Maj. Gen. Frederick “Boots” Blesse (Part II): “No Guts, No Glory”
Major General Frederick “Boots” Blesse served two tours as a fighter pilot during the Korean War, flying the P-51, the F-80, and the F-86. When he returned to the United States in October of 1952, he was America’s leading jet ace, and was credited with shooting down nine MiG-15s and one La-9.
Blesse’s motto and doctrine, “No Guts, No Glory” became famous after he returned from his second tour in Korea. He was asked to travel throughout the Air Force to teach it, and he eventually authored the textbook, “No Guts, No Glory”, that became a part of standard Air Force curriculum for years to come.
In this episode, the second of a three part series, Blesse tells the whole story behind “No Guts, No Glory”, and explains how dogfighting has changed over the years.
I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Last episode, we heard Major General Frederick “Boots” Blesse describe his 2nd tour in Korea, a couple of intense dogfights, and becoming a flying Ace. In this episode, the second of a three part series, Blesse tells the full story behind his motto, “No Guts, No Glory,” how it became Air Force doctrine, and he explains how dogfighting has changed over the years.
American Training and Experience
Frederick Corbin "Boots" Blesse:
The main feature that gave us a 10 to 1 kill ratio was training. Training and experience. When I went over there, I had almost 400 hours in the F-86. When the guys went to Europe in 1940... Well, 1941 or 2. Along there. Early 42. The guys went over there and went into combat with less than 100 hours. That's a big difference.
The main thing was we had a bunch of fighter pilots that were very highly experienced and we had a good airplane and we were taught ahead of time, by our intelligence people, what the MiG could do in relation to what we could do and we were taught don't try to turn with him at low or medium altitudes and especially not at high altitudes. Don't try to climb away from him. He was going to get you at low or high altitudes, either one. We had a clear view, a pretty clear picture, of what we should and should not do against the MiG. That coupled with hours and hours and hours of dog fighting in the US... I fought against P-51s, I fought against every other kind of fighter you can imagine. We did it because, down in our heart somewhere, we thought the time is going to come when I can use all this. Most cases, as that thing demonstrated over there, it doesn't happen, but it did happen to me. By the time I got over there, I had a world of experience. I had wanted to do it since I was eight years old and I couldn't wait.
The MiG pilots were poorly trained. That was something that struck me as very odd. When I went back to the states... I was a leading ace when I went back and of course I had to go back to the Pentagon for debriefings, and I got debriefed by the intelligence people. They told me that I never flew against anybody but a Russian pilot. That during the time I was there, from about the 1st of March of '52, until I came home in October of '52, they were all Russian pilots and I thought back and thought, God, of all the stupid things that I saw people do, I can't believe that... Well, I guess they were just new Russian pilots. You would've thought they were North Koreans or Chinese that only had 10 hours in the airplane or something like that, you know? They just did a lot of crazy things that indicated very poor training.
Poor Kill Rate at the Beginning of the War
There was a good reason for the poor kill rate we had at the beginning of the war, and that was that we didn't go up every day and find a whole bunch of MiGs up there. In my group, I never- very, very seldom ever saw an enemy airplane because I was in an air to ground outfit. We were full of bombs. We went up there and we were dive bombing Hanoi and these other places and it was Old's outfit that had the air to air mission and they would come in and do air cover for us. There were MiGs, but they weren't very many. The MiGs that they saw primarily was the MiG-21 at this time, and the MiG-21 had what they call an Atoll missile. It was a heat seeker. That thing would come in going like hell, fire one missile and then climb up and go home and he'd get a kill and there was no way to chase him, there wasn't any way... The fighter bombers were all full of bombs and stuff. They're not going to chase anybody. Unless somebody saw him positioning himself and got behind him, you're never going to get a kill. So, hit and run tactics by the MiG-21s, in my opinion, were what kept that kill ratio like that.
Difference Between Reciprocal and Jet Engines
The primary difference when we went from reciprocal engines to jet engines was speed. Were two things, really. Speed and fuel. Those were the two things you had to think about. You never had enough fuel. You go off in a P-47, you could fly a P-47N for seven and a half hours, but you go off in a P-80 that came in to replace that, that our squadron was picking up, and without drop tanks, you had about a 35 minute flight. That was it. And then they put wing tanks on it and with the wing tanks we'd get about an hour and a half. You could go a long way. Probably go almost as far away and hit something and come back because you're going at such a big speed but you really had to be careful about fuel control, and in the early F-80s it had an engine driven fuel pump, the electric fuel pump, that you had to be careful of. The time I flew them, there was no auxiliary. There was no extra pump. I flew the 80 fairly early. Way back in 56. It took a lot longer run on the runway for one thing and then after you got it airborne, it seemed like you were going like hell. I was impressed before I got to the end of the runway, or to the end of the field, how fast I was going already. In the jug you'd have been chugging along there at about 100, 110 miles an hour and this thing was already up to damn near 200, you know? 195 miles an hour.
