Sunday Book Review: Viper Pilot

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.

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