I Fly With the Eagles
"Roger, 90 left, SPAD 2."
by James Fallows
"You want to fly with the eagles, you got to pay the price," Dick Anderegg told
me on the phone. Anderegg is an Air Force major in his middle thirties, a
fighter pilot so proficient that until recently he was an instructor at the Air
Force's Fighter Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base, near Las Vegas. Now he
works at the Pentagon, as an aide (or "action officer," in the current phrase)
to a general, and it was in that capacity that he became my chaperone for a
time early this fall.
The Air Force is well-known for embracing its antagonists with hospitality and
with technical displays. I had become eligible for such embrace by writing (in
the May issue of The Atlantic) about the harmful consequences of the American
military's progression toward more complex, sensitive, and expensive
weaponry--of which one of the most complex, sensitive, and expensive specimens
is the fighter plane known as the "Eagle," or F-15. After the article was
published, the Air Force arranged several meetings with pilots and other
authorities who testified about the Eagle's capabilities. At the end of one
such session, I commented that if the plane was so phenomenal, it would
certainly be interesting to take a ride.
"Done," said John T. Chain, the major general who was at the time the Air
Force's director of operations. He passed me into the hands of Major Anderegg,
with whom I spent many hours in the following weeks.
The "price" that Anderegg had in mind was the sequence of pre-flight
examinations and training that outsiders must go through before they are
allowed to ride into the sky. One was an extensive physical, meant to reduce
the likelihood that a passenger will die during the flight. Next came
"physiological training," a three-hour session at Andrews Air Force Base
designed to inform those who will fly in high-performance aircraft about some
of the conditions they may confront. Half the time was devoted to a lecture
about what happens to the human body when it is subjected to low atmospheric
pressure and shortages of oxygen; the other half was spent in a test chamber
that simulated those two conditions. Air Force pilots are required to go
through physiological training every three years, and they regard it as a bore.
Quite a few outsiders have also taken it. "In my time here we've trained twice
on Saturdays," one officer told me during my visit, which took place on a
Wednesday. "Once for General Allen [Lew Allen, the Air Force Chief of Staff]
and once for John Denver."
I spent my time in the chamber under the supervision of Sergeant Clark Mittan,
a twenty-four-year veteran of the force. He began by demonstrating the effects
of low pressure on the ears and on gases trapped in the nether regions of the
body. Inside the chamber, the atmospheric pressure was slowly reduced to
approximately that at an elevation of 35,000 feet. In the chamber was a quart
jar with a surgical glove stretched across its mouth. At sea-level pressure,
the glove hung limp. At 35,000 feet, it was the size of a basketball. My
abdomen felt as if it had a basketball inside. Then normal pressure was
restored, as a prelude to "explosive decompression"--a simulation of what would
happen if the airplane's canopy blew off during high-altitude flight.
As the final item of physiological training, Sergeant Mittan demonstrated the
effects of hypoxia, or a shortage of oxygen. Captain Albert Hartzell, in the
lecture that preceded the "chamber flight," had listed some of the symptoms of
hypoxia--rapid breathing, impaired judgment, a blue tint to the fingertips and
lips. This demonstration was supposed to teach me how to make the diagnosis
myself. It was not hard. With the chamber's "altitude" raised to 25,000 feet,
the sergeant told me to take off my oxygen mask. He then handed me a little
worksheet and told me to begin. On the left were columns of numbers to add or
multiply, along with mazes and other items demanding reasoning power. On the
right was a list of the symptoms of hypoxia. The idea was to start working on
the problems, and then to circle the symptoms as they occurred. Within thirty
seconds, arithmetic was a challenge. One minute later, I was drawing loose
circles around "dizzy" and "sleepy" on the symptom list and was looking forward
to a long, long sleep. Sergeant Mittan reached over to snap my oxygen mask back
on. The lesson was at an end.
