Book Review – Predator

Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution
Richard Whittle
Henry Holt and Co.
2014

When the American military wants a new weapon system, it follows an elaborate process. Sometimes the process succeeds brilliantly, producing world-class weapons such as the F-15 Eagle fighter and the M1 Abrams tank. Sometime the process fails, the most notorious recent example being the F-22 Raptor fighter which was spectacularly capable but too expensive to purchase in sufficient quantities. But what the system almost never produces is true innovation. It may sound odd to describe something stuffed with leading edge technology like the F-22 Raptor as not innovative. But a P-51 Mustang pilot in 1944, upon seeing an F-22, might be baffled and amazed by the features and performance of the F-22 yet would instantly understand it role and mission. The F-22 is essentially a vastly better P-51.

True innovation in military technology tends to come from outside the mainstream acquisition system, and there is no better example of that than what is variously called the Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV), Remotely Piloted Aircraft (PRA) or simply drone. The American military has a long history with this class of aircraft, starting with “aerial torpedoes” (rudimentary ground-launched cruise missiles tested but not used during World War I) and target drones that were essentially large versions of the radio-controlled airplanes flown by hobbyists. In the 1960s, drones with cameras flew reconnaissance missions over China and Vietnam. But drones were always an oddity, the electronics technology was really not mature enough for the concept, and pilots who ran the US Air Force were never enamored with drones.

Following on the heels of his wonderful book about the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor (The Dream Machine), author Richard Whittle tells the story of the Predator, a slow and fragile-looking drone which has revolutionized air warfare. As recently as 2001, drones were on the margins of the American military, an interesting but marginal program. But the development and maturation of the Predator enabled it to be the right system at the right time after the United States went to war in 2001, and today the US Air Force trains more pilots for drones than fighter and bomber pilots.

Whittle’s book is mostly about people, including a brilliant but cantankerous Israeli inventor, two entrepreneurial brothers, a canny Pentagon staff officer, an Air Force helicopter pilot turned drone flyer, and several clever and resourceful engineers in both industry and the military. The profiles of these individuals are vivid. The narrative in the book is compelling, starting with concepts that led to the Predator and ending with combat over Afghanistan. Along the way, politics, lobbying, bureaucracy, technology and world events shape the Predator. Whittle weaves the tale in a compelling manner.

This book is neither a rigorous technical description of the Predator nor a complete operational history of it. Rather, it is a story about innovation and adaptation, about how the signature weapon system of the War on Terror came to be. It is a superb book, and I recommend it most enthusiastically.

5 stars out of a possible 5.

Full disclosure: The author furnished a review copy of this book to this blogger.

Book review – F-16 Viper

F-16 Viper (Moden Military Aircraft)
Lou Drendel
Squadron/Signal Publications
1992

What it’s about:

General coverage of the F-16

What I liked about the book:

The F-16 is the leading 4th generation American fighter aircraft in terms of production quantities. It has been an unquestioned technical and operational success story, and it just looks good! Therefore it is no suprise that many books have been written about it.

Squadron Signal Publications is well-known for their In Action and Walk Around series, which have covered the F-16 in two volumes in the former series and one in the latter. Besides the two flagship series in their landscape format, Squadron also publishes “specials” in portrait format. This book was their first “special” to cover the F-16 and another was published about a decade ago.

The introduction is interesting but nothing special. The F-16 chronology is quite good, and provides an excellent “big picture” of how the F-16 progressed from program initiation, development and testing into widespread operational service. Perhaps the unique aspect of this book is the interviews with two F-16 pilots who flew in Operation Desert Storm, relating their combat experiences. The heart of the typical Squadron book is the photographs and illustrations. The photographs cover an interesting and diverse range of units, markings, paint schemes, countries and armament loadings. The color illustrations created by Lou Drendel are a treat as always. Tom Tullis contributed a nice set of line drawings of the aircraft.

What could have been done better:

Of course this is no fault of the book, but it’s over 20 years old, which means that it only covers the first two decades of the F-16 program. Photography, image editing and printing technology have advanced greatly since this book was published, and while nicely done by the standards of the time it’ not as nice as a more modern book.

