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Flying Camelot: the F-15, the F-16, and the Weaponization of Fighter Pilot Nostalgia [Book Review]

Chris McInnes takes a look at Flying Camelot: the F-15, the F-16, and the Weaponization of the Fighter Pilot Nostalgia by Michael W. Hankins. McInnes is quick to highlight that this book is about so much more than the platforms on the cover, exploring fighter pilots, aircraft, and the broader culture. In particular, Dr. Hankin takes a look at John Boyd and his followers’ contribution to the development of fighter aircraft. Using additional analytical layers of historiography Dr. Hankin challenges ideological views of Boyd and shines a light on the failings, as well as successes, of Boyd’s contributions. McInnes’ comprehensive review will not only show why this air power historical book is worth your time, but excite you to getting your very own copy.


Dr Michael Hankins, the curator of United States Air Force (USAF) history at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, has produced an insightful, engaging, and highly accessible account of how a small group of people with a particular worldview sought to influence American military development in the post-Vietnam era. I highly encourage readers of The Central Blue to join Dr Hankins’ 200-page guided tour through the machinations of the United States (US) military-industrial-congressional complex, and to reflect on the insights for those working in analogous Australian environments.



But fair warning: this is not a book about the F-15, the F-16, and fighter pilots despite the title. Instead, Dr Hankins has produced a well-researched and argued analysis of the ideas and influence of John Boyd and his acolytes in, firstly, the Fighter Mafia in the USAF and, latterly, the Reform Movement across the wider US military establishment.


I can see where the title came from (although I speculate that it might not have been the author’s first choice). Boyd was a fighter pilot, his experiences as such profoundly influenced his ideas and approach (for good and ill), and he took some stereotypical ‘knights of the sky’ fighter pilot cultural characteristics to extremes. He and his worldview played a role in the design and development of the F-15 and F-16 fighter aircraft. All of this is in the book, but there is much more to Dr Hankins’ analysis than fighter pilots and fighter aircraft - and it is the better for it.


The fighter pilot cultural aspects, which Dr Hankins describes in some depth in the opening chapters, are used as a sort of ‘golden thread’ throughout the book tying everything to a central theme. The YF-16 prototype - the Flying Camelot of the title - is held up as the purest expression of Boyd’s knights of the sky vision. For me, the fighter pilot nostalgia arguments were not sufficiently compelling to be the central theme and the ‘golden thread’ seemed increasingly inelegant and forced as the book moved beyond fighters to broader issues.


There are stereotypical fighter pilots and Boyd did, in some respects, embody some of those stereotypes. But like all stereotypes, the ‘knights of the sky’ paradigm is narrow and misleading. As Dr Hankins himself argues, Boyd was simply one of many fighter pilots - among many other contributors - involved in the development of the F-15 and the F-16 and each of these people brought their own experience and expertise to the table. Indeed, it is interesting that Boyd's long-term impact on the US military services appears to be roughly inversely proportional to the number of fighter pilots in those services. As the book demonstrates in multiple places, few people are better placed to counter or balance the over-zealous ideas of fighter pilots than other fighter pilots.


Nonetheless, Dr Hankins does a terrific job of framing and capturing the originality and impact of Boyd and his followers in the Fighter Mafia and Reform Movement. I have read multiple books on Boyd and his ideas and I found this analysis of the man, his thinking, and his contributions to be well founded and well argued. Unlike some other Boyd scholars, Dr Hankins explores not only what was said by and about Boyd and his ideas, but also who said it and when they said it. Through this additional layer of analysis, Dr Hankins argues that much of the acclaim for Boyd and his ideas, the Fighter Mafia, and the Reform Movement flows from a small group of self-referential people (usually members of the Fighter Mafia or Reform Movement) with a vested interest in advancing ‘Boyd the Messiah’ and his ideas.


Dr Hankins is forensic in dissecting the inconsistencies, contradictions, and limitations in the ideas propounded by Boyd and his followers. In many cases, Dr Hankins is careful to show they did make valuable contributions, but these were not as profound, unique, or unorthodox as is often portrayed. For example, Dr Hankins shows that Boyd’s synthesis and articulation of a range of existing works on energy manoeuvrability theory did make a valuable contribution to fighter aircraft development but only in a narrow field, and with the support of others who shared similar views based on existing theories.


In other cases, Dr Hankins is less restrained and argues, with solid evidence, that Boyd and his followers were zealots who selectively misused historical examples to further arguments, contradicted themselves to bolster post-event credibility, and behaved in ethically and legally dubious ways. This culminated in the Reformers claiming credit for the US military’s success in the 1990-1991 Gulf War, despite previously arguing against many of the complex technical systems that enabled that success, such as the book’s title fighters. Nonetheless, Dr Hankins is at pains to credit Boyd and his followers with some positive impact on US military reform, such as improving operational test and evaluation.


Dr Hankins is particularly effective in illustrating the limitations and narrowness of Boyd’s thinking, from his early work on air combat and energy manoeuvrability through to his later efforts to capture broad patterns in conflict and competition, including the (in?)famous Observe-Orient-Decide-Act Loop. This is important because Boyd’s emphasis on tempo, manoeuvre, and dilemmas as means to cause paralysis and collapse in opponents has influenced Western military thinking, sometimes unhealthily.


Frequently referring to the arguments of those refuting Boyd and his followers at the time allows Dr Hankins to deftly show that their thinking was often astrategic, ahistoric, and narrow. Boyd and his collaborators argued for lots of simple, agile combat platforms with a minimum of complex systems like sensors or defensive aids, as opposed to fewer complex platforms. The YF-16 prototype was indeed optimised for daylight dogfighting in accordance with Boyd’s energy manoeuvrability ideas and knights of the sky ethos. But, as the book relates, it is hard to conceive of that airframe or its pilot lasting very long in the cloudy, densely-defended skies of Cold War Europe, or democratically-elected governments condoning the heavy attrition of highly-trained pilots from all-volunteer militaries. Dr Hankins notes the group’s tendency to cherry pick from history to support their arguments, including idolising the German militaries of the first half of the twentieth century. But he misses the biggest critique of this seemingly widespread fascination with these German militaries. They lost. Comprehensively. Twice.


Flying Camelot is a good book and well worth your time. Dr Hankins provides extensive notes and a comprehensive bibliography. He writes in an engaging and accessible way that makes some occasionally highly-technical discussions quite lucid and illuminating. The book is, however, not what it says on the cover: it is better.


Michael W. Hankins. 2021. Flying Camelot: the F-15, the F-16, and the Weaponization of Fighter Pilot Nostalgia. Cornell University Press; Ithaca, NY.