Robert Coram’s “Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War”

In the 1980s a professor commented to this reviewer about personal frustrations and exasperations experienced during his service in the U.S. Marine Corps. He described the 1960s Corps’ mentality as “blood & guts,” or the institutionalized resistance to change. This was a mentality, contended the former major, that resulted in many unnecessary casualties throughout the decades.

Years later and while serving on an Israel Defense Forces base, I took note of the California Air National Guard lieutenant colonel who was occupying the cot across the room. At night this officer would regularly open the Robert Coram book Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War and read a couple of pages before succumbing to sleep. The two events, widely separated in time, would connect on a personal level upon reading a first edition of the biography.

John Richard Boyd was a U.S. Air Force F-86 and F-100 pilot. Indeed, at the elite Fighter Weapons School he was arguably the best pilot and instructor in the world during his tenure. Boyd could make jet fighters do “impossible” things and simultaneously out-think adversaries. As a result Boyd gained the moniker “40 Second Boyd” because he quickly defeated all challengers in simulated aerial combat.

Coram records the fact that Boyd was often crude and repulsive. He was also confrontational, and combative. Yet, by all accounts John Boyd was a man of integrity who would not compromise his principles. Additionally, he was, as Robert Coram states (page 7), “One of the most important unknown men of his time.” Although his is not a commonly heard name, John Boyd’s breakthroughs and theories continue to be relevant.

Boyd penned the “Aerial Attack Study,” which greatly advanced tactics. Coram points out (page 5) that, while only an audacious “junior officer, John Boyd changed the way every air force in the world flies and fights.” A key theory Boyd conceptualized and proved was the revolutionary “Energy-Maneuverability Theory” or “E-M Theory.” A Hill Air Force Base Fact Sheet states that his “theory forever altered the way air-to-air engagements were fought.” The Fact Sheet continues: “Boyd later showed how his theory could be used as an effective tool for designing new fighter aircraft.”

Due to his research and recommendations, many consider Boyd to be the progenitor of “today’s highly maneuverable” air superiority aircraft. Once produced, “his” machines were superior to anything in existence even though the final product may not have been as unadulterated as he would have liked. An example of a Boyd airplane is the F-16.

Besides verifiably proving that Soviet fighters were superior to U.S. machines, Boyd also railed against the reliance on strategic bombers. Furthermore, he criticized a trend of designing fighter aircraft, such as the F-4C, without an internal gun. Boyd fearlessly attacked the poor designs that resulted in the costly and poorly performing F-111 and B-1.

Boyd’s ongoing theoretical analyses and discourses resulted in “Patterns of Conflict” briefings and the insightful and useful OODA Loop. Seldom has one man made such great contributions and engendered massive change through pure grit and determination. Ultimately, Boyd’s perceptions not only influenced military aviation but his “maneuver warfare” doctrines, adopted by upcoming officers, also influenced U.S. Marine Corps fighting methodology at the very core.

With the inherent natures of bureaucracy, ego, money, and power being what they are, it comes as no surprise that throughout his career Boyd and his small band of followers met resistance. They repeatedly fought the U.S. Military’s entrenched and monolithic leadership. Despite being constantly surrounded by puissant opposition these men never surrendered the initiative or permitted discouragement to end their campaigns.

Although Robert Coram’s work chronicles Boyd’s military career, the insights presented within are applicable to individuals employed in virtually every field. This is because, eventually, one either decides “To be somebody or to do something.” Coram points out that Boyd explained this fact of leadership to those who followed him. He meant that, in order to “be” somebody, one will have to turn one’s back on friends and colleagues for selfish gain. Contrarily, one can choose the more difficult path. An individual can do something that will have lasting benefits for one’s country and community. By taking such a path one will not have to compromise personal values or pride and may truly make a lasting difference in this corrupted world.

Reading the saga of John Boyd was insightful and educational. Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War is well worth the necessary small investment of time and money. Never before has a biography so affected me.


Reviewer: John T. Stemple.

Sources and Suggested Readings

Robert Coram, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2002.

Factsheets: John Boyd – Hill Air Force Base

John Boyd, Colonel – Arlington National Cemetery Website

John Boyd (military strategist)

John Boyd – The Aviation History Museum Online