"Have a good trip," the sergeant said. "How come WE never get to fly on those
planes?" the captain asked. I was prepared for everything except what actually
My hope had been to enjoy a spectacle without creating one. The second part of
that hope was not to be fulfilled. At dinner the night before the flight, I sat
in the officers' club at Langley Air Force Base, in Virginia, with two generals
and assorted colonels and majors. I made nervous hardee-har-har jokes about
increasing my life-insurance coverage and enjoying my last meal. The delight on
my face was all too obvious whenever Thomas Barber, the lieutenant colonel and
squadron commander who would be my pilot the following morning, turned down the
waitress's repeated offers of wine or after-dinner drinks. The wake-up was set
for six o'clock the following morning. As the clock passed ten, I grew anxious
that Barber had not yet been sent home to get a good sleep. I was alarmed when,
shortly after eleven, one of the generals asked Barber not to go directly home
but instead to swing past the squadron headquarters and pick up a flight suit
for me to wear. It was almost midnight when we picked up the suit. In the
meantime, Major General John Piotrowski, who accompanied me during nearly every
waking hour of my visit, had taken me out to the flight line to watch the
late-shift maintenance crew work on the F-15s. Go to bed! I wanted to say when
I saw Barber there holding my flight suit and my black Air Force boots. He
stood by politely until the general finished his explanations, then we went our
separate ways to bed.
When I reappeared in the officers' club at six-thirty the next morning for
breakfast with the general, I was a changed man. I was clothed in the flight
suit, a light-weight green overall that had badges and insignia on every
available space. These gave my name and indicated my association with the
Tactical Air Command, the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing, the 94th Tactical Fighter
Squadron--and my assignment, should the need arise, to the Rapid Deployment
Force. The 94th Squadron, which Tom Barber commanded, is Eddie Rickenbacker's
old unit, and its emblem is Rickenbacker's hat-in-the-ring from World War I.
Members of the squadron wear white mock-silk scarves, printed with pale blue
hats-in-the-ring. "Wear the scarf," General Piotrowski had told me as he
dropped me at my quarters the night before. "The men have a lot of pride in the
unit. It'll mean something to them." I had put it on under the flight suit and
fluffed it out at the neck in the fashion of an ascot. When I entered the
squadron headquarters after breakfast, I saw that my scarf did mean something
to the pilots, and what it meant was, This man is a jerk. They wore their
scarves draped around their necks, like shawls, with only the thinnest edge
visible above the flight suit. I scuttled into the bathroom and re-emerged
looking--at least as far as my scarf was concerned--just like everybody else.
Under the guidance of Gerald Gomez, a sergeant in his mid-twenties who had a
no-nonsense air, the 94th's equipment crew began suiting me up. I received an
oxygen mask, after the length and breadth of my face was measured with
calipers; a helmet, complete with visor and moleskin skullcap to absorb the
sweat; a parachute harness, which when it is fully connected requires the
wearer to walk bent over, like a gorilla; and finally, my G-suit.
The G-suit is an abbreviated set of coveralls that runs from the bottom of the
rib cage down to the ankles and that contains several inflatable bladders. The
bladders lie over the lower abdomen, the thighs, and the calves of the legs. To
make sure the bladders are snug, two of the crewmen stand behind the wearer and
haul on laces with all their might, as if they were helping Scarlett O'Hara
into her whalebone corset. When fighter airplanes go into violent maneuvers,
their crews are subjected for periods of seconds or even minutes to forces
several times as great as that of gravity. (Three Gs equals three times the
force of gravity, for example.) The effect of high Gs is, among other things,
to drive the pilot's blood away from his brain and toward his abdomen and legs,
causing him to pass out. The idea of the G-suit is to slow this process down.
