Category Archives: Aviation

Phantom Leader

In the third book in the Wings of War series,  Mark Berent has not lost any steam. In fact, some readers think he picks up the pace as the series goes on. In any event, I still maintain that you will not find a more authentic big picture of the US involvement in Vietnam (the air war in particular) in any single non-fiction work. Certainly not in movies (though Go Tell the Spartans is a suprisingly credible depiction of the early days on the ground) or in other fiction ( though Jim Morris’ Above & Beyond is certainly an accurate depiction at the tactical level, from a Sneaky Pete who was there).

Court Bannister was tantalyzingly close to getting his fifth confirmed MiG and making ace, but was yanked from MiG CAP (Combat Air Patrol) over Hanoi and reassigned to strike missions in the Steel Tiger. Now he’s in charge of a “fast FAC” mission, for which he builds a unit out of volunteers for aerial search-and-destroy of trucks and guns along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Special Forces officer Wolf Lochert is back, and as primary a character as ever. Toby Parker is back, too, sobered up and straightened up, but the more responsible he gets, the more he slips to the background. And one of the previously minor characters, Flak Apple, becomes major in this novel, as he becomes a guest at the Hanoi Hilton.

Unfortunately, like too many US citizens, I am so squeamish (and infuriated) at the torture our POWs had to go through in North Vietnam that my instinct was to avoid being informed at all, and I was tempted to skim over the chapters focusing on Flak Apple. But I didn’t. Whoever was responsible for leaving our men over there to suffer and die deserves to burn.

The “fast FAC” was a Forward Air Controller mission flown in fast movers, rather than propellor-driven observation planes–namely, in this case, F-4 Phantoms.

Before reading Berent I didn’t appreciate just how huge a fighter jet the F-4 is. Evidently it weighed more than a WWII B-17 bomber. There’s a whole lot more you will learn from this book, and the series, despite yourself. You’ll be too caught up in a hell of a good story to realize you’re being educated.

Even though Wings of War is a five-book series, I had intended to only read the first three. For some reason I assumed the characters and story would be spent after that, I guess. But they’re still all going strong. I’m in for the whole shebang, reading Eagle Station now, and couldn’t stop if I wanted to.

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Steel Tiger

Number Two in the Wings of War series, this novel gets its name from an air interdiction operation against a segment of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Author Mark Berent was a fighter pilot in Vietnam who also took the initiative to find out what the war on the ground was like. That means his characters/stories have, as a backdrop, a fairly cohesive strategic and tactical overview (such as a strategic concept was, in Vietnam).

SteelTigerpatchJet jock Court Bannister has finished his first combat tour and has managed to earn a slot in Test Pilot School for the second time. That’s a step toward becoming an astronaut, which is his ambition.

Meanwhile, Toby Parker is also stateside, officially earning his wings. His hoity-toity family is pleased with the enhanced status he lends them by having become a hero, but not so pleased with his intentions of remaining in the Air Force. Given his alcoholism and increasingly rebellious behavior, not everone in the Air Force thinks he should stay in, either.

Wolf Lochert, fighting a whole different sort of campaign on the ground, is an unconventional warrior in an unconventional war who is just too unconventional for the typical snooty brass who are overseeing the lose/lose experimental quagmire in Vietnam.

Both pilots are privileged offspring of wealthy parents, but also way too cowboy for their chains-of-command. By saving another test pilot’s life, along with an expensive aircraft, Bannister is judged unfit for the astronaut program. Parker is an outstanding flier, but his reckless antics get him barred from flying fighters. Both of them wind up returning to Vietnam.

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The author, back in the day.

A fatal barroom brawl lands Wolf Lochert in military prison, and his fate appears grim.

From available information, it would seem that Berent was a good pilot. While I wasn’t there, hence can’t confirm or deny, I can confirm that he is a great storyteller. Tom Clancy said Berent spun yarns of “good men in a bad war” and that sums up Wings of War quite well. His three primary characters work within the idiotic constraints they are saddled with, and pursue a victory that is forbidden by Washington.

The author interprets the jargon and explains some technical details which might otherwise confuse some readers; but doesn’t interrupt the story flow long enough to be a nuisance. He’s also got some “character sketches” that will probably resonate with anybody who has served some time in the military.

With all this you get a Soviet MiG pilot, a wartime sting operation, plus glimpses inside the Hanoi Hilton and the Johnson State Department.

Steel Tiger is credible, informative, and great fun to read.

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Rolling Thunder

Rolling Thunder is the first novel in Mark Berent’s Wings of War series. The title comes from a strategic bombing campaign during US involvement in Vietnam.

