Authors: Robert Coram
Tags: #History, #Non-fiction, #Biography, #War
The Atomic Energy Commission began using Frenchman’s Flat, part of the Nellis bombing range, to detonate nuclear weapons.
(The explosions always were announced in advance and one of the most popular pastimes in nearby Las Vegas was watching the
mushroom clouds climb high into the clear desert air.) It was not unheard of for a fighter pilot to zoom skyward after dropping
his bombs, see a nuclear blast downrange, get on the radio, and say, “Look what I did,” before going sky-dancing across the
desert. Words such as
began to creep into the fighter-pilot lexicon, dropped like markers to let the listener know the speaker had been to Nellis.
To a fighter pilot the very word was magic.
Much of the land in southern Nevada was owned by the government, and the year-round good weather meant southern Nevada was
perfect for dogfighting. In addition to government-owned land, Nellis had rights to the airspace over almost one million acres
called the Nellis Range. Airspace was not as controlled then as it is today, and if Nellis pilots wandered off the Range,
it did not matter too much. Summer temperatures on the Range regularly reached 110 or 120, sometimes even 130 degrees. To
this blast furnace the best young pilots in the Air Force were sent to have their imperfections burned away and to be hammered
into the pure gold that was a fighter pilot.
To a fighter pilot, no other place had the mystique of this distant and lonely outpost. There was Nellis and there was the
rest of the world. SAC’s bomber pilots might be the glamour boys. But to a fighter pilot, flying a B-47 or a B-52 was the
aviation equivalent of being a bus driver. Bomber pilots were cautious, methodical team players who climbed high, motored
along for half a day, dropped their bombs—often without seeing the target—and came home. The man who drove this aluminum overcast
was not even called a pilot; he was the aircraft commander. And he had a copilot, engineer, navigator, and bombardier—a crew
to do all the things a fighter pilot did by himself. SAC pilots were “bomber pukes.”
Then there were the test pilots over at Edwards AFB in California. The media loved these guys. But fighter pilots snorted
in derision at every newspaper article. Sure, test pilots flew hot new experimental airplanes, but they also had little clipboards
strapped to their knees and on the clipboards were the altitudes and airspeeds they were to fly and the instructions for every
maneuver to be performed and little boxes into which they put check marks when the maneuvers were completed. Test pilots were
marionettes whose strings were pulled by controllers on the ground, “golden arms” who could display little initiative and
who could never cut loose and bank and yank and turn and burn and fling themselves around the sky the way fighter pilots did.
Pilots at Edwards went to their little bar up in the high desert and boasted about pushing the outside of the envelope. But
it was big talk about a small envelope. In the mid-50s, most of the test pilots started out as fighter pilots, but they were
fighter pilots gone astray. More and more of the test pilots were engineers who were conservative, anal, by-the-book types,
not hell-raising warriors.
Test pilots were evaluators. Fighter pilots were applicators.
Test pilots were pessimists who tried to find something wrong with an airplane. Fighter pilots were optimists who looked for
something great in an airplane.
Test pilots were detached from the airplane they flew. Fighter pilots fell in love with their airplane.
Test pilots talked of going into space.
And in a
You don’t fly a fucking capsule, you sit in it and watch the instruments. You’re a passenger. To
with space. Fighter pilots wanted to get on an enemy’s six and hose the sonofabitch.
Fighter pilots held the golden arms in almost as much contempt as they did SAC pilots. Test pilots were “Edwards pukes.”
Bomber pukes and Edwards pukes ranked only slightly above people who did not fly, the nonrated bureaucrats known as “staff
The motto at Nellis was “Every Man a Tiger” and to be called a tiger by a senior fighter pilot was the ultimate accolade.
Confident and intelligent men would damn near pop the rivets out of their aircraft during air-to-air combat training just
to have one of the Nellis cadre nod approvingly and call them “Tiger.” To be called a tiger meant you had stainless-steel
testicles that dragged the ground and struck sparks when you walked. To be called a tiger meant you were a pure fighter pilot
and that you would not hesitate to tell a bird colonel to get fucked.
