By Mike Hankins
Steven A. Fino, Tiger Check: Automating the US Air Force Fighter Pilot in Air-to-Air Combat, 1950-1980. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017. Notes. Works Cited. Index. Hbk. 435 pp.
Works dealing with the history of military technology tend to fall into a few camps. Some will praise a single ‘genius inventor,’ some will chronicle a teleological, linear path of ‘advancement,’ some are content to merely unpack the ‘black boxes’ and describe a piece of technology in detail for its own sake. Rare is the work that discusses the social and cultural interchange between people and machines, digs deep in technical details, while at the same time being a well-written, gripping narrative history sure to excite any enthusiast. Steven Fino’s Tiger Check is all those things at their finest.
Fino examines the American fighter pilot experience in three specific aircraft: The F-86 Sabre, the F-4 Phantom II, and the F-15 Eagle. Each plane featured new technology that seemed to threaten the existing ‘knights of the air’ culture of fighter pilots. Fino argues that despite this series of cultural threats, that culture adapted. The image of pilots as ‘flying knights’ never changed, although they did have to modify themselves into ‘flying scientists.’ This did not replace the previous culture of fighter pilots but merely broadened and democratised it.
Fino begins the book by briefly exploring the ‘knights of the air’ mythology that dates to air-to-air combat in the First World War. As he defines it, the fighter pilot myth has three elements. First, air-to-air engagements as a form of honourable combat among gentleman warriors. Second, that success in air combat is due to the unique skill of the individual pilot. Finally, that the measure of greatness is the kill count—the number of enemy aircraft downed by a single pilot. It could be argued that there are more elements to this myth, and in his attempt to define these cultural factors as steady between the two World Wars, Fino glosses over the emphasis on bombing doctrine in the Second World War, and the battles between fighter culture and bomber culture during those years. That is a minor nitpick, however, as he does a wonderful job of defining the terms of his argument and how he intends to explore the evolution of the fighter pilot myth in the Cold War era.
The rest of the book is organised into three long chapters, each devoted to a particular aircraft. These chapters all follow a similar formula. First, Fino looks at how the pilots of a specific era still maintained and celebrated the three main elements of the ‘flying knights’ mythology. Fino then gives a detailed look at the new cockpit technologies of that era and how they seemed to threaten that myth. Finally, Fino chronicles how pilots adapted, slightly modifying their culture and practices in a way that allowed them to both masters the new technology while keeping the ‘knights of the air’ myth intact.
This pattern starts with the F-86 Sabre and the massive air-to-air battles over ‘MiG Alley’ during the Korean War. The main new piece of technology in the fighter cockpit was the A-1C(M) gunsight, relying on radar to help pilots aim their guns against the new generation of fast, agile jet fighters. The new gunsights, which required more technical knowledge and at least some understanding of radar theory, threatened the image of the lone fighter pilot using his skills, rather than relying on machines. Many pilots resisted the new gunsights and lobbied for their removal. Indeed, the first generation of sights was notoriously unreliable. However, after mid-1952, newer versions of the gunsight increased its reliability, and a younger generation of pilots adapted their culture to emphasise the combination of man and machine, rather than the earlier conception of man or machine. As Fino concludes:
Pilots had to move beyond the decades-old stereotype that had defined their profession. Detailed knowledge of their aircraft and its weapons systems wouldn’t necessarily dilute their tiger spirit […] It might actually render their tiger-like instincts that much more lethal for their opponent. (p. 109)
The next section jumps to the Vietnam War and examines the next biggest ‘threat’ to the fighter pilot mythology: The F-4 Phantom. The threat came not only from a reliance on guided missiles rather than guns (as the Phantom did not carry a gun at all until the later ‘E’ model) but more so from the fact that the F-4 was a two-seater. No longer was the fighter pilot a lone wolf, but he had to work in tandem with a radar cooperator in the back seat (colloquially called the ‘GIB’ for ‘guy in back’) to help identify and track enemy aircraft as well as obtain weapons locks. It was no longer enough to use one’s skill to maneuver a fighter into position and pull the trigger aggressively—now a pilot needed to understand the intricacies of how their large radar worked, and how to operate a large array of knobs, buttons, and switches to find and track targets. These tasks, split between two people, seemed to destroy social conventions among fighter pilots. Most importantly, who got credit for a kill? Most pilots bristled at these changes, as Fino notes:
