#AirWarBooks – Dr Michael Hankins

#AirWarBooks – Dr Michael Hankins

Editorial Note: In the next instalment of our Air War Books series, our Podcast Editor, Dr Michael Hankins, discusses the ten books that have influenced and shaped his writing as an air power historian.

Before I became a historian, I was a professional musician, and one of the most fun things that musicians do is sit around and talk about their influences. What did you listen to over the years that made you play the way that you play and compose music the way you do? The #AirWarBooks series here is a similar opportunity for us air power historians to talk about what books influenced us most. But, of course, the way any historian interrogates the past is rooted in many things, not just what books they read, but also their values, beliefs, background, and maybe even what kind of music they like.

That said, here are ten books that influenced my approach to studying and writing about air power history and technology. Not all of them are about aviation, but they shaped my approach to history in key ways. I’ll discuss the non-aviation books first:


J.E. Lendon, Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006). So why is a book about Greco-Roman Warfare on my list of military aviation books? Because Lendon’s amazing work links culture and memory to the practice of warfare in specific and compelling ways. He argues that the Greeks and the Romans looked to the past – a culturally constructed, imagined past—to inform what they thought warfare should look like. I noticed some similar trends when I studied fighter pilot culture and began working on my first book, Flying Camelot. I don’t think I could have written that book without Lendon’s influence.

David Nye, America as Second Creation: Technology and Narratives of New Beginnings (Boston, MS: MIT Press, 2003). This book is not about aircraft specifically, but it is about the cultural power of technology. I’ve been deeply influenced by Nye’s examination of how specific technologies came to symbolize cultural narratives about the origins and evolution of the United States. The idea that a piece of technology could be a symbol that tells a specific story to a specific culture, almost defining their sense of identity in a way, is an idea that continues to define my own work.

Jill Lepore, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (New York: Vintage, 1998). There may not have been any aircraft in King Phillip’s War, but what I found so compelling about Lepore’s work here is the power of how people talk about the past. This book is less about the war and more about how it came to be remembered by the opposing sides, and how the language used to describe the past can create whole systems of meaning that shape the future. This idea, so powerfully explored here, has shaped my approach to studying later conflicts from the Korean and Vietnam Wars to the Gulf War and beyond.


Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (New York: Free Press, 1989). Finally, some aeroplanes! There is a rich literature about air power in the Vietnam War, but I still think Clodfelter’s classic holds up as one of the most important. Even over 30 years later, his argument is still controversial: that strategic bombing in Vietnam was not effective, that air power, although very important, has limits. Nevertheless, his explanation and comparison of the different goals, limits, and methods of the Johnson and Nixon administrations’ approaches to bombing is still useful and insightful. Even for those who disagree with it, this book remains a giant in the field for a reason.

John Flanagan, Vietnam Above the Treetops: A Forward Air Controller Reports (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1992). There are a lot of pilot and aircrew memoirs from Vietnam, and many of them are very good. But, for some reason, Flanagan’s tale of flying O-1 Bird Dogs on the incredibly dangerous low-and-slow FAC missions in Southeast Asia has stuck with me much more than any other pilot memoirs I’ve read. Starting at the USAF Academy, Flanagan was a deeply principled man who was surprised at how the military handled itself in Vietnam. His story includes the way he wrestled with himself about the war and described in detail the brutal missions and the horrific things he saw. His story also includes a detailed look at how the US brought South Korean troops into the war – something not covered much in other works. There are many great memoirs to read, but if you can only read one, this would be my pick.

Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004). Of all the books on bombing in the Second World War (and there are seemingly too many to count), Biddle’s work is one of the best. She highlights one of major themes in air power history: the disconnect between the promises of air power and its actual results on the battlefield. This work is a wonderful look at the evolution of an idea – how strategic bombing theory grew and changed over time, and how that idea and the assumptions that grew to accompany it influenced air power leaders on both sides of the Atlantic to interpret the air war in particular ways. This mode of analysing not only what happened, but what people thought about what happened, is something I’ve tried to carry through in my own work.

Steven Fino, Tiger Check: Automating the US Air Force Fighter Pilot in Air-to-Air Combat, 1950–1980 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). Fino’s study of the evolution of fighter pilot cockpits, detailing the F-86 Sabre, F-4 Phantom, and F-15 Eagle, is still one of my favourite histories of technology. That’s not just because it’s about three of my favourite aircraft, but because of how deftly Fino – himself a former Eagle driver – connects that technology to the people using it. He illustrates the complex interactions between human and machine in the high-stress combat situation of flying fighters, and how the culture of fighter pilots evolved along with the technology. I’ve also never seen another book be so technically detailed while remaining so accessible.

Linda Robertson, The Dream of Civilized Warfare: World War I Flying Aces and the American Imagination (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2005). As a Professor of Media as opposed to a historian, Robertson comes at this study of First World War pilots with a fresh perspective. She examines how the image of the knights of the air (inaccurate as it is) was constructed and took such a grip on the public and the flyers themselves. It’s a study of the public perception of the war and of flying and expands the literature on the First World War in interesting ways.


Stephen Bourque, Beyond the Beach: The Allied War Against France (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018). Books about bombing during the Second World War are plenty, but few of them critique the allied effort in quite the way that Bourque does here. By travelling across France and consulting local archives, then comparing them to the official USAAF records, Bourque demonstrates the horrific true costs of the allied bombing campaign for French civilians. Almost as a companion piece to Tami Davis Biddle’s work, Bourque shows the human, emotional, and deeply personal costs of inaccurate bombing attacks, which wreaked destruction over France, killing tens of thousands of civilians. I read many books about bombing theory and doctrine, but this book makes those things real on a human level and made me look in a new way at a historical event that I thought I understood.