Inside the plane, the suit is connected to a pneumatic system that
automatically inflates the bladders as soon as high-G forces begin. The
pressure the bladders exert on the legs and belly is supposed to retard the
pooling of blood--and also to remind the wearer to begin the "M-1 maneuver,"
which involves tensing the muscles of the entire body and making deep grunting
sounds. "The G-suit and the M-1, they'll give you an extra G or two of
protection," one sergeant said, while lacing me up. "Here's what it's going to
feel like." He walked me over to a bicycle pump and inflated the suit. As the
bladders swelled around me, I felt like the Michelin tire man.
My education as a flier included one more step, known as "emergency egress
training." Like other non-flying chores, such as sitting at the end of the
runway to make sure that planes aren't about to land with their wheels still
up, this duty is rotated among the pilots in the squadron. The 94th's emergency
egress officer was Ed Cantwell, a twenty-four-year-old lieutenant who, like so
many other officers, had grown up in a military family. He had gone into the
Air Force after graduating from Duke. As a class, fighter pilots tend toward a
jauntiness that tempts some of them to look down on even the test pilots, whose
world Tom Wolfe glorified in The Right Stuff. No one is shooting at the test
pilots, after all. This confidence is most obvious among young pilots, such as
Cantwell. At an age when his classmates were swotting for the bar exam or
making insurance deals, Cantwell was flying the hottest plane. I pitched him a
softball: "I guess it's pretty much the top of the heap to be driving the
F-15." "You bet," he said with a grin.
Cantwell drove me to a training hangar that contained a mock-up of the F-15's
cockpit. He showed me how to get into the seat, how to undo all the buckles and
harnesses if I had to get out of the plane in a hurry on the ground, and which
handles I should not touch unless I wanted to blow the canopy off or eject
myself while the plane was still on the runway. "We had a nurse do that one
time," he said. "DON'T TOUCH 'EM." He said that if we had to eject from the
plane at high altitude, my only job would be to lean back and let the automatic
systems do their work. A substantial investment of faith would be required if
that occurred. When the plane is flying at 35,000 feet, the temperature outside
is 65 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, and there is virtually nothing to breathe.
If a flier has to eject at that height, he is supposed not to deploy his
parachute, which would slow him down so much that he would spend too much time
in these inhospitable surroundings, but instead simply to drop like a stone
until he reaches an altitude of some 14,000 feet. This means a total free fall
of about four miles, which takes almost three minutes. A small drogue parachute
is supposed to open along the way and provide just enough drag to keep the
chair upright rather than letting it tumble end over end. In theory, there is
nothing to worry about throughout that long descent, and no reason to rip in
panic at the manual parachute release, because special sensors in the new Aces
II ejection seat are supposed to send out the parachute at just the right time.
I thought that pilots must be a trusting lot.
What remained was the pre-flight briefing, conducted by another pilot, Captain
Donald Ross. Ross could have been a figure from a movie about the RAF during
the Battle of Britain. Lean and dark-haired, he is in his late twenties, and
wears a thin moustache. Ross had recently been selected to join a class at the
Fighter Weapons School at Nellis. He would fly one F-15 while I rode behind
Barber in the other. Together they would engage two F-4 fighters, which would
assume the role of Russian fighter-bomber planes known as "Floggers." For this
exercise, the Floggers would be thought of as heading for a target area--a NATO
airfield, say--which they would destroy if they managed to reach it unmolested.
The role of the F-15s was to "kill" them before they got there.
Ross went to a blackboard and indicated with his pointer the area of the
exercise, a circle roughly thirty miles in diameter over the Atlantic Ocean.
The Floggers would take off from North Carolina, and the F-15s would go and get
them. The obvious purpose of the exercise was to show off the virtues of the
F-15's electronics and radar systems, which can detect other planes at great
distances and send a variety of radar-guided missiles to destroy them. In real
combat, it might be difficult to tell which of the blips on the radar screen
was friendly and which a foe--indeed, this is one of the central criticisms of
the plane's high-cost radar systems. No such difficulties would affect this
demonstration: since the exercise was to be run in a special restricted air
zone, anything that showed up would be the enemy.
