A Discourse on John Boyd: A Brief Summary of the US Air Force’s Most Controversial Pilot and Thinker

A Discourse on John Boyd: A Brief Summary of the US Air Force’s Most Controversial Pilot and Thinker

By Dr Michael Hankins

In March 2018, Air University Press released a new edition of Colonel John Boyd’s A Discourse on Winning and Losing with a new introduction by Grant Hammond. On top of his heavy influence in designing the F-15 and F-16 fighters, Boyd was one of the most influential and often cited officers in the history of the US Air Force (USAF), but unlike most famous strategic thinkers, he published almost nothing. Thus, this new edition promises to be possibly the most widely disseminated and studied edition of Boyd’s intellectual output.

JohnBoyd_Pilot
John Boyd during his service in Korea. (Source: Wikimedia)

Boyd is, however, a controversial figure. Among USAF officers, Boyd is either loved or hated. Hammond’s introduction refers to him as ‘legendary,’ ‘a great original thinker,’ and ‘a paragon of virtue – loved by many […] for his character and integrity.’[1] On the other hand, former fighter pilot and USAF Chief of Staff General Merrill McPeak summarised the opposing view: ‘Boyd is highly overrated […] In many respects he was a failed officer and even a failed human being.’[2] Boyd was the type of person who challenged authority and fought for what he believed. He was also the kind of person that was so profoundly insecure that he stalked food courts to hunt down and physically assault people whom he perceived had not shown him proper respect.[3] However, many younger officers have never even heard of Boyd nor are they familiar with his ideas or character. With the recent release of the new edition of his work, it is worth taking time to briefly summarise Boyd’s significant contributions and provide some context as to why he is both so praised and so controversial.

First, we must deal with the notion of Boyd as – according to Hammond – ‘a premier fighter pilot.’ Some have referred to Boyd as the greatest fighter pilot who ever lived, and many press outlets mistakenly refer to him as an ace. Although Boyd did fly F-86 Sabres during a brief tour in the Korean War, he does not have a single air-to-air kill to his credit. He never fired his gun in a combat situation. This is not necessarily an indictment of his skills. The reason is that in those years, the USAF tended to fly in formations in which only the lead element was cleared to fire, while the wingmen provided protection. Boyd only ever flew in a wingman position, and never got in an opportunity to fire at enemy MiG-15s. Later, Boyd became a flight instructor at the USAF Fighter Weapons School, and he wrote a manual on dogfighting tactics. His reputation as a fighter pilot was built on his time as an instructor, during which he displayed a penchant for defeating incoming students in simulated dogfights (developing his claim that he could always do so within forty seconds). Fans of Boyd laud him for this, although his detractors often wonder why an instructor defeating his students using an oft-repeated manoeuvre is noteworthy, much less a point worth bragging about.

Boyd’s first significant contribution to USAF thinking was ‘Energy Maneuverability Theory’ (EMT) in the early-to-mid 1960s. This was an application of the principles of thermodynamics to aircraft metrics. Up until that point, the most important metrics for evaluating fighter planes tended to be wing loading ratios, top speed, and acceleration. Many fighter pilots tried to argue that agility and manoeuvrability were more important in a dogfight, but although wing loading could provide a rough idea of how well a craft could turn, it fell far short of an accurate description of a plane’s manoeuvrability. Boyd’s EMT instead analysed how well an aircraft could change energy states – involving speed, acceleration, kinetic and potential energy – essentially giving a numerical value to how well a plane could manoeuvre under various conditions. Charting this value on a graph corresponding to speed and altitude will give a curve of the aircraft’s manoeuvring capability. This method gave fighter pilots a way to talk to engineers in their ‘language,’ and describe dogfighting in mathematical terms, which had a significant influence on aircraft design. Beginning in the late 1960s, EMT became a significant factor in designing and evaluating American aircraft.

EMT.jpg
This chart, a typical example of the types of charts Boyd produced, compares the agility of an F-4 Phantom II and a MiG-21, but specifically under conditions of a 5g turn. (Source: USAF Academy Department of Aeronautics)

Although Boyd appears to have come up with these ideas independently, he was not the first to do so. A decade earlier, in 1954, an aerodynamics engineer working for Douglas named Edward Rutowski had the same concept. Rutowski’s work did not apply to dogfighting, but to calculating fuel ranges of various types of aircraft.[4] However, the equations – and the charts – are almost the same as Boyd’s, who later admitted to copying the charts after denying it for years.[5] One element that Boyd did add, however, was overlaying the EMT curve for one aircraft on top of another, to show where one aircraft had an advantage in manoeuvrability. These comparisons, first done in the late 1960s, showed that Soviet aircraft of that time might have a distinct advantage in dogfighting compared to the American fighters of the day (which, in that period, were mostly interceptors, not traditional fighters). Thus, while not necessarily completely original, Boyd did more to popularise the EMT concept and apply it to fighter design and tactics training, which then became part of a push within the USAF to design aircraft that were more specialised for air-to-air combat.

