General Merrill A. McPeak

Author Interview by Dave Weich

As much as has been written about this period in America’s military history, you’ve never read anything like Hangar Flying.

General Merrill McPeak’s first-hand experience—pulling nuclear alert as the Berlin Wall went up, flying hundreds of air shows as a solo pilot with the Thunderbirds, and eventually completing 269 combat missions in Vietnam—makes Hangar Flying a radically original book: the first, best look at these Cold War years from the air. And yet what truly distinguishes it (the reason it will stand as a classic of the genre) is the perspective that General McPeak brings to his subject. Hangar Flying is the only history of its kind, describing and evaluating the use of air power, historically and at present, through the lens of a seasoned combat pilot, Air Force official, and former member of the joint chiefs of staff.

Invariably, when I’ve told friends and colleagues about the book, they immediately ask, “But can he write?”

He can. And then some.

As the general notes in chapter five, “One can point to examples of clear military writing. U.S. Grant penciled simple, direct orders that, supposedly, no one could misread. His Personal Memoirs is a model of lucid, declaratory prose.”

Lucid, declaratory prose likewise fills the pages of Hangar Flying (“for disillusionment, nothing beat training to deploy chemicals”), but readers will thrill to discover vivid, lyrical passages alongside. (“The engine murmured a raspy baritone, its best Bing Crosby imitation. Instruments glowed in dim red light.”)

It all adds up to a riveting, personal account and a new standard in the literature of military aviation.


Weich: Describe Hangar Flying.

General McPeak: Hangar Flying is a memoir about military flying in the decade of the 1960s.

I got my wings in 1959. By the time I went through combat crew training and was ready to go into a squadron, it was essentially January of 1960. I returned from Vietnam in November of 1969. Those ten years, I spent in fighter squadrons, overseas and in the United States; as a gunnery instructor in the United States for the Luftwaffe, flying German aircraft in Arizona; as a Thunderbird, flying as a solo pilot in 1967-68 for very nearly 200 air shows; and in Vietnam. I spent 1969 in Vietnam, which was the year our military presence in that country hit its peak. Pretty close to six hundred thousand people were there in 1969, and I was one of them.

It was a very exciting decade. The Berlin Wall went up. The Cuban Missile Crisis occurred. The Bay of Pigs Invasion. The book is to some degree a history of what these events looked like if you were in a fighter squadron.

And of course the decade of the Sixties was a turbulent period for the country. We had riots. Sixty people were killed in a riot in Detroit. Rioting got within a couple blocks of the White House. In large measure, these were demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, but there were a number of other, intertwined movements going on at the same time: the movement for racial equality, the movement for change in the way we thought about women’s role in our society, the environmental movement. And so this book is about military aviation in the Cold War, in the decade of the Sixties; and it’s about the background, the scenery, that that story played out in front of.

Weich: The book takes readers back and forth between your life in the armed forces and the major cultural events of the time. Woodstock, for example. This festival celebrating peace and love in upstate New York takes place while you’re listening to the same music in Vietnam.

General McPeak: Right. It’s the only music we listened to.

It was interesting to me—in Vietnam, flying combat missions at the time—that there was such a reaction against Woodstock by people who thought it was unpatriotic or in some way un-American to go out to Woodstock for this free concert of peace, love, and rock n roll. Believe me, in Vietnam that’s the music we listened to.

Weich: Some of the book’s most eye-opening stories describe your training and those years in fighter squadrons. For example, “going under the hood,” which is how pilots trained to fly without reference to the ground. Can you talk about that experience?

General McPeak: The back seat of a two-seat plane was equipped with a cloth hood, which you pulled from behind you, up over your head, and snapped to the top of the instrument panel. It shut out the world. You couldn’t see sideways, you couldn’t see up or down. You were inside a world that was entirely contained by the cockpit. In a sort of closet. True instrument flying. On these training runs, an instructor pilot would be in the front seat.

Instrument flying is important for all pilots, but especially for someone who’s going to be alone, by themselves in an airplane, and where it’s likely that some part of the sortie is going to be in weather or at night. To build your confidence and get the skill you needed to do that, you went under the hood.

By every account that I ever heard, it was more difficult than actual weather. In actual weather, there can be breaks in the cloud, you can reorient. When you go under the hood, you have to judge exactly what’s happening to the airplane by and only by the instruments in front of your face. And in addition to being harder than actual weather in some respects, there was an element of claustrophobia because you’re closed into this small space that you don’t experience flying in real weather.

Weich: Did you make takeoffs or landings?