Here’s a little about the author:

Lt Col Berent began his Air Force career as an enlisted man, then progressed through the aviation cadet program. He attended pilot training at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi and then Laredo Air Force Base, Texas flying the T-6, T-28 and T-33 aircraft and then moved on to F-86s at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. He served on active duty for 23 years until retirement in 1974. He began his operational flying career in the F-86 and F-100 flying at various posts throughout the United States and Europe. He later served three combat tours, completing 452 combat sorties, first in the F-100 at Bien Hoa Air Base, South Vietnam, the F-4 at Ubon Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand, and then in Cambodia for two years to fly things with propellers on them and through a fluke in communications timing, to personally run the air war for a few weeks.

He has also served two tours at the United States Space and Missile System Organization (SAMSO) at Los Angeles, California working first in the Satellites Control Facility and later as a staff developmental engineer for the space shuttle. In his expansive career he has seen service as an Air Attaché to the United States Embassy, Phnom Penh, Cambodia and also as Chief of Test Control Branch at the Air Development and Test Center at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. He also served as an instructor at the Air Force’s Squadron Officer School.

His decorations include the Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross with one oak leaf cluster, Bronze Star, Air Medal with twenty four oak leaf clusters, Vietnam Cross of Gallantry, Cambodian Divisional Medal, and numerous Vietnam Campaign ribbons...

Quite a guy. And Berent tells a rip-snorting story of the air war over Vietnam.

The characters are great–Hollywood prodigal Court Bannister, soul sick rich boy Toby Parker, and devout killer Wolf Lochert. Much like W.E.B. Griffin, Berent seems to like privileged, wealthy characters who don’t have to serve, but do anyway and prove to be natural, superb warriors. Not easy for me to relate, but the author did a fine job winning my sympathy.

mapRollingThunderBannister is a jet jock who flies the F-100 Super Saber during his first combat tour. While males all over the USA were finding ways to escape serving in Vietnam, Bannister turned down his dream of Test Pilot and Astronaut training to serve there.

Toby Parker wasn’t even a pilot, but circumstances threw him into a situation where his exceptional skill and bravery earned him recognition as a hero. Unfortunately, a drinking problem might just ruin his career and reputation.

Wolf Lochert is a Special Forces officer and the consummate warrior. He’s no dummy, but one of his most trusted indigenous soldiers is determined to frag him when the opportunity presents itself.

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You will probably learn more relevant information about Vietnam in this one novel than you can from any and every history book that covers US involvement in the conflict. I’ve read plenty of fiction and non-fiction about Vietnam, and this has become my favorite so far–just from one reading.

I’ve also read Steel Tiger, the second in the series, and have started Phantom Leader. Reviews are forthcoming. It’s a fantastic series and well worth your time.

Jet Jocks Over Vietnam

There’s an expression for people who consistently order more food than they wind up eating: “His eyes are bigger than his stomach.” That’s how I was with books in my younger days. It dawned on me yet again the other day while building more bookshelves for my personal library that, even if I never buy another book, I’ll still probably never finish reading everything I own before I die.

One of the paperbacks that’s been gathering dust for many, many years was this novel of the air war in Vietnam.

All those years, and then the first time I opened it and read the opening paragraph, it grabbed me by the throat.

Berent tells a rip-snorting story of men both in the air and on the ground serving with honor in a conflict in which victory was forbidden.

The characters are great—Hollywood prodigal Court Bannister; soul sick rich boy Toby Parker; and devout killer Wolf Lochert. Much like W.E.B. Griffin, Berent seems to like privileged, wealthy characters who don’t have to serve, but do anyway and prove to be natural, superb warriors. Not easy for me to relate to that caste, but the author did a fine job winning my sympathy.

And you will probably learn more relevant information about Vietnam in this one novel than you can from any and every history book that covers US involvement in the conflict. I’ve read plenty of fiction and non-fiction about Vietnam, and this has become my favorite so far–just from one reading. I can’t believe I only just now got to it. But I fully intend to read the next one, STEEL TIGER (Wings of War). If that one is as good as this one, I may read the entire series.

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A Politically Correct Red Baron?

August of last year marked the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the “war to end all wars.” Perhaps the most fabled combatant in that unprecedented war was a German aviator who scored an incredibly high count of confirmed kills in an era when confirmation was a long way from the ease of verification known during the age of gun cameras.

There is a strong possibility Baron Manfred Von Richtofen shot down far more than the 80 enemy fighters he is credited with. Even so, his accomplishments during the First World War were unequaled by any other ace until the next time Germany duked it out with half the planet. Since his death, The Red Baron has appeared as a character in movies about WWI too many times to count (sometimes with a fictional name, or as a pastiche of himself and other famed German pilots). Most often in British or American flicks he is depicted as an enemy, albeit a gallant one most of the time.