Air-to-air training was mostly shooting at a towed target called a
. But there was always time for a tail chase. Young fighter pilots not only pushed the outside edge of the envelope, they
broke through it and operated in the pulsing red danger zone beyond. Pilots scorched across the desert so low they ripped
the tops out of Joshua trees and then dropped ever lower and kicked up plumes of sand and came back to base with cactus wedged
in the wing roots. They flew about ninety miles north of Nellis and met over a little oasis of grass and cottonwood trees
they called the “Green Spot,” the only green for a hundred miles in any direction and easily identified from the air. One
of the first brothels in Nevada was located at the Green Spot, and oftentimes the employees sunbathed nude.
Over the Green Spot, pilots called “Fight’s on” and fought down to the ground and back up again and down again, all the time
banking and yanking, turning and burning, as they maneuvered to get on the other pilot’s six. They called it “rat-racing”
or “playing grabass” or “getting in a furball.” One aircraft, one seat, one engine, one pilot—the most lethal combination
of man and machinery ever devised.
It only added to the allure of this shimmering fantasyland in the desert that it was one of the most dangerous places on Earth.
Rarely did a week go by that a fighter pilot did not crash. And when a fighter crashed at 400 knots, it was for keeps. When
a pilot augered in, screwed the pooch, fucked the duck, and bought the farm, then the base siren wailed and the blue car drove
slowly and wives stood in the windows and the chaplain consoled and the flag hung at half staff. But it always happened to
someone else, never to the best fighter pilot in the world. And if you have to ask who the best is, it sure as hell ain’t
you. Fighter pilots fly with their fangs out and their hair on fire and they look death in the face every day and you ain’t
shit if you ain’t done it.
Nellis was a place where young men did things at 30,000 feet they would remember all their days. Nellis was Valhalla-in-the-desert.
This was the world Boyd was about to enter—the world he would come to dominate.
In the aftermath of Korea, the Air Force did not know what to do with the sudden excess of fighter pilots. Some were reassigned
to squadrons around the world and some were sent to Nellis as instructors. But a surplus still existed, and Boyd almost was
assigned to a maintenance squadron where his job would have been supervising mechanics. His Air Force records do not reflect
canceled assignments, so the only record of this is in his Oral History interview, where he said, “I just raised hell. Bullshit
on maintenance. I don’t want anything to do with it.” He won the battle and was assigned to Nellis.
By 1954, Nellis was the busiest Air Force base in the world. It was also distinguished by its unusually high rates of courts-martial,
sexually transmitted diseases, and those who had gone absent without leave. The nearby town of Las Vegas had begun the decade
with a population of about 25,000 and would end it with a population of about 140,000.
First Lieutenant John Boyd, accompanied by Mary and Stephen, reported for duty at Nellis on April 20, 1954. They drove from
Iowa, and all during the trip Boyd talked of little but his ideas on aerial tactics and how he was going to change the Air
Force. Mary nodded and cuddled with Stephen and made occasional noises of agreement. She understood little and cared less.
In all Boyd’s years as a pilot, Mary would never see him take off on a single flight. But in this, she was not alone: it is
a superstition of military flying, or at least it was in Boyd’s day, that the wives of fighter pilots never watch their husbands
Boyd had been assigned to Nellis as a student in the Advanced Flying School, the “hard-polish” school that new jet pilots
went through before they were considered combat ready. It seems odd that a pilot fresh from combat and with Boyd’s reputation
as a stick-and-rudder man would be sent to school. But he was about to become an instructor and he had to go through the school
before he could teach. He had to learn the curriculum and he had to learn Air Force teaching methods. So Boyd was a student
for nine hours of formation flying, ten point five hours of air-to-ground gunnery, seventeen hours of air-toair gunnery, and
fifteen hours of applied tactics.
Having completed the course, his future, which is to say his chance for promotion, looked good. He was a twenty-seven-year-old
combat veteran whose last efficiency report could not have been much better had he written it himself. He was making a name
for himself in fighter aviation. And he had ideas—hundreds of ideas—about aerial tactics tumbling around in his head. Nellis
was the perfect place to put those ideas to work.
