Colonel John Boyd was a true original—but he paid a stiff price.
It was 1967, and U.S. forces were mired in the Vietnam War. On the ground casualties kept mounting, and things were also not going well in the air. Fast and maneuverable Russian Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17s and MiG-21s flown by North Vietnamese pilots were wreaking havoc on American aircraft. But on January 2, a McDonnell F-4 Phantom flown by U.S. Air Force First Lieutenant Everett “Razz” Raspberry began to turn the tide.
A mountain range near Hanoi was the site of what American troops called “Thud Ridge.” North Vietnamese pilots knew how vulnerable the heavy Republic F-105 “Thuds” were, and the aircraft became sitting ducks for the MiGs on a regular basis. Robin Olds, commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, based at Ubon, Thailand, came up with a plan to deal with that threat. If fliers took the more maneuverable F-4s on the same routes frequented by the Thuds, he postulated, they might have a chance to get back at the North Vietnamese.
Raspberry had mastered an outside roll that gave him a tactical advantage in air-to-air combat against the MiGs, and he briefed more than 60 pilots on his maneuver. It enabled pilots to roll away from a pursuing enemy aircraft and finish on the pursuer’s tail—in the 6 o’clock missile-firing position. Raspberry made certain that his pilots practiced the maneuver regularly.
On January 2, 1967, Raspberry and his group took off toward the North Vietnamese air base at Phuc Yen, following the same refueling tracks used by the Thuds and using the same radio frequencies and language of the Thud pilots. Employing what had been dubbed the “Raspberry Roll,” the Americans downed seven or perhaps more MiG-21s that day—an amazing success. “Razz” had learned the effective tactic from an instructor at Nellis Fighter Weapons School, where he had trained: John Boyd.
Many who knew him thought John Richard Boyd arrogant, outspoken, profane and crude. He was rarely averse to criticizing superior officers and telling them exactly what he thought of them. Like an earthquake, he rattled and shook those he dealt with in the Air Force, the Pentagon and the Marine Corps. He often left destruction in his wake, and he frequently paid the price for it. But despite Boyd’s many failings, his contributions to combat flying and military maneuvers were innovative and practical. Boyd was a mover and shaker, but he was also a thinker.
Born in 1927 in Erie, Pa., Boyd became fascinated with flight early in his life and joined the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1945 at 18. World War II was rapidly coming to a close at that juncture, and Boyd spent 12 uneventful months in Japan before he was discharged in 1947.
He entered the University of Iowa to study economics but decided he was more interested in competitive swimming. As a junior he met Mary Bruce, and a romance soon ensued. In 1950 when the Korean War started, Boyd chose to reenlist. He graduated from Iowa in June 1951, shortly after he and Mary were married. As he had spent time in the university’s Reserve Officer Training Corps, Boyd was quickly commissioned a second lieutenant. He went through training in Mississippi and Arizona, after which he was assigned to Nellis Air Force Base in Arizona to train in the sleek, menacing North American F-86 Sabre, which was capable of speeds up to 675 mph.
Nellis, some pilots claimed, was so tough that if you survived it, “Korea would be easy!” At Nellis pilots simulated combat by fighting for strategic positions in aerial maneuvers. There were many accidents, heralded by wailing sirens. The wives living on and near the base knew that meant an aircraft was down, and they trembled. It was rumored that at least 70 pilots died in a single year in accidents at Nellis.
Boyd was one of the lucky ones who survived the training. On March 27, 1953, he found himself in Korea, where he completed many missions and logged numerous combat hours. Not until June of that year—just weeks before the war ended—was he credited with damaging a MiG-15. In the course of his missions, Boyd was beginning to formulate his own aerial tactics. He even gave classes for other fliers.
When the war ended, he was ordered back to Nellis, where he began training to become a flight instructor. He was soon accepted as a student at the Fighter Weapons School, where he learned to train instructors in advanced aerial combat techniques. When he finished the course, Boyd was assigned to stay on as an instructor.
