Friday, July 17, 2015

Book Review: Viper Pilot

Dan Hampton
Viper Pilot
New York: HarperCollins, 2012
Category: U.S. Air Force - Biography

Rating: 5-Stars

Dan Hampton was a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot from 1986 to 2006, flying the F-16 "Viper" in Wild Weasel squadrons during both the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  For those not already aware, U.S. pilots have referred to the F-16 as the "Viper" since it first entered service in the latter 1970s, and the "Wild Weasel" squadrons are the units dedicated to hunting down and eliminating the surface-to-air missile batteries intended to shoot them down.  Awarded four Distinguished Flying Crosses and one Purple Heart, Hampton would retire as a Lt. Colonel, and one of the most decorated U.S. fighter pilots of the past twenty years.

Dan Hampton delivers the kind of in-the-cockpit memoir that comes along only once in a decade.  His accounts of life as a pilot, of the cocky self-assurance that is needed to strap yourself into a supersonic jet and fly towards, not away from missile batteries firing at you, is what brings the adhrenaline pumped world of fighter aviation to life.  Hampton was also a "patchwearer" - meaning that he was one of the select few pilots to pass the rigorous training regimen of the USAF's Fighter Weapons School (the Air Force's equivalent of the Navy's "Top Gun").  Only the very best pilots are selected to attend the full training program at Nellis - and many of those who do attend are washed out before completing the program.

In addition to being an exceptional, well-written book, Hampton's descriptions also highlight the evolution of the U.S. Wild Weasel fleet between the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq War.  In 1991, the Wild Weasels were primarily tasked with suppressing enemy air defenses (SEAD) - utilizing radar-homing missiles to eliminate the missile tracking stations (or at least coax them to shut-down).  By 2003, the electronics and missile technology had evolved to the point where the Wild Weasels could focus on the destruction of enemy air defenses (DEAD), targeting the missile launchers themselves.

All told, one of the best first-hand pilot accounts out there.

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