This film is an American edit of a German film. As you would expect in a German film, Von Richtofen is the hero–as he was to the surrounded and outnumbered German Empire during the Great War. I’m perfectly okay with that, since none of the Great Powers had altruistic purposes. Germany and Austria-Hungary were no more villainous than Russia, France, Great Britain, Italy or Japan. Nazism wouldn’t be developed until after the war was over.

Historians can find heroes and villains on any side. Which one Von Richtofen was depends solely on which side the observer identifies with in that first epic European bloodbath.

the-red-baronThe film makers took a major detour from historical facts, and I’m okay with that, too…in theory. Aside from some superficial details about the Red Baron, they tell a story that is based in myth more than reality. And where the traditional myths surrounding the Baron didn’t fit the formula, they invented some myths that do. None of that necessarily made a great film impossible for the director and crew. Laurence of Arabia took liberties with historical reality, as did Patton and Braveheart. Then, of course, there’s the mac daddy of creative license taken on historical figures and events: Brian De Palma’s Untouchables. Even for an armchair historian like me, and a stickler for accuracy, talented film makers can tweak the facts and still wind up with a great flick.

And director Nikolai Müllerschön had a talented cast, cinematographer, and effects department to make quite a humdinger, too. But before I go into what he did and failed to do, let’s do take a factual look at the real Red Baron.

As a Prussian aristocrat, Frieherr Manfred Von Richtofen was a cavalry officer at the outbreak of war. After the German advance in the west stalled and combat deteriorated into trench warfare, the machinegun had made it obvious that the days of horse cavalry were numbered. In 1915 Richtofen joined the Second Reich’s Imperial Air Service. He trained under one of Germany’s pioneer fighter pilots, Oswald Boelcke, and became a pilot himself.

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Richtofen wasn’t a natural flier and, incredibly, contemporaries testified that even by his final days he wasn’t exceptionally talented. What he was, though, was ruthless, relentless and methodical. Some aces of the First World War may well have been chivalrous, as legend would have it. Richtofen most assuredly was not. He fought just as he hunted—seeking results rather than some adherence to “sportsmanship.” He didn’t just want to shoot enemy planes down—he wanted to terminate enemy pilots so he wouldn’t have to face them again. If an enemy survived being shot down, he strafed them on the ground. As commander of Jasta 11 he taught other pilots to do the same.

Germany’s numerical disadvantage grew much worse after the USA entered the war, and it wasn’t just the ground forces that found themselves in increasingly hopeless tactical dilemmas. The Luftstreitkräfte was also being overwhelmed by force of numbers. German pilots and aircraft were called upon to fly more and more missions with less and less rest in between.  American pilots during the next world war—a war they were winning—were often pushed past their limits of endurance on a routine basis. It’s no wonder Richtofen and his compatriots  were pushed into the meatgrinder  with no let-up as the situation became more desperate, and the high command ever more insistent that they perform miracles to turn the tide.

After scoring 8o confirmed kills (and confirmation was only possible when enemy aircraft went down on the German side of the front lines) Richtofen and his “flying circus” were just about used up: physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. The Frieherr (Baron) himself suffered from a head wound, sustained in a previous dogfight, which gave him fits of nausea and migraines. After a sortie over enemy lines one day, he strayed too close to an anti-aircraft machinegun emplacement and was ventilated by a .303 slug. After his plane went down, Australian troops paused only long enough to strip his body before spreading the word that the Red Baron was KIA.

Unsatisfied with such an ignominious and anticlimactic end to a legendary symbol of German prowess, allied propagandists were quick to rewrite the Baron’s demise as an aerial victory for the RAF. They pitched it as if it were single combat from the Middle Ages or antiquity—the Teutonic champion had fallen to their own brave knight. Canadian pilot Roy Brown was declared their Lancelot; their Achilles, their David…Richtofen was Goliath, of course. Brown never claimed credit for the kill and, in fact, was so cramped from chronic diarrhea that day that he returned to his airfield only minutes after leaving it.

With all that in mind, it’s no wonder that film makers prefer to steer wide of historic reality.

Were I the writer/director, I too might have revised history to make Von Richtofen a gallant, chivalrous knight from the wild blue yonder. I wouldn’t have followed the current formula by putting the obligatory anti-war sentiments into his mouth, but dominant opinion right now is that such convictions, constrained by a profound sense of duty to “protect his men as best he can” makes a protagonist all the more noble while justifying a “man of conscience” participating in something so unconscionable as war. Obviously that’s what Müllerschön believed.

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Romantic subplot? Sure, why not. Men fighting wars get lonely, and if we can’t find female company, we ache for it. A German ace and a French nurse? Crazier things have happened, I suppose, and it does potentially ramp up the drama. Talk about forbidden love! And yet despite some solid acting, this whole aspect of the film was lackluster. It probably needed some more development. Whether or not Richtofen had a French girlfriend during the war, there was nothing about this cinematic romance interesting enough to justify its inclusion in the movie.

