I'm not a flyer, but I always wanted to be. I can't remember why I failed the aviator's written test the air force sergeant gave me back in 1967, right after I'd graduated from the University of Florida. I thought I'd done well. So I became an air force information officer instead. That was during the Vietnam War.
But I always kept my interest, eventually getting to write a book about fighter pilots in Vietnam, Scream of Eagles, which came out in 1990 -- just before the Gulf War.
A lot had happened in fighter aviation since the late 1960s and early 1970s, the period I had concentrated on in the book. I knew our fighter pilots were well trained as the Gulf War heated up, but I'll never forget that day (early morning in Saudi) when co-workers came running into my office and said, "They've started!"
No one really knew what was going to happen.
I turned on the television and began a vigil that wouldn't end for days, whether I was in the office or at home. Being fighter interested, I marveled at the crab-looking F-117 Stealth's early performance. But I also couldn't figure out why they were calling it a fighter. It was a bomber and was bombing.
The fighters were elsewhere -- nimble, ferocious gun-and-missile platforms hunting for kills or patrolling the skies, making sure enemy fighters didn't interfere with the bombers. At least that's the way it appeared on television.
But there was a much bigger fighter story.
By the end of the war, these American fighters had posted an astounding kill ratio of something like thirty-five to zero, although there were later rumors that one U.S. fighter might have been shot down by an Iraqi pilot. Presumably, the enemy had not beaten a single U.S. pilot in air-to-air combat, while it appeared the American fighter pilots had downed every Iraqi jet they had tangled with (a presumption I later found to be wrong).
The interesting thing was that the fighter pilots were not usually identified -- and if they were, only by call sign. "Disco" and "Vegas" come to mind. Fearful of retaliation on their families by terrorists, they were shunning publicity. Depictions showed them handsome, confident, articulate. Who were these new lions? I wondered. How had they gotten where they were? Were they the same as the rare breed I'd encountered in writing Scream of Eagles, which was the story of the founding of Topgun during the Vietnam War.
The way to find out was to find the pilots, interview them, get to know them -- if I could. But most were away in the war. Even if I could find them, there was no guarantee they would talk to me. And there was always the formidable obstacle of the military's office of "public information," a misnomer for the officers and noncoms whose express job it is to keep in-depth information on military affairs away from the public.
I understand the need to keep the public at bay, but dealing with information officers' requirements, forms, shallow press releases, and interminable bureaucratic delays is a sure road to failure -- which, of course, is the point. The military has little use for or understanding of nonfiction book writing, which is the highest form of journalism because it goes the deepest.
So a hard problem was getting access. And once I got that -- by calling friends I'd made while writing Scream -- the hardest part of all was finding the best fighter pilots, whom the book was going to be about; not all the best, which was impossible, but a good sampling of them. There's an unofficial pecking order, not throughout the services but within each, usually pinpointed geographically, that is, by base or region (although some of the pilots you'll read about beginning in Chapter 1, like Dale Snodgrass, are known service wide). The pecking order is generally known on the bases, and you can learn about it if you ask at the right places, like the officers' club.
Fighter pilots are notoriously egotistical -- especially about their own fighting abilities -- so you have to use some judgment there, too. But eventually you hear the same names enough times, or go to the places where only the best are serving -- like Topgun for the navy and Fighter Weapons School for the air force -- and you can come up with a pretty good selection.
Both schools were visited and are written about in this book.
Eventually, I was able to get a pretty good sampling of some of the best, a good number of whom are profiled in the first half of this book, as well as to zero in on an air force squadron with the most kills in the Gulf War. The 58th "Gorillas" from Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, was a ringer squadron with some of the best fighter pilots in the United States. As you will read in the second half of the book, the job they did was as responsible for America's spectacular victory in the Gulf as any segment of the military that has been credited.
But back to the task.
Not only did I want to find out about and profile some of our best fighter pilots -- taking them through the Gulf War -- but I also wanted to put their stories into the proper context -- which, to me, from what I already knew, was the continuum that had started with the Vietnam War and moved through the last two decades to the present.
As you'll read in the main text, the Vietnam War was the crucible that forged the Gulf War victory. Fighter pilots were not trained well for the Vietnam War, and the mistakes made there -- including the shootdowns, deaths, and imprisonments of U.S. fighter pilots -- were the rallying cry for fighter pilots -- air force, navy, and Marine -- who emerged from that conflict and were given the task of training the country's future fighter drivers.
These veterans -- and in some cases their students, who, as time went on, became teachers as well -- were determined not to repeat the fighter training mistakes of pre-Vietnam. They resolved to make sure that future U.S. fighter pilots knew how to dogfight, a skill that had been neglected in training after the Korean War because the predominant opinion among "experts" at that time was that missiles were going to eliminate dogfighting from the air arena forever.