C.R. Anderegg, Sierra Hotel: Flying Air Force Fighters in the Decade After Vietnam (Washington DC: Air Force History and Museums Program, 2001). I’m not sure what it is about this book that keeps drawing me back. It’s a short volume about the transition from the Vietnam-era fighters like the F-4 Phantom, to the more advanced F-15 Eagle fighters of the 70s and 80s, and the suite of other changes that accompanied that shift, from more advanced air-to-air missiles like the AIM-9L to the changing nature of pilot culture, tactics, and training practices. Nevertheless, Anderegg’s approach – part history, part memoir – makes for very compelling, engaging reading about a fascinating topic. Maybe it’s that the subject matter is what my work focuses on, or maybe it’s the engaging writing style and interesting anecdotes, but I keep finding myself returning to this one again and again.

Dr Michael Hankins is the Curator for US Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps post-World War II Aviation at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and the author of Flying Camelot: The F-15, the F-16, and the Weaponization of Fighter Pilot Nostalgia (2021). He is a former Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and former Instructor of Military History at the US Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD in history from Kansas State University in 2018 and his master’s in history from the University of North Texas in 2013. He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header image: A US Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft assigned to the 18th Aggressor Squadron takes off during Red Flag-Alaska 12-3 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, 6 August 2012. Red Flag-Alaska is a series of Pacific Air Forces commander-directed field training exercises for US and partner nation forces, providing combined offensive counter-air, interdiction, close air support, and large force employment training in a simulated combat environment. (Source: Wikimedia)

#AirWarBooks – Ashleigh Brown

#AirWarBooks – Ashleigh Brown

Editorial Note: In the next instalment of our Air War Books series, Ashleigh Brown discusses the ten books that have influenced and shaped her writing as an air power historian.

Our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney asked me to contribute my top ten air war books – those that have influenced and shaped my own approach to the topic. Catching me in the midst of PhD research, this list clearly shows that my interest primarily centres on the First World War.


Michael Molkentin, Fire in the Sky: The Australian Flying Corps in the First World War (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2010). Michael Molkentin’s Fire in the Sky was the first military aviation book I ever read. In many ways, this book is responsible for moving my interest from the ground war to the air war, which ultimately led to my PhD research. In the first effort to revise Cutlack’s official history volume on the AFC, Molkentin presents a thoroughly researched and highly readable account of the efforts of Australians in the air during the First World War. Importantly, in doing so, Molkentin places the AFC in its rightful context within wider British air operations. This book, along with his centenary history volume, Australia and the War in the Air, is the authoritative account of the AFC

James Streckfuss, Eyes All Over: Aerial Reconnaissance in the First World War (Oxford: Casemate Publishers, 2016). Before the outbreak of the First World War, the predicted purpose of military aviation was reconnaissance. Accordingly, the focus in the opening years of war was reconnaissance, aerial combat being seen as necessary to ensure that this could be carried out uninhibited. Even with the creation of dedicated fighter squadrons, reconnaissance remained a core task for the air services throughout the war. James Streckfuss captures the importance of reconnaissance and details its progression by explaining early developments in Britain and the American perspective. This book expertly describes the intricacies and difficulties of carrying out aerial reconnaissance.

James Pugh, The Royal Flying Corps, the Western Front and the Control of the Air, 1914-1918 (New York: Routledge, 2017). The advantage found in having control of the air was recognised early in the First World War. The primary purpose of the RFC was to support ground forces through reconnaissance, photography, bombing missions, and artillery assistance; achieving superiority in the air was considered necessary to provide this support. James Pugh’s authoritative work discusses the development and application of air power over the Western Front, demonstrating the approach to obtaining and retaining aerial superiority (or control of the air). In doing so, Pugh rationally and expertly analyses the offensive policy (too often attributed solely to Hugh Trenchard), explaining how it was devised in conjunction with the French air services.

Malcolm Cooper, The Birth of Independent Air Power: British Air Policy in the First World War (London: Allen & Unwin, 1986). The high command of the RFC and RAF, and the political context of the air war, is complex, to say the least. Malcolm Cooper explains the various changes that took place at this level and details the development of the air war from this perspective. Cooper provides important context for understanding the execution of the air war, importantly contributing to the historiographical movement away from the view of First World War air power being exclusively a tactical concern.

Dennis Haslop, Early Naval Air Power: British and German Approaches (New York: Routledge, 2018). Dennis Haslop presents a comparative study of the Royal Naval Air Service and the Imperial German Naval Air Service, highlighting many striking similarities in the experiences of the two. This includes discussions of inter-service rivalry experienced by both the British and German air services and movements towards unification to create a single air service in each military. In other instances, discussions about the creation of the RAF from a naval perspective tend to present it as a hostile takeover of the RNAS rather than the amalgamation and unification of the two air services. Haslop avoids this, instead he presents a measured and factual account of this important part of Britain’s air power history. (N.B. You can read Ashleigh’s review of Haslop’s book here)


Richard Overy, RAF: The Birth of the World’s First Air Force (New York: Norton & Company, 2018). Richard Overy’s RAF provides an overview of Britain’s air war leading up to 1918, the events that led to the creation of the RAF, the process of achieving this, and the post-war struggle to keep it as a separate service. Although Overy does not engage with all the complexities of the air war in this relatively short book, he presents an excellent overview in the form of a very readable narrative.

Arthur Henry ‘Harry’ Cobby, High Adventure (Melbourne: Robertson & Mullens, 1943). In the years following the First World War, many pilots wrote memoirs detailing their war experience. Among those to do so was Australian pilot Arthur Henry – or Harry – Cobby. Cobby was the leading fighter ace of the AFC, boasting 29 victories during his time with No. 4 Squadron. In High Adventure, he presents a captivating account of his war in the air that I would recommend to anyone interested in how the AFC’s pilots fought the air war on a day-to-day basis.