In the first two simulated attacks, the F-15s would rely on their radar
missiles. In the third, Ross and Barber would start out using radar but then
convert to a "visual" approach--that is; they would wait to see the other
planes before shooting at them. In place of real missiles, the planes in the
exercise would carry "pods" full of sensors that would record minute details of
each plane's movements and its position relative to all the others.
These readings could then be combined in a computer and stored on tape. After
the flight, we would see all the action replayed on a four-foot-square,
full-color computer screen, which would offer views of each engagement as it
appeared from above (the "God's-eye view"), from the side, or from the cockpit
of each airplane.
At last it was time to march out to the planes. The F-15, though large by the
standards of fighter aircraft, looks small to laymen accustomed to commercial
planes. It has a double tail, a large "bubble" canopy, and rectangular air
intakes roughly four feet by two feet on either side of the cockpit.
"You'll see how roomy she is," Ed Cantwell told me as I jackknifed my way into
the rear seat. (The F-15 usually flies with only one pilot, but one or two
planes in each squadron of twenty-four planes are modified to include a second
Tom Barber, who had been taciturnity itself before stepping into the airplane,
suddenly came to life, radioing commands and going through his pre-flight
checklists, telling me to get my knees out of the way as he moved the joy stick
in his cockpit making the one in the rear seat move in sync. Cantwell told me
to take off my scarf, already the source of so much annoyance, because it would
constitute a fire hazard during flight. As I tucked it into a pocket on one leg
of my G-suit, I saw that Barber had already removed his scarf. I had not
realized until then that the scarves were purely for esprit de corps, and could
not be worn when the pilots were doing their job. Soon everything was buttoned
up--helmet fastened with chin strap, oxygen mask clipped onto helmet, canopy
cover lowered onto the plane. As Ed Cantwell had suggested, I pushed the button
that raised my seat until I could survey the surroundings from high up in the
canopy. Barber told me to lower the tinted visor on the helmet, and we were
The two F-15s--code-named "SPAD 1" and "SPAD 2" (after the French planes that
Rickenbacker flew) for this exercise--taxied to the end of the runway and lined
up side by side. They started rolling down the runway together and lifted off
in perfect parallel. "What's the separation here?" I asked Barber, as I looked
to my left and saw Ross's plane almost close enough to touch. "Ahh...ten feet
at the wingtips," he said. For about a minute, the planes climbed together at a
steep angle, constantly gaining speed.
"Piece of cake," I thought, as we traveled out over the ocean and the planes
moved farther apart. The airspeed was about 550 miles per hour, but so far all
the acceleration had been straight ahead, producing a sensation that was much
stronger than but otherwise no different from what the passengers feel when a
car in which they are riding speeds off from a standing start. The large, clear
canopies gave the effect not of looking at the atmosphere but of being out in
it. Everything was quiet and smooth.
I watched as Barber adjusted the radar scan to cover different altitudes and
distances and to look for the blips that would be the "enemy" planes. Once the
blips appeared, the ensuing steps would be like those of "Space Invaders" or
other computerized video games. Barber would position a targeting marker over
the blip he wanted to destroy. A set of indicators on the right-hand side of
the radar screen would tell him when the target was within firing range. When
everything was lined up, he would push the firing button. In real combat, a
radar-guided missile would be released; in this case, a computerized command
center that was monitoring the exercise would get the indication that Barber
had fired. The missile would presumably track down the target. The enemy blip
would disappear from the screen.
As Barber finished explaining the procedure, the radio crackled. Ross, in SPAD
1, had seen the Floggers in the area he was watching. The engagements began.
Of the next fifty-five minutes I have only the most confused and distressing of
memories. When the exercise was over and I could watch it all replayed on the
computer screen, I could discern the logical pattern of events. The F-15s
turned to intercept the Floggers; the Floggers turned in response; the F-15s
got within range and fired their (simulated) missiles. All went as planned.
Even the last engagement, the dogfight in which the F-15s chased down the
Floggers to very close range, seemed clear and comprehensible on the screen.
