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Lords of the Sky: Fighter Pilots and Air Combat, From the Red Baron to the F-16

 by Dan Hampton, William Morrow, New York, 2014, $29.99

 The title of this massive tome says it all: Fighter pilots have commanded the battlefield’s third dimension from World War I to the present. In making his case, Dan Hampton is not exactly impartial. As a former U.S. Air Force F-16 driver steeped in the profession’s traditions, he accumulated more than 600 combat hours over Iraq and Kosovo. His bestselling memoir Viper Pilot  described the harrowing Wild Weasel missions that earned him four Distinguished Flying Crosses.

Hampton confides that despite this book’s heft, his intent is not to offer a comprehensive chronicle of fighter combat. Rather he seeks to provide “snapshots” that collectively convey the deep and enduring roots of the fighter community’s special brand of esprit. He punctuates the broad sweep of war with extensively researched and expertly told anecdotes of fighter pilots, revealing the tenacious character of individual air combat.

Well-read aviation enthusiasts will be familiar with many of the names and stories that pop up. Examples include German ace Oswald Boelcke’s formulation of fighter combat guidelines in World War I and RAF Fighter Command leader Hugh Dowding’s miraculous success saving his island nation in the Battle of Britain.

At the same time, readers may question some of the choices for inclusion and omission, like why the pioneering fighter tacticians Claire Chennault, Frederick “Boots” Blesse, John Boyd and John Warden did not warrant a mention. There are also some blanket generalizations that will likely provoke controversy and debate, but how could it be otherwise with a stouthearted combat veteran narrating the adventure?

This valuable book is at its best when the author gives brilliantly rendered in-the-cockpit descriptions of fighter combat as only one who has been there can. Starting with Roland Garros in an 80-hp Morane-Saulnier Type L equipped with the first forward-firing machine gun and continuing on to the specially armed supersonic F-16s flown by Hampton and his squadron mates to silence surface-to-air missiles, readers are exposed to what it is really like for the fighter pilot in the hot seat.

Lords of the Sky is compulsory reading for those who long to discern the fighter pilot ethos. Ratchet down the harnesses: It’s going to be a high-G ride!


Originally published in the January 2015 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.