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Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

An Air Force chief of staff’s memoir of his time as a Thunderbirds pilot — and oh yeah, also in a war in Southeast Asia

A professor of mine once commented to me that Air Force Chief of Staff General Michael Dugan was the man 'who went down the rabbit hole, never to return.'

Gen_Merrill_McPeak_1993
Gen_Merrill_McPeak_1993

 

By Brian D. Laslie
Deputy Command Historian, U.S. Northern Command and NORAD

A professor of mine once commented to me that Air Force Chief of Staff General Michael Dugan was the man “who went down the rabbit hole, never to return.” He was fired from his post after a mere 79 days in office for not-so-offhand comments made to reporters about how a war against Iraq might take place should Operation Desert Shield turn hot.

 

By Brian D. Laslie
Deputy Command Historian, U.S. Northern Command and NORAD

A professor of mine once commented to me that Air Force Chief of Staff General Michael Dugan was the man “who went down the rabbit hole, never to return.” He was fired from his post after a mere 79 days in office for not-so-offhand comments made to reporters about how a war against Iraq might take place should Operation Desert Shield turn hot.

Into the void left by Dugan, Cheney elevated General Merrill McPeak to become the fourteenth Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force. If no Chief of Staff served so briefly than Dugan, no other had such long lasting cognitive impact as Merrill McPeak. This was years before I would serve in uniform, but the legacies left by McPeak, most of them not good, were still discussed years later. There is little doubt that McPeak was the most influential and remembered CSAF since the Vietnam War. Every bad uniform change, patch design, and defunct management program was somehow laid at the feet of McPeak. So who is this man?

Hangar Flying is an amazingly honest memoir. It is perhaps the most unvarnished account from a general officer I’ve ever read, and not always in a way that McPeak may have intended. The reader is left with the perception that McPeak was always lucky to make his next promotion.

This is a book about flying, for those who fly. It is a self-congratulatory memoir for those with membership in the flying fraternity. As McPeak described it, “Pilot skills and attitude — a controlled response to pressure, a veneer of false modesty — defined one’s status inside the brotherhood.”  Of his tenure as an F-104 driver, McPeak notes that during flying operations, pilots were required to wear spurs to aid in firing of the ejection seat. “Walking around in these spurs made a lot of noise…. I found some excuse to wear my spurs whenever possible,” he admits. This indicates to me that McPeak thought himself just as much old-west gunslinger as he did modern military officer.

On the other hand, it’s easily readable and offers a superb explanation of what flying fighter aircraft is like. McPeak’s description of how air-to-air combat is conducted has not been so readily explained since Robert Shaw’s Fighter Combat: Tactics and Maneuvering, now thirty years old. McPeak’s book also fills a tremendous and growing whole in air power literature, the inter-war periods between Korea and Vietnam and then again between Vietnam and Desert Storm. McPeak’s experience flying the “Century Series,” in his case the F-100 and F-104, fills a gap by demonstrating what it was like to fly in line fighter squadrons who had a primary mission of delivering tactical nuclear weapons from tactical fighter aircraft.

McPeak’s greatest contribution in Hangar Flying is his highlighting of the numerous units, both overseas and stateside, that flew nuclear delivery missions.  In this post-Cold War World, an entire generation (maybe two) has never known the stringent requirements and very real possibility of a nuclear war that permeated units at the tactical level of America’s military service.  McPeak demonstrates that navigate to a target, avoiding intercept — you can’t get into a turning dogfight while carrying a nuclear bomb — and then delivering the ordinance either through low-angle or the more common high-angle or “over the shoulder” technique was an emotionally and physically trying mission practiced repeatedly during training missions. The actual mission itself would have been accomplished as all the while tactical nuclear weapons exploded across the visible landscape; pilots actually wore a pirate-like eye-patch to preserve vision in one of their eyes.

McPeak devotes more chapters to his time with flying with the Air Force’s demonstration team, the Thunderbirds, than any other single subject, including his time in the Vietnam War. His emphasis on former members of the Thunderbirds stands out, and the author never misses an opportunity to indicate this.

In the final chapters, McPeak finally turns his attention to his experience in Vietnam and his time as a Misty Fast-FAC (Forward Air Controller). McPeak became “Misty 94.” (Numbering pilots who perform a certain mission or fly a particular aircraft is a long-standing Air Force tradition; F-117 pilots were all known by their “Bandit Numbers.”) Misty-FACs had the unenviable job of guiding in daylight air strikes, or interdicting them themselves, on the supply routes of the Ho Chi Minh trail in North Vietnam, in the F-100. The Misty pilots held a particularly high loss rate: 35 out of 157 were shot down, two of them twice. If anything, this section is too short, and given the extensive chapters about the Thunderbirds, leaves the reader feeling that either McPeak’s Vietnam time did not have the same impact on him that flying with the Thunderbirds did.

(Next: Volume II of the McPeak trilogy)

Dr. Laslie is Deputy Command Historian, United States Northern Command, U.S. Air Force. He graduated from The Citadel in 2001 with a B.A. in history and served six years in the USAF. He earned his Ph.D. from Kansas State University in 2013 and is the author of The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam.

Photo credit: John K. McDowell/Defense Visual Information Center/Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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