Call-Sign KLUSO: An American Fighter Pilot in Mr. Reagan’s Air Force

  • Published

Call-Sign KLUSO: An American Fighter Pilot in Mr. Reagan’s Air Force by Rick Tollini. Casemate Publishers, 2021, 183 pp. 

It’s been just over 30 years since US Air Force Captain Rick “Kluso” Tollini shot down an Iraqi MiG-25 Foxbat during Operation Desert Storm. His “kill,” along with those of other pilots during Desert Storm, was one of the last US air-to-air victories and is, by definition, historic. But that historic, if relatively brief, encounter is not the only subject of his fine book. Tollini, now a contract instructor pilot in the F-15 Mission Training Center flight simulators at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, wrote this book as an exercise in self-reflection and as a memoir of his life and Air Force career.

Born in the mid-1950s, Tollini spent his youth in Stockton, California, where he experienced what might be considered a typical middle-class upbringing of the 1960s and 1970s. Taught to fly by his father, Tollini had decided upon a career as an airline pilot. After college, he worked at several jobs, including a flight school instructor, hoping to build up his flying time to enable him to have a chance at an airline job. Throughout his narrative, Tollini cites seemingly random and minor events that shaped the course of his life. A brief, chance meeting with a friend at a New Year’s Eve party in 1981 resulted in his decision to join the Air Force rather than continue the pursuit of a job with the airlines.

Tollini covers his experiences in training and as an operational F-15 Eagle pilot in Okinawa and Florida. He vividly describes the rigors of becoming qualified and then proficient in the demanding fighter aircraft. Upon reaching the chapters covering Operation Desert Storm, the reader may have a hard time putting the book down. Tollini first discusses his initial deployment in the summer of 1990 and how he developed his unit’s plan to execute their portion of the air tasking order. In this regard, his creativity and hard work paid dividends during the first days of the war. Tollini’s narration of his combat missions is exciting; his descriptions, including helpful “translations” for nonfighter pilots, virtually put the reader in the cockpit. His description of his “kill” mission is thrilling from takeoff to landing. After covering several combat missions in detail, Tollini reports on his return to the United States just before the ground war began.

After several postwar assignments, which include being an Air Command and Staff College student, operations officer, and staff officer, Tollini achieved command of the 18th Operations Support Squadron at Kadena. Although not commanding a flying unit, Tollini appreciated the opportunity to lead the squadron. At this time, Tollini struggled with his decision to retire or remain in the Air Force. His statement about that decision will resonate with many retired Air Force members:

The decision to leave is different for everybody, and it’s never because of any one thing in particular. It tends to happen when the balance of the pros versus the cons starts to weigh increasingly to the “leave” side of the scales. The love of the profession becomes tarnished with the influences that are increasingly negative, and I had my share of all of those [p. 169].

Although Tollini had converted to Buddhism upon his marriage to Sako, a native of Japan, he had never seriously practiced it until about this time.

After his decision to retire from the Air Force, Tollini turned down an assignment to Air War College. This, of course, is the kiss of death for an Air Force officer’s career, and it was no different for Tollini. Relieved of his squadron command, he was also told to stay away from the fighter squadrons because he would be “a negative influence on the young fighter pilots” (p. 172). After retirement, Tollini’s deep Buddhist faith helped him to learn about himself and his journey. He grew to believe in the interconnectedness of all things. Tollini is not a pacifist; according to him, “one of the most noble paths a person can take is to serve in the duty to one’s sovereign country and make a selfless sacrifice for society as a whole” (p. 174). Thus did he become an F-15 simulator instructor, teaching young pilots to improve their flying skills. (As an aside, his desire to find out about the Iraqi who piloted the Foxbat he shot down was eventually satisfied.)

The reference in the book’s title to President Ronald Reagan is reflective of the author’s belief that the Desert Storm-era Air Force was largely the product of the post-Vietnam restructuring of the US military, and Reagan’s focus on “undermining the Soviet Union” (p. 153). After Desert Storm, Tollini saw the erosion of the combat potential of the Air Force due largely to an increasing dependence on technology. Another problem, according to the author, was poor manpower management in the years following Desert Storm. The “total devastation of the mid-level NCO [non-commissioned officer] core [sic] in most of the essential Air Force technical skill levels” (p. 153), coupled with poor management of the rated officer career fields, had the effect of decreasing the overall experience level of the force. Tinkering with pilot manning numbers exacerbated the problem and resulted in a “slow and almost imperceptible deterioration of air superiority expertise. . .” (p. 155). All this, in turn, drove a method-based approach to problems instead of a problem-based approach; basically, Tollini believes flexibility suffered as a result. Although Tollini’s assertions about this reliance on technology rather than tactics are open to debate, his observations cannot be ignored; current and future leaders will have to address these types of concerns.

Tollini writes in a conversational manner with plenty of capitalized words for emphasis, exclamation points, and ellipses. The result is an easy read that will appeal to those who want to learn what it was like to fly the F-15 in combat and to those who are interested in Operation Desert Storm. Veterans of that operation, especially those who flew combat missions, will greatly enjoy this book.

Maj Peter L. Belmonte, USAF, Retired

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