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Sunday Book Review: Viper Pilot

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DoD photo by Senior Airman Greg L. Davis, U.S. Air Force.

Dan Hampton, author of Viper Pilot, doesn’t sound like a pleasant man.  This requires qualification; I suspect he’d be a lot of fun for a night of drinking, but he doesn’t sound pleasant to work with for a prolonged period of time. It’s not just that Hampton has contempt for people who aren’t pilots; he has contempt for just about everyone who doesn’t fly an advanced, single seat fighter-bomber specializing in “Wild Weasel” or SEAD missions. The reviews over at Amazon are interesting to read; some of the one stars seem to be written by people who disliked Hampton personally. If you’re fine with this (and frankly, the arrogance is mildly charming) then Viper Pilot is a pretty interesting read.  Hampton is convincing on the point that it is extremely, extremely difficult to become a single-seat fighter pilot in the United States Air Force today. As simple arithmetic this isn’t surprising, but Hampton explains how he made it through ever cull along the way, and explains why it was necessary to use such a fine toothed comb.

The Wild Weasel plays one of the most critical roles in modern airpower operations, the defeat of enemy air defenses.  In context of a balance of technology and military power that heavily favors modern Western airpower, advanced air defense systems, most often purchased from Russia or China, represent the only effective defense for second-tier states. The most important enabler for modern airpower operations isn’t the air superiority fighter, because modern Western air forces rarely have to fight air-to-air combat. Rather, it’s the SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defense) team, which kicks the door open and holds it open long enough for all the other elements of an air operation to do their jobs.

Hampton’s battle accounts are genuinely gripping.  He never becomes involved in actual air-to-air combat, but he’s very convincing on the danger and excitement of the Wild Weasel mission, not to mention the close air support runs he occasionally has to make.  Moreover, Hampton’s battle accounts connect well with his earlier discussion of training.  An F-16 pilot needs to be able to conduct an enormous number of intellectual tasks simultaneously, from managing his fuel to assessing threats to organizing her command to paying attention to where all the weapons are going, all while flying an aircraft that, aerodynamically, would prefer to be on or in the ground. Hampton suggests that flying an F-16 under combat conditions is akin to playing several musical instruments at the same time, which sounds about right. Hampton’s accounts of non-combat missions (coordinating the landing of a squadron during a sandstorm, test-piloting a poorly maintained Egyptian F-16) are equally compelling.

At the same time, Hampton admits not the faintest grasp of or interest in grand strategy or international politics. He only occasionally comments on the geopolitical realities of the wars that he fights in, and then usually without much insight. In this he fits the stereotype of the Air Force fighter pilot who is interested, above all, in flying fighter aircraft in wartime conditions.  The rest (why he’s there, what he’s doing) is relatively incidental. He enjoys utilizing the killing power of the F-16, even on missions (such as close air support) that the Air Force as a whole is altogether unenthusiastic about.

Viper Pilot is a quick read; Hampton is a good writer, with a sound grasp of what should and shouldn’t become part of the narrative.  He knows that no one has bought Viper Pilot to read about family. There’s a fair amount of interesting trivia about the Air Force and about F-16s; I’ll confess that I had never quite understood the Viper vs. Fighting Falcon debate, or the role that the original Battlestar Galactica plays in that conversation, but it makes sense in context.  If you like fighter pilot narratives, you’ll probably like this book.  If you don’t, you won’t.

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  • “This requires qualification; I suspect he’d be a lot of fun for a night of drinking, but he doesn’t sound pleasant to work with for a prolonged period of time.”
    I recall casting about vainly for something positive so say about my step-father when meeting a distant cousin for lunch in Savannah (where one does not immediately say negative things). “He is a lot of fun at parties, ma’am.” And really, so very true.

    • Hogan

      It’s like writing eulogies. “He was a high-spirited and vivacious man.”

      • “He enjoyed the cut-and-thrust of vigorous debate.”

    • pluky

      “Where one does not immediately say negative things,” but where the delivery of ostensibly postive comments with a bitingly vicious sub-text and/or connotation has been elevated to a high art.

      My Richmond grandmother had a way of saying “Well bless your heart” that could etch.

  • Murc

    A fighter pilot who has contempt for everyone who doesn’t fly precisely their kind of fighters on their kind of missions?

    Shocking.

    • cpinva

      yeah, i was stunned to read that myself.

      in fairness to mr. hampton:

      At the same time, Hampton admits not the faintest grasp of or interest in grand strategy or international politics.

      that really isn’t his (or any other pilot’s, soldier’s, marine’s or airman’s) job. they don’t get paid the big bucks to be introspective, the get paid the big bucks to kill things. they can be introspective on their own time.

      • Scott P.

        Didn’t he write the book on his own time?

      • Sean Peters

        Yeah, unfortunately, contempt for everyone else and lack of interest or understanding in anything above pure tactics is far from uncommon in pilots.

        But contra cpinva: by the time you get to be a LtCol, strategy and politics are most definitely part of your job. The fact that he remained uninterested in it is surely a big part of the reason he retired as an O-5 rather than continuing his career.