So this story, while mostly concentrating on the hearts, skills, and minds of today's fighter pilots, actually starts in the late 1960s in Vietnam, alludes to that war's legacy in the 1970s, and then begins in earnest in 1981 with a never-before-seen look at the first shootdown of enemy planes by U.S. fighters since Vietnam. That shootdown, seen through the eyes of Dale Snodgrass, serves as a prelude to the rest of the decade -- with its conflicts and fighter innovations -- as we follow some of our best fighter pilots as they grow, learn, and, finally, test themselves in the Gulf War.
To personalize the Vietnam legacy, I've early on told the story of Joe Satrapa, a gutsball navy fighter pilot legend whose fighter pilot life started in Vietnam and ended right after the Gulf War, thus spanning the time period this book is concerned with. Satrapa, like all other good fighter pilots, lived a personal quest to shoot down enemy planes -- "bag a MiG," in the current parlance -- as a way of validating all he'd been and lived for professionally.
Certainly, the quest to get a MiG is a major theme of this book. Some pilots do and some don't. Often success or failure is simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time, for the chances are not what they were in World War II or Korea. But proving oneself in mortal combat -- skillwise, heartwise, often in subliminal ways, good and bad, that even the pilots themselves don't always appear to be aware of -- is a continuing theme through the book because it is a theme in the lives of most fighter pilots.
From Snodgrass and Satrapa, whom, like all the rest, I try to follow through the decade to the Gulf War, we will meet other top fighter pilots in the air force and navy as they go through some of the most exciting and meaningful episodes in their professional lives. These include bouts with deadly "vertigo," the disorientation in bad weather or at night that is a chief noncombat killer of fighter pilots, and launches from and recoveries to carriers under dangerous and scary conditions.
We fly with young Rob Graeter, who will later get two kills in the Gulf War, on his first real combat mission, protecting search planes looking for survivors of the 1983 Russian shootdown of a Korean Air Lines passenger plane, and experience near death in separate mishaps with naval fighter pilots Brian Fitzpatrick and Mark Fox, both of whom go on to play prominent roles in the Gulf War.
In the middle of the decade, we see a major change in fighter tactics that affected all fighter pilots and dogfighting itself. Shooting missiles beyond visual range with good chance of success became a reality for both sides -- the United States and the Soviet Union -- and thus caused our fighter pilots to change the way they approached the arena.
We fly with them in the preliminaries to the Gulf War, see how the 58th is readied for such a conflict, and then fly with them into harm's way -- the first few days of the Gulf War, when no one really knew what was going to happen and the dangers and fears were palpable.
I've tried to personalize the story by going beyond the fighter pilots' jobs and machines to show who they are on a human level. What their lives are like. What they care most about, their ups, their downs. Who they really are.
While the air force and navy are amply covered, the Marines, possessing the smallest group of fighter pilots of the three, are not. Early on, I heard how good Marine fighter pilots were and wanted to include them, but after spending literally three years hunting down, traveling to, and interviewing air force and navy pilots -- amassing over two hundred hours of taped interviews -- there just wasn't enough time or money left to go further.
However, one Marine, Chuck Magill, was flying with the 58th when it forged its great record -- a near-moment-by-moment account of which occupies the last 40 percent of the book -- and he and his exploits are covered. I hope that suffices, because the Marines have always had a great fighter tradition, and now -- flying the F/A-18 Hornet and AV-8 Harrier, the jet that can lift off and hover like a helicopter -- they are certainly continuing that tradition.
However, no Marines, other than Magill, got air-to-air kills during the Gulf War, as their planes concentrated mostly on bombing, and my focus was on "getting MiGs."
Most of all, I think this story, especially as it moves through the 1980s, shows how important the pilot -- as opposed to the plane or branch of service -- is in air-to-air combat. One fighter pilot told me that at the top -- that is, among the best of the best of them -- you could put any pilot in any one of the jets and, with a little orientation (including carrier landing for the air force pilots) he'd do just as well as he had in his own jet.
At the top, the skill and spirit are what counts -- not the uniform.
The men written about here are a rare, elite breed. They are like professional all-star athletes but, on the average, are more mature -- mainly, I would guess, because of the more dangerous nature of the "sport" they are in. As they like to say, in their league there are no points for second place.
So, at its essence, this is a behind-the-scenes story of the best of those little-known men who fly and fight our fastest, most deadly jet fighters -- the F-14 Tomcat, F-15 Eagle, F-16 Viper, and F/A-18 Hornet. It's timely, for these men are in our aircraft carriers now, or on alert fields waiting to scramble. Some have assumed higher positions of authority for the air wars of the future, or have gotten out and now fly in the Reserves or National Guard because they didn't want to end their flying with a desk job or, at best, reduced flying hours.
They all love flying fighters, which is not to say just flying.
They are men of action more than words. So buckle your chin strap and hold on. Like the lawmen who built and tamed the early Wild West, these fighter pilots should make Americans -- and all lovers of individualism and courage -- proud. The horses are now mighty jets spewing fire, and the six-guns have given way to missiles and 20-millimeter cannons.
But the tradition lives.
Copyright © 2004 by Bil Wright