But in the air, it looked much different.
During our drive from Washington to Langley Air Force Base, Dick Anderegg, the
combat pilot, had said, "I think you'll be surprised at what sheer physical
labor it is to fly in these planes." Surprise was hardly the term. Nothing in
normal life approximates either the effect of the high G-forces or the
disorientation caused by the repeated, sudden changes in course. The highest
G-forces occur when the plane makes a sharp turn, and the longer the turn is
sustained, the longer the pilot must "pull" extra Gs. The effect is the same as
when children fill a pail of water, attach a rope to the handle, and then swing
it around with the rope. As the pail moves in a circle, the constant
acceleration creates the centrifugal force that holds the water in the bottom
of the pail. As the airplane moves through a curve, the acceleration creates
the high G-forces that drive the pilot toward the bottom of his chair. G-forces
are technically described as making your body feel as if it weighs several
times more than its normal weight. To me, it felt as if I were being held in a
giant fist and squeezed. At 5 Gs, my head was driven down onto my chest. For
days after the flight, the muscles at the back of my neck ached from their
futile attempt to resist that pressure. At 6 Gs, the flesh over my cheekbones
was pulled down toward my chin. The G-meter showed that the maximum force
during the flight was about 7 Gs, which we held for just a few seconds. Barber
said that the F-15 can sustain a 4- or 5-G turn until it runs out of gas, and
that pilots may have to "pull" those G-forces for as long as a minute. ("It
feels like all day.") Pilots who fly the F-16 must withstand forces as high as
9 Gs. All the while, of course, they are guiding the airplane, selecting
targets, and trying to avoid being destroyed by enemy planes.
More discomforting than the sustained G-forces was the accumulation of sudden
turns. After the flight, in an attempt to lift my spirits, some of the pilots
told me that even they grew queasy when forced to ride in the rear seat, where
they are not in control of the plane's movements and are therefore caught by
surprise by each turn.
That may be true; all I know for certain is that, having started the flight in
robust good health, I was reduced after twenty minutes of maneuvering to a
state of paralyzing nausea.
There was, in fact, some warning of the turns. Over the radio, I would hear
Barber tell Ross, "90 left," which meant that the planes would make sharp
right-angle turns to the left. More simply, they said, "Goin' at 'em," which
meant a screaming dive toward the Floggers. By the time I'd had enough
experience to know what a 90-degree turn would be like, I was able to join in
the chatter between the planes:
"90 left, SPAD 1."
"Roger, 90 left, SPAD 2."
From the physiologist's perspective, it was a case of the fluid inside the
three semicircular canals of the inner ear being set in too-rapid motion and
producing the sensation of nausea. From my perspective, it was an acute
practical problem. Before I left the squadron building, a young sergeant had
laid down the law "You puke in your mask, you clean it out." As the plane
leveled off between passes, I clawed at the bayonet clamp that held the mask to
the helmet, determined at all costs to get the mask away from my face. In a
pouch near the bottom of my G-suit, Dick Anderegg had thoughtfully tucked away
four plastic bags for just such a contingency. I got one out and placed it to
my face just in time--and then, in a fool's paradise, imagined that because
there was nothing more in my stomach, I'd be safe for the rest of the flight.
The truth was less pleasant. For the last twenty minutes of the flight, I
worked a carefully coordinated two-handed maneuver. In the left hand, I held my
oxygen mask, which I slapped to my face for occasional breaths. (The cabin's
internal pressure was such that I didn't really need the mask, but the oxygen
was cool and felt good.) In my right hand was the bag, which alternated places
with the mask, in a retch-breathe-retch-breathe pattern.
As I was getting the pattern down, Barber's voice came through the intercom:
"How ya doing?" .
"Okay," I said in a strangled voice.
"Want to see what she can do?"
"Sssssuuuuuure." I had come this far, and (I had recently decided) I would
never be here again, so why not see the whole show?