    • Dave

      How do you know if there’s a fighter pilot at a party?

      He’ll tell you…

  • Leeds man

    the Viper vs. Fighting Falcon debate

    I prefer “Lawn Dart”, apparently arising from accidents during development.

    Meeting, and reading about, “elite” military folk reminds us why our species needs arseholes. Plenty of exceptions, though. I have a cousin who served in Spetsnaz during the Soviet era, and a cousin-in-law who was in the Soviet version of SBS or Navy Seals. Super nice blokes if they weren’t killing you.

    • Dave

      Yeah, it’s a shame more people can’t live up to the whole ‘noble warrior’ thing, but then if they could, they’d have taken us over by now, so +1 for the whole social-contract, conspiracy-of-the-weak thing…

      • Yeah, I always like to take Nietzsche at his word and say “hell, yeah, we gang up and take down the aristocrats. They’re psychopathic assholes, after all.”

  • Pseudonym

    Interesting that a fighter originally designed for lightweight (i.e. cheap) air-to-air dogfighting is now predominantly serving a SEAD role. Didn’t the Wild Weasels use to be F-4s or F-111s or something? And nowadays there’s that ever-present question of whether a human should be present in that cockpit in the first place. Still, good for him, asshole.

    • witless chum

      F-4s originally, I think they used them up through the 1990s.

      • Marc

        The Wild Weasel concept started off with F-100Fs in the ’65 -’66 time frame, followed by EF-105F and F-105G, which were then replaced by the F-4G.

        • tyto

          Also, the EF-111F Raven.

          • Major Kong

            The EF-111 was more of a jamming platform than a true Wild Weasel.

            They used the 111 airframe for that because it had the speed to ingress as part of the strike package.

    • ajay

      Interesting that a fighter originally designed for lightweight (i.e. cheap) air-to-air dogfighting is now predominantly serving a SEAD role.

      There haven’t been a huge number of dogfights recently. The last ones involving NATO air forces were probably over Yugoslavia.

      F-22 will probably have killed more American pilots than foreign pilots by the time it goes out of service.

  • mr. sc

    so rahsaan roland kirk would have made a great F-16 pilot, minus the whole being-blind thing.

  • Stag Party Palin

    This is bad news for John McCain.

    • Pseudonym

      Why is that? I don’t think the Navy ever fielded the F-16, much less gave him a chance to crash one.

      • Marc
        • Sean Peters

          Very few of these were ever produced, though.

  • Lee Brimmicombe-Wood

    Given that most first-hand accounts of Wild Weasel work tend to date from the Vietnam era (and I read a lot while developing my game Downtown) a modern Weasel’s story is welcome. Thanks for the recommendation.

    • Yes; it’s very good on the details of modern SEAD ops.

    • celticdragonchick

      Nice to see you back here :)

  • witless chum

    Does he have anything to say on the debate about one-seat fighters versus two? I remember that kinda being a thing in the 80s or 90s, the idea that you really needed two crew members to deal with all the threats in a modern environment.

    Or maybe it was only in the mind of F-4 and F-14 crew that it was a big debate and I was reading their books.

    • Long story short, he thinks two-seat fighters are for chumps.

  • JRoth

    the role that the original Battlestar Galactica plays in that conversation

    Are you just leaving that out there in order to drum up sales for the book? Because I want to know more.

    • JRoth

      Nevermind, the internet served up the info.

  • Major Kong

    Every Air Force plane has its official name and one or more unofficial names, which are usually what the crews refer to them by.

    An A-10 pilot will always refer to his plane as a “Warthog” or “Hog”, never a “Thunderbolt II”.

    Likewise I’ve never heard a B-52 referred to as a “Stratofortress”, it was and will always be a “Buff” or sometimes “Buffasaurus”.

  • Major Kong

    Years ago I read “Going Downtown” by Jack Broughton, about flying F-105s in Vietnam.

    He came off about the same as this guy – if you didn’t fly ‘thuds in Vietnam you weren’t worth shit.

  • fdchief218

    In this guy’s defense, the “If you ain’t (whatever I was) you ain’t shit” is pretty much the default position of 99.4% of every trooper who ever stepped.

    It’s really just “esprit de corps”, and while when it goes to the length it sounds like this guy takes it it’s kind of indistinguishable from generic assholedom, it DOES perform a valuable role in getting people to do things that sanity and self-preservation would otherwise prohibit.

    Speaking as one who still kinda feels that way about the “straight-leg” Army…

    • ajay

      In this guy’s defense, the “If you ain’t (whatever I was) you ain’t shit” is pretty much the default position of 99.4% of every trooper who ever stepped.

      And most of the animals, too, if I remember “The Jungle Book”.

      http://www.gutenberg.org/files/236/236-h/236-h.htm#link2H_4_0013

    • Sean Peters

      True, but: being proud of what you do is one thing. Active contempt for what other people do: sorry, you’re an asshole.

      Anyway, everyone knows that it’s USN surface line officers (particularly those in the amphibious force) that are the true heroes of modern warfare.

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