Book Review: Top Gun and Scream of Eagles

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Two books about the US Navy’s Fighter Weapons School (NFWS) show how military leaders can surrender good sense for the siren song of technology, or more prosaically, fall for glib salesman-talk.

 

Top Gun and Scream of Eagles record the creation, the raison d`être and the result of the establishment of the NFWS – better known as “Top Gun”. The NFWS was conceived in 1968 and ran its first class in March 1969 when it became apparent to the US Navy – which then (as now) flies one of the world`s largest air forces – was losing the air war over North Vietnam. The skill of socialist Vietnam`s “peasant pilots” was as unpleasant a shock to Navy brass as the fact that their AIM7 Sparrow air-to-air missiles (AAM) were not working as advertised.

It is axiomatic that a first class pilot can get a first-rate performance out of a second rate aircraft. It is also true that a poor pilot will never get first rate performance from a first rate aircraft. The US Navy of the 1960s had both good planes and good pilots, but it also had bad policies, worse missiles and had outlawed dogfighting – the latter as much for peacetime safety reasons as for believing sales-talk that the missile had made the gun and its use obsolete. For this reason, the F4 Phantom, then entering service had no internal gun; the same being the case with several ship classes then being commissioned.

This was a mistake, one readily and statistically discernable: In the Pacific, Navy pilots during World War Two downed 15 Japanese planes for every loss of their own. Over Korea, the US Air Force bested between seven and 14 for each loss “depending on whose figures you believe”, while over North Vietnam it was “at best” 2.5 kills for every loss. At worst it “was below 1:1 in some particularly disastrous 1968 engagements,” meaning the peasant pilots were shooting down more US aircraft than the most sophisticated air forces (the USAF and US naval aviation) were able to do in turn. Oh dear!

A study commissioned by the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO, the chief of the US Navy) into this disconcerting turn of events found much to blame – and in parenthesis – should be required study material for all involved in aerial warfare, especially for air forces enjoying peacetime circumstances.

Conducted by naval aviator Captain Frank Ault, the report found fault with both the radar-guided Sparrow (at best one kill for every ten fired) and the heat-seeking AIM9 Sidewinder. It also made many recommendations, advising, in short the creation of the NFWS where pilots could be taught the practical side of Sun Tzu`s advice that if you know yourself and if you know your enemy, you will fight a hundred battles without loss. Ault found that the emphasis on missiles had resulted in a generation of interceptor pilots who had no clear idea of their aircraft`s capabilities and limitations, who doubted their ability to close with the enemy, while conversely having an exaggerated impression of their skill. They had an equally hazy idea about the capabilities and limitations and capabilities of their opponents – both man and machine.

In short, Ault found the US Navy pilot of 1968 knew neither himself nor his enemy – and their lay the seeds of their defeat. The CNO ordered an immediate correction, and in March 1969 a “graduate school” for fighter pilots opened in a stolen trailer next to the runway at Naval Air Station Miramar, San Diego, California, known then and now as “Fightertown USA”, something the reader may recall from the film “Top Gun”, starring Tom Cruise. The results were impressive. When aerial fighting resumed (there was a hiatus from 1968 to 1972, when the Navy`s kill ratio shot up to 12:1. hall reports that the USAF ratio remained “relatively unchanged; they lagged in realistic training efforts until after the end of the war” (the Red Flag programme at Nellis Air Force Base at Las Vegas in Nevada.

Both books are a good read, but Scream of Eagles, being the longer, has more detail and therefore offers especially aircrew better value. Of particular interest is where and how the later first Top Gun instructors and students learned the capabilities of enemy planes, then the MiG-17 Fresco and the MiG-21 Fishbed: 1969 over the desert ranges north of Nellis. The text is careful to avoid saying where these aircraft were based, but descriptions in the text and current knowledge makes it clear the MiGs operated from the still-super-secret Groom Lake facility, the beloved “Area 51” of UFO folklore.  

Read more about this, discussions on fighter tactics and the US Navy`s return to triumph over Vietnam on those pages. Go and get these books! Then let us talk about what we are doing in Africa about realistic training and air combat…

Top Gun – The Navy`s Fighter Weapons School

George Hall

Berkley Book

New York

1987

Scream of Eagles

Robert K Wilcox

Pocket Books



1990