Many of those sitting in either seat in the Phantom would have preferred instead to be flying a single-seat fighter, even if it was an older, less sophisticated, more vulnerable aircraft. (p. 196)
Even this radical of a shift did not destroy the image of pilots as ‘flying knights.’ The definition of what a pilot was shifted, emphasising coordination between men and machines. As Fino surmises, the Phantom’s advanced technology:
[m]ight have been designed to simplify and democratize fighter aviation so that the nation would no longer have to rely solely on the skills of carefully screened and combat-seasoned ‘birdmen,’ but it quickly became apparent in the skies over Vietnam that skilled pilots were still needed, and that those necessary skills could often be developed only in combat. (p. 197)
The final shift in this narrative came with the arrival of the F-15 Eagle—which promised to be a return to ‘traditional’ fighter pilot conceptions, optimised for air-to-air combat as a true ‘fighter pilot’s fighter plane.’ Although the Eagle had a single-seat, it was also larger and much more complicated than the Phantom. Its radar and long-range missiles still required extensive knowledge and skill to operate, although a computer now performed most of the tasks formerly handled by the GIB. Still, Eagle pilots had to be, to some degree, ‘flying scientists,’ who could perform delicate, precise movements on their joysticks to manipulate their radars and make the most of their weapons systems.
Fino does not examine the Eagle’s performance in actual warfare as much as simulated combat, specifically the AIMVAL/ACEVAL tests of 1976-1977. During and after these tests, F-15 pilots developed new tactics, including changing their formations, but more importantly developing the practice of ‘sorting’ targets. Fino examines this shift from a cultural perspective—lone fighter pilots duelling in the skies indeed became a thing of the past. Skilled individuals were still key, but now, pilots had to work together and pick targets, maximising the advantages of their weapons, ideally to end air-to-air engagements before they became dogfights. This seemed to threaten the ‘knights of the air’ image at first, but ultimately upheld it. Although the necessary skill set to be an effective Eagle pilot had drastically changed since the Korean War, pilot skill, aggression, and individual prowess were still crucial factors.
When describing the technical aspects of these systems, Fino goes into incredible detail. A close reading of this book would give the reader a thorough knowledge of the science behind radar technology and comes close to approaching an instruction manual for all three aircraft. These technical descriptions are never boring and never devolve to a case of opening ‘black boxes’ for their own sake. Fino continually ties the technical issues back to larger questions of cultural identity with an engaging style of writing. His sources are deep, and his notes thorough, proving ample opportunity for further research. If there is any flaw in the work, it tends to assume pilots are inherently antagonistic to engineers and aircraft designers. Many pilots likely shared this view. However, it might have been interesting to examine the culture and perspective of those designing and building this technology and how they viewed themselves as aiding pilots rather than threatening their culture. However, that would require another book’s worth of research and is not the type of work Fino set out to create here.
Ultimately, this work is one of the best works of air power (and technology) history that this reviewer has read in quite some time, and will likely become a standard of the field. It certainly sets a very high bar for other historians. For those interested in pilot culture and/or aircraft technology, this is required reading, while still pointing towards directions for future scholarship.
Mike Hankins is a doctoral candidate at Kansas State University, where he teaches World History, the History of Airpower, and the History of Comic Books, and he is currently working on his dissertation, ‘Sources of Innovation: The Cultural and Technological Origins of Fourth Generation Fighter Aircraft, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled ‘The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War. He has a web page and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.
Header Image: An F-22 Raptor, P-51 Mustang and F-15E Strike Eagle perform the historic heritage flight during an air show at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, 8 November 2008. (Source: Wikimedia)