“We do not consider that aeroplanes will be of any possible use for war purposes.”
— Richard Haldane, 1st Viscount Haldane (The British Secretary of State for War), 1910 – famous last words!
“Albert Ball was typical of the sort of man who became a pilot. He was a paradox – or perhaps he was just a young man trying to find himself during the surreal experience of war. Self-confident, highly lethal, and just a bit strange, he was a man who would unhesitatingly put fifty .303 rounds into an enemy pilot, but could beautifully sing ‘Thank God for a Garden’ to his girlfriend. A man who could have chosen and succeeded at anything in life had the war not interfered. Had he lived, Albert likely would have been a husband and a father; perhaps he would have been a musician, scholar, or a businessman.
It is certain that he was a fighter pilot.”
– Dan Hampton, Lords of the Sky
I’m not a fan of flying personally (my ears stay stopped up for days afterwards, even when the cabin pressure doesn’t cause intense pain), but the pure idea of flight has always fascinated me. I wanted an airplane to come to my second birthday party; thankfully, Fisher-Price and an appropriately shaped Baskin-Robbins ice cream cake sufficed.
Despite my childhood obsession, I don’t actually know very about much planes, or fighter pilots, or even the mechanics of flight, aside from a few bits and pieces picked up in history classes along the way, so I always want to know more. Consequently, when Dan Hampton’s Lords of the Sky: Fighter Pilots and Air Combat, from the Red Baron to the F-16 landed on our shelves, I gobbled it down.
This book is exactly what the title claims: it is all about air combat, fighter pilots, and their planes. Everything else in its pages is just context: necessary and crucial context, but context all the same. Hampton skims along the top of history until he reaches the bits relevant to aviation, whereupon he dives down deep. It’s mind-boggling, the sheer amount of information he parses, paring everything down to its bare essence, except where it pertains to fighter pilots. Each chapter (or section within a chapter) is worthy of a book in its own right … or several. He gives a clear, concise summary, but with enough detail and delicious snippets to facilitate further study into any particular aspect, should one so desire.
It begins in World War I, “the birthplace of the fighter pilot, in the skies above the trenches”, and carries the narrative all the way to 2003 and the current conflict in the Middle East. On Thursday, April 1, 1915 (there’s some irony for you, and a nasty surprise for the Germans), Roland Garros took to the skies, having rigged his plane so that he could fire a machine gun directly through his propeller; previous flights were almost all for observation purposes. This was the first time a gun was mounted directly on the plane, and not simply held by the pilot or observer. From that pivotal moment, Hampton traces the complete overhaul in how aviation was viewed, and exactly why and how the fighter pilot developed as he did. We see the progression of pilot training, from virtually none at all during the Great War to today’s rigorous and demanding standards; we also gain an appreciation for the crazy mental gymnastics necessary to be a successful fighter pilot. Interwoven with the rest is the history of the fighter aircraft, written for the interested layperson rather than an expert.
With each phase of air combat, the narrative begins in medias res, in the thick of the fighting. We see every war, every theater and phase of war first through the eyes of the men in the sky, grounding the reader and reminding us what’s really at the heart of the book: the pilots. Only then does Hampton backtrack to give us context and the larger setting. As good as Hampton is at summarizing the big picture, he is equally deft on the more personal level. Everything is described in a concise, matter-of-fact style, rendering acts of almost unimaginable courage down to their very essence, while losing none of their power.
As a twenty-year decorated veteran of the USAF and an ace himself, Lt. Colonel (Ret.) Hampton has a real love for the subject, and this shines through in every word. Everything is seen through the lens of personal experience – even the poor ergonomic design of Soviet cockpits. Although he inspired tears on several occasions, he still manages to have fun with the topic, and never fails to point out any ironic, ridiculous, or just plain amusing tidbit: from the battle cry of the Luftwaffe (Horrido!, which apparently translates loosely to mean either ‘Fear me’, or ‘I’m a horrible one and you’re going to die’), to the two mottoes of the Wild Weasels in Vietnam (“First in, last out” and “YGBSM“), to Hans Marseilles (the Star of Africa) playing banned jazz music on the piano … in front of the Fuhrer!
Hampton does more than relate history; he goes a step further and speculates, dealing almost as much in the “what ifs” as he does in the “what dids”. Instead of merely pointing out the mistakes of the past, he also considers what might have worked. Granted, he is working with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, but his suppositions do make for interesting consideration of the might-have-beens, ranging from the Channel Battle of World War II, to military strategy in Vietnam, to what Saddam Hussein should have done in the First Gulf War.
There are magnificent examples throughout of exceptional pilots; I particularly enjoyed Lidiya “Lilya” Vladimirovna Lityvak, also known as the White Rose of Stalingrad, and a member of the Soviet 122nd Aviation Group in World War II, the first all-female combat aviation unit in history. Every pilot is described, with a very wide range in personality types, and all of their quirks are vividly captured, peeking inside their minds and hearts. Hampton captures the mentality of a fighter pilot, with all its complex contradictions, and tries to let us understand them, as fully as anyone earthbound can. There’s a very big leap between merely flying a plane, and being a fighter pilot; the latter are different, a breed apart, and Hampton waxes both philosophical and poetic in trying to makes those differences clear. In Hampton’s hands, “Lord of the Sky” becomes an epithet (in the Greek epic sense of the word, a la “swift-footed Achilles” and “grey-eyed Athena”) used to praise and honor the truly remarkable men and women who fill these pages.
Combat in the air developed almost unimaginably fast. In 1917, as Germany prepared their all-out last ditch assault to win the war, they reasoned that if the Allies were swept from the skies, they would also be unable to continue fighting on the ground: something unimaginable only two years previously. Tactics, weaponry, strategy, planes have all undergone exponential levels of change over the past century, and yet the qualities that make up a good fighter pilot remain virtually the same: physical strength and fitness, mental acumen and flexibility, the ability to hit what you shoot at, a fighting spirit, and “good hands” are all as necessary today as they were in the First World War. Even the basic principles of a dogfight today would still be familiar to an RFC pilot in a Sopwith Camel. Everything may have changed since Roland Garros, and yet in the essentials, the true heart of air combat, nothing has.