This is my personal shortlist of classic and modern Air Force literature. Titles are selected by Air Force history, ongoing conflicts, and their relevancy to the future of aerial warfare, as well as leadership lessons, strategy, and tactics in aviation. Titles are ordered by their original publication date.
Ballistic Books is a series to present literature of interest. Each edition is dedicated to a specific topic. I found it challenging to discover and distinguish good from great literature. With this series, I aim to mitigate that challenge.
(2021) The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War by Malcolm Gladwell
“In Bomber Mafia, Malcolm Gladwell weaves together the stories of a Dutch genius and his homemade computer, a band of brothers in central Alabama, a British psychopath, and pyromaniacal chemists at Harvard to examine one of the greatest moral challenges in modern American history.
Most military thinkers in the years leading up to World War II saw the airplane as an afterthought. But a small band of idealistic strategists, the “Bomber Mafia,” asked: What if precision bombing could cripple the enemy and make war far less lethal? In contrast, the bombing of Tokyo on the deadliest night of the war was the brainchild of General Curtis LeMay, whose brutal pragmatism and scorched-earth tactics in Japan cost thousands of civilian lives, but may have spared even more by averting a planned US invasion.
In Bomber Mafia, Gladwell asks, “Was it worth it?” Things might have gone differently had LeMay’s predecessor, General Haywood Hansell, remained in charge. Hansell believed in precision bombing, but when he and Curtis LeMay squared off for a leadership handover in the jungles of Guam, LeMay emerged victorious, leading to the darkest night of World War II. The Bomber Mafia is a riveting tale of persistence, innovation, and the incalculable wages of war.” I read this book when it was first released. It still ranks high on my list of favorite books.
(2021) Call-Sign KLUSO: An American Fighter Pilot in Mr. Reagan’s Air Force by Rick Tollini
“Eagle pilot Rick “Kluso” Tollini’s life has embodied childhood dreams and the reality of what the American experience could produce. In his memoir, Call Sign KLUSO, Rick puts the fraught minutes above the Iraqi desert that made him an ace into the context of a full life; exploring how he came to be flying a F-15C in Desert Storm, and how that day became a pivotal moment in his life.
Rick’s first experience of flying was in a Piper PA-18 over 1960s’ California as a small boy, and his love of flying through his teenage years was fostered by his pilot father, eventually blossoming into a decision to join the Air Force as a pilot in his late twenties. Having trained to fly jets he was assigned to fly the F-15 Eagle with the “Dirty Dozen,” the 12th Tactical Fighter Squadron, at Kadena AB, Japan before returning Stateside to the 58th Tactical Fighter Squadron “The Gorillas.” Throughout training, Reagan’s fighter pilots expected to face the Soviet Union, but Rick’s first combat deployment was Desert Storm. He recounts the planning, the preparation, and the missions, the life of a fighter pilot in a combat zone and the reality of combat. Rick’s aerial victory was one of 16 accumulated by the Gorillas, the most by any squadron during Desert Storm.
Returning from the combat skies of Iraq, Rick continued a successful fulfilling Air Force career until, struggling to make sense of his life, he turned to Buddhism. His practice led him to leave the Air Force, to find a new vocation, and to finally come to terms with shooting down that MiG-25 Foxbat in the desert all those years before. Most importantly, he came to a deeper understanding of the importance of our shared humanity.”
(2019) Top Gun: An American Story by Dan Pedersen
“When American fighter jets were being downed at an unprecedented rate during the Vietnam War, the U.S. Navy turned to a young lieutenant commander, Dan Pedersen, to figure out a way to reverse their dark fortune. On a shoestring budget and with little support, Pedersen picked eight of the finest pilots to help train a new generation to bend jets like the F-4 Phantom to their will and learn how to dogfight all over again.
What resulted was nothing short of a revolution — one that took young American pilots from the crucible of combat training in the California desert to the blistering skies of Vietnam, in the process raising America’s Navy combat kill ratio from two enemy planes downed for every American plane lost to more than 22 to 1. Topgun emerged not only as an icon of America’s military dominance immortalized by Hollywood but as a vital institution that would shape the nation’s military strategy for generations to come.
