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Just finished a book that I wished I'd have read a long time ago. John Boyd enjoyed an intellectual fight as much as he did dogfights. If you like stories of going against the grain - you'll like this book.


John Boyd (along with his partner in crime; Tom Christie) developed the now accepted the theory of Energy Maneuverability as it applied to Fighter Aircraft and Tactics.

He and his Acolytes were the Avant-garde Reformers of Aviation and Military concepts that challenged the established conventional wisdom.

Many (General Officer) enemies were made along the way - and Boyd liked nothing better than showing a General how little they Know.


Col. John Boyd Is Dead at 70; Advanced Air Combat Tactics



John Boyd (military strategist)



Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War



To combat pilots of the late 1950's, it was always high noon in the skies above the Nevada desert. A pilot, a crack instructor at Nellis Air Force Base, perhaps, or a hotshot Navy flier passing through would get on the radio to call him out and within minutes Colonel Boyd would have another notch in his belt.


They did not call him 40-second Boyd for nothing. From 1954 to 1960 virtually every combat pilot in the country knew that Colonel Boyd, a former Korean War pilot who helped establish the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis, had a standing offer: take a position on his tail, and 40 twisting, turning seconds later he would have the challenger in his own gun-sights or pay $40. Colonel Boyd never lost the bet in more than 3,000 hours of flying time.




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Revolt of the Majors (https://etd.auburn.edu/bitstream/handle/10415/595/MICHEL_III_55.pdf) paints a very different picture:


Context: McNamara, a statistical control officer during WW2, sought to curb runaway SAC spending, using statistical analysis and an emphasis on theory to outmaneuver LeMay. The Airforce realized it needed to be able to contest McNamara on his terms in order to convince the Congress, and so started looking at ways to justify their programs empirically:

To get these hard data points, Agan brought in Major John Boyd, a former Air Force

fighter pilot and newly graduated engineer, to develop a way to measure paper airplanes'

performance. Boyd had flown a few missions as an F-86 pilot in the Korean War and had

been the head of the Fighter Weapons School Academic Section at Nellis Air Force Base,

Nevada, where he acquired a reputation as a relentless self-aggrandizer and a great fighter

pilot "from nose to chin."33 Nevertheless, when Boyd joined Agan's team, he found his

niche in a role combining his engineering and flying experience. Boyd and Dr. Thomas

Christie, an engineer at Eglin Air Force Base, developed a concept called "energy

maneuverability," a way of measuring "paper fighter" maneuvering capabilities that lent

itself well to the type of computer analysis and simulation OSD analysts favored.34 Agan

found Boyd's first effort fell well short of the mark, but the eventual outcome, when

combined with an Air Force computer model called "TAC Avenger," became an

extremely useful tool.35 Even though "energy maneuverability" was merely putting old

wine in new bottles -- one general noted, "it was not a revolutionary theory at the

time... just another way of comparing performances of two fighter airplanes," it had the

huge advantage of being applicable to "paper" designs, not just real airplanes.36

Annotation re: Boyd's claims of his dogfighting prowess:

33. Boyd's self-aggrandizing characteristics are clear in his oral history. One

example is his claim to have written a textbook on philosophy used at the Air Force

Academy and a textbook in engineering used at the University of California, Berkeley.

There is no evidence these books ever existed. John Boyd, Col. USAF, Corona Ace

interview. #K239.0512-1066, 14 August 1976. AFHRA. 314, 326, passim. As for his

skills as a fighter pilot, he claimed to never have been beaten and that he would allow

anyone to get on his tail but that he would be behind him in 40 seconds. Robert Coram,

Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (Boston: Little, Brown and

Company, 2002), 10-11. This is, quite simply, nonsense. General Wilbur Creech, Boyd's

commander at Nellis, remembers, "We got along fine but I had to go head to head with him and

wax his ass in air-to-air combat so he could at least get his swollen head through the door...I

ended up with gun-camera film of my gunsight pipper on his head in the cockpit..." Creech, email,

March 18, 2000, provided to author by Keith Ferris. A strong supporter of Boyd, Marine

fighter pilot Brigadier General Hal Vincent, also said Boyd exaggerated, noting "two good pilots

in the same plane would end up neutral... there were others who could beat [boyd] in a high

speed fight." Hal Vincent e-mail 27 March 2000, provided to author by Keith Ferris.