Summary:

It’s a nice book, and a nice supplement to the other Squadron books about the F-16. The book is showing its age but is still a worthwhile read or purchase if you can find a used copy.

Rating:

5 stars out of a possible 5.

Full disclosure: Your humble correspondent has written books for this publisher, but purchased this book himself and is reviewing it on his own behalf.

Book review – Bf 110 vs Lancaster 1942-45

Bf 110 vs Lancaster 1942-45 (Duel 51)
Robert Forczyk
Osprey Publishing
2013

What it’s about:

The RAF Bomber Command night offensive against Germany, focusing on the primary British bomber (Lancaster) and a key German night fighter (Bf 110).

What I liked about the book:

Excellent coverage of the machines, the technology, the people, the battles and the “big picture”.
Superb illustrations.
Good photographs.

What could have been done better:

Nothing comes to mind.

Summary:

This book is what we have come to expect from Osprey: a consistent format, well executed in every way, at an affordable price.

Rating:

5 stars out of a possible 5.

Book review – F-15I Ra’am in IAF service

F-15I in IAF service (Aircraft in Detail 2)
Ra’anan Weiss
IsraDecal Publications
2006

What it’s about:

Just what the title says, the F-15I (Israeli variant of the F-15E). Mostly photographs with some text.

What I liked about the book:

Many nice photographs of a significant operator of this superb aircraft.

What could have been done better:

The “walk around” section was weak. There were too many small photos, none with captions. So the reader sees a detail. It’s unclear what is the function of this detail, where it is located on the aircraft and from what direction the photo was taken.

Summary:

Weiss and IsraDecal produce attractive publications about an important air force which is inadequately covered due to its understandable secrecy. While this book has much to offer that is unavailable elsewhere, it also has major flaws.

Rating:

3 stars out of a possible 5.

Book Review – Hell in the Heavens: The Saga of World War II Bomber Pilot

Hell in the Heavens: The Saga of World War II Bomber Pilot
Lt. Col. David E. Tavel with Morton E. Tavel, MD
Brighton Publishing LLC
2013

What it’s about:

The memoir of a World War II bomber pilot in the US Army Air Force, as compiled and supplemented by his nephew.

What I liked about the book:

Compelling story, told in the first person.

What could have been done better:

The background material about World War II air warfare was rather rudimentary and generic.
Poor reproduction of photographs.

Summary:

It’s not a great work of either literature or history, but this book does give a good idea of the drama and the horror experienced by American bomber crews in World War II.

Rating:

3 stars out of a possible 5.

Book Review – McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F-15 Baz

McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F-15 Baz (Aircraft of the Israeli Air Force 5)
Ra’anan Weiss
Alon Koren
IsraDecal Publications
2006

What it’s about:

The F-15 (but not the F-15I) in Israeli Defense Force service.

What I liked about the book:

Excellent photographs
Extensive history of the F-15 in Israeli service, with information that is found nowhere else
Color profiles of aircraft

What could have been done better:

Too many spelling errors and a mediocre translation into English
Some factual errors (the F-15 did not use the AIM-9H, and the Israelis did not use the CH-53E helicopter)

Summary:

The Israelis have been the most significant user of the F-15 aside from the USAF, making good use of it both as an air superiority fighter and a fighter-bomber. Given the secrecy around the Israeli Air Force, information about their use of the F-15 has been scarce. This book pulls back the covers on this subject. The book might have earned a five star rating, if not for its drawbacks which are relatively minor but annoying.

Rating:

4 stars out of a possible 5.

Book review – Topgun Days

Topgun Days: Dogfighting, Cheating Death, and Hollywood Glory as One of America’s Best Fighter Jocks
Dave “Bio” Baranek
Skyhorse Publishing
2010

What it’s about:

Dave Baranek was an F-14 RIO who attended Topgunn and then became an instructor at the famed school. He happened to be on the Topgun staff at the time that the movie Topgun was produced, and was involved in several aspect of the film.