Boyd had a hand in the design of those planes. The first major USAF project to design a dedicated air superiority fighter was the F-X program, which eventually resulted in the F-15 Eagle. Boyd was brought in partway through this project and attempted to influence the design toward being more dedicated for dogfighting. To Boyd, this meant making it as small as possible and gutting it of sophisticated technologies, especially radar. The more massive the radar dome in a fighter’s nose, the larger the entire plane needed to be. Making the radar as small as possible (or, as Boyd advocated, eliminating it), could make the plane smaller and lighter. Boyd managed to have a significant influence on the design of the F-15, but he did not get everything he wanted. The plane was significantly more extensive and more sophisticated than he advocated, so in disgust, he turned to another project.[6]

f-15a_first_prototype_1
McDonnell Douglas F-15A (S/N 71-0280, the first F-15A prototype). Note the square wingtips and unnotched stabilator. (Source: Wikimedia)

Using a combination of subterfuge, connections with high-level decision-makers, stealing unauthorised time on USAF computers, and meeting with aircraft manufacturers in secret using coded language, Boyd pressured the Air Force to procure a smaller lightweight fighter. Boyd wrote the requirements for that plane, which happened to match almost identically the characteristics of a plane he had been secretly designing with General Dynamics’ Chief of Preliminary Design, Harry Hillaker. That plane eventually became the F-16 Fighting Falcon—his ideal true dedicated air-to-air dogfighter. However, Boyd was also disappointed by the modifications made to that aircraft. The USAF made it heavier and more sophisticated than he wanted, and so Boyd denounced it in disgust.[7] Indeed, although his vision for the F-16 was a pure dogfighter, the plane has rarely been used in air superiority missions by the USAF and has achieved zero air-to-air kills for the US.

YF-16_and_YF-17_in_flight
An air-to-air right side view of a YF-16 aircraft and a YF-17 aircraft, side-by-side, armed with AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, c.1972. (Source: Wikimedia)

After his retirement in 1975, Boyd went back to work in the Pentagon as an analyst, and it was during this time that he completed most of the intellectual output in the recently released new volume. This began with a short essay entitled ‘Destruction and Creation,’ which argued that societies and systems only really change when they are destroyed and recreated, rather than reformed from within. In 1976, Boyd received a NASA grant to study the differences in pilot behaviour between simulators and reality. Instead of focusing on that, Boyd produced a study titled ‘Fast Transients Brief,’ which consisted of carefully picked historical examples with which Boyd argued that victory in war was the result of being quick, unpredictable, and agile, with the goal of producing confusing in the enemy. This brief was essentially the first draft of what became a larger briefing called ‘Patterns of Conflict,’ which Boyd continually expanded to include more historical examples of his point. This briefing continued to grow, including more examples, until it became the final form under the new title ‘A Discourse on Winning and Losing.’ In this form, it was a fourteen-hour briefing split into two days. Boyd refused to shorten his briefings or to distribute summaries or slides to those who did not attend, insisting on being given the full amount of time, or nothing.[8]

Also embedded in these briefings was his evolving idea of the OODA loop, which stands for ‘observe, orient, decide, act.’ This was Boyd’s description of the process by which decisions are made at all levels from the tactical to the strategic. Boyd argued that all combatants in a conflict are going through that cycle, and whoever can complete repetitive OODA cycles more quickly will always be the victor. Fans of this theory tend to argue that this insight is revolutionary and secures Boyd’s place alongside thinkers such as Clausewitz or Sun Tzu. Others claim that this idea is very simplistic and offers very little in the way of insight or practical application. Interpreting and applying Boyd’s theory to subjects ranging from warfare to business has become something of a cottage industry. The OODA loop is still taught at US professional military education institutions. Love him, hate him, or merely indifferent, one cannot deny that Boyd has left a legacy and influence.