Wanna ramp up the drama? How about having Richtofen and Brown meet before that fateful day in April 1918, become friends and rivals like two gunfighters who respect each other but just know one will kill the other some day? Two samurais full of mutual respect who dread the inevitable day they’ll have to tangle. A super-detective and master criminal who take time out from their cat-and-mouse to talk philosophy? A Saracen emperor and a European king who become friends while their armies fight? Two master chess players fated to clash…two MMA fighters on a collision course…two snipers on opposite sides… You get the idea. I found this to be a cheap tactic—and a painfully unoriginal one (as well as historically inaccurate). I might have forgiven this ham-fisted gimmick if it worked, but it didn’t. Not even close.

To pull off a story like this, the screenwriting would have to be very good, if not prodigious. Müllerschön would also need enough of a grasp on history that he could at least make his blatant falsehoods seem credible.

Fail, and fail.

Take, for instance, this snippet of dialog from a conversation between Brown and Richtofen as they stroll around no-man’s land:

BROWN: You gonna hook up with that French nurse? She’s got the hots for you.
Why stop there? I mean, if you’re gonna use anachronistic dialog, why not go all the way?
BROWN: Yo, Manny, I be like, y’know, doin’ the straight and level thang, y’know, I’m cool. Then why you wanna’ dive at me outa’ the sun fo’? Shootin’ yo’ gat like it’s a drive-by or somethin’. That’s a punk move, homey.

RICHTOFEN: Yo, it’s like this, dawg: I got nothin’ but love fo’ y’all, but I be like three kills away from my Blue Max, an’ I ain’t tryin’ to have you spoil my trip to Berlin, yo.

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The death blow for this flick was the decision to tell the story in a disjointed New Wave style. Instead of focusing on the significant plot developments, turning points and action, Müllerschön went the European route, choosing seemingly at random what parts of the narrative to show us—ensuring the audience can’t invest their sympathy for the title character or even grasp how the war and Richtofen’s career are progressing.

Where the film really had the chance to shine was in the aerial combat scenes. Perhaps it could have shined bright enough to compensate for some of the major weaknesses. But not when there’s no beginning, middle and end to your battle scenes. The Red Baron was like watching This Sporting Life—just substitute the rugby matches with dogfights and there you have it in all its ambiguous avante garde mediocrity. And that’s a double shame because what aerial combat they did show looked really cool. It could have knocked our socks off if only Müllerschön had told a story with all those beautiful shots.

In short, The Red Baron could have overcome most of its shortcomings with a different approach, but Müllerschön was unorthodox when he should have been conventional, and conventional when he should have been unorthodox.

(This post was originally written for SOFREP’s “Hot Extract” column. Many changes took place at SOFREP and Hot Extract was either abandoned, or it became all about games or something. Anyway, I wanted to re-post this as part of my WWI 100th Anniversary Extravaganza that never panned out. Well, I couldn’t find where I’d saved the file. I requested the articles I wrote for SOFREP from my old contact there and never even got a reply. They weren’t using them, as all the movie and book reviews we did for them were vanished from cyberspace, but they might very well still be saved there. Oh, well. But then I finally found my own copies saved in a subdirectory on a flash drive I’d misplaced. So here ya go.)

The Blue Max

 

About a gazillion books have been written, and movies made, about the Second World War. Only a fraction of that have dealt with the FIrst. Of them, this is one of the best.

The protagonist is the antihero Bruno Stachel, who leaves the living hell of the infantry to join the burgeoning German Air Service and make a name for himself. This isn’t just a chance to escape the misery of the trenches, but also the lower caste he was born into (remember Napoleon Bonaparte was a Corsican peasant who managed to get a commission in the artillery because that was a young branch at the time, too).

But Stachel is a little too eager to distinguish himself. He sets his sights on winning the Blue Max, which requires 20 confirmed kills. His cold, dogged pursuit of this goal is, frankly, similar to that of a hardcorps gamer trying to get the high score/next level on a videogame–only dealing out death to real live human beings, of course, instead of A.I. generated digital targets.

I have both watched the movie and read the book, and both are well-crafted.

In the movie, the cinematography is pretty and the aerial combat scenes are kick-ass, especially considering they were filmed WAAAAAAAAAAAY before CGI, and most of the Hollywood magic that preceded it.

In the book, Stachel is even more ruthless. Translate that “less sympathetic.” He commits murder at one point to eliminate competition in the form of a fellow pilot who considered him a friend. And he’s an alcoholic on top of everything else.

The ending is strikingly different between the film and the novel, but I’m not going to give either one away. I at least recommend watching the movie. Solid performances are put in by George Peppard (playing well under his age) and Ursula Andress. Personally I appreciated the visual comparisons of trench warfare to air combat. I found all the visuals striking, even before I became attentive to such things in film.