Authors: Robert Coram
Tags: #History, #Non-fiction, #Biography, #War
Copyright © 2002 by Robert Coram
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To John Pennington: my mentor in the newspaper years,
my fellow traveler in the wilderness years,
and my inspiration forever.He died too soon.
has a writer approached a subject where so many people were so anxious to help. This was not because of my winning ways and
bubbling personality; it was because John Boyd inspired such passionate feelings among those who knew him and who wanted to
be sure his story was told in the proper fashion.
Researching this book brought me into frequent and lengthy contact with the men who were close to Boyd: the Acolytes. The
distance I always keep between myself and the people I write about disappeared when I met these men. For my more than two
years of researching and writing this book, Franklin “Chuck” Spinney was the “go to” person for everything I needed. Him I
owe the most. Chuck Spinney, Tom Christie, Pierre Sprey, Ray Leopold, Jim Burton, and Mike Wyly are as fiery and idealistic
today as they were back in the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s. For the endless hours they spent with me going over those white-hot
years—and for their friendship—I shall always be grateful.
Mary Boyd, Kathy Boyd, Jeff Boyd, and John Scott Boyd could not have been more forthcoming during many talks about their family.
Often it was painful for everyone involved. Mary Ellen Holton, as Boyd’s executrix, was particularly helpful in obtaining
personal family papers.
It is a measure of the respect Boyd evoked that Vice President Dick Cheney took time to talk about his old friend. The generosity
of his comments added much to the book.
Of the dozens of others who helped, a few must be singled out. Jack Shanahan, a brilliant Air Force officer, spent months
walking me through Air Force history, Air Force culture, the subtleties of Officer Efficiency Reports (ERs), the intricacies
of air combat, and a hundred other details of Air Force life.
Grant Hammond was always willing to share the insights that came from spending hundreds of hours with Boyd in the mid-1990s.
Vernon Spradling remains the institutional memory of the Fighter Weapons School as it was in the 1950s and 1960s. He proves
that memory does not have to decline with age.
Ron Catton has the wisdom that comes from having a wild youth followed by a distinguished Air Force career and a highly successful
business career. His guidance was invaluable.
Chet Richards is a consultant and lecturer on Boyd’s ideas as applied to business. He has the keen logic of a mathematician
and he saved me from many mistakes.
Dr. Wayne Thompson at the Office of Air Force History provided documents I might never have known about.
At Georgia Tech, Bob Harty, Marie McVay, Debbie Williamson, and Kathy Tomajko brought depth and dimension to the chapter about
Boyd’s two years at that respected institution. And my friend Grady “Himself” Trasher spent hours telling me of Tech as it
was during his student days in the early 1960s.
Jim Stevenson knows all there is to know about airplanes. He shared his knowledge.
For about thirty years, a group of men has met every Wednesday night in the Officers Club at Fort Myer, across the river from
Washington. In few other places in America can you find a room filled with men who have made more of a contribution to national
defense than these men have. They are legends all. And they are why I always timed my trips to Washington so I could be there
A few additional notes.
I happen to have the best literary agent in New York. Mel Berger of the William Morris Agency gets the job done. Quickly.
This book covers a long and tumultuous time in American military history. To insure accuracy, many people mentioned in the
book have read part or all of the manuscript. Any errors, however, are mine alone.
I edited the manuscript on St. Catherines Island. No writer ever had a better place to work, and I am forever grateful to
my good friend Royce Hayes, the superintendent of that remote island off the Georgia coast.
Finally, my deepest appreciation as always is to my wife, Jeannine Addams. My life has been altogether different because of
March 20, 1997, a somber crowd gathered in the Old Post Chapel at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac from Washington,
D.C. They came to attend the memorial service for Colonel John Richard Boyd, United States Air Force, retired.
Winter often lingers in the hills of northern Virginia. And on that Thursday morning a cold rain and overcast skies caused
many in the crowd to wrap their winter coats tighter and to hurry for the doors of the chapel.