One final component of Boyd’s life that one must be aware of is his involvement in ‘The Reform Movement.’ During his time in the USAF, he and his followers who pushed for lightweight, dedicated air-to-air combat planes began referring to themselves as the ‘Fighter Mafia,’ and saw themselves at odds with the US government – to the point of depicting themselves as participating in a guerilla war against a government that they deemed as corrupt and ineffective. After Boyd’s retirement, this group morphed into what became known as ‘The Reform Movement’ and moved away from just fighter planes to becoming politically active on broader defence issues. This effort included a litany of journalists, military officers, and politicians who went as far as to form their congressional caucus, as well as non-governmental organisations with the goal of lobbying for particular policies.

The group wanted all US military hardware to be cheap and ‘simple.’ Simple in this context meant technologically unsophisticated relative to the mid-1970s. They argued for cancelling expensive ‘complex’ weapons such as the F-15 and the M-1 Abrams tank and replacing them with cheaper, ‘simple’ alternatives, such as relying on the older M-60 Patton tank or replacing F-15s and F-16s with swarms of F-5 Tigers. ‘The Reform Movement’ was more political than the ‘Fighter Mafia,’ and although the movement attracted some moderates and left-leaning individuals such as James Fallows (journalist for The Atlantic) and Senator Gary Hart (D-CO), it tended to skew conservative. Over time, it grew more conservative with the addition of politicians such as Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS), Newt Gingrich (R-GA), Dick Cheney (R-WY), and possibly its most prominent and active member (who coined the term ‘the Reformers’): self-proclaimed monarchist and white supremacist William Lind.[9] For this group, Boyd was seen as a messiah, and he was often discussed in religious terminology as a saviour preaching a new gospel.

Although this movement had an influential voice in the early 1980s, it had begun to stagnate by the end of that decade, and the 1991 Gulf War discredited many of their arguments.[10] However, despite that war demonstrating the effectiveness of all the weapons systems that the Reformers (and Boyd) had argued against, Boyd himself took sole credit for the success of that war. Boyd claimed he had been the actual author of the ground attack plan, which was not true, and that it would have been even more successful if his ideas had been implemented further.

Boyd is a complex figure, and his influence on the US military, especially the USAF, is impossible to deny. Although the bulk of his work has been floating around the internet for years, having a new edition of his work in an easily accessible and well-produced print edition is extremely useful and quite welcome.

Bibliographical Note

For more information on Boyd, the best place to start is most likely John Andreas Olsen’s 2016 article, ‘Boyd Revisited: A Great Mind with a Touch of Madness’ in Air Power History while the best examination of Boyd’s intellectual output is Frans Osinga’s Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (2007). Several authors further explore Boyd in Olsen’s edited work Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd (2015). A genuinely scholarly biography on Boyd’s life has yet to be written. Hammond’s brief biography, The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security (2012) is a useful starting point but leans into praise for Boyd to a level that some readers might be uncomfortable with. Robert Coram’s popular biography Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (2002) has its uses but is little more than hagiography and should be read with a sceptical eye.

Dr Michael Hankins is Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and and Assistant Editor at From Balloons to Drones. He is also a former Instructor of Military History at the US Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD from Kansas State University in 2018 with his dissertation, ‘The Cult of the Lightweight Fighter: Culture and Technology in the U.S. Air Force, 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 here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header Image: A USAF F-16 Fighting Falcon Block 40 aircraft after receiving fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft during a mission over Iraq on 10 June 2008.  (Source: Wikimedia)

If you would like to contribute to From Balloons to Drones, then visit our submissions page here to find out how.

[1] Grant Hammond, ‘Introduction to “A Discourse on Winning and Losing” in Colonel John Boyd, A Discourse on Winning and Losing, edited and compiled by Grant Hammond (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2018), pp. 1-2.

[2] Carl Prine, ‘Q & A with Merrill ‘Tony’ McPeak,’ San Diego Union Tribune, 23 November 2017.

[3] See, for example, a story of Boyd seeking out a former colleague who had expressed doubt in Boyd’s ideas years before. Boyd put out his cigar on the man’s clothing, then began shoving him and shouting obscenities at him, all in public. Told in more detail in Robert Coram, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2002), pp. 179-80.

[4] Edward S. Rutowski, ‘Energy Approach to the General Aircraft Performance Problem,’ Journal of the Aeronautical Sciences, 21 (1954), pp. 187-95.

[5] USAF Historical Research Agency, K239.0512-1066, John Boyd, Corona Ace Oral History Interview, 22 January 1977.