I was impressed mostly by the speed and I had been taught and briefed carefully that speed is okay, but fuel is more important and you watch what you're doing with your fuel all the time. That fuel pump that I mentioned a little while ago, they didn't have it on the early airplanes and there were a number of guys killed with it because it failed on takeoff or something like that, and in fact, they had already killed quite a few people because of the fuel pump failure on takeoff. Richard Bong, who was the highest ranking ace of our history, was killed in an F-80 because he forgot to pull that thing on and the fuel pumpHe forgot to turn on the extra one. There were two that went on, and if one failed and you turned this other switch on... You turned it on, made your take off and then turned it off after you got out of the traffic pattern, and that killed him.
No Guts No Glory
I think that the beginning of No Guts, No Glory came when I took over operations to the 334th Squadron. George Davis was a great pilot and he got the Medal of Honor, and what else can you say about a guy? But the truth of the matter was, when I got there, the guys were flying very wide formations. You couldn't tell what, really, they were going to do when you had to turn into him or something like that. There was no doctrine. There was no little book you could go to and say, "This is the way we do it." And that's why I got the flight commanders together and I flew with them and showed them the error of their ways, and I let them fly wherever they wanted to and proved to them that they couldn't do it, couldn't stay there in a dog fight. And when they realized they had to get in here about close enough to see the numbers on the tail, that's when they knew they could get there, that they could stay there, no matter what I did. And that was the beginning of it.
And then we had a lot of things that we developed over there. I had the, if the guys didn't get a fight, I told them, I said, "A golf pro, you said, 'You guys come in here and you see MIGs about four or five times in 100 missions,' and think you're a qualified air-to-air pilot? You haven't even begun to learn yet in five missions. You're just barely over the time where you don't get scared." And I said, "That is just not going to cut it. It's just, you'd be like a professional golfer who didn't practice for a month before he went out and played in the master's tournament. And he's only playing for money. You guys are playing for your lives. And we're not going to do that anymore. You're going to have three fights a week and I don't care if you get them with the MIGs or whether you have to do them by yourself. But toward the end of the week, if you've had one fight with the MIG and that's all, you'd better plan, your flight commanders are going to plan for you to come back 10 minutes early and you'll do a dog fight, two against two around the field, and then you'll come in and land. That's the way you get experience."
And oh, that went over like an iron balloon, but... it was, it got better when I got my first two kills. And then on the 6th of August of 1952, we went up, we went up into MIG Alley and we had, I think, 12 aircraft in our squadron, there were 12 from the other two squadrons, and the MIGs were everywhere. With the guys, the famous saying was "There were wall-to-wall MIGS," and they were there. Somebody said, "You're going to have to go get them," and I don't know who it was, because we never had experienced that before.
And by this time, these things that I'd to had laid down in my squadron and had them doing, that was back in April. And they'd been doing April, May, June, July, they'd been doing this, they're fighting three times a week and never hardly ever seeing the MIGs. I think by the time the sixth of August came, I had my third one, but hardly anybody else we had three or four other guys maybe had a sporadic killer. None of them, nobody in any of the squadrons was getting them.
The 6th, they were all up there. And we got into a fight, I think I got one that afternoon and a damage. We had two other guys in my squadron that got, that each got kills. We came back with three kills, of probable, a couple of damages, not a single wing man got lost, his leader, and everything was fine. We came back, we had a big debriefing.
It totally transformed the thinking of the fighter pilots in that squadron. There was never a mention after that time of having to come back and do a dog fight or having to do this or having-, they all just got in line and said, "Show me the way this works, and that's the way we're going to do it."
And we got, I think we had, I'm going to guess right now, but we had 11 kills, I think in August, in September we had 17 and I left the 3rd of October.
I got, I jumped out on the third and I think, then I went over to Tokyo for a press conference on the fourth and fifth. And I think the 6th of October, which was the day my mother died in 1930, I left the theater and went back to the States.
But anyway, I think the overall basis in the thinking for No Guts, No Glory, came out of that experience that we had in the squadron. We went back, they sent me back to Dallas Air Force base, which was the training command base, and we were training all the fighter pilots that went to Korea, six squadrons there. And I got there and we set up our own training, and I've set it up all around No Guts, No Glory.
After about three months, we're sending guys out there with the training that we're giving them, the other five squadrons, still flying out here, telling them a bunch of things that don't work and all that. And I didn't want to go to five different squadron commanders and try to convince them. I went up to Colonel Tice, no, it wasn't Tice, he had gone by then. I'll think of his name in a minute.
