By Lieutenant Colonel Tyson Wetzel
C.R. Anderegg, Sierra Hotel: Flying Fighters in the Decade After Vietnam. Washington DC: US Air Force History and Museums Program, 2001. Notes. Illustrations. Appendices. Glossary. Bibliographic Notes. Index. xvii + 210 pp.
When From Balloons to Drones put out a call for reviews of historic air power books, I immediately thought of my favourite book on United States Air Force (USAF) history, Sierra Hotel: Flying Air Force Fighters in the Decade After Vietnam by C.R. Anderegg. I presented this book to each of my mentees that graduated from the USAF Weapons School with the same message; this book shows the power of a small group of dedicated and highly competent officers, and their ability to change the Air Force for the better fundamentally. The officers that receive top billing in Anderegg’s book are young combat veterans; virtually all of whom were Captains and Majors at the time. These men took the hard lessons of Vietnam and turned them into the ideas and concepts that revolutionised USAF training and employment and can be rightly given much of the credit from the phenomenally successful DESERT STORM air campaign.
The period between the end of the Vietnam War and the beginning of DESERT STORM is my favourite era of USAF history to study. The USAF was embarrassed by its lacklustre performance in Vietnam, and it embarked on an aggressive reform path that recapitalised the fighter force, procured revolutionary aircraft and weapons, developed new standards for tactical employment, and most importantly, revamped the way pilots were trained for combat. This period in USAF history has been studied and written about extensively. Notably, Brian Laslie’s The Air Force Way of War is the definitive text on the birth and growth of the RED FLAG exercise while Steve Davies’ Red Eagles is a key source on the clandestine MiG squadron flying out of Tonopah Test Range Airfield at the time. Ben Rich’s Skunk Works described the fascinating history of the origins of the F-117 and the stealth revolution, and most recently, Steven Fino’s Tiger Check detailed the development of the fighter pilot and fighter tactics during this period. Anderegg’s work focused on the people who were at the centre of the tactics and training revolution that had its epicentre at Nellis Air Force Base. According to Anderegg:
[t]his book is about the young officers, the line pilots, and weapons system operators (WSOs), whose innovation, devotion to duty, intelligence, flying skills, and sheer determination made indelible marks on combat capability. (p. xi)
Anderegg began Sierra Hotel by detailing the myriad of problems that plagued the USAF in Vietnam. There was a litany of reasons for the service’s poor performance, but Anderegg concluded (p. 71) that ‘the most important one was training. Air-to-air, or dogfight, training, though, was poor to nonexistent.’ Young combat veterans returned from Vietnam frustrated and angry at the lack of preparation they received before combat. They were determined to remake their service to ensure fighter pilots were never again so unprepared for aerial combat. A group of young, combat proven, pissed off, and supremely talented aviators set about remaking fighter tactics and training:
Fighter pilots returning from Vietnam to the peacetime Air Force did not come home with their tails between their legs […] They were proud of the effort they put forth under difficult circumstances […] They also knew that the things that were wrong needed repair, and that the things that had gone right probably would not work in the next war anyhow. For creative tacticians like John Jumper, Ron Keys, Joe Bob Phillips, and Earl Henderson there was only one direction to go – forward. (p. 181)
The revolution in tactics and training began from the ground up at Nellis, the ‘Home of the Fighter Pilot.’ An unwritten axiom in the USAF is that ‘as Nellis goes, so goes the Air Force.’ Sierra Hotel looks at the base at the height of its influence on the service. Anderegg also introduced the reader to a generation of officers who left a legacy on not their service, but truly the history of air combat.
In Sierra Hotel, Anderegg described the cultural influence of then-Major Larry Keith, a Vietnam veteran hand-picked to reform the F-4 Fighter Weapons School (FWS), which he did first as the Operations Officer, and then the Commander of the 414th Fighter Weapons Squadron. Keith, who retired as a Brigadier General, led a ‘murderers row’ of USAF legends to be who were instructors at the FWS in the mid-1970s. For example, Richard ‘Dick’ Myers went on to become the fifteenth Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, John Jumper would eventually serve as the seventeenth Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and Ronald ‘Ron’ Keys retired as the Commander of Air Combat Command. These men, though destined for greatness, were simply ‘Iron Majors’ at the time; pilots determined to improve the tactics and training of their service.