[6] For details on the development of the F-15, see Jacob Neufeld, The F-15 Eagle: Origins and Development, 1964-1972 (Washington DC: Office of Air Force History, 1974).

[7] On this issue, see: Grant Hammond, The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security (Washington DC: Smithsonian Books, 2012).

[8] These briefings are most thoroughly explored in Frans Osinga, Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (New York: Routledge, 2007).

[9] For a brief summary of Lind’s extremism (he was known for keeping a portrait of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in his office), see Bill Berkowitz, “Cultural Marxism’ Catching On,’ Southern Poverty Law Center, 15 August 15, 2003. Lind’s radical right-wing viewpoints are evident from his voluminous writing as the former Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism, and his many columns in a variety of conservative websites and magazines. His 2014 novel Victoria not only celebrates a violent militia movement overthrowing the American government but glorifies deportations and executions of non-whites and other minorities he deems undesirable, including Jews, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, and it favorably depicts the use of nuclear weapons against African-American populations.

[10] For a summary of ‘The Reform Movement,’ see: John Correll, ‘The Reformers,’ Air Force Magazine (February 2008), pp. 40-4. To see them discuss their ideas in their own words, see: James Fallows, National Defense (New York: Vintage, 1984) and James Burton, The Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1993).

#Editorial – From Balloons to Drones: Two Years On

#Editorial – From Balloons to Drones: Two Years On

By Dr Ross Mahoney

The other week I mentioned on Twitter that it had been two years since I had touted the idea of creating a group website dedicated to air power history, theory, and practice. While we might quibble about From Balloons to Drones date of birth, it was on 15 June 2016 that the first post announcing the creation of the site and calling for contributions was published. As such, it seems apropos to reflect on the past two years.

From Balloons to Drones started out with me as the only editor and we had a couple of dedicated contributors. I am pleased to say that three of those early dedicated contributors, Dr Brian Laslie, Dr Mike Hankins, and Alexander Fitzgerald-Black, have now come onboard as Assistant Editors. All our effort is, of course, done in addition to our other work away from the site. For example, recently, I moved to Australia from the UK and co-edited a special edition of the British Journal for Military History while Brian published his much-awaited book on General Laurence Kuter. Similarly, Alex published his first book on the air war over Sicily in 1943 while Mike completed his PhD on culture and technology in the United States Air Force (USAF) and has now moved to take up a position at the USAF Air Command and Staff College. Nonetheless, despite all these significant personnel and professional achievements, and with my Assistant Editors support, we continue to plan for the future and examine how we might grow the air power core community of interest.

As well as adding Brian, Mike, and Alex to the editorial team, From Balloons to Drones continues to grow regarding the number of contributors to the site; however, we are always looking to add new writers to the team. As such, if you are a postgraduate, academic, policymaker, member of the armed forces or a relevant professional involved in researching the subject of air power then take a moment and look at our submissions page to find out how you can get involved with the conversation.

RAF-T 3519
A pilot and his dog called ‘House’ (holding his master’s helmet in his mouth) walks away from a line of Gloster Javelin FAW.9s of No. 33 Squadron at RAF Middleton St George, c. 1962. (Source: © IWM (RAF-T 3519))

Statistics

What about statistics? Well, this is our ninety-fifth post, which, of course, means we are just five away from the magic century. Those 95 posts have consisted of articles, research notes, book reviews, commentaries, and the occasional editorial. We also started a new series of historic books reviews with the first one published here. All told, these posts, excluding this one, have totalled some 157,000 words, or roughly the equivalent of two monographs! We have published a wide variety of articles that have covered both historical and contemporary issues. The top five posts are:

  1. Major Tyson Wetzel, ‘Changing the USAF’s Aerial ‘Kill’ Criteria’;
  2. Justin Pyke, ‘Blinded by the Rising Sun? American Intelligence Assessments of Japanese Air Power, 1920-41: Part 1 – The 1920s’;
  3. Dr Michael Hankins, ‘Inventing the Enemy: Colonel Toon and the Memory of Fighter Combat in Vietnam’;
  4. Wing Commander André Adamson and Colonel Matthew Snyder, ‘The Challenges of Fifth-Generation Transformation’;
  5. Dr Jacob Stoil and Lieutenant Colonel Kyle C. Burley, ‘Arrows from the Ground – Or how an incident on 17 March 2017 may change the relationship between ground and air forces.’

We also worked on a great joint series of articles with our partners at The Central Blue. These articles supported a seminar that the Williams Foundation held in Canberra, Australia that looked at the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st century. This was a great partnership and something we are happy to explore again in the future.