Not content merely to follow the established curriculum, he taught himself calculus at night and learned to work out complex equations related to a fighter plane’s drag and vectors. His studies proved highly valuable when it came to the F-100 Super Sabre, nicknamed the “Hun” (short for hundred). Built by North American, the F-100 was the first operational jet that could reach the speed of sound in level flight. But many fliers deemed it unforgiving. It was said that one-fourth of all Huns were lost in accidents.
The Super Sabre required constant attention and could quickly go out of control. In addition, it was susceptible to frequent mechanical problems. But to Boyd the Hun was a new challenge. He came to believe that students who learned to control the temperamental F-100 could deal with virtually any plane.
Boyd analyzed the aircraft’s flight characteristics and explained to his students exactly how to deal with the peculiarities of the F-100. He soon earned the nickname “40-second Boyd” because of a standing offer he made to all his students: He claimed if he was being tailed he could reverse positions in just 40 seconds and end up positioned behind his student, at 6 o’clock ready to fire. He did so by defying virtually every traditional rule of flying—but he always succeeded. His unconventional maneuvers, many of which he taught his students, became standard tactics for Hun pilots. The number of F-100 crashes soon diminished, and Boyd gained a reputation as one of the best jet pilots in the Air Force.
In 1959 Boyd decided to go back to college, but before he left Nellis he felt he had developed some valuable insights about combat flying that should be written down. Since he couldn’t get time off from his teaching duties, Boyd used a dictation machine and worked night after night, often into the wee hours of the morning, to document his views. He eventually completed a 150-page manual that he called The Aerial Attack Study.
When the colonel in charge refused to use it—preferring to stick with the official manual—Boyd took a major risk and went over his superior’s head, sending his manual to a friend at Tactical Air Command headquarters. After evaluating his work, headquarters decided that Boyd’s was superior. The colonel was furious at first, but he eventually realized the value of what Boyd had written.
The new manual explained with great clarity many of the ideas Boyd had learned from his own experience. He demonstrated clearly how, in jet combat, pilots had to be aware of enemy planes’ positions and energy state. He explained how to counter an enemy’s maneuvers and how to employ counter-countermeasures. He even described how to outmaneuver an enemy missile.
Copies of Boyd’s manual were quickly snapped up by pilots, who realized what Boyd had achieved. As a result of his work, he received the Air Force Legion of Merit. More important to him, as years passed his tactical manual came to be used by air forces all over the world.
The 33-year-old instructor had clearly achieved a major breakthrough. But Boyd was beginning to annoy his superiors. He constantly ignored protocol, worked on his own and formulated his original theories—which were often at odds with those of the Air Force bureaucracy.
Although Boyd made a host of enemies, he also attracted followers who recognized the value of his original ideas. Gradually he developed a group of acolytes who worked with him to develop and promote his theories. One of these was a civilian, Thomas Christie— nicknamed “the finagler” for his ability to work around the system. A mathematician, Christie was assigned in 1962 to the Ballistics Division of the Air Force Armament Center at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. When he met Boyd, the two became fast friends. Once Christie explained to Boyd how to use a computer to analyze aircraft performance data, Boyd realized that the soft-spoken civilian could be a valuable ally.
At first using a small Wang computer, later stealing computer time from the Air Force, Christie and Boyd began working on a concept called EMT—the energy maneuverability theory. Simply stated, EMT is a formula for determining the specific energy rate of any aircraft. It enables fliers to determine exactly how maneuverable their aircraft are, how their planes compare to those of the enemy and— most important—the potential effectiveness of planes still on the drawing board.
Word eventually leaked out about Boyd’s unauthorized use of Air Force computers, resulting in a formal investigation by the inspector general. The stakes were high. If Boyd was found guilty, he could have faced a prison sentence and been forced to repay more than a million dollars in computer time. He might also have been forced to resign from the military, with the loss of all benefits. But the investigation totally exonerated Boyd, who was complimented on the value of his EMT theory and its benefits to the Air Force.
