Dan Hampton, with his autobiographical Viper Pilot, has already joined the ranks of the several fighter pilots in history who have been able to describe to the world the uniquely thrilling experiences of a fighter pilot in combat. The genre of fighter pilots, those warriors in the tradition of medieval knights whose weapons happen to involve the airplane, has existed now for one full century. World War I started one hundred years ago this month (June, 1914). The history of fighter pilots and air combat begs to be properly set down. And there must be only a few fortunate persons who (1) have experienced first-hand the terrors and thrills of aerial combat, (2) have lived to tell the tale, obviously, and (3) have the literary skills to create an accurate, readable and engaging book. If you add a fourth criterion that the person should be active at the completion of the first hundred years, then the number of people who could write this book is extremely small.
Indeed, that number might be only one. Dan Hampton has ambitiously produced the most comprehensive, authoritative account of the first century of military aviation and specifically the role of the principal military aviation combatant: the fighter pilot. His latest book, Lords of the Sky, is an unusually well researched account of the major conflicts of the entire one hundred years of fighter pilots and air combat, and it immediately becomes the definitive such book now in existence. It should promptly find its place in the libraries of every operational fighter and LIFT squadron, every fledging or wannabe fighter pilot, even the Army, Navy and Air war colleges. FNG and old-timer Ace-of-the-Base alike will want to be conversant with virtually everything in this book. There really is no other such book. It covers the major conflicts including the political background of each war as it relates to aviation, and then the technological developments during the conflicts. It describes the strategic factors of the conflicts related to aviation (for example, the evolution of the dictum that the bomber will always get through) and it also includes frequent discussions of tactics. Hampton cleverly weaves gripping narratives into the story from time to time as he gives the reader the fundamentals of the aviation-relevant history of the major conflicts—conflicts that increasingly utilized, and ultimately proved to be critically dependent upon, air forces.
I was particularly pleased to see him reference Rippon and Manuel’s World War I study of the psychology of fighter pilots, both in the text and then again in the epilogue. I don’t recall coming across this study in my initial training as a flight surgeon, but it had been rediscovered by the 1990’s. Its accuracy was confirmed in my experience in the Vietnam War, and it was reassuring to see it re-confirmed by Hampton’s survey in connection with the production of Lords of the Sky. I also had the pleasure of seeing it recently still in effect at Shaw AFB in SC where the 77th FS is the current Home of the Wild Weasels. The latest crop of fighter pilots seemed every bit the stereotype, in their dedication to duty, their use of the highest technology, and their still having those high spirits that need occasional indulging.
It is a serious question whether the fighter pilot as a unique breed of cat will prove to be an anachronism in future battlefields where already drones seem to dominate and the enemy combatants are terrorists, not competing aviators. However, I believe we must take care not to make the “never again” kind of error that Hampton mentions (“no more guns on fighters, it’s all missiles now, son!”). An all-out war that would necessitate having air supremacy can never be ruled out in the future. If it occurs (God forbid!), the highly skilled, aggressive, intelligent, flexible, and on-scene fighter pilot—the lord of the sky—will be as mandatory as ever. Hampton’s new book Lords of the Sky should be the first one in his/her e-reader. Better yet, make it a hard-copy on the bookshelf; this one is definitely a keeper.