The Future

Speaking of the future, there is, of course, the question of what comes next. Well, hopefully, more of the same. We are keen to build on the high-standards we believe that we have set for ourselves. However, we can only do that with your help. So, get in touch and contribute!

As noted, we have started a new series of historic book reviews, and this is an area that we are keen to develop. The series aims to be an accessible collection of appraisals of critical historic publications about air power history, theory, and practice. Many books hold a specific place in the study of air power because of the ideas they introduced or the insights they provided about the institutions responsible for delivering air power capabilities. The reviews will cover several different types of texts from those works that developed air power ideas to crucial memoirs.

Our essential development for the near future is that we are launching a series of podcasts with authors of new air power related titles. This is a project that Mike is working on for us, and we are excited about the prospect of offering something stimulating and hearing from those working in the field of air power studies. We will be realising more information about these podcasts once we have more details.

Concluding Thoughts

Overall, myself, Brian, Mike, and Alex have made a concerted effort to develop closer ties not just between ourselves but between those interested in the subject of air power. We think we have done that, but we are always happy to hear any ideas that our readers might have for future developments. Finally, it is to you, our readers, and our contributors that we owe our greatest thanks. Without you, we would not exist. If you do not come and read the material that we publish, then there is little point in this endeavour. That you do come and read our ramblings is appreciated, and we hope you continue to do so for many years to come.

Dr Ross Mahoney is the Editor of From Balloons to Drones. He 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 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: Crews of Fleet Air Arm Barracudas and Corsairs leaving the operations room of HMS Formidable after handing in reports of a strike, c. August 1944. (Source: © IWM (A 25454))

Inventing the Enemy: Colonel Toon and the Memory of Fighter Combat in Vietnam

Inventing the Enemy: Colonel Toon and the Memory of Fighter Combat in Vietnam

By Dr Michael Hankins

A recent post on the popular website The Aviation Geek Club told the story of what they called ‘the most epic 1 v 1 dogfight in the history of naval aviation.’[1] This is the story in which Lieutenants Randy ‘Duke’ Cunningham and William Driscoll, from among the first batch of graduates from the US Navy’s then-new Top Gun training program, shot down the number one North Vietnamese Air Force fighter ace, Colonel Toon, and became the first American aces of the war. Very little of that tale is true, but it makes for an exciting story, and this website is not the first to tell it. Although the details of these claims bear some scrutiny, the tale raises more interesting more significant questions about how and why legends like this form and grow over time.

Cunningham and Driscoll meet with Secretary of the Navy John Warner and CNO Admiral Elmo Zumwalt
Lieutenant Randy Cunningham (second from left) in a ceremony honouring him and Lieutenant William Driscoll (third from left), the US Navy’s only Vietnam War air ‘Aces’ in June 1972. On the left is John Warner, then Secretary of the Navy, and on the right is Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, then Chief of Naval Operations. (Source: Wikimedia)

Combat situations breed storytellers. Any stressful, exciting, death-inducing human endeavour does. Perhaps even more so among fighter pilots engaging in acrobatic dogfights at near (or above) the speed of sound, combat stories, as they are told and retold, heard and re-heard, become legendary. Especially enticing is the need to explain defeat or even a lack of decisive victory. During the Vietnam War, skilled North Vietnamese pilots shot down US aircraft in numbers that some Americans found embarrassing. The final official tally of air-to-air combat kills was 137 to 67, almost exactly 2:1 in favour of the US. This sounds like a victory to some. Indeed, General William Momyer, Commander US Seventh Air Force, saw it that way when he recalled later that winning by 2:1 was ‘an acceptable rate.’[2] However, it did not seem acceptable to those who drew historical comparisons. The US had fared better in previous wars, peaking in the Korean War, which saw US F-86 pilots defeating MiG-15s by a factor of more than 10:1.[3] By those standards, Vietnam felt like a massive step backwards.

Explaining the seeming backslide in combat performance was the official task of several investigations, from the US Air Force’s Red Baron Reports to the US Navy’s Ault Report. Pilots ranted about the poor performance of their planes, especially the F-4 Phantom’s thick black smoke trails that gave away its position to anyone caring to look up. Pilots scoffed at the lack of training in basic combat manoeuvring, much less dogfight training. They decried the fact that only ten percent of their missiles hit anything, and that their F-4s lacked the most basic instrument of air combat: a gun. Without a trigger to pull, many argued, how were they supposed to shoot anyone down?