Using their theory, Christie and Boyd managed to prove conclusively that the Soviet MiG-21 was superior to the General Dynamics F-111 in combat—a shattering revelation to most of the Air Force brass. Boyd was ordered to present his theory to General Walter Sweeney, the head of Tactical Air Command, and was told by the general’s aides that he would have just 20 minutes to do so. As it happened, his presentation went on for almost an entire day. He explained his findings and deftly fielded every question and criticism. Sweeney was so impressed that he had Boyd brief the secretary of the Air Force, the president’s Scientific Advisory Board and many other high-level officials.
Another of Boyd’s adherents was a brilliant thinker, Pierre Sprey, who had entered Yale at the age of 15, studied both mechanical engineering and French literature, then gone on to Cornell, to specialize in statistics. Sprey wanted to design aircraft, and his meeting with Boyd led to an immediate bond. Sprey, Boyd quickly realized, could help him to put his EMT theory to practical use in designing a superior fighter.
In 1966 the Air Force was having major trouble with the design of the aircraft that would ultimately be produced by McDonnell-Douglas as the F-15 Eagle, a dedicated air superiority fighter. Boyd, then a major, was ordered to report to the Pentagon to give his input. It was to be a major challenge for him: attempting to analyze the plane’s problems as well as confronting the Pentagon’s massive bureaucratic superstructure.
Boyd discovered many problems in the F-15’s design, but he had to fight to be allowed any input into the plane’s development. He wanted guns instead of missiles, arguing that missiles needed too much distance to be accurate and were not as effective as guns. He also wanted the plane to be lighter, to improve its maneuverability. His envisioned optimum weight was about 35,000 pounds, not the massive 62,500-pound leviathan originally planned. Boyd would lose all his battles—all, that is, except for one. He had insisted that the new aircraft should have fixed wings, and the F-15 was ultimately produced with a fixed wing.
Disgusted at his struggles with the Pentagon’s entrenched interests, Boyd was then on the verge of leaving the Air Force, but he kept putting off his official retirement date. Instead, he would use his expertise and the skills and resources of his acolytes to develop—in secret—a brand new lightweight fighter, work to get a prototype built and then try to force the powers-that-be to accept the design.
While he was at the Pentagon, Boyd had attracted another follower, Ray Leopold. An Air Force captain with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, Leopold had been assigned to work with Boyd when he complained that his office was filled with nothing but bureaucrats. Leopold was the first to receive Boyd’s famous “to be or to do” speech—a speech he would deliver often. In essence, he told his acolytes they had a choice in their careers. They could choose “to be,” get along and get promoted without rocking the boat. Or they could choose “to do,” and risk losing promotions as well as potentially angering their superiors. But those who chose “to do” would not have to compromise their principles and might very well make a positive difference. It was a doctrine that, in many respects, exemplified John Boyd’s own life and career.
Boyd was convinced that the planned B-1 bomber, which the Pentagon was then touting, was far over budget and was sapping money needed for the kind of lightweight aircraft he was championing. He had Leopold do a financial analysis, which showed Boyd was right. Despite being opposed by most of the top brass in the new venture, Boyd found an ally in Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger. When one two-star general began to give Boyd some strong opposition, Boyd used his clout to get the two-star removed. Gleefully Boyd bragged, “I just fired a general!”
Despite some support from his ideas, Boyd received an order from a superior to write a paper in support of the B-1 bomber, the official Air Force position. He reluctantly agreed, but said he would also include another paper outlining all the bomber’s deficiencies and refuting his first paper. His superior backed down. The B-1 project, which had grown in cost from $25 million per plane to more than $100 million, was at least temporarily shelved.
The aircraft Boyd and his group secretly designed was eventually approved for production as the General Dynamics F-16. However, the Air Force kept adding electronics to the design, and the result was far different—and much less maneuverable—than Boyd’s initial concept. Once again frustrated by officialdom, he decided he had had enough. On August 31, 1975, Colonel John Boyd officially retired from the military. But his influence was far from finished.
Boyd then began concentrating his efforts on a paper that had been evolving for years. Called “Patterns of Conflict,” it constituted an analysis of military tactics and strategy through the centuries. Stressing that an army must move at a quicker tempo to disorient its enemy, the paper soon turned into a marathon six-hour briefing that its author would deliver to gatherings of military personnel hundreds of times.