But he and Mary and Stephen had barely settled into the old World War II house they were provided on base, a tiny house with
neither telephone nor air-conditioning, when their troubles began.
In June temperatures climbed into the hundreds. Stephen was sixteen months old and slowly learning to walk. One day Stephen
developed a high temperature. Mary did not believe it was anything serious—all babies run temperatures at one time or another—but
she watched him closely. Stephen did not improve and several days later grew listless and lethargic.
“It must be the flu,” Mary thought, and gave him mild medication. Then one morning she went into Stephen’s room and he was
up waiting for her, not demanding to be fed. Mary laughed and cooed to him and called him a lazy boy and pulled him upright.
His head tilted to the side and he fell back on the bed. Mary pulled him upright again and again his head lolled to the side
and again he toppled over.
Mary was a young wife and a new mother and she was far from home and cold terror seized her heart. Something was seriously
wrong with her son.
Could it be… ?
She could not utter the word.
She rushed Stephen to the doctor.
He had polio.
Boyd had been here before, of course, with his sister Ann. Early stages of the disease caused something known as “foot drop”
and, because some muscles in the back were affected and some were not, the victim’s legs often twisted outward. Treatment
was cruel. Heavy sandbags were lodged against the legs and rigid steel braces held the patient’s back and legs firmly in place.
Bright stainless-steel hoops pulled the victim’s head upright. Almost all patients were confined to wheelchairs. A patient
was considered lucky if he could walk well enough to use crutches. Many victims died. But dying was considered by some to
be preferable to spending one’s life in an iron lung.
Ann had survived to walk again, but Stephen’s polio was especially severe. Sandbags went on his legs and braces on his back.
Boyd went to a swimming-pool manufacturer and bought a small pump that he installed in the bathtub so Stephen could lie in
warm swirling waters. The dining-room table was cleared and turned into an exercise table and every morning Boyd and Mary
held Stephen and pulled and tugged and stretched his legs and massaged his atrophying muscles as he screamed with pain. Boyd
often used his lunch break to come home and give Stephen additional exercise. Twice Stephen almost died. Mary wept with the
pain of what her firstborn son was going through.
When word of Stephen’s malady reached Erie, people thought of Ann and of the year John had limped, and a member of Jack Arbuckle’s
family sent word that polio was hereditary. Boyd must have been going through the agony of the damned. But he never discussed
it with Mary. He never talked about feelings or emotions.
When Mary said Stephen’s polio might have come from Boyd’s side of the family, he squeezed his lips together and nodded and
said such speculation was “interesting.” He found solace in an unusual place: the music of Wagner. His favorite was “Ride
of the Valkyries,” which he played over and over at high volume.
Mary remembered seeing the movie clips of President Franklin D. Roosevelt playing in the mineral-rich waters of Warm Springs,
Georgia. If Roosevelt went there, it had to be a good place.
Boyd traded in the family car for a station wagon so Stephen could lie down in the back and spread out and be reasonably comfortable.
Boyd took emergency leave and he and Mary and Stephen struck out across country. They stayed in cheap motels in Texas and
Alabama. For three days Stephen’s cloth diapers were washed in motels or at gas stations and hung out the car windows to dry.
After three days of treatment at Warm Springs, the family returned to Nellis. The car had no air-conditioning and it was hot
as they motored through the South and the Southwest. Stephen’s braces were uncomfortable and confining. The steel brace that
held his chin high was painful. Sandbags piled on his neck and legs aggravated his plight. He cried for much of the trip.
This was the first of numerous trips to Warm Springs the Boyd family would make over the years—long, arduous, ten-day round
trips that, in the end, had no benefit for Stephen. Boyd was a lieutenant with no money for expensive treatments. Air Force
doctors of the time did not have the knowledge, equipment, or ability to treat polio. The March of Dimes and the Easter Seal
Foundation paid for Stephen’s treatment. Boyd was a proud man and his agony at Stephen’s plight must have increased when he
realized that his family, like his mother’s family, was forced to depend on charity.