At Top Gun:

The Top Gun training program had none of the restrictions the Air Force had on air-to-

air combat and, in developing the training syllabus, the Top Gun instructor cadre

sought information from all quarters. At one point, they invited John Boyd, now an Air

Force Lieutenant Colonel, to brief the Top Gun instructors about his "energy

maneuverability" charts. While energy maneuverability was by now a common buzzword

in the air-to-air community, Boyd's briefing did not go well. Boyd, who had not flown

for over five years, insisted it was impossible for an F-4 to win a dogfight with the highly

maneuverable MiG-17. The Top Gun instructors disagreed (at least two had shot down

MiG-17s in dogfights), but Boyd was adamant in saying it was impossible. The Top Gun

instructors left the briefing unimpressed by Boyd and his plethora of charts and graphs,

and the unit's commander, Commander Ron "Mugs" McKeown, said later: "never trust

anyone who would rather kick your ass with a slide rule than with a jet."17

"The Red Baron Reports originated with a request from the Department of Defense Research and

Engineering (DDR&E) to the Weapons System Evaluation Group (WSEG) to begin a

study of air-to-air engagements in SEA to identify research and development projects for

the years 1970-1975":

The Red Baron Reports pointed out the small MiGs usually caught the Air Force

aircraft by surprise -- 80 percent of the losses came from an enemy fighter in the 30

degree cone to the rear of the aircraft, the "blind spot" -- because pilots were so

overwhelmed by the new, heavy combat environment that they were not looking behind

them when the MiGs attacked.40 Another reason the Air Force aircraft were caught by

surprise was that the Air Force was using poor formations, put "in stone" by the Air

Force's 1964 tactics manual, written by John Boyd while he was at the Weapons School.

The formations were both hard to fly and created "blind spots" for MiGs to exploit, and

the problem exacerbated by poor rear visibility from the F-4 cockpit. 41

If it wasn't clear enough already the degree that Boyd was detached from reality:

Interestingly Critic John Boyd, whose energy maneuverability charts had helped

sell the F-15 to OSD, tried to hamstring the F-15's performance by limiting it to 5 1/2 Gs

because that was the speed at which his energy maneuverability charts said the F-15 was

most efficient. Fortunately, Moody Suter found out about the idea and passed it to Dixon

and the F-15 community, who quickly squashed the proposal.19

On Boyd's ascension to popular deification:

As a neoliberal Fallows was frustrated by the seemingly mindless increases in

Carter's defense budget, and when he left the administration in 1979 he began to research

an article on new military weapons for The Atlantic Monthly. Fallows wanted to talk to

people who would confirm the neoliberal philosophy and say, in simple terms, the

defense "experts" were wrong, that America was buying the wrong weapons, and that

they were too expensive. Because Fallows believed that the large defense budgets were

caused by "experts," he eschewed anyone who was seriously associated with the defense

establishment because they would understand, if not agree with, the philosophy behind

the weapons the military was procuring. He also knew -- or sensed as a reporter -- that as

Samuel Huntington noted, Americans love "defense iconoclasts and military

mavericks."89 To find them, Fallows later said he "deliberately left the mainstream of

defense analysis and moved towards the fringe."90

For Fallows to make his argument, he needed individuals who had at least a modicum

of credibility, and when he met John Boyd in 1979, Fallows had found his man. Boyd

was bitter about not being promoted to general and more than happy to tell Fallows what

was wrong with the armed forces.91

By this time, John Boyd had his patter about what a genius he was down to

perfection. He said he had written a book on philosophy used at the Air Force Academy,

as well as a book on physics that was reviewed by unnamed "theoretical physicists,

mathematicians, and systems scientists" and was being used at the University of

California (there is no evidence that these books ever existed).94 He also claimed to have

participated in designing the F-16, which he certainly did not.95 While he was head of the

Academic Section at the Fighter Weapons School in 1960, Boyd had been assigned to

write the tactics manual for the Fighter Weapons School that was adopted by the Air

Force, though the tactical formations Boyd put in the manual were poorly designed and

cost many lives over North Vietnam before they were finally corrected in the mid-


Boyd had avoided flying in Vietnam, so to give him combat credibility Fallows said,

"Boyd was one of the most successful pilots in the Korean War," despite the fact that

Boyd only flew twenty-two missions (a normal tour was 100), never led a flight, never

fired his guns despite being in several engagements, and certainly never shot down an

enemy aircraft.97 Fallows took Boyd's assertions of his genius at face value, and to

explain why the brilliant Boyd was not promoted to general Fallows echoed Boyd's

bitterness -- Boyd "wouldn't play the game" and was too smart and innovative for the

military's anachronistic promotion system.

Boyd was just another man; it would be as wrong to call him a fraud as it would be to praise him as a genius. When the broader history is considered, one realizes Boyd was merely buoyed by an entire wave of military reformation brought on by the Vietnam experience -- the difference just being that Boyd sought to promote himself at every turn.