Charles Rumney Samson, Fights and Flights: A Memoir of the Royal Naval Air Service in World War I (Nashville: The Battery Press, 1990). Continuing with the theme of memoirs, Air Commodore Charles Rumney Samson’s Fights and Flights details his experiences in positions of command in the RNAS. Among these was his involvement in the Gallipoli campaign, in which he led No. 3 Squadron RNAS which was responsible for reconnaissance over the Gallipoli peninsula and Dardanelles straits. Samson’s squadron operated over Gallipoli in the months leading up to the landing of ground forces, remained in support of the land campaign, and supported the eventual evacuation. Although only a portion of the book, this is an important account of the Gallipoli campaign from the air and captures the early contribution of the RNAS in the First World War.

Frederick Sykes, Aviation in Peace and War (London: E. Arnold & Co., 1922). Aviation in Peace and War details Frederick Sykes’ thoughts on the development and use of air power before, during, and after the First World War. Sykes discusses his pre-war thoughts on the potential use of aviation, the Military and Naval Wings of the RFC, technology and tactics, the offensive policy, and how he saw air power progressing after the war. Sykes is somewhat of a controversial character in the wartime RFC, particularly due to his strained relationship with David Henderson and Hugh Trenchard, and this book provides a valuable insight into his involvement in early British air power.


Peter Dye, The Bridge to Airpower: Logistic Support for Royal Flying Corps Operations on the Western Front, 1914-18 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015). Peter Dye’s The Bridge to Airpower considers the evolution of First World War air power through a study of logistics on the Western Front. This thoroughly researched account allows for a greater understanding of the difficulties encountered in waging the air war, specifically due to problems sourcing airframes and aero-engines, both in sufficient amounts and of a high quality. Dye also discusses the changing logistic requirements in line with the changing nature of the air war and presents an impressive collection of statistics to show the evolution of British air power during the war.

Ashleigh Brown is the Social Media Editor at From Balloons to Drones and a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales, Canberra. Her thesis focuses on aviation command in the British air arms during the First World War. It considers developments across the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of command, extending the learning curve theory to the air war. Ashleigh is a researcher for the Official History of Australian Operations in Iraq & Afghanistan and Australian Peacekeeping Operations in East Timor, where her focus is Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan between 2005 and 2010. Her research interests include the First World War, recent conflicts, air power, and military command. Ashleigh can be found on Twitter at: @ash__brown.

Header image: A group of pilots of No. 32 Squadron RFC at Beauval in 1916. Behind them is an Airco DH.2 biplane. (Source: Wikimedia)

#Editorial – Air Power Reading List

#Editorial – Air Power Reading List

By Dr Ross Mahoney

Last week, From Balloons to Drones launched its own air power reading list. Many of the world’s air forces release an annual reading list that contains crucial volumes that those services believe its members should read as part of their professional development. Indeed, as the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier noted in the RAF’s recently launched 2018 reading list; ‘[R]eading, study and debate form a fundamental component of developing our collective intellectual capital.’[1]

However, the list we have published reflects the original aims of From Balloons to Drones. From Balloons to Drones was established as an online platform that seeks to provide analysis and debate about air power history, theory, and contemporary operations in their broadest sense including space and cyber power. While From Balloons to Drones has a place within the online ecosphere of the profession of arms network, this is not the websites primary purpose. From Balloons to Drones has always aspired to bridge the gap between several interested audiences ranging from civilian academics, interested lay readers as well the military. Given this broader aim, the reading list we published is representative of that goal.

Crucially, this curated bibliography is by no means comprehensive, and it is essential to make clear that this has been done on purpose. This is for two reasons. First, it is expected that the reading list will be organic and grow over time. This links to the second reason, which is the source of the titles on the list. The list has been curated from our ‘Air War Books’ series and published book reviews. As such, the list is representative of the choices made by those air power historians who have contributed to our ‘Air War Books’ series to date. Indeed, as several people noted on our Twitter feed, there is a lack of books on naval or maritime air power, and this obviously reflects the interests of the contributors who have so far contributed to the aforementioned series. Therefore, as more contributions are added to the ‘Air War Books’ series, then more titles will be added to the list where applicable. In a similar vein, as we publish more book reviews on essential new and historic air power titles, we will add these to the list.

At some point, we may cull the list, but for now, we hope that you enjoy the list and get something useful out of it.

Header Image: Forward air controllers in PC-9 aircraft fly in support of Exercise PITCH BLACK 2018. These aircraft are operated by the Royal Australian Air Force’s No. 4 Squadron. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

[1] Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hiller, ‘Foreword’ in CAS’ Reading List 2018 (Shrivenham: RAF Centre for Air Power Studies, 2018).

#AirWarBooks – Dr Randall Wakelam

#AirWarBooks – Dr Randall Wakelam

Editorial Note: In the fourth instalment of ‘Air War Books,’ Dr Randall Wakelam discusses the ten books that have influenced and shaped his writing as an air power historian. If you are interested in contributing to this series or From Balloons to Drones more generally, find out how here.

Since joining the Air Force more than 45 years ago, I have found that professional education for those working with air power has not been a forte of Canada’s Air Force. Much of what I have learned, I have done so out of curiosity and by selecting graduate courses and by doing graduate research that allowed me to satisfy my curiosity and develop a better understanding of air power. While I am critical of this circumstance in Canada I do not think it is unique; there are too many editorials, op-eds and notes from chiefs of service that attempt to get aviators to read if not write.