Full military honors were provided for Boyd—a ceremonial detachment that included an honor guard, band, rifle squad, and flag-draped
caisson drawn by six gray horses. Boyd was a fighter pilot. He wore the Air Force uniform for twenty-four years. During that
time he made more contributions to fighter tactics, aircraft design, and the theory of air combat than any man in Air Force
history. But on that soft and dreary day when Boyd’s ashes were laid to rest, the Air Force all but ignored his passing. Only
two uniformed Air Force officers were in the congregation. One, a three-star general, represented the Air Force chief of staff.
He sat alone in the front row and was plainly uncomfortable. The other was a major who knew Boyd’s work and simply wanted
to pay his respects.
Neither man had ever met John Boyd.
A chaplain opened the Protestant service. Then, one by one, three of Boyd’s oldest friends walked to the front of the chapel.
Tom Christie, a tall, white-haired man, solemnly read the Twenty-third Psalm.
Ron Catton, one of Boyd’s former students and a fellow fighter pilot, delivered the first eulogy. He quoted Sophocles: “One
until the evening to see how splendid the day has been.” As he told what it was like to fly with Boyd back in the old days,
his lips trembled and his speech became rushed. Some of those present turned their eyes away, stared at Boyd’s linen-draped
urn, and remembered.
There was much to remember, for few men have had such a splendid day as John Boyd.
Boyd’s friends smiled broadly, a few even chuckled, as they recalled Boyd at his loud, arm-waving, irrepressible best. The
chuckles must have puzzled the chaplain. A military funeral with full honors is marked by dignity and solemnity. The slow
measured cadences and the history-dictated procedures evoke respectful silence. This is a sacred rite, this final remembrance
of a man whose life was spent in the service of his country. Here, levity is out of place.
But Boyd’s friends did not come to mourn; they came to celebrate a life that tossed and tumbled those in its wake. And when
Pierre Sprey, an aristocratic and reserved man with swept—back white hair, began a second eulogy by saying, “Not many people
are defined by the courts-martial and investigations they faced,” raucous laughter echoed off the white walls of the chapel.
Sprey told how Boyd once snapped the tail off an F-86, spun in an F-100, and how he not only stole more than $1 million worth
of computer time from the Air Force to develop a radical new theory but survived every resulting investigation. Chuck Spinney,
a boyish Pentagon analyst who was like a son to Boyd, laughed so loud he could be heard all across the chapel. Even those
in the congregation who barely knew Boyd wore broad grins when they heard how he was investigated a dozen times for leaking
information to the press and how his guerrilla tactics for successful leaking are still being used today.
Boyd’s career spanned the last half of the twentieth century. He served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. His ideas greatly
influenced the prosecution of the Gulf War in 1991. In the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon,
there were numerous media stories of “Fourth Generation Warfare,” a concept based on Boyd’s work. And while Boyd’s life was
marked by a series of enormous accomplishments and lasting achievements, the thing that meant the most to him over the longest
period of time was the simple title he had in the beginning. He was first, last, and always a fighter pilot—a loud-talking,
fighter pilot. There is no such thing as an ex–fighter pilot. Once a young man straps on a jet aircraft and climbs into the
heavens to do battle, it sears his psyche forever. At some point he will hang up his flight suit—eventually they all do—and
in the autumn of his years his eyes may dim and he may be stooped with age. But ask him about his life, and his eyes flash
and his back straightens and his hands demonstrate aerial maneuvers and every conversation begins with “There I was at…” and
he is young again. He remembers the days when he sky-danced through the heavens, when he could press a button and summon the
lightning and invoke the thunder, the days when he was a prince of the earth and a lord of the heavens. He remembers his glory
days and he is young again.
Some of Boyd’s friends at the memorial service remembered the time back in the mid- and late 1950s when John Boyd was the
best fighter pilot in America. When he returned from a combat tour in Korea to become an instructor at the Fighter Weapons
School—the Air Force’s premier dogfighting academy—he became known as “Forty-Second Boyd,” the pilot who could defeat any
opponent in simulated air-to-air combat in less than forty seconds. Like any gunslinger with a nickname and a reputation,
Boyd was called out. Some of the best pilots in the Air Force challenged him at one time or another. So did the best pilots
in the Navy and the Marine Corps. But no man could be found who was better in the air than John Boyd. He was never defeated.