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A Complete History of U.S. Combat Aircraft Fly-Off Competitions: Winners, Losers, and What Might Have Been

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A Complete History of U.S. Combat Aircraft Fly-Off Competitions: Winners, Losers, and What Might Have Been by Erik Simonsen. Specialty Press, 2016, 228 pp.


What is better than a fly-off? The premise of two new designs, fully formed and performing to their utmost, all in the hopes of big procurement contracts, is behind aviation historian and photographer Erik Simonsen’s A Complete History of U.S. Combat Aircraft Fly-Off Competitions. The author reviews 10 post-World War II competitions, providing details of each plane, the goal of the competition, and the long-term consequences of the decision.

The technological developments in America, but especially Germany, are used to set the stage for the vast expansion of aircraft development after the war. From there, Simonsen evaluates the 10 postwar competitions, starting with the B-45 Tornado versus the B-47 Stratojet medium-bomber competition, on through the Vietnam era with the F8U-3 Crusader III versus the F4H-1 Phantom II, and finally to the present-day Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) competition. In all, he provides a thorough review of the subject as it evolved through the last half-century.

Simonson gives each aircraft its due, describing its origins, evolution, and winning or losing traits. It is easy to see why the winners triumphed and the losers were scrapped, although in a few cases he makes a strong case for the loser as a better airplane if not the better choice. Take for example the F-105 Thunderchief against the F-107A. The F-107A was the more sophisticated and daring design evolution, but not the politically correct choice for an Air Force needing a multirole fighter-bomber to justify the cost. Simonson laments the demise of the faster and more innovative F-107A in the way any true aviation enthusiast does—like the loss of what might have been.

It is in this quest for what might have been that the book strikes its real gold. Using a technique he developed, Simonsen integrates 3D models, actual aircraft, and aerial photographs to give the reader images of what the losing aircraft would have looked like operationally. These pictures run the spectrum from the mundane operational scenarios—like the Convair YB-60 in Southeast Asia camouflage headed to targets in Vietnam—to renderings of what the Boeing X-32 JSF would have looked like in its production configuration. These images open a world of possibilities by putting into tangible terms the planes that never were and giving context to the missions they would have performed. He also includes pictures of proposed derivatives of each aircraft that were offered by manufacturers but failed to find a market. The one criticism of the technique is its overuse on planes that were placed into production. The author is credited with embellishing the color and background of many pictures in the book, projecting the production aircraft with the same fanciful image that its ghostly competitors deserve.

An important aspect of this book is the scope it covers, dealing with the entire postwar procurement period. To see how the decision-making process has changed, yet stayed the same, gives the reader a better understanding of why we have the airplanes we do. The changes in technology in the postwar period, notably the jet engine and swept wings, drove requirements for capabilities and design. The B-47 won the medium-bomber competition hands down because of its swept wings making it faster than its competitors. Likewise, the use of these new design concepts from the get-go made the B-52 the obvious choice over the YB-60, which had the features added to the ungainly B-36 fuselage. Often, though, a healthy dose of political maneuvering and salesmanship were required to sell a plane. The YF-105 could call itself a bomber when money was available for a bomber, and Lockheed presented the X-35 as a member of the services before the competition ended, making the plane appear as the customer and the public wanted it to be.

The politics of the decisions creates the book’s one major shortcoming—editorializing. The more recent competitions elicit some strong opinions from the author, who is obviously no fan of the F-35. Whether it be the idea that the A-10 Thunderbolt II could be replaced by the JSF, or the reduction in F-22 Raptor production to accommodate the newer plane’s cost-overruns, Simonson does not miss a chance to lament the JSF’s shortcomings and impacts on the military services. The criticism even stretches to editorializing on executive administration policy decisions as they impact the use of these aircraft. I suppose it is not surprising that a politically-driven subject would elicit strong opinions, but they should be kept out of an objective history. Too many readers today will be turned off by the political content they disagree with and ignore the interesting and valuable information the book provides.

Overall, this is an enjoyable book that consolidates into one place all the snippets of information on the planes that never were and then puts them in context. It is a must for any aviation enthusiast’s bookshelf and a good read for those in the aviation industry. For 70 years, there have been fly-off competitions, and in a cost-conscious world there is no reason to believe those head-to-head showdowns will stop, so grab your helmet bag and enjoy this ride.


Daniel Schwabe
Whittier, California

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.

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