Having taught air power at the Canadian Forces College and now at an undergraduate and graduate level to officer cadets and civilian students, I continue to learn. In this teaching, I think I am comfortable with the notion that air power concepts introduced a century ago have now reached maturity regarding what air power effects can be applied and how. What is constantly in flux is the larger Geopolitical context of why and when one wants to apply air power effects.

The one other factor that I would want to bring into the formulation of this list is my desire to get inside the thinking processes of those who have developed air power concepts and then applied them. Thus, several the titles that you will see below are either biographies or studies of the human condition. In the case of biographies, I fully recognise that looking at the life stories of some of these actors comes with risks. Case studies of human and personnel questions are perhaps less risky but not without risk.

And now to the list, which is most certainly too short to do justice to the many other works that I have found important to me.

Philip Meilinger (ed.), The Paths of Heaven: The Evolution of Airpower Theory (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1997). This volume is without question the one work that I keep going back to. Admittedly written from a United States Air Force (USAF) perspective I have found the work balanced and useful in seeing the ‘long duree’ of air power thought and its application. I first read the book just after it came out but even now, twenty years later, do not find it particularly dated. Of great value is I.B. Holley’s summary and commentary. His criticism that the work ignores naval aviation serves as a caution to readers that while highly valuable the volume does have its limitations.

John Andreas Olsen (ed.), A History of Air Warfare (Washington D.C.: Potomac, 2010). This work fills the void of the last two decades since Paths of Heaven was published and provides readers with a different treatment of many of the same ideas and events presented in the former. For that reason, I think it provides a solid bookend to balance the USAF compendium. Also, the reader gets a good dose, perhaps too good of the air campaigns of the post-Cold War decades and three useful studies of current and future themes, most importantly small wars and space. The penultimate chapter, by Martin van Creveld, balances Holley’s commentary and leaves the reader with the ultimate question: has the age of air power come and gone?

Allan D. English, Understanding Military Culture: A Canadian Perspective (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004). When I reviewed English’s book about a decade ago, I wrote that it was, for me at least, a volume that captured essential ideas about military culture, ideas that I might have benefited from even from my first days in uniform. In a relatively short but well-focused study, English laid out the elements of culture, looked at them through the lens of the USAF and then from the perspective of the Canadian air arm. At that time there was no the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), as there had been up to the 1960s and as there is again today. The absences of that organisational title and the emotional trappings of an independent air service were all the more reason to read English’s book at the time. The comings and goings of organisations, from squadron to air forces that continue in all nations made and makes this work incredibly insightful.

Henry Probert, Bomber Harris: His Life & Times (Aylesbury: Greenhill Books, 2001). For a long time, I wanted to attempt to understand the thinking of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris. Was he the wanton killer of German civilians that he was accused of being? How did he apparently hold the loyalty of his aviators? Probert’s study of the man gave me the answers that others did not. Bullheaded to the point of obstinacy – certainly more than not – but he did set out to apply the concepts and technology available to him to accomplish the task set for Bomber Command. Moreover, in this, we see not bombast alone but also a sharp intellect and a degree of flexibility and accommodation (that I would not have expected) and above all a desire to save the lives of his crews, or at least make their sacrifices count. Probert showed me Harris’ strengths and weaknesses, giving me a good picture of what any operational level leader might look like, warts and all.

Denis Richards, Portal of Hungerford (Tintern, MON: William Heinemann, 1977). If Harris is a good case study in operational level leadership, then Denis Richards biography of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Viscount Portal makes a good companion. Few of us will ever get to work at or even observe the work of senior air force leaders or to have exposure to the sorts of institutional level challenges they face, both within their service and across governments and coalitions. This book gives us that access, and it allows us to put the better-known struggles of the Royal Air Force (RAF) in its formative years into a more personal context where, as in the case of Harris, personal strengths and weaknesses – the human factor – contribute to success or precipitates failure.

Dewitt S. Copp, A Few Great Captains: The Men and Events That Shaped the Development of U.S. Air Power (McLean, VA: EPM Publications, 1989). This work has been my only deep dive into the USAF, and as I began to think more about culture, doctrines and effects, it seemed to be important to study not just one man or a few, but rather the birth and evolution of an air power community. I believe I found that in this work. It looks at the people and their professional growth, ideas, experiences, small ‘P’ politics and larger organisational conflicts.

John J. Zentner, The Art of Wing Leadership and Aircrew Morale in Combat, CADRE Paper no. 11 (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2001). This set of case studies looks at leadership in a flying organisation, arguably one of the hardest notions to explain to army and naval officers who generally lead within plain sight of their followers. Moreover, to be honest, how one leads in the air is often hard to describe, or at least it was before the recent decades of air operations, to aviators. Effective leadership should promote high morale, and Zentner posited that that strong morale is linked to aircrew control over the tactics they are to use in the air. During a period of relative global calm, he set out to test his concept in three case studies. He looked at two fighter leaders, one German and one American in the Second World War, and for a third case flows the leadership of a B-52 Wing Commander during the Vietnam War.

Allan D. English, The Cream of the Crop: Canadian Aircrew, 1939-1945 (Montreal: McGill Queen’s University Press, 1996). This work is focused on the personnel issues of the RAF and the RCAF, and thus we find an investigation into an aspect of air warfare every bit as important as technologies. English sets out to explore and comment on the impact of what today we recognise as post-traumatic stress disorder on Bomber Command aircrew. To do this he looks at the Royal Flying Corps experiences of recruiting and training during the First World War and how these, and societal cultural norms were adopted by the RAF and to a lesser extent the RCAF in the Second World War. He shows the significant difference in the policy adopted by the RCAF and how rehabilitation of stress casualties rather than their banishment could safeguard critical human resources.

