Book Review: Brassey’s Air Combat Reader (By Walter J. Boyne and Philip Handleman) : AH

An ambitious new anthology encompasses a wealth of aviation anecdotes and analysis.

By C.V. Glines

New aviation anthologies are rarely published these days, especially ones that attempt to include the best writing about combat aviation since the airplane was born. Two pilots–Walter J. Boyne, one of America’s premier aviation writers, and Philip Handleman, author and president of a film company–have teamed up to create Brassey’s Air Combat Reader (Batsford Brassey, Washington, D.C., $24.95), a thoughtful collection very much worth having on your library shelf.

The work begins with a well-grounded discussion by Handleman of air warfare and the characteristics of men who have engaged in air-to-air combat. He includes the role of women in noncombat roles.

Brassey’s Air Combat Reader is divided into six sections, to cover all the wars in which the United States has been militarily involved in the air, plus the Middle East conflicts. There are 28 excerpts from published articles and books, each preceded by commentary on its significance in the development of air warfare.

British pilot Murray Peden was one of the bomber pilots assigned to drop canisters and packing cases of ammunition, guns, printing presses, radios and crates of pigeons at night from a Consolidated B-24 to French Resistance fighters during World War II. In an understated way, Peden also tells about a chaff-dropping mission with a specially equipped Boeing B-17 in which the plane was pounded by a stalking Junkers Ju-88. The result was a windmilling propeller, a stubborn engine fire and a near-fatal collision with another bomber on landing.

The U.S. Navy WWII vignettes chosen for the collection include the story of the famous “Turn on the lights!” order of Vice Adm. Marc A. Mitscher, commander of Task Force 58, during the First Battle of the Philippine Sea. On June 20, 1944, Mitscher sent his pilots to attack the retreating Japanese carrier force at a maximum distance from his task force. Regulations at the time forbade lighting up a carrier at night in hostile waters when aircraft returned from a mission, to keep it from being a target for enemy subs. But Mitscher defied convention, a decision that endeared him for all time to Navy pilots.

In one of the anthology’s Korean War stories, Frederick Blesse, a double ace in a double tour, tells about his adventures in a North American F-86, culminating in a bail-out. The late Donald D. Engen, former director of the National Air and Space Museum, tells of carrier operations against North Korean targets. And the section on Vietnam includes a fascinating description by Robert Mason of what it was like to fly a helicopter into the middle of battle to deliver troops and fly out the wounded around the clock.

Brassey’s Air Combat Reader also gives us a fascinating look at the Six-Day War in the Middle East in June 1967, including an inside look at Israel’s Operation Moked, the surprise pre-emptive assault on Arab forces that spelled victory for its outnumbered air force.

The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird is the hero of the 1986 surgical strikes against Libya as described by Brian Shul, pilot, and Walter Watson, Jr., the rear-seat reconnaissance systems officer. Seldom have we been able to hear what actually happens when aircrews are flying at Mach 3.2 at 80,000 feet.

Also included are three excerpts about the Gulf War in a section titled “Which Technologies Worked?” that focuses on stealth/low-visibility weapons, laser-guided bombs, air refueling and high-speed anti-radiation missiles (HARM). The action part of the book concludes with a stirring account of a McDonnell-Douglas F-15E Strike Eagle mission in which it was diverted from a Scud combat air patrol to help rescue a covert team on the ground that was being attacked by Iraqi forces.

The book ends appropriately with a philosophical discussion by Guilio Douhet, the Italian air power advocate who first favored an independent air force, and U.S. Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell, who shared his dream.

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