But I went to him, he was a group commander. And I just said, "I need to talk to you about something. I'm going to leave you with an idea, and sir, you do whatever you want with it. And if you don't like it, if you don't think it's a good idea, I promise you I won't bring it up again." And so I laid it all out and said, "This is the way we're, this is what we're doing in our squadron. This is the success we're having now, this is the success we had with this same idea in Korea. And I think we ought to be all doing the same program and not one squadron teaching one thing and another squadron teaching something else." And about a day later, I got a phone call to come up to the group option, I came up there and he said, "I've gone all over this thing," and he said, "You're dead right, and we're going to do it, and we're going to do it throughout the group." And he said, "What's more, I called crew training Air Force and talked to them about it, and they want you to go to Williams Air Force Base and pass this same program off to the people at Williams and also the people at Luke.” We had three training bases at that time.
So that way we got all the information, still hadn't written anything yet. We got all the information. Then that, some of that information got into the Fighter Weapons Newsletter. And as a result of that, they were talking about tactics, and talking about my squadron, and what we had done and that sort of thing. And the next thing we knew, we had requests from fighter squadrons in the Air Force to come out over the weekend.
And by the way, I had established a little tactical team, four of us in my squadron, and we flew against other people in our own squadron. And then later on these guys that wanted to come in from other squadrons, people from Maine, people from Florida, people from Kansas, wherever there was an outfit, they'd send a flight of the best guys that they had and then they'd send them out, and we'd fly with them. So after that happened a couple times, we'd brought them in and I'd brief them and tell them, "You can't do this. Your wingmen are too far away, this is not going to work right. You did do this right, this was good. But the rest of it's not good, and here's what you need to work on." And they thanked us profusely and went back home.
So after about the second or third squadron, I got tired of telling everybody the same things and I've sat down and I wrote about three or four pages that encompassed most of the things that we were going to cover with these guys. And the next thing, I got requests from the Navy and Marine squadrons to come in. And we were really doing, though the weekends, I hardly had a weekend. Every weekend, somebody had a tactics team from their own squadron that they wanted to come out and fly with us.
And the next thing that happened, I got a call from general Ben Davis. I think he was a Colonel at the time. Wonderful guy. He was the Chief of the Fighter Division in the Pentagon, and he wanted me to come up and see him. And I thought, "Oh, geez, I'm a lowly major," you know? So I go up there not knowing exactly what's going to go on. And he said, "I've heard all about your tactics team out there at Nellis," and he said, "I want you to take that tactics team to the Far East and fly with every F-86 squadron that we have in the Far East. And there were about… Well, we had three squadrons at Chitose, three at Itazuki. We had three in the Philippines. There were a couple more too. We had, I think it was about 11 squadrons total. But before we got through, you probably have never heard of this guy because you're too young.
But back in the early fifties, this is we're talking '53, '54, there was a very famous Taiwan Chinese commander. He was the commander of the Free Chinese Air Force. And they had just received their F-86es, and these guys were training in them. And they all had about 50 to 100 hours in the airplane at the most. And he came back to the Pentagon with a request to let us come over to Taiwan and fly with his outfit, and see how his guys were doing. And the strange part about that whole trip was that they had as good- There were two squadrons that were really good. And one squadron in the 35th Wing at Itazuki was really good, and that squadron in Taiwan was really good. And these guys had practically no time at all, and they were really working on the right things.
And God, I got into one wing, a wing at Chitose. Here's a wing that had the fourth wing. They had all these famous fighter pilots that went through there in World War II and Korea and everything, and he's got a regulation against air to air combat. There'll be no aerial combat. And he's scared to death as a wing commander, two guys will run together or do something, and he'll get fired as a wing commander. So, I thought that was a stupid thing as I could ever see. I just couldn't believe that he's in the business of running a fighter group and doesn't care what their training is, as long as he doesn't get fired. And I put that in my report.
And there was another one, there was another one at one of the groups at Itazuki was the same way, they didn't fly any air-to-air combat, they were told they couldn't do that. And they were trying to do it down the Philippines, but they were making a big mess of it down there too, and it wasn't very good. So when I got through, I got, went back to the States, and this took quite a while, it took us, I guess, six weeks to do all this. It was the greatest flying in the world. We loved it and it was good.