General McPeak: We made takeoffs. I never made a landing under the hood, though I got good enough to where I thought I could. Others did. If you went to Air Defense Command, for instance, in this period of the Sixties, you made hooded landings because the Air Defense Command mission was to defend point targets in the United States in any weather, day or night. They got very good on instruments.

For us, as fighter pilots, instrument flying was important, but it was an adjunct because most fighter combat will take place in daylight, in good weather; you’re doing close air support of friendly troops on the ground, or you’re doing interdiction of traffic away from the battlefield, or you’re fighting other aircraft. And you do that visually because it’s too dynamic an environment to fly on instruments alone.

But it was very good training. And a lot of people washed out: They were perfectly good when they could see a horizon and orient on actual Mother Earth, but they didn’t bring the necessary skills to understand their special situation in the absence of visual horizon cues. I actually got pretty good at it because I forced myself to work at it. It’s hard work. Application means a lot. You have to start with a certain amount of native ability, but the prize in instrument flying usually goes to whoever works hardest, and I was a hard worker.

Weich: When you write about training for nuclear deployment, you express reservations about whether it would have been possible to carry out your mission and live to tell about it.

General McPeak: In those years as a primary duty aircrew member, I was highly skeptical about our ability to pull off the mission that was required of us.

When I first began pulling nuclear alert with an F-100—Victor Alert, as we called it—one of my targets was Peenemunde, an East German fighter base. In World War II, it had been the scene of the German rocket establishment experimental base; this was where the V-1 and V-2 rockets were developed, in Peenemunde, up on the Baltic Sea. They could shoot them out over the water, and when they crashed, which they predictably did most of the time, nobody got hurt. In the Sixties, the base was converted into an East German Air Force fighter base. They had fifty fighter aircraft there. My job was to blow it up with a nuclear weapon.

Our targets changed every six months or so, so I didn’t always stay on Peenemunde. And it wasn’t always me who was responsible for Peenemunde. I would pull alert with that as my target, and I’d be relieved by another pilot who would come in and have it as his target. Also, Peenemunde was a fairly important target; therefore it’s likely that people in other squadrons away from my base were assigned to attack it also. Peenemunde probably had three or four aircraft assigned to attack it, which is good because not all three or four were going to get through, believe me. That was part of my skepticism.

We had to attack this target from a base in the U.K., where the daylight hours are limited in the wintertime and the weather is bad. Finding the place would have been difficult even in bright daylight in July, but even more so in restricted visibility, low cloud, or at night.

Presuming we found it, we had to perform a delivery maneuver, which was, at the beginning, a modified loop. You’ve got to pull the airplane into a climb, release the weapon going up in a maneuver we called “over the shoulder”—you felt like you were tossing this thing over your shoulder—and then roll away before trying to get back toward friendly territory.

You had to do this so the weapon would fly up and give you some separation time from the bomb, which would turn around and start dropping until, at a certain altitude, a radar-altimeter type of fuse would explode it for an airburst. And of course you had to get away from this massive explosion, typically something like three or four times as powerful as the munitions we used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So it was important you had a little time to get away.

Well, I always thought it was kind of dumb to believe you could take off in bad weather, in the middle of the night, find this place, and then do an aerobatic maneuver in order to get safe separation from the blast and shock and flash effects and so forth.

Actually, when we were on alert, we had a little eye patch, a sort of Moshe Dayan-black eye patch, which we were supposed to put on before launch. Over this part of Europe, if anything were to happen, a lot of nuclear weapons would be going off, and of course the flash would blind you. At least with this eye patch you’d still had one eye left to find your target. That was the thinking.

It was that kind of thing that gave me a little bit of skepticism about whether we would be able to pull off this sort of attack. In contrast to say, intercontinental ballistic missiles, which had a very good chance of getting through, or the bombers: Strategic Air Command, six guys in a B-52, and an entirely different style of attack—you’re going to drop this bomb from high altitude and so forth. That was a different scenario for delivering nuclear weapons, and pretty believable, that they could do it.

I was always kind of skeptical the fighter force would be able to pull this off. But the other side couldn’t count on us not being able to do it.

Weich: How did you incorporate these aspects of your professional life into your home life? How much could you talk about?

General McPeak: A lot of what we did was classified, and some of it carried fairly high classification. You couldn’t talk about it, not at home. You really shouldn’t talk about it to anybody. The job, in that respect, got harder later when I was in command of operations and had hundreds of nuclear weapons under my control.

Weich: In 1967 and 1968, you flew with the Thunderbirds. Particularly memorable passages in Hangar Flying describe the challenge of flying upside-down, fifty feet above pavement, in front of crowds.

