Gareth Stringer's 2011 blogGAR Entries

JAN 06 2011
Recommended Reading - Thuds, MiGs and Rhinos

Firstly may I wish you all a Happy New Year and I hope that 2011 brings you whatever you are hoping it does. I’ve never really been one for resolutions but from a GAR perspective we’ve got loads of plans this year and we will all be working hard to try and make them a reality.

I’m not sure where 2010 disappeared to, it really seemed to fly past, if you’ll excuse the pun, and it seems extraordinary that - and I’ve just checked this - I did a blogGAR on some of my favourite aviation literature as far back as the 13th November 2009! It really doesn’t seem that long ago and I distinctly remember going through my colleague Paul Filmer’s archive to pick out an F-4 Phantom image to go with it like it was yesterday, which it clearly wasn't!

Anyway, what I thought I would do today is get a few words down on some of the books which I purchased and read in 2010; bring my recommended reading list up to date if you like. One thing I did do last year, mainly from October onwards, was re-read most of my Harrier related titles and I will treasure them even more now that aircraft has been retired from UK service. It all helped with research for our series to commemorate the aircraft of course and nothing beats taking in information from people who have actually been there – we even ended up running features from one of those authors, David Morgan, which was a real privilege.

Two books by one author really stand out as highlights for me and that author is Ed Rasimus. Ed flew the F-105 Thunderchief and earned the coveted ‘100 Missions – North Vietnam’ patch and that story is related in his quite frankly superb book “When Thunder Rolled”. I’m always a little wary of describing anything as being the “definitive” version, whatever it might be, but I do think you’d be hard pushed to find a more readable account of what it was like to fly combat missions over Vietnam. If, like me, you were never fortunate enough to see the Thud in the flesh well, Ed puts you firmly in the cockpit and paints a vivid picture of what was clearly a very capable fast jet.

He does more than that though and that is why this title, and the follow up, are so highly recommended. Ed returned to Vietnam some years later and flew another tour on the F-4 Phantom (much to his wife’s dismay as returning for a second tour wasn’t obligatory!) and this story is told in “Palace Cobra”. What he does in both is not only describe the minutiae of flying combat missions but also the day to day experiences, the politics, the personalities, the trips away for R&R, the amusing elements and the fear.

Both are books which manage to convey a whole range of emotions perfectly and I have no doubt that it won’t be too long before I’m picking them up to read them again. The paperback re-print of “When Thunder Rolled” (the version I ordered from Amazon) has a quote from the Wall Street Journal as the banner on the front cover and it is hard to argue with the sentiment:

“One of the finest combat memoirs I have ever read – from any air force and any war.”

If you haven’t already read it then do so – and then get “Palace Cobra” too. Next stop for me is Ed’s book on Robin Olds, one of the greatest fighter pilots of any generation, and I can’t wait to get started.

A further recommendation has to be “Red Eagles – America’s Secret MiGs” by Steve Davies. If like me you are at all interested in the black world of programmes such as HAVE BLUE (F-117), HAVE DOUGHNUT, HAVE DRILL and HAVE FERRY (all relating to US MiG acquisition) etc, then reading about Constant Peg is a necessity.

Constant Peg was the codename given to a programme designed to expose as many US military pilots as possible to ‘the threat’, namely the MiG-17 (for a time at least), but mainly the MiG-21 and MiG-23. These aircraft were operated, under a huge blanket of secrecy, at Tonopah in Nevada by the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron, until 1988 when the unit was closed down as the Cold War finally thawed.

Constant Peg was declassified some years later although, as you will see from the book, much of the background remains shrouded in secrecy, especially regarding how the MiGs were actually procured! Steve Davies has done a masterful job though in speaking to men who commanded the unit, flew the MiGs (with no manuals), maintained the MiGs (with no spares) and truly delves in to as many of those black corners as he can.

It’s absolutely fascinating to read about such an incredible operation and the impact it had on the pilots (almost 6000 of them!) who were exposed to the MiGs either during special visits to Nellis AFB or as part of a deployment to Red Flag. Tragedy too as some of the Red Eagles paid the ultimate price in aircraft which were, especially in the case of the MiG-23, a real handful and none too forgiving. One of my favourite quotes from the book is with regard to the Flogger and one of the pilots talks about its ejector seat (there were no spare parts remember) saying it was called a Zero Zero seat as there was zero chance of him using it as there was zero chance of it working!

You can find some more info and also images from Constant Peg on Steve Davies' website, www.fjphotography.com

It’s a compelling read and something a little different, touching also on the formation of the Aggressor Squadrons, the USN Adversary Units, Red Flag itself and also the first production F-117s which operated from Tonopah and flew by night while the MiGs flew by day. Absolutely brilliant and, as the old cliché goes, I couldn’t put it down.

Do let me know if you’ve read any of these titles yourself or, if you pick them up, what you thought of them.

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2011-01-18 - Ray Hankin
I'm two-thirds of the way through 'Empire of the Clouds', a previous GAR recommendation. What an enthralling read and an excellent analysis of how, despite its post-war disfunctional shortcomings, the British aircraft industry still managed to produce some technologically brilliant military and civil types - and some real duds as well. The period that it covers coincides with my beginnings as an aviation hack so is also a personal trip down memory lane. Thank you for pointing me in the right direction.

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