Review of “Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War”

Any fighter pilot worth his flight suit knows the power of energy management during a dogfight -- but most don't know it was a rebellious USAF captain who came up with the equations necessary to take dogfighting from instinct to science. A recent biography sheds light on this mysterious man.


Who was John Boyd? Ask any pilot and you will probably get a shoulder shrug or just a blank stare. Hang around with some fighter pilots and ask, “Anyone ever heard of ’40-Second Boyd’?” and the response will likely be the same, a shrug. Follow up with a second question, “What do you know about energy maneuverability?” but back up before you ask that question. The response may look like tai chi with waving hands demonstrating various fighter tactics.What does John Boyd have to do with any of that? Simply put, John Boyd was the fellow who codified the art of aerial attack and created the concept of energy maneuverability. Sure, yankin’ and bankin’ and turnin’ and burnin’ has been known since the first aerial combatants climbed into Spads and Fokkers. And everyone in WWII knew not to try to turn with a Zero. But it was John Boyd who reduced fighter tactics to equations and charts, an idea that was at first scoffed at. Yet Boyd’s work has now become so elemental and basic that few realize where it started or who came up with even the concept of energy maneuverability.To follow this revolutionary and gifted aviator, get Robert Coram’s new book, Boyd, the Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War. Although the title sounds like a fighter pilot’s boast at the happy-hour bar, Coram has done his homework. The book looks not only at Boyd but also at the forces, the times and the events that formed this most complex fellow.

The Thinking Fighter Pilot

Coram breaks his book into three sections: Fighter Pilot, Engineer and Scholar. But early in the prologue, Coram lets the reader know he, like Boyd, is not going to pander to images. He writes of Boyd, “Boyd was more than a great stick-and-rudder man. He was that rarest of creatures — a thinking fighter pilot. Anyone familiar with the Air Force can tell you two things with confidence: One, fighter pilots are known for testosterone, not gray matter; and two, military doctrine is dictated by people with stars on their shoulders. But in 1959, when he was just a young Captain, John Boyd became the first man to codify the elusive and mysterious ways of air-to-air combat. He developed and wrote the ‘Aerial Attack Study,’ a document that became official Air Force doctrine — the bible of air combat — first in America and then, when it was declassified, for air forces around the world. Put another way, while still a junior officer, John Boyd changed the way every air force in the world flies and fights.”With that opening shot, Coram backtracks to Boyd’s youth and explores the influences that created Boyd. Boyd grew up with no father and a hard-as-nails mother who was not cowed by events, status or station. Coram writes that when a Catholic priest ridiculed Boyd’s sister for stumbling during a catechism, Boyd’s mother, Elsie, yanked all the kids out of the school. When Boyd’s live-in aunts protested, Elsie promptly kicked them out of the home and refused to speak to them for years. Coram writes Elsie was noted for her authoritative voice, and when she spoke, no one doubted her resolve or meaning. She was quoted as saying, “The world is not the way you want it to be. The world is the way it is,” and, “Never give up. Never give in.” This indomitable trait would show up in Boyd time and time again.

Intelligent but Confrontational

Coram pushes on quickly through Boyd’s early school years, covering seemingly inconsequential tidbits such as Boyd’s being gifted in math but being pegged with an IQ of only 90. Although the test was suspect, Boyd refused to retake the test and later Boyd used this score to humiliate those who challenged him in a battle of wits.Coram’s quick pace continues as he defines Boyd as a fellow who encounters controversy and confrontation early in his life. He notes that Boyd is also not hesitant to embellish a good tale: When he was an enlisted man stationed in post-war Japan, he led a group of men who tore down two wooden hangars and burned the wood for heat.The confrontations continue after Boyd returns to the U.S., goes to college and re-enters the USAF for pilot training. In pilot training, Boyd garners a reputation for pushing airplanes and instructors to the limits. At graduation as a lowly brown-bar Lieutenant, Boyd reportedly clashes with superiors over his assignment out of pilot training and, again according to Boyd, it is Boyd, not the USAF, who wins. Boyd goes to fighters.Assigned to F-86s, Boyd flies 29 combat sorties in Korea, damages one MiG but gets no kills. After Korea, Boyd returns to the States and is selected to attend the prestigious Fighter Weapons School, graduate school for fighter pilots at Nellis AFB, near Las Vegas. Boyd impresses the FWS instructors and is invited back as in instructor. But Boyd wants to do more than fly and instruct. He wants to “tweak” tactics. Realizing his university education has not equipped him for his tasks, Boyd teaches himself calculus and then formulates equations to demonstrate aircraft performance. To the chagrin of fighter pilots, Boyd adds more academics to FWS, but Boyd is out to teach fighter pilots more than just how to fly: Boyd wants to teach them how to think. But Boyd retains his stick-and-rudder skills, and to prove it, he puts forth the challenge.