Pedersen takes readers on a colorful and thrilling ride — from Miramar to Area 51 to the decks of aircraft carriers in war and peace-through a historic moment in air warfare. He helped establish a legacy that was built by him and his “Original Eight” — the best of the best — and carried on for six decades by some of America’s greatest leaders. Topgun is a heartfelt and personal testimony to patriotism, sacrifice, and American innovation and daring.”
(2019 Tomcat Fury: A Combat History of the F-14 by Mike Guardia
“For more than three decades, the Grumman F-14 Tomcat was the US Navy’s premier carrier-based, multi-role fighter jet. From its harrowing combat missions over Libya to its appearance on the silver screen in movies like Top Gun and Executive Decision, the F-14 has become an icon of American air power. Now, for the first time in a single volume, Tomcat Fury explores the illustrious combat history of the F-14: from the Gulf of Sidra…to the Iran-Iraq War…to the skies over Afghanistan in the Global War on Terror.”
(2017) Desert Storm Air War: The Aerial Campaign against Saddam’s Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War by Jim Corrigan
“The air campaign that opened the Gulf War in January 1991 was one of the most stunning in history. For five weeks, American and other Coalition aircraft pounded enemy targets with 88,000 tons of bombs. Sorties—more than 100,000 of them—were launched from bases in Saudi Arabia, from aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, and even from bases in the United States. The skies over Iraq and Kuwait were filled with a dizzying array of new and improved weapons—Tomahawk and Hellfire missiles, stealth aircraft, and laser-guided smart bombs—and the results were impressive. The Coalition swiftly established air superiority and laid the foundation for the successful five-day ground campaign that followed. The results were also highly visible as the American people watched the bombings unfold in grainy green video-game-like footage broadcast on CNN and the nightly news.
The overwhelming success of the Desert Storm air campaign has made it influential ever since, from the “shock and awe” bombing during the Iraq War in 2003 to more recent drone operations, but the apparent ease with which the campaign was won has masked the difficulty—and the true achievement—of executing such a vast and complex operation.
Using government reports, scholarly studies, and original interviews, Jim Corrigan reconstructs events through the eyes of not only the strategists who planned it, but also the pilots who flew the missions.”
(2012) Viper Pilot: A Memoir of Air Combat by Dan Hampton
“First into a war zone, flying behind enemy lines to purposely draw fire, the wild weasels are elite fighter squadrons with the most dangerous job in the Air Force
One of the greatest aviation memoirs ever written, Viper Pilot is an Air Force legend’s thrilling eyewitness account of modern air warfare. For twenty years, Lieutenant Colonel Dan Hampton was a leading member of the Wild Weasels, logging 608 combat hours in the world’s most iconic fighter jet: the F-16 “Fighting Falcon,” or “Viper.” He spearheaded the 2003 invasion of Iraq, leading the first flight of fighters over the border en route to strike Baghdad. Earlier, on 9/11, Hampton’s father was inside the Pentagon when it was attacked; with his dad’s fate unknown, Hampton was scrambled into American skies and given the unprecedented orders to shoot down any unidentified aircraft.
Viper Pilot is an unforgettable look into the closed world of fighter pilots and modern air combat.”
(2002) Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War by Robert Coram
“John Boyd may be the most remarkable unsung hero in all of American military history. Some remember him as the greatest U.S. fighter pilot ever — the man who, in simulated air-to-air combat, defeated every challenger in less than forty seconds. Some recall him as the father of our country’s most legendary fighter aircraft — the F-15 and F-16. Still others think of Boyd as the most influential military theorist since Sun Tzu. They know only half the story.
Boyd, more than any other person, saved fighter aviation from the predations of the Strategic Air Command. His manual of fighter tactics changed the way every air force in the world flies and fights. He discovered a physical theory that forever altered the way fighter planes were designed. Later in life, he developed a theory of military strategy that has been adopted throughout the world and even applied to business models for maximizing efficiency. And in one of the most startling and unknown stories of modern military history, the Air Force fighter pilot taught the U.S. Marine Corps how to fight war on the ground. His ideas led to America’s swift and decisive victory in the Gulf War and foretold the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
On a personal level, Boyd rarely met a general he couldn’t offend. He was loud, abrasive, and profane. A man of daring, ferocious passion and intractable stubbornness, he was that most American of heroes — a rebel who cared not for his reputation or fortune but for his country. He was a true patriot, a man who made a career of challenging the shortsighted and self-serving Pentagon bureaucracy. America owes Boyd and his disciples — the six men known as the “Acolytes” — a great debt.