Up we went.
The F-15 weighs some 40,000 pounds. Its two engines can generate a thrust of
about 22,500 pounds each, for a total of 45,000 pounds. The result is a
"thrust-to-weight" ratio of greater than 1, which means that the plane, unlike
most in the world, can not only travel virtually straight up but can, under
certain circumstances, gain speed while doing so. Barber showed me some of
these "vertical maneuvers." We climbed in what seemed like seconds from 15,000
to 38,000 feet--an ascent of more than four miles. We went back down, then
began a nearly straight-up climb, at the top of which he leaned the airplane
over onto its back, and then came around for a nearly straight-down descent.
Outside the canopy the sky and sea twirled around and around.
Some of these acrobatics were quite exhilarating, as opposed to the wrenching,
zigzag turns of the rest of the flight.
Either just before or just after the vertical maneuvers--all recollections are
blurred--it was time for the third engagement, the one in which the F-15s were
supposed to hunt down the Floggers and shoot them at close range. This involved
the hardest (i.e. the most sickening) maneuvering of all the engagements, and
it demonstrated yet another of the physical demands placed upon the pilots. The
F-4s that were acting as Floggers are supposed to be particularly ill-suited to
daytime air combat, since their engines emit smoke trails that make the planes
visible from miles away. Experienced F-4 pilots complain that the smoky engine
makes them forfeit the all-important ability to catch other planes by surprise.
The difference between smoking and smokeless engines is crucial to the pilots
but virtually undetectable by the untrained eye. By normal standards, my
eyesight is fine.
But when I heard Ross and Barber saying, "There's the smoke trail," "Yep, I've
got him," and then looked outside, I could see nothing but sky. Barber kept
asking me, "See him? See him?" I said I couldn't, so he drove on the F-4 until
from his perspective he was about to fly up the other plane's tailpipe. At that
point, I could make out a small craft nearby, barely distinguishable against
the background of blue.
With the Floggers thrice destroyed, and the vertical maneuvers out of the way,
SPAD 1 and SPAD 2 turned for home. Barber offered me my moment of glory,
asking, "You want to take the stick?" He soon inquired politely whether I could
see the horizon, since I kept pushing the plane into a leftward dive. I felt
fortunate that he could not turn around and see me behind him, so he did not
understand that the bias in my steering was caused by my wracked, slumping
posture in the back of the plane.
"She's all yours," I said, as I reached for the bag again; he brought us in the
rest of the way.
As the planes neared Langley, they lined up once again in parallel, a distance
that seemed to be inches but was actually a few feet separating their wings. At
such close range, I could see with perfect clarity every move that Don Ross
made as he sat, erect and jaunty, in the cockpit of his plane. I considered the
scene that presented itself to him when he turned to glance at us: one figure
in the front seat, calmly guiding the aircraft toward the runway, and in the
rear a limp rag doll, sweat pouring down his face, trying to preserve his
dignity by reconnecting his oxygen mask as his head bobbled weakly up and
Before the flight, an Air Force photographer had taken countless pictures of
the smiling visitor as he walked across the tarmac and climbed into the plane.
Those were printed and ready by the time we landed, including one mounted on a
plaque commemorating my new status as an "Eagle Driver." General Piotrowski
pressed these "before" pictures--and their negatives--into my hands after I
stumbled down the ladder from the cockpit. I noticed the same photographer
nearby, snapping "after" pictures of a man with blotches of sweat all over his
flight suit and a yearning-for-death expression on his face. Those photos, and
their negatives, remain in the Air Force's merciful hands.
I did not go to Langley just to have fun. There was an instructional purpose to
the visit, which was to hear the Air Force's rebuttal to criticisms of the
excessive cost, sensitivity, and complexity of its most "advanced" planes.