General McPeak: I was one of the two solo pilots on the Team. We divied to do the Opposing Inverted maneuver at an altitude of fifty feet, and we had a nominal fifty-foot minimum entry altitude for all of our maneuvers. We didn’t always honor it because if the approaches were flat and unobstructed, and you were feeling good, you could get right down on the deck—but the idea was that we would enter these maneuvers at fifty feet. These were opposing maneuvers, the two solo pilots flying directly at each other. And of course we were doing 425 knots each, roughly 500 miles an hour, so our closure rate was 1,000 miles an hour.

The first problem was to not hit the other guy: not hit him, but miss him close. Anybody can miss; the skill is in being able to miss close. But the hardest problem was to put opposing maneuvers right in front of the crowd so that you’ve centered it. When closure speed is 1,000 miles an hour, if I’m a second early and you’re a second late, we’re going to move the whole maneuver quite a ways from show center. And one second is not a lot of time. So the hard part was crossing right in front of the VIP stands. The next part was missing the other guy. And then the last part was flying the maneuver comfortably at low altitude. It took me a while to learn how to do all that.

I can remember very clearly the first air show that I was able to do an opposing inverted maneuver and not get scared by it. As a solo wingman, I’m watching the other guy as we approach each other. He’s setting the altitude, and I just fly level off of him. And I’m watching the clock so I can pass him at show center at exactly the right time. I don’t pay any attention to my own altitude until I roll inverted; that’s my first look at the ground. In the beginning, it scared me. You had to put in a little forward stick anyway to create the proper angle of attack, and I’d put in just a little too much. I doubt if the crowd ever noticed it, but we had a guy on the ground that was grading us, and he noticed it every time.

I got sick of hearing about this slight climb I was making in the opposing inverted. I’d been flying air shows for maybe a month and a half before I did my first one in front of a crowd that was dead flat. And I never had that problem again because once you get used to it you roll upside-down and say, “Oh, my goodness, that’s low”—but that’s the way it always looks, so you just fly it through the maneuver.

Weich: What are the books about flying that made an impression on you?

General McPeak: There’s an Englishman named Roald Dahl who wrote children’s books. I think he was married to Patricia Neal. He was in the RAF in World War II and wrote a famous book about flying called Going Solo. I would recommend it.

The Hunters is the best book about the air war in Korea. MIG Alley. Very well written. Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the Frenchman who wrote Wind, Sand, and Stars, comes to mind. He wrote The Little Prince also.

But the fact is that there hasn’t been that much. I don’t read a lot of aviation literature that I think is accurate and has both literary and professional merit. There isn’t much, and there’s none that I know of by a senior military officer, someone who ended up running his service. There’s not much of that kind of literature out there, so there’s a sense in which Hangar Flying meets an unfilled need.

Weich: The Air Force, as a branch of the military, was only ten years old when you joined. As we read the chapters in Hangar Flying about Vietnam, it’s clear that even then the Air Force had not been fully integrated into the armed forces.

General McPeak: I don’t think the Air Force is fully integrated, even today, in the sense of being a full, equal partner in the joint approach to combat.

It’s understandable when you come to think about it. Combat on the ground predates our existence as a species. Tigers do it. Dogs do it. It’s in our DNA, part of our evolutionary process, part of our survival. The Darwinian aspect has been bred into us. We understand innately what it is to pick up a rock or a stick and try to fight somebody. Aerial warfare has existed for barely a century, a blink of the eye in evolutionary time.

We’ve only been flying since 1903, a little over a century. There’s some controversy about the first use of aircraft as combat machines; it predates World War I, but only by a couple years. 1912 is a good date, one hundred or so years ago. It is therefore easy to believe that aerial combat is not yet a fully understood human activity. Only people who have spent their entire professional life thinking about it and doing it have a real understanding of what aerial combat is all about.

What you might call the bureaucratic approach to organizing aerial combat is also very interesting. Our first combat experience in World War I was as part of the Signal Corps. We would scout and do communications as a sort of adjunct of the Signal Corps, with a reconnaissance or intelligence function, or an artillery-spotting or adjustment role. But pretty soon somebody spoiled it—I don’t know whether it was our side or the Germans that first took up a rifle or a handgun, but people began shooting at each other from airplanes. Pretty soon we weren’t just doing scouting or reconnaissance; we were actually fighting each other in the air.

And so the Army Air Corps had to evolve out of the Signal Corps and out of the aviation branch of this or that other arm. Eventually we had the Army Air Corps. And then, in World War II, the US Army Air Forces, with a 4-star in charge, Hap Arnold, but still wearing an Army uniform.

