How the Helicopter Changed Modern Warfare
by Walter J. Boyne, Pelican Publishing Co., Gretna, La., 2011, $29.95.
In his outstanding history of the helicopter’s contributions to the last 60 years of warfare, renowned aviation historian (and Aviation History contributing editor) Walter Boyne contends that choppers are the neglected stepchild in the family of military aircraft. He makes a convincing case that through the latter half of their six decades of frontline service, combat helicopters have not kept pace technologically with their fixedwing counterparts. Yes, the “helicopter has unquestionably had great effect upon modern warfare,” he reasons. However, the exemplary progression of rotorcraft from reconnaissance oddity to lifesaving medevac platform, and from indispensable troop transport to dedicated gunship, ultimately slowed to an agonizing stagnancy.
It is astounding to learn that 43 percent of American helicopters in the Vietnam War were lost in action, a lamentable statistic that would be bad enough if the story ended there. Unfortunately, as Boyne makes clear, cutting-edge breakthroughs such as stealth technology that have since made fixed-wing aircraft more effective have failed to materialize for rotorcraft. There have been notable attempts to advance the helicopter’s state of the art. But such promising programs as the advanced-propulsion Lockheed AH-56 Cheyenne and the stealthy Sikorsky-Boeing RAH-66 Comanche were unceremoniously canceled after schedule delays, cost overruns and technical problems. In what should be required reading for military, government and industry leaders, Boyne offers a set of organizational solutions that would blend combat requirements with what contractors can realistically deliver within a five-year timeline at a fair and unalterable price.
To be sure, overcoming the physical limitations presented by the retreating blade stall phenomenon is daunting. Even the brawniest off-the-shelf helicopters are generally unable to exceed 180 knots. Yet if the same research and development resources were applied to helicopters as have been expended on fixed-wing aircraft, then it might have been possible, and may still be, to bridge the technological divide.
This is the best overall analysis of helicopters at war ever written, arguably destined to become the standard reference on the subject. It brims with historical information, including dramatic stories of brilliant inventors and heroic aircrews. Fittingly, Boyne’s final point is that helicopters have made their mark on modern warfare thanks mainly to the remarkable men and women who have operated them under the most adverse conditions.
Originally published in the September 2011 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.