To the Air Force, the F-15 is a symbol of the advances in computer systems,
radar, and propulsion that are necessary to repel the Soviet force. But to
those who argue against excessive complexity and cost, it represents
high-technology weapons that are more impressive in theory than they would be
in the chaotic conditions of real combat. This analysis concludes that it is
time to tip the balance back toward larger numbers of simpler, cheaper weapons
that are easier to maintain and that offer more training time for the troops.
The A-10, which is designed to destroy tanks, is one example of such an
airplane; a fighter called the F-16 is another.
I heard the reasoning behind the Air Force's outlook during several long
sessions at Langley. One was a formal briefing that consumed much of the day
before my flight, in which two young officers stood behind lecterns and took
turns reading from a script and narrating slides and filmstrips, while I sat at
a big table with two generals and a half-dozen Colonels. Another was an
interview with William Creech, a four-star general who is commander of the
Tactical Air Command. This took place shortly after my experience in the sky.
In defending the performance of their most complex weapons, the officials made
several reasonable points. They remarked that the reliability records of
complex planes such as the F-15 are starting to improve. Two and a half years
ago, about 44 percent of the F-15 fleet was classified as "not mission
capable"; now the rate is about 40 percent. This is a modest change, but it is
in the right direction. Similarly, the F-15s have shown a slight increase in
their "sortie per day" rate. (Simpler planes, such as the A-10 and the F-16,
have also improved in reliability, and they are still ahead of the F-15.) The
biggest reason for the improvement, according to General Creech, is that the
Air Force now has more spare parts on hand. He and other officials said that
they would not repeat the mistake of shortchanging the spare-parts account. In
saying so they concede a central argument made by one of their main critics, a
civilian official in the Pentagon named Chuck Spinney, who contends that the
military has chronically underestimated the amount of money it needs to operate
and maintain its ever more complex weapons.
General Creech and others also pointed out that when they agree to sacrifice
quality for quantity, in order to enlarge the force, the Congress often forgets
the "quantity" part of the bargain when the time comes to buy more planes. For
example, the Air Force reluctantly accepted the F-16 (instead of extra F-15s)
on the assumption that it would be able to add seven new "wings" (of
seventy-two planes each) of these less-expensive fighter planes.
"Unfortunately, only one of those wings has materialized," Creech said. "This
makes me skeptical of the cheaper-and-more-numerous solution."
The Air Force officials made several other arguments, though, that struck me as
weak and disingenuous. The officials at Langley implied that anyone who
criticized the Eagle harbored a secret desire to return to the P-51 and the
Spitfire, if not to the Piper Cub. The formal briefing contained several
straw-man formulations, such as "Some critics would suggest that we return to
the simple aircraft of the past"--followed by a slide detailing the mediocre
performance of various planes used in World War II. It is as if American auto
manufacturers had contended that the only alternative to the large, heavy
domestic cars of the mid-1970s was the Edsel or the Model T.
Beyond these debating points, of course, lie certain perceptions of the world.
After the briefings, I thought that three premises could explain why the Air
Force's outlook is so different from that of its critics.
The first concerns "the threat"--the nature of the adversary's force. Generals
Chain and Creech both stressed that the reformers pay too much attention to
American forces and too little to those of the Soviet Union. According to the
Air Force's presentation, the Russians are producing roughly 1,350 fighters and
bombers every year, or ten times as many as our annual additions to the F-15
and F-16 force. "And those are superb, highly sophisticated aircraft," one of
the generals said.