Robin Higham and Steven J. Harris (eds.), Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat (Lexington, KT: The University Press of Kentucky, 2006). Not every air campaign is a success and not every air service ensures the security of its home nation. In studying failures Higham and Harris edited volume expose us to valuable experiences of things gone wrong. More important than the various well researched and presented case studies is the introduction where the editors lay down a simple truth: ‘other things being equal’ the better air power ‘should’ prevail. They then go on to look at the range of ‘other things’ and here is the true value of the collection: the reader soon realises, or should, that there are almost countless factors in play that can cripple an air force, often long before a conflict begins. To codify these factors, Higham adapts Mahan’s characteristics of a maritime nation to identify where and how air power nations can and have failed.

Robert Grattan, The Origins of Air War: The Development of Military Air Strategy in World War I  (London: IB Tauris, 2009). Grattan, an RAF navigator, turned business professor in his later years, presents a study of air arms in the First World War. He argues that the leaders, flyers and even politicians and industrialists had nothing to go on and so national air arms were sort of a ‘design build’ enterprise with rapid advancement through trial and error. He looks at aircraft, weapons, personnel and tactics studying the advancements of each in relation to the others. The use of the word ‘strategy’ in his title is a bit misleading; ‘air power concepts’ would more accurately describe his focus in my view.

Dr Randall Wakelam teaches military and air power history at the Royal Military College of Canada. After graduating from RMC in 1975 he flew helicopters for the Army, becoming CO of 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron in 1991. Along the way, he also had staff appointments in aircraft procurement and language training policy. Since 1993 he has been an educator, first in uniform at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto and now at RMC. His research and publishing focus on air power and military education.

Header Image: A group of pilots of No. 1 Squadron RCAF, gather around one of their Hawker Hurricane Mark Is at Prestwick, Scotland, c. October 1940. The squadron’s commander, Squadron Leader E.A. McNab, stands fifth from the right, wearing a forage cap. (Source: © IWM (CH 1733))

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#AirWarBooks – Dr Michael Molkentin

#AirWarBooks – Dr Michael Molkentin

By Dr Michael Molkentin

Editorial Note: In the third instalment of ‘Air War Books,’ Dr Michael Molkentin discusses the ten books that have influenced and shaped his writing as an air power historian. If you are interested in contributing to this series or From Balloons to Drones more generally, find out how here.

After I wrote to Dr Ross Mahoney enthusiastically agreeing with several of his choices (always a bad idea!) and suggesting a few others, he promptly invited me to contribute my own ‘Top 10’. I had been saying I would write something for Balloons to Drones for a while and so now he had me cornered. What follows is a list of titles that have had a significant impact on the way I research and write aviation and air power history. As these titles clearly indicate, my area of interest primarily concerns the pre-Second World War period (military and civil) and the people and ideas, rather than the technology, of aviation. 

Denis Winter, The First of the Few: Fighter Pilots of the First World War (London: Allen Lane, 1982). Denis, unfortunately, went on to write a scandalously bad book on Haig that damaged his reputation as a historian. But before that, he produced a couple of genuinely very good ‘face of battle’ type histories of British servicemen in the Great War (the other being Death’s Men). I found The First of the Few in my high school library and later used it as a model for writing my honours thesis on Australian airmen in the Great War. It is a bit dated, relies almost entirely on published accounts and some of Winter’s statistics do not stand up to scrutiny. But it is what got me interested in the subject and stands as the best personal experience study of British airmen in the Great War. I had the pleasure of meeting Denis in Canberra in 2004. He was a kind and gracious man and, when I showed him my work, he encouraged me to keep writing.

Richard P. Hallion, Taking Flight: Inventing the Aerial Age, from Antiquity Through the First World War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). I might have included any of Richard’s numerous books on air power (Strike from the Sky, his history of ground attack is a close second) but this has probably been most useful and influential in my work. It is a model of highly readable, yet meticulously researched history. It is international in scope and provides some valuable analysis of the complex ways in which aviation emerged as a practical reality, in various parts of the world, before 1914.

S.F. Wise, The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Volume 1: Canadian Airmen and the First World War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980). Wise’s first volume of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s official history is, in my view, the best single volume history of British air power in the Great War. The ubiquity of Canadians in the British flying services (over 20,000 served) means that Wise needed to cover all aspects of air power in the conflict – maritime aviation, strategic bombing and home defence, army cooperation and even some brief surveys of the RFC/RAF in secondary theatres. While some of his conclusions about the conduct of the war on the Western Front have dated, in the main his conclusions stand and are thoroughly grounded in archival sources. My PhD thesis and the book that followed it used Wise’s book as a model to examine Australia’s part in the air war from political, strategic, operational and tactical perspectives.

E.R. Hooton, War over the Trenches: Air Power and the Western Front Campaigns 1916-1918 (Hersham: Midland Publishing, 2010). I have mixed feelings about his book. On the one hand, it makes a significant contribution to our understanding of air power on the Western Front by conducting a multi-force (French, German and British) analysis at the operational level- something nobody had previously attempted. Whereas previous studies of the subject have focused on the tactical level, Hooton uses a mass of statistical data (sorties flown, ordnance expended, losses, serviceability, etc.) to provide a much broader picture of how air power influenced the conflict and how its use evolved between 1916 and 1918. Unfortunately, the book is poorly written and (in the first edition at least) so badly type set that some of the data tables are almost unreadable. It is such an important contribution to the field: I only hope the publisher has the good sense to reissue a revised edition or that an aspiring PhD candidate will take his approach further.