Anderegg detailed the role a young John Jumper played in the revolution in pilot training. Jumper wrote a series of watershed articles on fighter training, describing a ‘Building Block Approach’ to instruction that was revolutionary at the time but is used today to train not just fighter pilots, but every combat speciality at the USAF Weapons School, successor to the FWS. Anderegg recapped the fight Moody Suter had to convince USAF leaders to accept greater risk in aerial combat training in a large force employment exercise that became RED FLAG. Pilots who are lesser known today also play a major role in Sierra Hotel. Randy O’Neill, an early and passionate advocate for a squadron of dissimilar aircraft to be used as adversary training, a radical idea that was the genesis of the Aggressor squadrons of today, is mentioned. While Roger Wells, whose determination to pry open the doors of the intelligence community to release its treasure trove of data on Soviet pilots led to a ground-breaking brief on Soviet fighter pilots of the day, is also cited. These officers risked their careers pushing ideas that were not always embraced by USAF senior leaders. Anderegg described their courage in fighting for change:
[s]howing the same determination and heroism they had in the skies of Vietnam, the young fighter pilots pressed on, dismissing the risks to their careers to build a better Air Force. (p. 78)
Anderegg’s depiction of this period is made even more vivid since he was a peer with these men, a fellow instructor at the F-4 FWS.
As a bonus, Anderegg’s two appendices are required reading for any USAF member or aficionado and are a good enough reason to pick up the book. If you have ever gulped down a shot of Jeremiah Weed and asked yourself how this God-awful excuse for bourbon became a fighter pilot and USAF tradition, you can read the origin story in Appendix A, told by someone that was there. Or, if you have heard about Ron Keys’ original ‘Dear Boss’ resignation letter, in which he told the Commander of Tactical Air Command that he was sick of the USAF and was hanging it up because of the incompetence he saw throughout the Air Force, or have seen one of the many copycat letters in the four decades since, you can read the original in Appendix B and marvel at its applicability to today’s Service.
Anderegg’s book is an easy read and good fun. More importantly, however, it fills a critical role in describing the USAF’s post-Vietnam era. The ‘Iron Majors’ at Nellis drove the revolution in USAF tactics and training:
During those ten years, fighter pilots fundamentally changed the way they trained, how they employed weapons, even how they thought about themselves. Essentially, they built a new culture and the anvil upon which the success of Desert Storm would be forged another decade later. (p. xi)
There are clear parallels between the post-Vietnam era in USAF history and today. Frustrated combat veterans are convinced the service must improve rapidly if it is to win a future high-intensity conflict. Sierra Hotel provides a roadmap for institutional change; embrace the disruptive thinking of the ‘Iron Majors,’ those who have seen the errors made over the past 17-years of non-stop combat, those who can envision a better way of doing business. If the USAF is going to position itself to dominate air, space, and cyberspace in future conflicts, it must listen to those young and innovative thinkers who believe they do not have a voice and cannot affect service-wide change. War winning ideas are percolating in their minds, being printed in blogs, and being debated in the squadron bars over Jeremiah Weed shots. Anderegg’s lesson is that the service must listen to those voices, nurture those future leaders, and take some risk in implementing their ideas. Nothing less than the USAF’s ability to dominate future conflicts is at stake.
Tyson Wetzel is a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force, an intelligence officer, a graduate of the United States Air Force Weapons School where he was also an instructor, and the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College. Tyson has deployed multiple times in support of Operations IRAQI FREEDOM, ENDURING FREEDOM, NEW DAWN, and NOBLE EAGLE. He is currently assigned to the Joint Staff at the Pentagon. He tweets @gorillawetzel.
Header Image: A flight of Aggressor F-15 Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons fly in formation, 5 June 2008, over the Nevada Test and Training Ranges. The jets are assigned to the 64th and 65th Aggressor Squadrons at Nellis Air Force Base. (Source: US Department of Defense)