His theories had evolved from a broad reading of the works of military strategists throughout history. Incorporating a multitude of theories on the art of war, from Sun Tzu—a Chinese tactician whose work dated back to 400 BC—through the ideas of Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Genghis Khan, Napoleon Bonaparte and Carl von Clausewitz, Boyd worked and reworked his ideas about military tactics.
Working with him was Franklin Spinney, a brash Air Force captain who had met Boyd at the Pentagon. Spinney ended up staying with Boyd longer than any of his other devotees. The foundation they eventually developed resulted in a theory called the OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) loop.
The presentation they created started out by covering many aspects of warfare and then focused on Boyd’s own theories. Boyd characterized this approach as a method of “unraveling the competition.” His briefing became especially popular with the Marine Corps, and he was constantly in demand to present it to Marine officers. As a result, many of his theories and tactics would eventually be put into practice in the Persian Gulf War and prove to be as effective as he had predicted.
Boyd’s following continued to grow. Air Force Lt. Col. James Burton, a graduate of the Air Force Academy, had been assigned to work with Boyd at the Pentagon. Burton, who analyzed problems with the Bradley fighting vehicle, would gain major media attention that resulted in more efficient testing and ultimately numerous improvements in the vehicle’s design.
Several of Boyd’s other adherents wrote articles criticizing the waste in military procurement and weapons systems development—articles that sometimes resulted in major congressional investigations into the vast sums being spent on new, sophisticated weaponry. From Boyd’s acolytes’ point of view, the Pentagon’s sole function was hardly defense; it was merely a bureaucracy created to get Congress to fund expensive weapons systems—systems that often performed poorly when tested, and whose price tags kept escalating at alarming rates.
On April 22, 1991, Boyd—now a civilian—testified before the House Armed Services Committee at a hearing to discuss the efficiency of high-technology equipment used in Operation Desert Storm. Boyd first spoke with great eloquence on the topic at hand— but then he turned his testimony to what was happening to one of his new disciples. He told the committee about Colonel Mike Wyly, a Marine eager to promote Boyd’s maneuverability theories, who had become frustrated by his superiors and had been forced to resign his commission.
Boyd told the committee that ideas like Wyly’s were needed, and that unless new concepts were supported, the Marine Corps would be run by dinosaurs. His presentation clearly impressed the committee members, but it is doubtful if any real results came from his appearance before the congressmen.
Time and his seemingly unending struggle against red tape were beginning to take their toll on Boyd. He was slowing down. Then, at age 70, he was diagnosed with cancer. On March 9, 1997, his struggles came to a close in West Palm Beach, Fla.
At John Boyd’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, representatives of the Air Force were noticeably absent. But the Marine Corps was well represented. His devotees were of course present in force, and they spoke emotionally of his many achievements. They pointed out that Boyd’s contributions to fighter aviation may well exceed those of any other individual. To him should go much of the credit for a tactical, maneuverable Air Force. Despite opposition, he made substantial contributions to the development of the F-15, the F-16 and the Navy and Marine Corps McDonnell-Douglas F/A-18. His EMT theory had influenced the planning and design of aircraft as well as proving to be an efficient method of analyzing the potential of enemy planes.
After his death, Boyd’s acolytes continued to promote and spread his gospel to future fliers. They have also continued to blow the whistle on waste in military spending. On September 17, 1999, at Nellis Air Force Base, Boyd Hall was dedicated. It is a small building that commemorates the life of John Boyd.
Many consider Boyd’s theories on warfare a major contribution to the U.S. victory in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Twice a year, the Marine Corps reportedly still has what’s billed as a “Boyd Symposium,” to discuss the works of Colonel John Boyd.
John Richard Boyd was criticized and demonized by many, and his theories were often ignored or laughed at during his lifetime. Yet his contributions to military aviation and warfare theory are impossible to ignore. Today’s young pilots may be unaware of his name or his work, but the legacy of Colonel John Boyd continues to resonate on the ground as well as in the sky.
Gerald A. Schiller is the author of seven books and a variety of magazine and newspaper articles. For additional reading, try: Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, by Robert Coram.
Originally published in the November 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.