The Complete Guide to Computer Aviation
by Steve Smith
At the same time, a new element was introduced into aerial warfare: the guided missile. The pilot no longer had to line up his entire ship with the enemy's. He didn't have to twist and turn. All he had to do was get a radar "lock" and pull the trigger—good old American know-how would do the rest. Now there was almost no reason for our aircraft to be light and maneuverable; all they had to be was stout enough to haul all that weaponry and technology aloft, and impregnable enough to keep it there.
The Air Force was so sure of this "push-button" approach to air combat that by the time we took up the cudgels in Vietnam, the premier aircraft of that era, the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom, had no gun at all. A gun was considered superfluous. Air combat would henceforth be with "stand-off" weapons, distant and impersonal.
It wasn't long before Rhino drivers like Robin Olds and Randy Cunningham, having expended their meager store of on-board missiles (four often-quixotic Sparrows and two Sidewinders), would chance upon a MiG straggler and have no means of engaging it. It took years—until the last year of the last model of the Phantom—but the pilots finally got their guns back, and the big pendulum at the Pentagon began to swing back toward true dogfighters like the F-16 Falcon.
Incredibly, two pivotal figures spanned this entire revolution in aerial warfare: Edgar Schmued built the planes and Chuck Yeager flew 'em.
Yeager, a good ole boy from Myra, West Virginia, enlisted in the Army Air Corps at age eighteen. As an airplane mechanic, he got a boost from the "Flying Sergeants" program and was posted to England with the legendary 357th Fighter Group, the first to receive P-51 Mustangs, early in 1944. They were known—from the name of their base in Leiston—as "The Yoxford Boys."
Attached to the "Mighty Eighth" U.S. Air Force, the 357th went on to become the most decorated fighter outfit of the war, with 1,318 combat missions, 688 kills, and 52 aces, including a twenty-two-year-old Yeager, whose last kill was an Me-262 shortly before the end of the war.
Yeager went on to a glamorous career as a test pilot, becoming the first man to break the sound barrier (contrary to the movie, the controls don't reverse), and to fly the F-86 in the 1950s and the F-4 in the 1960s. Tom Wolfe credits Yeager as the first pilot with "the right stuff" and claims it is Yeager's laconic drawl that all airline pilots strive to imitate when they turn on the public address system and intone, "This is your captain speaking…"