"Forty Second" Boyd and the Big Picture

Friday, March 28th, 2008

William A. Whittle opens his piece on “Forty Second” Boyd and the Big Picture by summarizing what he learned about John Boyd from reading Robert Coram’s book:

About a hundred miles north of Las Vegas there is a clump of wild grass and cottonwood trees called “The Green Spot.” Not much to look at from the ground, but from thirty thousand feet above the brown Nevada desert it stands out for a hundred miles.

In the mid to late fifties, a fighter pilot could earn himself a quick forty bucks and perhaps a nice steak dinner in Vegas — not to mention everlasting renown, which is to fighter pilots what oxygen is to us lesser beings — by meeting over the Green Spot at thirty thousand feet and taking position just 500 feet behind an arrogant and unpleasant man with precisely zero air-to-air victories to his credit. From that perfect kill position, you would yell “Fight’s on!” and if that sitting duck in front of you was not on your tail with you in his gunsight in forty seconds flat then you would win the money, the dinner and best of all, the fame.

Tank commanders may be charging cavalrymen at heart; sub skippers may be deer hunters using patience and stealth. But fighter pilots are Musketeers. They are swordsmen whose survival depends on remaining on the offensive… that is to say, they are men who survive because they can (and have) initiated 16-to-1 fights because they possess the confidence — actually, the untrammeled ego — to know they will win.

To be challenged in such a manner is an irresistible red flag to men like this, and certainly no less of one because the challenger was a rude, loud, irreverent braggart who had never been victorious in actual air-to-air combat. And yet that forty dollars went uncollected, uncollected for many years against scores of the best fighter pilots in the world.

That is more than luck. That is more than skill. That is more than tactics. That level of supremacy is the result of the ability to see things in an entirely new way. It is the difference between escaping from a maze you are embedded in, versus finding the way out from one that you look down upon from above.

Having your ass handed to you in such a spectacular and repeated fashion causes some men to curse and mutter about ‘one trick ponies’ and so on. But for others, for those who are more invested in victory than in ego, it reveals a level of skill that instantly removes all swagger and competition and puts one in the place of a willing supplicant, eager for knowledge.

Taking a few moments to understand what this odd man learned about airplanes and aerial combat will pay rich dividends later. Because John Boyd — Pope John, The High Priest of the Fighter Mafia, the Mad Major, the Ghetto ColonelForty Second Boyd not only wrote the revolutionary tactics manuals that gave American pilots the keys to air-to-air victory… and with it the essential and undisputed control of the battlespace. Nor was his achievement limited to the design of the phenomenally successful F-15 and F-16 fighters. Nor was it merely the codifying of physics and thermodynamics to make a science out of an art form. That John Boyd saw all of these things for the first time would have made him a legend. But this was quite the lesser of his two great achievements. For Boyd not only saw how to perfect the sword. He saw too how to perfect the swordsman.

And for that, Forty Second Boyd may turn out to be one of the most important men of the Twenty-First Century. And he has lain at rest in Arlington National Cemetery since 1997.

Let’s look at perfecting the “sword”:

And so Boyd went back to college, and bootstrapped himself from Fighter Jock to Aeronautical Engineer to try and find a theory that would show exactly at which airspeeds and altitudes enemy planes were superior.

The result was a series of briefing slides that showed, on an aircraft-by-aircraft basis, where the Soviet fighters were superior (in red) and conversely, at which airspeeds and altitudes the American designs (in blue) had the advantage.

Practically every slide was almost pure red. It was only in very narrow speed ranges, at specific altitudes, that American fighters had the advantage.

Boyd called these Energy-Maneuverability graphs, and in the process of producing them, Boyd developed the first of his two Earth-shattering breakthroughs: E-M Theory.

Boyd realized — through years of intense and lonely study on his own time and often in direct contravention of orders — that the key to the Perfect Sword lay not in speed, or service ceiling, or rate of climb, or even turning ability. All of these were red herrings that had been chased for decades.

Boyd’s first breakthrough was that the perfect fighter plane’s key characteristic was agility.

Agility. The ability to change its energy state rapidly. To turn, or climb, or accelerate faster than its opponent. And most importantly, to keep up that high energy state in the grueling, high-G turns that rapidly bled out speed and options.

Let’s say two aircraft are in a turning fight, each trying to get behind the other for a gun or missile shot. Due to many design differences between the two adversaries (but primarily due to wing loading) one aircraft may have its best rate of turn at 250 kts, while its opponent’s best turn is at 400 kts. Boyd realized that the ideal fighter was one that could accelerate, climb or turn the quickest, to move the fight into the airspeed (and altitude) where it has the advantage.

Quickness in the roll was one element. Lots of thrust to get up to best speed and stay there in a high-drag turn was another. Low weight meant that it could accelerate and decelerate faster, and above all, because a banked aircraft is essentially ‘climbing’ into its turn, the perfect fighter needed a big wing with lots of reserve lift. This big wing area meant that it would own the turning fight in just about every regime.

Believe it or not, Boyd’s Energy-Maneuverability Theory was the first to give aircraft designers a real victory target: an aircraft that would own the skies; the light, swift and deadly rapier that would be unbeatable in air-to-air combat. And remember: he who wins in air-to-air owns the skies. He who owns the skies owns the battlefield. Air Supremacy is the one great, single, essential requirement for victory on the modern battlefield. You can still lose if you have it, but you have no chance to win if you do not.

The Pentagon Brass — with precious few exceptions — fought him tooth and nail. The only reason Boyd was able to gain the credibility to force his ideas upon the next generation of fighters was because he was getting results. Boyd’s E-M Theory showed American pilots how to move the fight into those narrow and rare regimens where E-M numbers showed an American advantage, and to avoid like the plague those vast red swatches where dogfights were likely to be fatal. And it gave him that above-the-maze perspective to produce a fighter design the likes of which the world had never seen before.

Boyd’s E-M theory — this being the lesser of his two breakthrough ideas — would eventually lead, through many pitched bureaucratic battles, to the design of the F-15 Eagle — which, depending on your source, has exceeded the Vietnam era fighters 1:1 kill ratio somewhat spectacularly, it’s current record being in the vicinity of 105 wins against zero air-to-air losses. Boyd demanded a big wing on the F-15, a wing big enough to provide the lift it needed to win in the turning fight at any airspeed or altitude. In this he succeeded rather more than he could have imagined. He gave the F-15 Eagle so much reserve lift that after a mid-air collision an Israeli pilot flew an Eagle home and landed it with one entire wing torn off!

But Boyd found even the F-15 compromised. His fondest achievement was the F-16 Falcon, a nimble little beauty bearing more than a passing resemblance to the P-51 Mustang, and like it, fast, agile and lethal. It had the additional advantage of being relatively cheap, which means you can buy a lot of them. The Soviets listened to Stalin when he said “quantity has a quality all its own.”

Boyd listened too.

Pope John and his Fighter Mafia saw that the ultimate weapon was not a bludgeon or an iron mace, not the Lead Sled at all, but in fact just the opposite: light, fast, precise, agile and deadly.

Read the whole thing. Then read the whole book.


  1. Ross says:

    Just did the whole book. Epic story. Tragic, heroic, funny, important. An unabashed yet clear-eyed panegyric, author Robert Coram created a page-turner out of a military biography in which there is almost no actual combat. Fascinating.

  2. Sam J. says:

    Why don’t they put guns on aircraft that shoot either out the front or the back. That would solve a great deal of their problems right here. Certainly maneuverability would be less of a factor.

Leave a Reply