John Buckley, Air Power in the Age of Total War (London: UCL Press, 1999). I am going to go with Ross here and say that, among the many air power surveys out there, this one is the best. It is clear, concise and, essentially for a book like this, gets the balance right between ideas and details. Giving his narrative cohesion is a compelling, convincing and delightfully ironic thesis: that total war first enabled air power but then, following the onset of the nuclear age, limited its functions.

Philip S. Meilinger, The Paths of Heaven: The Evolution of Airpower Theory (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1977). Besides Buckley, the other book I recommend students starting out in the field is Meilinger’s survey of air power thinking. It is a straightforward, textbook approach devoting a chapter to each of the twentieth century’s most influential air power theorists. It is not exactly a page turner but is absolutely essential reading for students of air power and a useful reference work to have within arm’s reach when writing.

Malcolm Cooper, The Birth of Independent Air Power: British Air Policy in the First World War (London: Allen and Unwin, 1986). Malcolm was one of the first scholars to use the Air Ministry’s declassified files after their transfer to the British National Archives (then the PRO) during his PhD candidature during the 1970s. Whereas accounts of British air power’s early days had, until then, been overwhelmingly focused at the tactical level (individual pilots, squadrons, Biggles, etc.), The Birth of Independent Air Power focuses on the topic at the political and policy-making levels. I do not agree with Malcolm’s conclusion that the Army’s use of air power was wasteful and unimaginative (neither does James Pugh in his excellent new book which provides a good update on aspects of Cooper) but much of what he says was vital in adding political context to the operational history of British air power from 1914 to 1918.

Alfred Gollin, The Impact of Air Power on the British People and their Government (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989). I would give this to students not even interested in air power as a somewhat rare example of an academic historian writing in a clear, engaging style. Honestly, it reads like a novel but still manages to seamlessly incorporate excellent analysis. Gollin was an enormously talented historian and a shining example to those of us who actually want our work to have a readership beyond the academy and services.

John A. Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2003). Lynn does not really deal with aviation or air power explicitly, but his approach to explaining warfare through the prism of culture is both novel and enlightening. In case study chapters ranging from Ancient Greek warfare to modern Islamic terrorism, Lynn demonstrates convincingly that we cannot properly understand military operations without considering the cultures that conceive and wage them.

Ian Mackersey, Smithy: The Life of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith (London: Little Brown, 1998). This is not only the best of the many biographies of Kingsford Smith; it is the best example of historical biography I have come across. Through impressively dogged detective work, Mackersey managed to track down a number of people who had known Kingsford Smith before his death six decades earlier. From them, he got oral history and private papers that shed light on hitherto unknown or mythologised aspects of his subject’s life. Ian wrote a page turner too: it is engaging, absorbing history. Ian, who sadly died a couple of years ago, was also a gentleman. When I was writing my book on the 1928 trans-Pacific flight, he generously shared manuscript material he had gathered from private collections in the US when researching his book.

Dr Michael Molkentin is an adjunct lecturer at the University of New South Wales and a teacher at Shellharbour Anglican College. He has a first-class Honours degree from the University of Wollongong and a PhD in History from the University of New South Wales. In 2014, the Australian War Memorial awarded Michael’s doctoral research the Bryan Gandevia Prize for Australian Military History. He specialises in the history of armed conflict with an emphasis on warfare in the British world and the development of air power. Michael has written three books, the most recent being Australia and the War in the Air (OUP, 2014).

Header Image: An RE8 of No 69 (later No 3) Squadron, Australian Flying Corps preparing to set out on a night bombing operation from Savy near Arras, 22 October 1917. (Source: © IWM (E(AUS) 1178))

From Balloons to Drones – One Year On

From Balloons to Drones – One Year On

By Dr Ross Mahoney

It has just been over a year since From Balloons to Drones was established as a platform for the discussion of air power broadly defined. Since our first post, we have published 40 pieces on a variety of subjects ranging from the historical to the contemporary. We have had articles dealing with issues related to the efficacy of air power, the topic of military education and the future of air power. We have also recently started a new series, Air War Books, that explores the books that have influenced air power writers. Contributors have come from around the globe including contributions from Finland and Australia. I am grateful to those who have contributed to the site. Without them, there would not be much here. However, most of all, we have received regular traffic from people interested in reading what we have written, and for that we are grateful.

Just as a bit of fun, here are the top five posts by views:

  1. ‘Changing the USAF’s Aerial ‘Kill’ Criteria’ by Major Tyson Wetzel;
  2. ‘Arrows from the Ground – Or how an incident on 17 March 2017 may change the relationship between ground and air forces’ by Dr Jacob Stoil and Lieutenant Colonel Kyle C. Burley;
  3. ‘Commentary – The RAF and the F-117’ by Dr Ross Mahoney;
  4. ‘Supporting the Secret War: T-28s over Laos, 1964-1973 – Part 1: Training’ by Jeff Schultz;
  5. ‘‘Integrating’ the Italian Air Force after the Armistice’ by Dr Ross Mahoney.

These are just a selection of the articles that have appeared over the past year, and we look forward to adding regular content as we continue to develop. To do this, we need to expand our list of contributors continually and if you are interested in writing about air power issues – both historical and contemporary – then you can find out how here. If you have any questions, then please leave a comment here or emails us at airpowerstudies@gmail.com.

Header Image: English Electric Lightnings of No. 56 Squadron RAF during an Armament Practice Camp at Akrotiri, c.1963. In the foreground, a technician is preparing a Firestreak missile for loading. (Source: Defence Imagery MoD)

#AirWarBooks – Dr Ross Mahoney

#AirWarBooks – Dr Ross Mahoney

By Dr Ross Mahoney

Editorial Note: In the second instalment of ‘Air War Books,’ the editor of From Balloons to Drones, Dr Ross Mahoney discusses the ten books that have influenced and shaped his writing as an air power historian.