Other pilots took to creating legends. What could explain the fact that so many US aircraft were getting shot out of the sky by an allegedly inferior, third-world country’s hand-me-down air force that only had a few dozen aeroplanes to its name? There must be an amazing, inexplicable, near-mythical, born-genius dogfighter on the enemy side.

Thus, was born the legend of Colonel Toon, AKA Colonel Tomb, AKA Nguyen Tomb.

Telling the Tale

As the legend goes, Toon was more than a double ace, with at least twelve kills to his name, maybe as high as 14, which was how many stars were allegedly painted on the side of his MiG. Toon displayed the typical fighter pilot personality characteristics of aggressiveness and independence. He utilised frequent head-on attacks and a ‘lone wolf’ style of engaging in which he refused to obey the orders of his ground controller and engaged F-4s in vertical manoeuvres, where his MiG was at an inherent disadvantage.[4] According to the typical story, as American pilots struggled, the US Navy’s Ault Report had led to the introduction of Top Gun: a graduate school for fighter pilots. The intensive training there gave US Navy aviators the skills to destroy MiGs wherever they found them. Moreover, allegedly, Top Gun graduates Cunningham and Driscoll used their newly found skills to shoot Toon out of the sky on 10 May, during a massive dogfight at the beginning of Operation Linebacker. Cunningham claimed this himself, and the story is still often repeated in popular outlets.[5]

There is just one problem: almost none of this is true. Top Gun, although undoubtedly useful, was, at the time, a tiny outfit that many leaders in the US Navy did not take seriously. The narrative of Top Gun as the saving grace of air-to-air combat also ignores all of the other useful changes instigated by the Ault Report, as well as other practices the US Navy was doing at the time. These included enhancements to their aircraft, upgraded missiles, the increased reliance on early warning radar systems that gave pilots situational awareness, and the increase in jamming of enemy communications that limited North Vietnamese situational awareness.[6] Besides that, Cunningham and Driscoll were not even Top Gun graduates. Moreover, what of Colonel Toon? He was simply not real. He did not exist.

NVAF MiG-19 pilots of the 925th fighter squadron discussing tactics in 1971
North Vietnamese Air Force MiG-19 pilots of the 925th fighter squadron discussing tactics in 1971. (Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force)

Busting Myths

To unravel these tales, let’s start with Cunningham and Driscoll at Top Gun. The principal disputed aspect of the common claim hinges on the word ‘graduates.’ Cunningham and Driscoll had not been students at Top Gun, but they were involved with the school. Before the start of Operation Linebacker in 1972, Top Gun was in bad shape. It had struggled and fought to get access to aeroplanes to train in, and throughout 1971 most of the instructors assumed it was only a matter of time before the US Navy would shut the place down.[7] With limited student slots, selection for Top Gun was competitive. Only the top-performing pilots of select squadrons were picked, and Cunningham had simply not made the cut – twice. Cunningham’s roommate Jim McKinney, and later Steve Queen, both of whom were his colleagues in VF-96, were selected ahead of him. This was in part because they were viewed as more skilled, partially because Top Gun selection favoured career officers the US Navy could count on to stay in the service after the war, which did not, at that time, describe Cunningham. Also, as his skipper noted, Cunningham was simply immature. Top officers and those selected for the coveted Top Gun training needed to be more than just typical fighter jocks, they needed to be well-rounded officers capable of strong leadership. Cunningham’s commander did not see those qualities in him.[8] His fellow pilots noted the same lack of leadership. When Cunningham later pled guilty to taking millions of dollars in bribes as a congressman, those that served with him said they were ‘not necessarily surprised,’ because even when he was a pilot during the war, he had shown a remarkable lack of officership. Some noted that Cunningham was ‘a mind undistracted by complicated thoughts.’[9]

Cunningham and Driscoll
An autographed picture of Lieutenants Cunningham and Driscoll (Source: Randy Cunningham and Jeff Ethell, Fox Two: The Story of America’s First Ace in Vietnam (Mesa, AZ: Champlin Fighter Museum, 1984)