Robert Coram finally brings to light the remarkable story of a man who polarized all who knew him, but who left a legacy that will influence the military — and all of America — for decades to come”
(2001) The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security by Grant Tedrick Hammond
“The ideas of US Air Force Colonel John Boyd have transformed American military policy and practice. A first-rate fighter pilot and a self-taught scholar, he wrote the first manual on jet aerial combat; spearheaded the design of both of the Air Force’s premier fighters, the F-15 and the F-16; and shaped the tactics that saved lives during the Vietnam War and the strategies that won the Gulf War. Many of America’s best-known military and political leaders consulted Boyd on matters of technology, strategy, and theory.
In The Mind of War, Grant T. Hammond offers the first complete portrait of John Boyd, his groundbreaking ideas, and his enduring legacy. Based on extensive interviews with Boyd and those who knew him as well as on a close analysis of Boyd’s briefings, this intellectual biography brings the work of an extraordinary thinker to a broader public. The paperback will retain the original publication date as it is the same book but different format.”
(1999) Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War by Mark Bowden
“On October 3, 1993, about a hundred elite U.S. soldiers were dropped by helicopter into the teeming market in the heart of Mogadishu, Somalia. Their mission was to abduct two top lieutenants of a Somali warlord and return to base. It was supposed to take an hour. Instead, they found themselves pinned down through a long and terrible night fighting against thousands of heavily-armed Somalis. The following morning, eighteen Americans were dead and more than seventy had been badly wounded. Drawing on interviews from both sides, army records, audiotapes, and videos (some of the material is still classified), Bowden’s minute-by-minute narrative is one of the most exciting accounts of modern combat ever written—a riveting story that captures the heroism, courage, and brutality of battle.”
(1995) Fighter Wing: A Guided Tour of an Air Force Combat Wing (Tom Clancy’s Military Reference) by Tom Clancy
“Tom Clancy’s explorations of America’s armed forces reveal exclusive, never-before-seen information on the people and technology that protect our nation. Here, the acclaimed author takes to the skies with the U.S. Air Force’s elite: the Fighter Wing. With his compelling style and unerring eye for detail, Clancy captures the thrill of takeoff, the drama of the dogfight, and the relentless dangers our fighter pilots face every day of their lives- showing readers what it really means to be the best of the best. This is the ultimate insider’s look at an Air Force combat wing-the planes, the technology, and the people…with Tom Clancy behind the stick.”
(1994) Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed by Ben R. Rich
“From the development of the U-2 to the Stealth fighter, Skunk Works is the true story of America’s most secret and successful aerospace operation. As recounted by Ben Rich, the operation’s brilliant boss for nearly two decades, the chronicle of Lockheed’s legendary Skunk Works is a drama of Cold War confrontations and Gulf War air combat, of extraordinary feats of engineering and human achievement against fantastic odds. Here are up-close portraits of the maverick band of scientists and engineers who made the Skunk Works so renowned. Filled with telling personal anecdotes and high adventure, with narratives from the CIA and from Air Force pilots who flew the many classified, risky missions, this book is a riveting portrait of the most spectacular aviation triumphs of the twentieth century.”
(1992) Cleared Hot! The Diary of a Marine Combat Pilot in Vietnam by Col. Bob Stoffey
“Many pilots never made it out of ‘Nam. This one did. Highly decorated Col. Bob Stoffey– a Marine Corps pilot for over twenty-five years, who served multiple tours in Vietnam– has seen and done it all. Cleared Hot! is his story– a fast-paced, high-casualty flight into heart-stopping danger.
Full of vivid detail, this combat diary uncovers the real heroes of the Vietnam War, the behind-the-scenes Marine Corps pilots who helped our boys return home…then went back for more.”