What I liked about the book:

  • Nicely written and vivid description of how Bio developed in his profession from a “nugget” new to the fleet to a Topgun instructor.
  • Good description of how the pilot and RIO worked together in an F-14.
  • Excellent photography by the author.
  • Pleasant writing style.

What could have been done better:

  • Nothing that I can think of.

Summary:

As one who has a enormous collection of aviation, aerospace and military history books, and a particular interest in the Cold War in which I participated as a bit player, this book would have seemed to be a natural for me. But to be honest, I judged the book by its cover. The mention of “Best Fighter Jocks” smacked of the bombastic egotism seen in some other books of this genre, and the making of a movie really didn’t interest me. But I was at the National Air and Space Museum when Dave “Bio” Baranek was signing books outside the bookstore, and I struck up a conversation with him. He was a nice and interesting guy, and I purchased a copy of the book. My prejudice was incorrect. In the book, Dave comes across as thoughtful, modest and genuinely respectful of a wide variety of people (i. e. none of the “if you ain’t a fighter jock, you ain’t #$%&” attitude). The aerial vignettes are fascinating, but so are the stories of how Topgun instructors bring their professionalism to the classroom (really, trust me). If you want to understand not only how fighters were flown in the early 1980s but also how an elite organization works, this is the book for you. Highly recommended.

Rating:

5 stars out of a possible 5.

Book review – Operation Pointblank 1944: Defeating the Luftwaffe

Operation Pointblank 1944: Defeating the Luftwaffe (Campaign 236)
Steven J. Zaloga
Osprey Publishing
2011

What it’s about:

The decisive American air campaign to achieve air supporiority over Europe during World War II. This books is an analytical study at the strategic and operational levels of warfare. It’s not a book about airplanes, pilots and “there I was” accounts of aerial combat.

What I liked about the book:

  • Analytical approach.
  • Provides a thorough understanding of the strategic impact of the campaign on the conduct of the war.
  • Color maps of several significant USAAF Eight Air Force bombing raids.

What could have been done better:

  • Nothing that I can think of.

Summary:

A superb book.

Rating:

5 stars out of a possible 5.

Book review – B-17G Flying Fortress Walk Around

B-17G Flying Fortress Walk Around
David Doyle
Squadron Signal Publishing
2011

What it’s about:

A detailed walk around of one of the most renowned warplanes in history, well illustrated with photographs.

What I liked about the book:

  • The captions do a great job of explaining what is in the photographs, including variations of the B-17G and additions to the restored aircraft which depart from the wartime configuration.
  • Plenty of technical detail.
  • Photographic coverage of nearly every airworthy B-17 remaining.

What could have been done better:

  • The lighting for some of the interior photos is mediocre. In fairness, photographing the interior of aircraft is difficult, and the extensive use of supplemental lighting such as flashes introduces its own problems: hot spots (reflections) and harsh shadows. In no case are the photographs unusable.

Summary:

Squadron Signal and prolific author David Doyle have done it again, with a fine book at a good price. The companion volume in the In Action series B-17 Flying Fortress in Action is an excellent purchase to make to accompany this book. For less than $40, you can have a detailed understanding of this important aircraft of World War II.

Rating:

5 stars out of a possible 5.

Book Review – B-25 Mitchell Walk Around

B-25 Mitchell Walk Around
David Doyle
Squadron Signal Publishing
2012

What it’s about:

A detailed walk around of the famous World War II bomber, well illustrated with photographs.

What I liked about the book:

  • Color profile illustrations of aircraft.
  • Plenty of technical detail.
  • High-quality photography of several restored aircraft.

What could have been done better:

  • The book would have benefited from a few full-page page images of different parts of the interior, taken with a wide-angle lens. There are several interior photos that to me were difficult to understand exactly what I was seeing and where it was located, because of the lack of context. Some larger photos taken with a wide angle lense would have solved that problem.

Summary:

Overall, this is a high-quality publication at a reasonable price. If the subject matter interests you, you should definitely buy it. Better yet, buy it with its companion volume in the In Action series B-25 Mitchell in Action. For less than $40, you can have a detailed understanding of this important aircraft of World War II.

Rating:

4 stars out of a possible 5.