Just because Cunningham was passed over for Top Gun does not mean he was not participating in some way. In 1971, during his squadron’s turnaround period, Cunningham was assigned to temporary duty at Top Gun as a ‘gopher,’ mostly doing paperwork for the school. However, it gave him a chance to listen to some of the lessons and occasionally sit in the backseat of adversary aircraft. He spent much time with the Top Gun instructors, including Jim Laing, J.C. Smith, Dave Frost, and Jim Ruliffson. The squadron then went on leave for a month, during which time Cunningham’s new commanding officer, Early Winn, permitted him to run exercises in the squadron’s F-4 Phantoms since they would be sitting idle for that time. Cunningham used the opportunity to practice what he had learned from his informal lessons. Upon returning from leave, the whole squadron became the first to go through the new Fleet Adversary Program, which some described as ‘mini-Top Gun.’ Primarily the program was a short workshop that introduced some of the concepts that Top Gun explored in more detail. VF-96 ran the workshop twice before returning to Vietnam.[10]

The claim that Cunningham and Driscoll were Top Gun graduates, as is often repeated, is false, but it is easy to see why many might be confused about that. Indeed, in an ad hoc sense, the pair had some access to higher level training than others, including Top Gun instructors. The other claim; that the duo’s fifth kill was the legendary Toon – or that there even was a Toon – is much more dubious.

Part of the confusion comes from the insistence of US SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) by the National Security Agency (NSA) that Toon was real. Claiming to have cracked the North Vietnamese callsign system, the NSA, intercepting enemy communications, began keeping track of individual pilots. They especially singled-out a North Vietnamese MiG-21 ace pilot named Toon, based at Phuc Yen, who developed a reputation for aggressively disrupting B-52 raids. They referred to him as ‘The Red Baron of North Vietnam,’ or ‘an airborne outlaw in the image of a Wild West gunslinger,’ who, whenever he was spotted, ‘U.S. planes took up the chase like some sheriff’s posse of old.’ The NSA claimed that Momyer was ‘obsessed’ with destroying Toon.[11] This could be possible, although it is strange then, that Momyer does not mention Toon at all in his book on the subject.

Cunningham’s debriefing report from 10 May 1972 – in which he very carefully words his statement to give the reader the impression that he was a Top Gun student without stating that directly – has ‘The 5th Kill (Col. Tomb)’ typed in the margin. After describing the dogfight, he claimed:

Intelligence later revealed that this 17 driver was Colonel Tomb, the North Vietnamese ace credited with 13 U.S. aircraft.[12]

Cunningham did not identify who told him this, and his claim raises questions, as it seems to contradict the intelligence from the time. The NSA referred to this pilot as ‘Toon,’ not ‘Tomb,’ and did not identify him as a Colonel. The NSA also specified him as a MiG-21 pilot whereas the Cunningham kill was a -17. They also credited Toon with five kills, not the 13 that Cunningham referenced. Furthermore, the NSA report states that Toon was never defeated, and eventually was promoted out of combat flying and became a ground controller.[13] Cunningham might be telling the truth that some intelligence source, which he does not identify, told him that the -17 he killed was Tomb, but because his claims are so at odds with the NSA’s information on nearly every point, Cunningham’s story raises more questions than it answers.

Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17F
A Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17F at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force)

However, the NSA could also be wrong. In fact, they probably are. Even though the NSA claimed Toon was real at the time, there is little evidence to verify this. Indeed, any ace pilots that North Vietnam had – and eventually they had fifteen that were confirmed by US sources, though Vietnamese records claim sixteen, which was triple the number of US aces – would be of immense propaganda and morale value for their cause. If Toon were real, he would likely have been celebrated as a national hero. When researchers and former pilots began talking to North Vietnamese veterans, any questions about Toon were met with confusion. There’s no record of a Toon or Tomb, which is not even a Vietnamese name. Some have claimed that ‘Toon’ was the result of SIGINT operators mishearing the name of Din Tonh, who was an effective pilot known for ‘lone wolf’ attacks. However, Tonh also flew the MiG-21, not the -17, and was not an ace, much less one with kills in the double digits.[14]

Historian Roger Boniface travelled to North Vietnam and conducted extensive interviews with former MiG pilots. His conclusion? Toon was merely an invented figment of American fighter pilots’ imagination, made up specifically to stroke their damaged egos. As he put it:

The existence of Colonel Toon in the mind of an American pilot may have provided a psychological comfort zone if a North Vietnamese pilot should out-fly him or, even worse, shoot him down.[15]

NVAF ace pilot Nguyen Van Coc meeting with Ho Chi Minh
Nguyen Van Coc meeting Ho Chí Minh, N.D. (Source: Wikimedia)

