Wednesday, August 12, 2009


A defense contractor once sent its top aircraft designer to meet with Boyd during early planning for what would become the F-16. The man brought aerodynamic estimates for a plane that Boyd quickly recognized as bogus.

Boyd studied the figures, leaned over the charts and said, "I can extrapolate this thing back to where the wing has zero lift. Wow. This airplane is so good that not only does it have zero lift, it has negative drag. . . . If this thing has negative drag, that means it has thrust without turning on the engines. That means when it is on the ramp with all that thrust, even with the engine turned off, you got to tie the . . . thing down or it will take off by itself.''

Boyd ended the conversation: The "airplane is made out of balonium.''

Below from

The USAF expects its mid-level officers to have an advanced degree, but when the education assignment came to Capt. Boyd, he opted instead for another undergraduate degree, in industrial engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. It was in Atlanta, as a 35-year-old captain and father of five (the eldest, like Boyd's sister, had been crippled by polio), that he was asked what a fighter pilot did. The questioner was Charles Cooper, a student in aeronautical engineering, little more than half Boyd's age. They were classmates in thermodynamics, so Boyd explained that just as mechanical energy could be transformed into electrical energy - by a generator - so could a pilot transform higher altitude into greater speed, or either one into maneuverability.

'Then it hit me, Jesus Christ, wait a minute! I can look at air-to-air combat in terms of energy relationships. I can lay out equations. I can do it formally now.' He spent the rest of the night laying out the equations, and when he was done he had the basis for would become known as Energy Maneuverability, or E-M.

During the Korean War, as suggested by one of the E-M charts created by Boyd at Eglin Air Force Base, the American F-86 was outclassed in almost every respect by its adversary, the Russian-built MiG-15. Nevertheless the F-86 was credited with a 10-1 victory ratio in air-to-air combat, an anomaly that Boyd would explain through his formulation of the OODA Loop.

When he took up his assignment at the Pentagon, Boyd soon determined that the Air Force was about to commit many millions of dollars to the design of a fighter aircraft that his E-M calculations showed would be `overweight and underwinged, too complex, and far too expensive'.20 With his acolytes - who were mostly civilian employees -he sweated the behemoth down to a plane whose empty weight was less than half what the Pentagon had intended.

`Boyd's E-M theory', writes Jarmo Lindbergh, `made it possible for the first time in fighter design history to analyze the whole maneuvering envelope of a fighter still in design and even prior to the first flight of the prototype.' Taken into service as the F-15 Eagle, the new fighter would serve as America's air superiority weapon for more than thirty years.

Boyd's group, by now called the Fighter Mafia, followed up with an even lighter and cheaper plane, the F-16 `Fighting Falcon'. Edward Luttwak has complained that scientists and engineers seldom support the development of `diverse second-best equipment', even though that may the best policy.

The light and comparatively cheap F-16 was just such an acquisition. (`Cheap', of course, is a relative concept, especially when it comes to Pentagon procure. The F-16 cost $10 million per copy.) It proved an ideal all-purpose fighter bomber, and by 2008--35 years after its debut--it served in the inventory of twenty-five air forces around the world. Among its admirers was the Dutch scholar-pilot Frans Osinga, who would write the definitive study of Boyd's intellectual journey. Colonel Osinga remembers the plane as `wonderfully agile. I was first trained as an F-5 pilot and the transition to the F-16 was just mindblowing.'

Unique to the aircraft was a thrust-to-weight ratio so great that its pilot could `dump' speed in an increasingly tight turn, thus forcing a pursuer to shoot past him; then he could accelerate so quickly that the F-16 was now the attacker. This trick became known as the `buttonhook turn', and the F-16 as `the most maneuverable fighter ever designed'


  1. Judging by your lead photo, methinks STORMBRINGER recently has been perusing Robert Coram's "BOYD, The Fighter Pilot Who Changed The Art Of War". Great book innit? I got that one a while back. Was one of those books that was hard to put down and will stay as part of the permanent bookshelf and only loaned to trusted people who will return it unmolested or tattered. Boyd was a Sharp Fellow. Coram did a nice job on the history/bio.


  2. I read about this guy. If one considers the fall of the USSR to be the result of a policy of military strength, then Col. Boyd is an integral figure in that complex mechanism (yeah, I am both long winded and tired).
    But the book is on my wish list.

  3. Great stuff, SL- thanks for bringing this to the blogosphere!