Let me begin this review with a word of caution. Despite its light, understated title that suggests another “hangar flying” book, this is a book to be taken very seriously. Because within its covers resides nothing less than the story of how Air Force fighter pilots and the aircraft they flew developed from the Korean War, to what they are today. It was an awesome task to condense this information into a relatively small, very readable book I’m sure, but author John Lowery stood up to the task admirably.
The book is laid out in chronological order of course, with each chapter dedicated to a generation of pilots, the aircraft they flew, or both. And every chapter contains at least one what I call, “I didn’t know that.” Reading the first two chapters, for example, I was astounded by the number of F-86 pilots killed at Nellis AFB, NV while preparing for combat in Korea. Some of these accidents could be attributed to design problems with the early models of the F-86, but many were caused by the propensity of student pilots to spend the night gambling on the strip and then fly early missions in a caffeine fueled frenzy to compete with their peers. I also didn’t know that a famous Air Force jet ace shot down one of his squadron mates in a moment of misidentification and/or buck fever.
As the book progresses, a pattern begins to emerge to stories of death or serious injuries to aircrews caused by design deficiencies, lack of proper training, or top-down leadership failures within the Air Force. “Chapter 18, The Expendables,” describes a problem of which I was personally aware. The bombs we carried in Vietnam were sometimes equipped with a World War II vintage fuse that had a nasty habit of arming itself in flight. Once armed, the bomb would detonate in close proximity to a solid object, like another aircraft in flight, or the drogue of an airborne refueling aircraft. There was a relatively simple fix to the problem, but here’s what Lowery said happened, “When the bombs began exploding prematurely, killing sixteen F-4E aircrew members, instead of investigating the cause, higher headquarters callously told the fighter wing: Sometimes you get losses like that in combat.”
Of all the chapters in the book, the most difficult one to read without getting angry is “Chapter 22, Those we left behind: The story of our cowardly abandonment of captured service personnel in the interest of “political considerations.” This is a chapter that should be read and reread several times because it tells a lot about our government’s historical lack of concern for the warriors we left behind.
Although “Life in the Wild Blue Yonder” is John Lowery’s seventh title, many of his previous titles deal with commercial and civil aviation subjects; which begs the question where did he acquire the expertise to fashion this superbly written book? The answer is simple; according to his biography, “with a combat tour completed in both Korea and Vietnam, he was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses and nine Air Medals. He finished his military career with 7500 hours in 26 types of military aircraft, of which 5,000 hours were in jet fighters with 460 hours in aerial combat. Bottom line: “He has been there, done that.”
I am not suggesting that this book is only for fighter pilots or aviation buffs; nor am I suggesting that it should bought for some special occasion. On the contrary, it should be purchased now and read by everybody. But on the other hand, once you have read it, would be a good idea to keep it handy comes Veterans Day and Memorial Day so you can take it out and read parts of it to friends and neighbors. It speaks volumes about the sacrifices our veterans have made for our country.
Life in the Wild Blue Yonder was published in July 2013, and consists of 330 pages. It can be purchased at Amazon and also in eBook format on Kindle.
Ron Standerfer is a novelist, freelance writer, book reviewer, and photographer whose articles have appeared in numerous news publications including online editions of the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, and the Honolulu Star Advertiser. He is a member of the International Travel Writers & Photographers Alliance (ITWPA) and American Writers & Artists Inc (AWAI). He is a retired Air Force fighter pilot who flew 237 combat tours in Vietnam War. His novel, The Eagles Last Flight www.eagleslastflight.com chronicles the life of an Air Force fighter pilot during The Cold War and Vietnam years. He also publishes an online magazine, The Pelican Journal, www.pelicanjournal.com .