40-Second Boyd

Boyd puts his opponent at his six o’clock position, about 500 feet in-trail, and Boyd bets that, within 40 seconds, he can reverse the positions and be at this opponent’s six: “40 seconds or 40 bucks.” Coram notes that, while some of Boyd’s detractors chortle at his nom de guerre, “40-Second Boyd,” and protest that Boyd was a very predictable one-trick pony who would have been hosed in combat, none could produce the name of any aviator who defeated Boyd or won the bet. The only name that Coram could find was Hal Vincent, a Marine who did not defeat Boyd but who fought Boyd to a draw and later was the first Marine aviator to attend the USAF FWS.Coram plots out Boyd’s continuing quest for more knowledge. Boyd applies for post-graduate schooling and the USAF advises him he can study electrical engineering. Boyd has other ideas. Boyd wins. He attends Georgia Tech, and it is there, studying industrial engineering, that Boyd gets his fingertips on the grail he has been chasing.Struggling with thermodynamics, Boyd wrestles with the concept of entropy (the amount of energy available to do work) and during a late-night discussion with a fellow student, Boyd realizes it is not airspeed or power that gives the fighter pilot the victory. It is energy.

Changing the Air Force

Coram’s story follows Boyd after graduation to Eglin AFB in the Florida panhandle where “40-Second Boyd” begins a new form of combat. Boyd asserts that the USAF is producing the wrong fighters. The USAF mantra of “bigger, faster, and heavier” is a failed doctrine being brutally proven in Southeast Asia, where lighter, cruder but more agile MiGs are shooting down bigger, faster, heaving F-4s and F-105s.Coram picks up two men who will become ardent supporters of Boyd, the first of whom Coram refers to as the six Acolytes, men who will stand by Boyd to reshape many facets of the U.S. military. All six Acolytes will pay high prices for their association with Boyd, as does Boyd’s family.Thomas Christie, the first Acolyte and a civilian, gets Boyd access to government computers after Boyd has been refused access by another civilian. Later, when Boyd presents his findings, he is charged with theft of government property — computer time — but Boyd’s findings are so controversial and irrefutable, the charges are dropped. This illustrates another of Coram’ s themes: Just when it appears that finally someone is going to hang on to Boyd’s six and hose him, someone seemingly comes out of nowhere to save Boyd’s butt.

Fighter Mafia

In short order, Coram moves to Boyd’s years in the Pentagon and his involvement with the development of the F-15. Boyd meets and makes more fast friends and forms a group many angrily called the “Fighter Mafia.” It is the Fighter Mafia that takes on the USAF generals and essentially rams two concepts down the USAF’s throat: No one wants a tiny, lightweight, single-seat, single-engine fighter, and everyone chokes on the concept of a slow, ugly, twin-engine, subsonic attack airplane with twin tails. The tiny fighter becomes the F-16. The ugly subsonic attack aircraft is produced as the A-10.

Coram follows Boyd in battle after battle with the higher echelons, but Coram refuses to name names. Generals are identified by the number of stars they wear. Likewise, a designer tossed out on his ear by Boyd for presenting a preposterous design is a “famous aircraft designer.” (There are few who achieved that designation but Coram refuses to name names.)By the time Boyd reaches the rank of Colonel, he has gunned many superiors and alienated many within the USAF. He recognizes that, at some point in life, one must choose to “do” or to “be.” Those who “do” are not destined to become those at the top.

After Retirement

Boyd retires from the USAF but he continues to take his concepts of energy and warfare to anyone who will listen, one being a Senator from Wyoming, Dick Cheney. Boyd creates what is known as the OODA Loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act), but the OODA Loop is not a linear 1-2-3-4 process. It is a complex concept that takes hours to fully explain. Boyd continues developing a briefing on “Patterns of Conflict,” which looks at all forms of combat, but at 14 hours in length, is anything but brief.During Coram’s book, Boyd goes from a high-school kid, to Korea, to “40-Second Boyd,” to the guy who creates the Energy Maneuverability Theory now generic to all fighter-pilot tactics. From there to the man called in to work on the F-15 program and then leader of the Fighter Mafia, the group that pushed through the initial concepts and designs that become the F-16, F-18 and A-10. From there Boyd goes to the entire arena of combat and influences not only the Air Force but the Marines.Coram obviously admires Boyd but he is not blinded by Boyd’s brilliance to the exclusion of Boyd’s flaws. Boyd is loud, profane, and at times, his appearance is slovenly. Boyd pokes people in the chest while getting his point across, and more than a few times he does this with cigar in hand and leaves his opponent with either ashes on his shirt or, in at least one case, his tie smoldering. Boyd has no inhibition about calling his close friends at any hour to discuss for hours his latest idea, yet Boyd ignores his family and apparently pays little attention to his wife. But those six Acolytes who worked with Boyd, while they paid a high price professionally and otherwise for their friendship with Boyd, to a man, they each say it was worth it.The title says it all. You may or may not agree with Coram’s assertion but in reading Boyd, you will surely come away with a different idea of how the Pentagon works and an understanding of how the USAF wound up with a recognized great little dog-fighter and a big-dog attack airplane and knowledge of where one of the basic concepts of modern fighter tactics came from.Simply put, go get a copy of Boyd. You will enjoy the tale and the wild ride.