If you think about our tactics in World War II, they resemble the kind of mass attacks that were made going back to World War I. The 1,000-aircraft, B-17 raid on the Schweinfurt ball bearing plant, for instance: That looks to me like charging against barbed wire with machine guns that mowed down so many people in World War I. These tactics committed our bomber aircraft to long stretches of straight and level flight so that they could maintain formation. These formations were just shot to pieces.

The mission requirement started at twenty-five sorties. Gradually it was notched up to thirty-five. We would train these B-17 and B-24 crews for a long time, teach them how to fly, teach them how to do the stuff they needed to do—bombardiers, navigators, gunners—and then we’d use them thirty-five times and send them home.

I flew two hundred sixty-nine combat missions in Vietnam. I don’t know how we would have handled a mission requirement of thirty-five. But at the time it was realistic. Not many people made thirty-five missions. A lot of them were shot down. They couldn’t raise the requirement because nobody would have come home. It was because of these tactics that resembled the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea; that was the kind of thing Army officers would do with air forces.

If you look at what we did in Korea, it got a lot better, but even there the Air Force had been independent only a few years and all of our senior leadership were former Army officers. In Vietnam, by this time we’d been independent for fifteen years or so—by the time I was in Vietnam, for twenty years—but our leadership was still West Point graduates. Spike Momyer was the most important airman in Vietnam. He was an ace from World War II, a former Army officer.

It isn’t until you get to Desert Storm in the early ‘90s that the Air Force was led by someone, Chuck Horner in this case, who had never worn an Army uniform, who had spent his whole life in a cockpit or thinking about aerial warfare. And of course the results speak for themselves.

The Air Force lost only twenty people in Desert Storm, and all of the services lost 140 or something like that. Totally different outcome. A key to that outcome was that we employed air power in a way that airmen understood. The sad part is that since Desert Storm we’ve gone backwards.

Weich: How so?

General McPeak: In the wars we see today, you have to question whether air power is being employed by people who understand it, or whether the airman has been relegated again to a subsidiary position. All of our commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan have been Army officers or Marine Corps officers: great guys, smart people who fully understand their own professional specialties, but they would not be what I would describe as hair-on-fire air power advocates. Our use of air power in these engagements has been pretty well tied to what ground commanders wanted done on the ground.

I’ve been gone from the Pentagon for a long time, so I don’t mean to be critical. Just as a guy sitting on the sidelines, one thing we might want to do is put an airman in charge. Not that he would then tell infantrymen how to dig foxholes, but warfare now is supposed to be fought jointly by people who have a big enough perspective that they understand all aspects. We have not had a single airman in charge of any of these theaters at any time, even though we’ve changed out commanders on the scene several times in both cases.

Weich: In Vietnam, you saw first-hand the way information was being distorted. What was it like to be a pilot, “waging war against trees,” as you write? What did that do to your sense of the mission?

General McPeak: We misused airpower in Vietnam, but that’s almost a separate issue from the one you raise, which is, “How can the political leadership maintain contact with reality?”

What we saw in Vietnam was that our political leadership came to believe what they wanted to believe about the situation: that this was a war of liberation in which we were supporting the good guys against a Communist outside attack; that this was a war we were winning; that we understood what it took to win; and that we knew how to execute a strategy based on that understanding. And none of that was true. It was obvious that none of that was true to the greenest lieutenant or the most inexperienced private.

That didn’t mean we didn’t do our job over there. Certainly the officers and the NCOs did a very good job, in my judgment. They did the best they could. They were playing a losing hand, but they played it the best they could.

The problem was that the political leadership could not face the facts. Perhaps that’s understandable, too, because had they faced the facts, Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, and others would have had to stand up and say, “I misjudged this situation. I was wrong.” And for Presidents this is not a prescription for victory. Thinking about how to hold power in Washington was an exercise that led them to believe—or maybe they didn’t believe it, but that’s a little cynical—to believe their own propaganda about the war.

Repeatedly people were sent out—McNamara himself went to Vietnam a couple times, and Maxwell Taylor was sent to be our ambassador—an army four-star whose job before Ambassador to Saigon was chairman of the joint chiefs; very distinguished, very intelligent. How these people could continue to kid themselves about what was going on was a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions. In fact it’s Shakespeare who probably gives us the best advice for how to deal with a situation like this. It is a tragedy when anybody loses contact with reality, and it is a national tragedy when our national political leadership loses contact with reality.

Weich: How was aerial power misused?