In specific, the Air Force emphasizes the threat in Central Europe. All but a
handful of the charts and slides that accompanied the briefing illustrated the
theoretical array of forces in a sustained battle that might rage through
Germany. They showed how many tanks and aircraft the Russians could use to
mount an invasion, and how few resources we would have to stop them. The
briefing officers said that the Russians have developed forces capable of
rolling around the clock and in bad weather; therefore, we must have airplanes
that, like the F-15, can carry the fight to the enemy even if it is raining or
dark. The weak spot of a Soviet assault would be the "second echelon" of supply
trucks and camps that lie behind the advancing tanks; to exploit this weakness,
we need planes that, like the F-15, can penetrate the defenses. The Russian Air
Force is trained not for dogfights but for quick, low-altitude approaches to a
target area and equally rapid departures; therefore, we need not bother with
dog-fighters such as the F-16 but instead should concentrate on planes like the
F-15, which can use its long-range radar missiles to "fight outnumbered and
win." Several other assumptions about the threat are so deeply embedded that
they are rarely stated; that a Russian invasion of Western Europe is a
plausible danger; that plans for a prolonged European battle should determine
the basic structure of our forces; that land and air battles might rage in
Europe without forcing the Americans or the Russians or even the French to
resort to nuclear weapons. If you conclude, as the Air Force does, that these
are reasonable assumptions, their attempt to concentrate more of their
resources on the F-15 makes sense.
The second premise concerns the perfectability of human contrivances--whether
things will work as planned. The Air Force's plans take for granted the
performance of many new machines. The F-15's system for shooting down planes as
soon as they show up on the radar assumes that there will be a way to tell
whether the blip is a Russian or an American (or a Belgian or a Polish) plane.
The data links that will connect the AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control
System) radar planes with the fighters and the ground bases will work only so
long as they are immune to enemy jamming. Radar-guided missiles will be worth
their great cost only if they can be depended upon to find their targets.
In all of these areas, the Air Force officials said that the hardest technical
problems have been solved. They said that with the radar in an AWACS, they
could watch a Russian plane from the moment it left the runway and could
therefore tell the F-15 exactly which blip it should shoot down. They said that
a variety of communication systems, with names such as "Have Quick" and "Wild
Weasel," would ensure that our messages would go through unhindered, while we
could count on destroying the coherence of the rigidly centralized Soviet force
by jamming their communication lines. They said that although radar-guided
missiles performed quite poorly in Vietnam, the new generation would be more
effective. "We had our problems with the early missiles," General Creech said,
"but then there are problems with early anything." If the assumptions are
right, the policies make sense. If they are wrong, the policies may prove to be
The third premise concerns economic realities. Those who worry about complex
weapons assume a world of tight economic limits. Each weapon that is built
means that another weapon can't be--to say nothing at all of the nation's
nonmilitary needs. Each increase in a weapon's complexity requires more
training for maintenance men and a larger supply of spare parts. These
constraints exist not because there is some abstract limit to the amount the
nation "should" invest in the military but rather because, in any conceivable
peacetime American society, there is a limit to how much it WILL spend. It is
one thing to argue, as many military men do, that the nation should be devoting
more of its resources to defense. It is something different, and very
dangerous, to base plans on the assumption that more money will in fact be
there to spend. Air Force planners allude to economic constraints, but their
first instinct is to ask for what they think we need, regardless of cost. It is
proper that they do so. It is also proper that the rest of us understand the
many other dimensions of the choice.
At the end of the day, I had learned very little about the F-15 that I had not
known before. My experience with fighter airplanes was limited to this one
trip. I knew what it was like to ride in the back seat of an Eagle, but I could
not say with any confidence how different the maneuvers would have been in a
Tomcat, a Foxbat, or, for that matter, a B-52.
But I did feel that I had learned something about the human beings who fly the
planes. For months I had heard pilots and aircraft designers emphasize that,
even in this most technically sophisticated of the military services, the
machines themselves are often less important than the spirit, skill, and
training of the people who fly and maintain the planes. Having seen the
thousand opportunities for disaster that a sloppy maintenance crew might
create, having glimpsed the physical and mental stress that pilots must endure,
I understood more fully what I had been told. The Air Force may have failed, in
my case, in its attempt to inspire greater loyalty to its machines, but that
effort was misguided. Our loyalty should go to the men who fly them.
Copyright © 1981 by James Fallows. All rights
The Atlantic Monthly; November, 1981; "I Fly With the Eagles"; Volume 248, No. 5;