As editor of From Balloons to Drones, I thought I should reflect on what are probably the ten key books that have influenced me in my study of air power. However, I make three provisos. First, I attacked this from the perspective of key authors rather than the books themselves per se. As such, I have selected titles that I have enjoyed to illustrate the importance of these writers. Second, I have left out official histories and narratives though these have been just as influential on my writing as other works. Finally, I have included some non-air power texts in here. At the end of the day, I am a historian and an interdisciplinary one at that, and it is only natural that non-air power specific books have influenced how I approach what and how I write.

John Buckley, Air Power in the Age of Total War (London: UCL Press, 1999). Ok, this entry and Peter Gray’s book below have as much to do with these individuals’ real influence on me and the importance of their books. John was my undergraduate tutor many years ago, and his influence was to start me on the track to where I am today. However, added to that, Air Power in the Age of Total War is an excellent examination of the rise of air power in the first half of the twentieth century and vital reading for anyone wanting an introduction to the subject.

Peter Gray, The Leadership, Direction and Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive from Inception to 1945 (London: Continuum, 2012). Peter’s influence on me was that he was my PhD supervisor, and I will forever be grateful for his guidance. In my opinion, Peter is currently the leading air power specialist in the UK and one of the foremost experts in the world. That expertise is clearly evident in this book. The strategic air offensive against Germany is well-trodden ground, but Peter found a fresh way to assess its conduct. As a result, in my opinion, it is required reading not just for people wanting to understand the bombing offensive during the Second World War but also issues such as the challenge of senior leadership and matters such as legitimacy and international law.

Tony Mason, History of the Royal Air Force Staff College, 1922-1972 (Bracknell, RAF Staff College, 1972). I could have chosen any of Mason’s work, but this one has specific resonance for my research. This was written before Mason became the RAF’s first Director of Defence Studies (DDefS) in 1977 and is not widely available as the RAF Staff College published it. Nevertheless, Mason was not wide of the mark with many of his comments about the Staff College, though it does need to be brought up to date.

Allan English, Understanding Military Culture: A Canadian Perspective (Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004). English, a retired Royal Canadian Air Force officer, is a noted historian of air power and has written an influential article on the RAF Staff College in the inter-war years. However, for me, his most important work is his study of Canadian military culture. As someone who specialises in the culture of air forces, this work is an essential primer on the subject of culture and its influence on the Canadian military.

John Slessor, Air Power and Armies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936). Everyone needs to have a contemporary air power thinker on their list, and Slessor certainly fits that bill. Slessor is, perhaps, the closest the RAF came to having their own Clausewitz, though I remain to be convinced that the Service wanted a singular air power thinker. Instead I think the RAF collegiately developed officers with a broad view of air power, but that is another discussion. The importance of Air Power and Armies is that it really should put to rest the argument that the RAF was solely focused on strategic bombing. Yes, Slessor used a strategic conception of air power to inform his work, but he sought to understand how military aviation could influence the land battle. An essential piece of work and the recent 2009 edition by the University of Alabama Press contains an introduction by Philip Meilinger.

Arthur Gould Lee, No Parachute (London: Jarrolds, 1968). Everyone needs a memoir in their top ten, and there are a number of good works by air force personnel. Most are written by pilots, which says as much about the culture of air forces as anything else. Lee wrote several books dealing with various aspects of his service life, and each could find their way into this list. No Parachute is particularly useful for its appendices though the one on parachutes does need to be revised.

John Andreas Olsen, John Warden and the Renaissance of American Air Power (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2007). As Brian Laslie mentioned in the first instalment of ‘Air War Books,’ I think we do need to include a work by Olsen. He is currently one of the key writers on air power, particularly about modern conflicts. His biography of Warden is fascinating and gives an excellent insight into this complex character. Perhaps what is more impressive, is that this was written while Warden is alive, which is never an easy task.

David French, Military Identities: The Regimental System, the British Army, and the British People c.1870-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). French is one Britain’s leading military historians, and I wonder how he would do if he turned his interests towards the RAF. However, for me, his analysis of the British Army’s regimental system is fascinating and one of those works that all should read to develop an understanding of how military organisations operate. There is much to take away from this study, and for me, it has raised significant questions about issues such as identity with regards to squadrons in air forces.

Richard Overy, The Air War, 1939-1945 (London: Europa Publications, 1980). Overy remains not only one of the leading air power historians in the UK but also globally. The Air War continues to be one of the most influential titles concerning the role of air power during the Second World War. I could have quite easily has listed The Bombing War here, which is Overy’s most recent air power work. However, The Air War continues to be important, and while Overy’s views have developed over the years – like those of all historians – this work was written when air power history was a ‘Cinderella’ discipline. Thankfully, this is no longer the case, and the new edition of The Air War is useful for Overy’s overview of the field of air power history up to 2003.

John James, The Paladins: The Story of the RAF up to the Outbreak of World War II (London: Macdonald and Company, 1990). Given my focus on the culture and ethos of air forces, this was again, one of those works that I could not ignore reading as it is one of the few social histories of the RAF before the Second World War. James worked in operational research sections in various RAF Commands and brought that experience to the writing of the book. It is good but does need bringing up to date, and I dispute some of his views on how the RAF branch system evolved. Nevertheless, a work to read.

Well, that is my top ten; however, it would be easy to add more to the list. As noted, when Overy wrote The Air War, and Mason served as DDefS, the academic study of air power, certainly in the UK, was a Cinderella subject. Thankfully, that is no longer the case and the last ten years have seen a number of significant studies published, which point the way forward for the subject but that will be a post for another time.