The real credit goes to all the mostly unsung Vietnam combat veterans, who in their later careers as leaders, made a concerted effort to change the internal culture of their respective military branches.

Edited by probad
highlighted for lazybones


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I am not overly impressed that Michel writes it in a way that makes out Boyd was somehow responsible for the USAF failings over Vietnam - when in "Clashes" he aims the blame exactly where it really began and ended with total incompetent leadership. Nothing of that nature is "set in Stone" and if they were not "corrected" until the mid 70s it only only confirms how inept the USAF were at the time.

Would need to check but the tactics manuals were written off mostly F-100 experience no?


The F-15 thing is an interesting one and see it is straight from Suters book - maybe hamstrung was the right word because Boyd seemed to know what he was doing. (e.g. using Sprey as a convenient pawn).


Where he was detached from reality seemed to be technology progress - the radars he had seen and used were next to useless - he didn't seem to grasp how things were already changing - will say though some pilots from that era certainly seemed to have a lot of respect for the guy.

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  • 2 weeks later...

The other side of John Boyd


Hey Probad - Thanks for the insight into the other side of the Boyd story. I'm thinking that Marshall L. Michel III's THE REVOLT OF THE MAJORS: HOW THE AIR FORCE CHANGED AFTER VIETNAM

will be my next read. Although the topic subject matter (at first appearance) seems a little incongruent with a Dissertation for a Doctorate of Philosophy - but Never judge a Book ......... And I have to salute a Fighter Pilot who takes on the esoteric world of the purely intellectual pursuit of that Degree. Bet he was the 'Hoot' of the program. :smartass:



Although no hero of mine, I found the Boyd book interesting from a historical perspective, but have to admit it's a mystery to me how he never got Court Martialed for his undisciplined arrogence with senior officers. And I totally agree - that he was an unabashed self promoter exceeded only by his self-centered stubborness. And whether you're an advocate of his work or not, at least his story adds a colorful character to the perceived bland of Air Force Blue.


And yes - I was well aware of Boyd's detractors:


From Wikipedia:


Boyd was invited to Top Gun to brief the instructors on his "Energy Maneuverability" charts. Boyd's briefing did not go well. When Boyd insisted that it was impossible for the F-4 to win a dogfight against a MiG-17, the Top Gun instructors disagreed, two of them having shot down MiG-17s in combat. Commander Ron Mugs McKeown later said "Never trust anyone who would rather kick your ass with a slide rule than with a jet."

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EM Aint Everything !


One more thing on EM:


Boyd's Energy Maneuverability Theory failed to take into account certain factors that are equally important in aircraft vs aircraft performance.


In Robert Coram's book 'BOYD', Chaper 22: In the Light-Weight Fighter Fly Off, the YF-16 was the unanimous choice among USAF evaluator pilots compared to th YF-17. Boyd's EM theory suggested a much closer contest - but the YF-16 was the clear winner.


Perplexed about the Clear Cut Results - Boyd was allowed to interview the pilots upon whose subjective evaluation the decision was made by the Air Force to name the YF-16 the winner. The book says the eval pilots called it (the winning reason) the 'Buttonhook Turn'.


In essence - the YF-16 was the nimbler machine. It's amazing agility allowed it to transition between maneuvers faster than any previous aircraft. This agility coupled with the high trust to weight ratio allowed the YF-16 to be employed differently (and more successfully) than any fighter to date.


And these findings indicate that there are other factors (unquantified in EM Theory) that determine superior performance in a fighter aircraft. But those F-4 gentlemen (in Vietnam) who downed the EM Predicted superior MiG-17 already knew that.


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EM theory isn't praised for uncovering unknown thruts but for giving pilots and engineers a common language to be used when talking about aircraft performance. And you can see in DCS that it's good predictor of combat success only in those fights where pilots fly two dimensionally and basically just fly steady nice turns which is usually not what happens when a pilot who knows what he's doing is flying. Roll rate, aoa rate, max aoa, nose stability etc. are factors that can be exploited for example to deny firing solution or force an overshoot but EM theory tells you nothing about it but then again they are relatively easy to measure and their implications are intuitive to understand. As long as you remenber that the EM theory is a great way to decipher sone of the less intuitive aspects of aircraft performance.


Science is about discoveries rather than inventions in the sense that you rarely create anything but just uncover something or reformulate it in a more usable form. In a sense you just take the old stuff that is already there and wrap it up in new package. Like Newton didn't invent gravity or even discover it but "only" figured out a formula that can be used to predict gravitational force between two bodies.


if I remember correctly one of the Boyd books mentioned that Boyd used EM theory to devise some moves for F-4 that were used succesfully to defeat Vietnamese fighters. Any comment on that?

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