 Olympic Games: Gold Medal
  • 2007: Winner – Louis Vuitton Cup, Valencia – Spain with
  • Team NZ
  • Athens 2004 Olympic Games: Gold Medal
  • Sydney 2000 Olympic Games: Gold Medal
  • Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games: Silver Medal
  • 11 times World Champion
  • Nine times European Champion
  • Four times World Sailor of the Year