Dr Ross Mahoney is an independent historian and defence specialist based in Australia. Between 2013 and 2017, he was the resident Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum, and he is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (PGCE and BA). His research interests include the history of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, air power and the history of air warfare, and the social and cultural history of armed forces. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and is an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He blogs at Thoughts on Military History, and can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.

Header Image: A Tornado GR.1 in flight banks away from the camera and displays its underwing stores during the First Gulf War. Top to bottom the stores are a BOZ 107 chaff/flare dispenser, 500 gal fuel tanks, AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile and Marconi Sky Shadow ECM pod. (Source: © Crown copyright. IWM (GLF 707))

#AirWarBooks – Dr Brian Laslie

#AirWarBooks – Dr Brian Laslie

By Dr Brian Laslie

Editorial Note: In the first of a new series, Dr Brian Laslie, author of The Air Force Way of War, discusses the ten books that have influenced and shaped his writing as an air power historian.

The Editor of From Balloons to Drones, Dr Ross Mahoney, has been pestering those of us who contribute to this blog to put together a list of the most influential books we have read on the study of air power. I have always been of the opinion that I only have so many words I am capable of writing in a single day and have thus, avoided acquiescing to Ross’s request. Seriously, I am never going to get these two manuscripts done at this rate, but I finally decided that Ross is right (we were on a break) and that it is high time those of us who study air power history discuss the most influential books we’ve read on the history/study of air power (two words not one). So here is my top ten:

Bert Frandsen, Hat in the Ring: The Birth of American Air Power in the Great War (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2003). I read this book shortly before leaving active duty and heading to Kansas State for grad school, and it had a profound impact on what I wanted to study. Frandsen weaves together history, technology, and narrative into one of the finest works on the creation of America’s air service and air power.

Alexander P. de Seversky, Victory through Air Power (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1942). Let us get something out of the way. Seversky and Hap Arnold hated each other, and I am not being hyperbolic. The two could not stand to be in the same room with each other, and when they were, it usually ended in a shouting match. Seversky’s book was Second World War aerial propaganda, but when Walt Disney read the book and decided to produce it as a feature film, Arnold was forced to stay mute on the subject. Seversky went on to write other air power books, but none as influential and long-lasting as this one.

Thomas E. Griffith, Jr, MacArthur’s Airman: General George C. Kenney and the War in the Southwest Pacific (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998). In the age of the bomber mafia, Kenny marched to the tune of his own drum. Surely as Quesada and Chennault followed pursuit aviation, Kenny favoured attack. He was, perhaps, the most innovative airman of his generation and Griffith’s book demonstrates just how important Kenney was to MacArthur.

Thomas A. Hughes, Over Lord: General Pete Quesada and the Triumph of Tactical Air Power in World War II (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1995). I really have no doubt, and I doubt many would argue with me, that strategic bombardment garnered the lion’s share of attention both during and after the war. It would take Tactical Air Command until after the Vietnam war to rise to prominence over Strategic Air Command, but those seeds were planted in the Second World War by Pete Quesada and his tactical airmen in the European theatre.

Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1989). The single most important book on air power to be published in the post-Vietnam era. It defined air power historians of a generation. More than a critique of strategic bombardment in Vietnam, it is a book that teaches you how to think about air power, what it can and what it cannot do.

Donald Miller, Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys who Fought the Air War against Nazi Germany (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2006). It is rare that I cannot put a book down, but the was the case with Miller’s work. The narrative is exceptional, the research superb, and the flow masterful. I consider it the single best book on air power in the Second World War.

Donald J. Mrozek, Air Power and the Ground War in Vietnam: Ideas and Actions (Maxwell, AL: Air University Press, 1988) and idem, The US Air Force after Vietnam: Postwar Challenges and Potential for Responses (Maxwell, AL: Air University Press, 1988). Yes, I am cheating by putting two books here, but they deserve to be here. Mrozek is an air power historian, but also a cultural and intellectual historian as well. He is difficult to read, but only because every sentence is crafted beautifully and is important. Mrozek conveys in a sentence, what others struggle to get out in several pages, myself included.

Steve Davies, Red Eagles: America’s Secret MiGs (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2008). A popular history, but this book is flat-out fun. Secret units, secret locations, and American fighter pilots learning how to outperform their Soviet counterparts in their own aircraft.

John Andreas Olsen (ed.), A History of Air Warfare (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2010). Actually any of Olsen’s work could make this list; however, if you were going to use one book in the classroom to discuss the history of power, then this is the one. There is a reason; the Air Force Academy has every freshman read in their introduction to military history. From the First World War to the present and large scale combat to air power in smaller conflicts, Olsen’s edited work covers it all.

Diane Putney, Airpower Advantage: Planning the Gulf War Air Campaign (Washington D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 2004). This book is what made me decide to write about Desert Storm. This book taught me that air power is so much richer than 1 v. 1 dogfights, that true command of the air comes from logistics, planning and execution.

To this list of ten, I could add hundreds more, but as I looked at my bookshelf these jumped out at me as having the most impact on my thinking during my time in grad school or shortly thereafter and helped solidify my thinking on what air power is and what it does (spoiler alert: it’s the ability to do something in the air. Thanks, Billy Mitchell!)

By the way, several of these books you can order or download for free from either the Air University Press of the Air Force Historical Studies Office. FREE BOOKS: http://www.au.af.mil/au/aupress/ and http://www.afhistory.af.mil/Books/Titles/

Dr Brian Laslie is an Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his Masters’ from Auburn University Montgomery in 2006 and his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s 2016 professional reading list. He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header Image: McDonnell Douglas F-15A (S/N 71-0280, the first F-15A prototype). Note the square wingtips and unnotched stabilator. (Source: Wikimedia)