Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Red Baron vs. an F-16

We don't live too far from the Van Nuys airport and occasionally I hear the throaty growl of old WWII-era fighter planes flying over our end of the valley.  Oftentimes I even run outside to look, even though I'm not knowledgeable enough to identify anything.  I really like the sound of an old P-51 Mustang, but you gotta admit that an F-16 is pretty cool!  But regardless, I like seeing them and have enjoyed going to a few air shows.  It would be really cool  to see them in real action, but that might be a bit messy and would probably include death and destruction, so... being a reader, I've managed to find a few books that I found interesting.

Prior to reading Richthofen: Beyond the Legend of the Red Baron by Peter Kilduff, the extent of my knowledge regarding the Red Baron was that he was Snoopy's arch-nemesis and that the name is used on a brand of frozen pizzas. Okay, I also knew he was a German pilot during WWI, but I didn't know he was a pioneer in military aviation tactics as well as a very decent and honorable soldier who was credited with having downed more enemy planes than any other flier during the war. When he was finally shot down and killed at the age of 25 (a young man in contrast to the grossly inaccurate depiction on the pizza box!) he had brought down 80 British and French airplanes, and was feared by his enemies everywhere and revered as a national hero in Germany.

This probably isn't the kind of book that will have broad appeal.  It does a good job of documenting those he shot down (names, places, dates and times, plane ID #s), but it's not what you'd call a 'compelling' read.  I mostly enjoyed the insights into the man behind the legend.  Apparently there is a bit of speculation about Richthofen's moodiness and change in attitude toward the end of his short life.  Many believe it was due to a head wound he had suffered, but I tend to think the author's position that he was suffering from "battle fatigue" or "combat stress" – basically what we now call PTSD – is most likely.  Maybe the way Richthofen's mother put it is the most accurate: "I believe he has seen death too often."

But times have changed since WWI when wars were fought primarily on the battlefield.  Now, we see conflicts conducted almost entirely in the air with supersonic jets and heat-seeking or radar-guided missiles.  Lords of the Sky: Fighter Pilots and Air Combat, from the Red Baron to the F-16 by Dan Hampton is well-researched history of war in the air, focusing mainly on the fighter pilots.  A hundred years ago, "aeroplanes" were a novelty and used mostly for intelligence purposes – things like scouting out where the enemy army was.  It wasn't until one flier took a gun up with him and started shooting at the enemies fliers that air combat was born, and Hampton covers a lot of notable pilots.  Not every famous pilot or airplane is mentioned but it was comprehensive enough for me.  And ever since I read the Kilduff book (back in 2006) I've been kind of partial to Richthofen, so I felt Hampton was too dismissive of his accomplishments and disagreed with his characterization of the Red Baron as simply a cold-blooded hunter/killer.  But I might be biased.

But Hampton was a fighter pilot himself and is very familiar with the technical aspects of air combat.  He gives a surprising amount of detail on not only the tactics but also on how they evolved over the years, and I found his knowledge of history to be surprisingly good.  He's able to speak authoritatively about things such as the cockpit design of Russian MIGs and he even provides short appendixes on "Anatomy of a Dogfight" and "Anatomy of a Surface Attack" (bombing) that briefly discuss some of the challenges.  It would have been nice if he'd explained some of the fighter-pilot jargon used near the end of the book but it didn't detract from a fun and exciting read, and the mix of history and technical detail made for a nice balance.  (I received a free copy of the book from the GoodReads "FirstReads" program.)

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