General McPeak: The proper use of air power starts with the selection of targets. It is the targets that give a war its character. It is an airman who can look at a target and say, “I can attack that target from the air, and I can do it at reasonable risk. And if I destroy or damage that target, it will have the following cascade effects…” That process was never followed in Vietnam. In-country targets were selected by Army officers in Saigon, people who probably thought they understood air warfare and had good intentions and were probably bright enough. But it ended up that most of the bombs we dropped did no good whatsoever, and probably did a lot of harm. Or some harm.

In Laos, we dropped more munitions than the combined tonnage of the U.S. Air Force in World War II in both theaters of operations, in the Pacific and in Europe. On this one little country, Laos, let me repeat, we dropped more bomb tonnage than all the bombs dropped in World War II on both Germany and Japan. Amazing. We made dust out of a big part of Laos and never stopped traffic down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The targets in the North were selected in the White House, by Lyndon Johnson, going downstairs and looking in a sandbox, saying, “Okay, hit this, this, and this.” Effectively, the Air Force was excluded from the problem of determining targets. And therefore we wasted a lot of money, a lot of airplanes, and a lot of lives.

In general, we weren’t particularly effective. In fact there was a big debate coming out of Vietnam about why. Air power advocates, going back to General Douhet, an Italian general who wrote the first real book about air power, and guys like Billy Mitchell in the United States, had argued that air power was going to radically change combat operations of the future for the better. And then coming out of Vietnam there was a big debate: “Why was Billy Mitchell wrong?”

The debate was led by people who had an interest in the outcome. They didn’t want to lose money from the Army budget or the Navy budget to be spent on the Air Force. It was an aspect of a bureaucratic struggle to question the effectiveness of air power in Vietnam, but people could say, “Look, you dropped all these bombs in Laos and never stopped traffic down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. You dropped a lot on Hanoi and Haiphong and never convinced the North Vietnamese they should change their mind. You dropped munitions in South Vietnam and didn’t win the war in the South.” Those statements are all correct. But the Air Force was never given a seat at the table to help with the target selection process.

That’s the beginning of making air power effective: to select the right targets. Then you have to ask, “Can I do that at reasonable risk? Is that target worth what we’ll pay for it?” In most cases, by the way, in South Vietnam, it was not.

I describe in the book one attack that we made on an isolated herd of water buffalo. In that case, we strafed. The 20-millimeter round is a fairly inexpensive munition, but let me tell you, we could have gone out to that desolate spot in Vietnam and purchased those water buffalo for a fraction of what we spent on that mission. So when I say that air power was misused in Vietnam, I mean in just about every dimension.

Weich: How did the years covered in Hangar Flying prepare you for the military life that followed? Did you have any idea where your career might go?

General McPeak: I went through a period in the early ‘60s when I was sort of a wild and crazy fighter pilot. It wasn’t until later, when I was a captain, that I finally decided to stay in the Air Force. Earlier, I’d had no intention of making the Air Force a career. And then, as a captain, I decided, Okay, this is a lot of fun. I think I’ll stay around for a while. And I finally buckled down and started working.

I did two or three years where I actually showed some potential for leadership and, as a result, I got selected to be on the Thunderbirds. Before, believe me, it was a problem keeping me under control, a problem for my supervisors. But once I buckled down, I began to show signs of being able to make a contribution.

That was my first big break, the Thunderbirds. It separated me from 5,000 other fighter pilots. I was selected for the job, which was a big honor for me. It also made me a little better known than the average fighter pilot. It put me on a different career path.

And then I went to Vietnam. I commanded a squadron over there called the MISTY squadron. It turned out to be a famous squadron. Unhappily, a lot of people got killed in doing it, but we had some very distinguished people in that squadron, including two future Air Force chiefs of staff. And again that separated me; I was a major at the time and a little young to be in command of an operation as important as the MISTYs.

Following that, I continued to work hard. I went to the Pentagon. In future books that come out, you’ll read about what I did in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but it was really just a question of working hard. You don’t get ahead in the Air Force, or in any of the services, or in business as far as I know, unless you are dedicated and work very hard at it.

The passion that I developed in the late ‘60s was about leadership in general and asking, “How do you blend people with other resources, like money, like equipment, like real estate? How do you make this blend produce in terms of the national security? How are we better off, stronger, more secure as a country, by blending these elements? What’s the right blend? How do you do that?”

Always those questions were seasoned by my belief in the importance of air power. Not that air power is all that’s important; it’s not. Not that it will always be able to win every engagement by itself; it will not. But how important it is in every engagement and how important it is that it be employed properly in every engagement.

These twin challenges of leadership—to create a secure country, and the place of air power in that enterprise—were the things that motivated me as I grew in professional stature and rank and authority and eventually ending up running the Air Force.