The closest real pilot to fitting the description, however, was Nguyen Van Coc. He flew a MiG-21 with 14 ‘kill’ stars painted on the side. Vietnam officially credits Van Coc with nine kills of US aircraft, and the US has officially recognised six of them. Still, Van Coc cannot have been the ace-making kill for Cunningham and Driscoll, not only because he flew MiG-21s, but by 1968 he had already been pulled out of combat duty and made an instructor of new North Vietnamese pilots.[16]

Conclusion

Why does this controversy – and others like it – continue to plague the memory of the Vietnam War? Possibly because losing a war is psychologically devastating. This is evident simply in how divisive it is to call the American-Vietnam War a ‘loss’ for the US. Some are reluctant to do so in any terms, but no one can deny that the US did not achieve its strategic goal of creating a stable, independent, non-communist South Vietnamese state. Indeed, North Vietnam did achieve its goal of creating a unified communist state. However, the air-to-air war was not at all the make-or-break factor in any of that. The US did not fail in their goals because of the MiG force. Also, former war records aside, Momyer was not wrong to claim that a 2:1 kill ratio in air-to-air combat is still a victory, in at least a technical definition although the ability of MiGs to frequently interrupt bombing strikes was a more significant problem. Despite these clarifications, Vietnam felt like a loss even to many air combat pilots. Explaining that sense of loss, or even just a sense of a lack of decisive victory is difficult at best. Many pilots, and some historians and observers since, including Cunningham and Driscoll, found it easier to invent an enemy rather than must deal with those painful feelings head-on. This is not an isolated phenomenon. Nearly every war sees these types of inventions as a coping mechanism. Toon may not exist, but what he represents as a way of dealing with the psychological trauma of warfare, is all too real.

Dr Michael Hankins is an Assistant Editor at From Balloons to Drones and a Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool. He is also a former Instructor of Military History at the US Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD from Kansas State University in 2018 with his dissertation, ‘The Cult of the Lightweight Fighter: Culture and Technology in the U.S. Air Force, 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 here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header Image: US Navy McDonnell Douglas F-4J Phantom II ‘Showtime 100,’ which was assigned to VF-96 of Carrier Air Wing 9 onboard USS Constellation Lieutenants Randy Cunningham and William Driscoll used this aircraft for their third, fourth, and fifth MiG-kills on 10 May 1972. (Source: Wikimedia)

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[1] Dario Leone, ‘Showtime 100 Vs Colonel Toon: the most epic 1 V 1 dogfight in the history of naval aviation,’ The Aviation Geek Club, 9 May 2018

[2] William W. Momyer, Air Power in Three Wars (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2003), p. 178.

[3] For example, see: Kenneth P. Werrell, Sabres Over MiG Alley: The F-86 and the Battle for Air Superiority in Korea (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2005).

[4] Roger Boniface, MiGs Over North Vietnam: The Vietnam People’s Air Force in Combat, 1965-75 (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008), p. 59, 74.

[5] For Cunningham’s claim, see: Randy Cunningham and Jeff Ethell, Fox Two: The Story of America’s First Ace in Vietnam (Mesa, AZ: Champlin Fighter Museum, 1984), pp. 107-8.

[6] For a more in-depth look at some of these changes in both the US Navy and the USAF, see Michael Hankins, ‘The Teaball Solution: The Evolution of Air Combat Technology in Vietnam 1968-1972,’ Air Power History, 63 (2016), pp. 7-24.

[7] Robert Wilcox, Scream of Eagles (New York, NY: Pocket Star Books, 1990), pp. 203-6.

[8] Ibid, pp. 207-8.

[9] Alex Roth, ‘Shooting down Cunningham’s legend: Ex-comrades in arms say disgraced congressman was a good fighter pilot but a poor officer with flair for self-promotion,’ San Diego Union Tribune, 15 January 2000.

[10] Wilcox, Scream of Eagles, pp. 210-12; Cunningham, Fox Two, p. 106.

[11] ‘On Watch: Profiles from the National Security Agency’s past 40 years,’ National Security Agency, 1984, declassified 2007, pp. 58-9.

[12] US Air Force Academic Library, Lieutenant Randy Cunningham, ‘Naval Intelligence Debriefing of 10 May 1972 MiG Engagement by VF-96,’ 10 May 1972, pp. 5-6.

[13] ‘On Watch,’ pp. 58-9.

[14] Sebastien Roblin, ‘The Legend of the Vietnam War’s Mystery Fighter Ace,’ War is Boring, 3 July 2016.

[15] Boniface, MiGs Over North Vietnam, p. 74.

[16] Ibid.; Roblin, ‘The Legend of the Vietnam War’s Mystery Fighter Ace.’