The Fighter Pilot’s Survival Guide

Today’s manual of fighter tactics was written 100 years ago, in World War I.

The strategies of Eddie Rickenbacker’s era live on today with pilots flying F-22 Raptors in the 94th Fighter Squadron. (USAF/Tech Sgt Rey Ramon)
Air & Space Magazine

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Not long after the Korean War, Air Force F-86 Sabre pilot Frederick “Boots” Blesse, who died in 2012, wrote the famous fighter tactics book, No Guts, No Glory. In it, he reminded pilots of the value of formation flying. “Play on the team—no individualists,” Blesse wrote. “The quickest way to be an element leader is to be the best wingman in the squadron.” His book was still being passed between squadron mates as late as the Vietnam War, and influenced fighter training in both the U.S. Navy and the Royal Air Force. Blesse’s lessons, which included “Divide the enemy and conquer,” continued the lesson that Boelcke had started long ago.

Keep an Eye on Your Opponent
Vietnam-era pilots—some with tattered copies of No Guts, No Glory in their flightsuits—fell back on the hard-learned lessons of the past, including this one from Dicta Boelcke. Robin Olds brought to Vietnam all of his experience from World War II air combat. Tom Crouch remembers hearing him talk about one of his strategies: “When he came into the combat zone, he’d turn off the airplane,” says Crouch. (Olds, an Air Force brigadier general, died in 2007.) An ace in the North American P-51 Mustang but now dealing with a cacophony of electronic sensors, Olds would let his F-4 Phantom go silent. “He’d just turn it off and go back to basics—eyes outside the cockpit. That connects the modern pilot with Oswald Boelcke,” says Crouch. “He learned which modes of technology he could do without, and focused on the same things that World War I pilots did.” After returning from Vietnam, Olds was characteristically blunt with Air Force leadership about its pilots’ over-reliance on technology in the face of deteriorating air-to-air skills.

Don’t Be Deceived By Ruses
The element of surprise is as crucial to fighter pilots today as it was in Boelcke’s time. “As adversary pilots in today’s military, we’re often technologically disadvantaged,” says Brian Ferguson. “Our frontline equipment is reserved for frontline combat. To minimize our disadvantages, we rely on skill, experience, and occasionally, treachery…. This is relevant not only in the visual arena [as it was in World War I] but in radar tactics as well. A properly executed ‘rope-a-dope’ [such as setting up an opponent to rely on his missiles, while defeating him with superior maneuvers] by a low-tech bandit aircraft can sometimes confound highly experienced aircrew in state-of-the art fighters.” Olds was one of the planners of an elaborate ruse during the Vietnam War—Operation Bolo—in which F-4 Phantoms armed with air-to-air missiles tangled with MiG-21s flown by North Vietnamese pilots who had expected bomb-laden, easy-to-hit F-105 Thunderchief strike aircraft. The F-4 pilots destroyed seven MiGs, with two more probable kills.

Keep the Sun Behind You
“That’s very important when you run an intercept,” says Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Vollkommer, who flies the F-22 Raptor. “It’s very applicable today, because the sun can give away your position; it can cause a sun glint. It’s one of the things we focus on and keep in the back of our minds, so we can exploit our position.”

Air Force Academy graduate Colonel Steven Slick is nodding his head as he reviews Dicta Boelcke in his comfortable office at Georgia’s Robins Air Force Base, surrounded by the mementos of a long career. “A lot of the tactics have stayed the same,” observes Slick, a former F-4 and F-16 pilot. When he wasn’t training to intercept bogeys from over the horizon, he lived by classic close-in tactics. “Get on top of someone to shoot them down. Use stealth of some sort. Come out of the sun and for the most part come from behind, if you want to be a man about it,” he says. “The best shot is the one that no one expects you to make.”

Boelcke’s Legacy
Not all of Boelcke’s rules have survived the advances in technology that define how fighter pilots today wage war. With the advent of radar-guided and over-the-horizon missiles, for example, the guns-blazing “knife fight in a phone booth” scenario is rare, so Boelcke’s advice, “Assail your opponent from behind,” might be changed to “Assail your opponent from afar.” For generations of fighter pilots, the inevitable confusion that results when several high-performance aircraft maneuver in close quarters has claimed lives. But if aerial warfare does get intimate, “[b]eing astern of an opponent negates his ability to fire at you,” says Ferguson. But with modern weapons systems, he adds, attacks also may be mounted from in front.

What is more lasting about Boelcke than his list of commandments is the value he placed on leadership and the pilot culture. The calm, inspirational Boelcke was idolized among his pilots—von Richthofen (the Red Baron) among them. He instilled a sense that they were a combined fighting force, no longer the “lone wolves” of a few years prior. “One of the things Boelcke did was mentor promising pilots and bring them up through the squadron,” Muller says. “These men wrote the manual.”

The sense that a fighter pilot is part of an elite club and heir to a select body of knowledge connects the World War I “Knights of the Sky” mystique that surrounded Boelcke, von Richthofen, and Eddie Rickenbacker to pilots today, who have to embody absolute confidence in a hyper-competitive world, says Slick. He defends the stereotype of the swaggering, macho fighter pilot. “My wife hates fighter pilots; she’d just as soon shoot them as talk to them. Fortunately, I met her before I became one,” he says. “There’s the idea that fighter pilots are arrogant, but in the air it’s important to believe that you can go out and do a good job and not look like an idiot.” Slick says that between busting on-target times during combat exercises, straying into no-go zones, or simply displaying poor airmanship, “there are so many ways to screw up.”

Vollkommer last flew the Raptor with the 94th Fighter Squadron, one of the Air Force’s oldest units. It started in 1917 as the 94th Aero Squadron, the famed “Hat in the Ring” unit of Rickenbacker that fought in some of the bloodiest World War I campaigns, including the 47-day Meuse-Argonne offensive, which ended with the Armistice on November 11, 1918. “We were infused with that history,” Vollkommer says. “[Periodically], we would have one of the young lieutenants give us a history lesson and discuss tactics. Even though we didn’t break out the dusty books, there was definitely an idea that we were part of that heritage. Overall, as a culture, I do think we’re very embedded in the historical perspective…the idea that we came from a long line of great fighter pilots and we have to live up to that.”

In 2008, Vollkommer traveled with General Michael Moseley, then the Air Force chief of staff, to visit the Lafayette Escadrille monument, located just outside Paris in the small town of Marnes-la-Coquette. There, an arch honors America’s first combat pilots, who flew for France before America entered World War I. The French air force pays tribute to these airmen by continuing the heraldry of the unit, which today flies the Mirage 2000N as the 2/4 Lafayette Strike Squadron.

Below the monument lie the remains of 70 Americans who died during the war, including those who perished after the unit was absorbed by the fledgling U.S. Air Service in 1917. During memorial services, white roses are laid on the sarcophagi of the fallen pilots. “It was very humbling,” Vollkommer says, to walk down in that crypt and honor his fallen comrades. The effect was bookends—the earliest fighter pilots, who entered battle in wood-and-fabric airplanes, being remembered by descendants who use computers to control the airplane and aim the guns but who adhere to the same strategies to win the fight.

About John Sotham
John Sotham

A former associate editor of Air & Space, John Sotham is a hopelessly nearsighted frequent flyer, with thousands of hours logged in exit rows worldwide. He is a retired U.S. Air Force Reserve colonel and a former crew chief on the F-4D Phantom II and A-10A “Warthog.” He started collecting aviation books when he was eight years old. Any opinions expressed are solely the author’s.

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