And when I got back, I sat down and for about three days, I labored over a report that I wanted to send back to the Pentagon. And in the meantime, the commander in Nellis was a guy named… Jim was his first name. I'll think of it I hope. Anyway, he was the commander in Nellis. He knew he was in the command of all these people that were flying and doing all this stuff. And he called me in and wanted me to give him a briefing of how that thing went. So I gave him a briefing, and I told him exactly what I, what I was in, how it worked and who was at fault and who was crazy and who was doing a good job and that sort of thing. And he said, "Boots," he said, "you're not going to put all this in a written report, are you?", and I said, "Yes, sir, I plan to, I've already written the report out." And he said, "You're going to have people hunting your head for 10 years." And I said, "Well, Colonel," I said, "here's the way I feel about that: A guy at Air Force Headquarters was interested enough to have me get this team and go out there and try to find out, tell him and tell Headquarters Air Force, how our Far East Air Force is doing in the F-86 world. And I spent a lot of money, I spent a lot of time, and a Hell of a lot of effort to develop the things that are in this report." And I said, "I honestly feel that it's my responsibility to give it to him. And if they want to hunt my head for it, let them hunt. That's okay with me, you know.” So, "All right," he said, "It's your career."
I never had any trouble over it. I sent it to Colonel Davis, and he gave me a call on the phone and said, "That's one of the best reports I've ever seen. It's great." And he said, "As of Monday morning, there'll be a new commander at Chitose, and there'll be a new commander of the 35th Wing at Itazuki." He said, "We've relieved those two, and the rest of them have been, we've talked to them and discussed it. They all felt that it was a good thing, and they're working hard on the results of it."
Well, to get back, I kind of got away from my, No Guts, No Glory, but I had this little four-page thing that I gave to the squadrons that came in over the weekend. When the Air Force came to me and said they wanted me to go over there, I said, "Geez, I can't have a cheesy little report like this." So I sat down and started writing “No Guts, No Glory”. And I started first with just the initial portion of it, I just wanted the basic principles of offense and the basic principles of the defense.
When I got that through, there were a lot of other things that people disagreed with that I thought had no reason to disagree with them. Like, well, training, the way you train people. And one of the big things in those days with that, they had a regulation that said if you were in an F-86 outfit, you could only fight F-86es. You could fight similar airplanes, but not dissimilar airplanes. And one of the things I've put into No Guts, No Glory was that, "The last thing in the world that you want to do is to have similar combat with another aircraft, to be your same performance. What you'd want to do is have aircraft of different performance, so you can compare what they can do and what you can do, and see if you can exercise your aircraft and your tactics to overcome the best features of his airplane. But all you're going to do fighting the same airplane that you're in, you're going to send both people to the extreme limits of the airplane with the individual himself trying to outdo the other individual, and one of them is going to exceed the limits of the airplane trying to stay with him, and you're going to have accidents. That's where accidents come, they don't come from fighting an F-84 with an F-86. It's two F-84s that'll kill each other. Two F-86es.
Well, the No Guts, No Glory stayed with the Air Force I think full time, classified for, I don't know, 15, for about 18 to 20 years, 22 years. And then with the advent of missiles and different training programs and things of that nature, they declassified, gave me my own book back and said, "Do what you want with it." Still I get letters from fighter pilots that are flying at 15, that all want copies of it. And I send them out. I had a bunch of them made up and send them out. I sell them at air shows and things and people buy them. But the common conception, I would describe it as a misconception, is that dog fighting is really not necessary, you don't need it anymore. The airplanes are too fast. You've got missiles that fire 25 miles and knock somebody down, and you're so far away from him that the guy in the radar shack has to tell you that, "Oh yeah, you got him, you got him." You don't even know yourself what the Hell happened. And you're not maneuvering, you're not doing anything. You're just aiming it in a certain place that this guy tells you to and firing off a missile. And that would make any non-thinking person and any person who hadn't been out there and tried it himself to think that dog fighting really is extinct. But you need to get in a fighter airplane and go out and fire a missile at another guy and find out that he's traveling towards you, that your closing speeds...
Closing speeds in World War I were about 250 knots, add them together when they come in. Closing speeds in Korea were about 800 knots, maybe a 1,000, maybe 1,500, even. Closing speeds in Vietnam were in excess of Mach II. So you've got these two guys closing, you fire a missile at him, and you really don't have enough time to fire, sit there and fire two or three or four missiles at him to get him. You go get him on the first try, or he's inside your missile range.
Now it's possible, if when he comes in, you fire an AIM-7 at him, and that doesn't work, but you can't fire an AIM-9. Well, you couldn't at least at this time. Now they've got AIM-9s that are sensitive enough to where you can fire head-on. And the heat seeker could probably do it, but that's a little iffy also. My point is that missiles don't always work, and when they don't work, the closing rate of the airplanes suddenly gets you into a range where you see each other. And the first guy to turn away is going to get killed. Because now you really are in missile, if the two of them are coming in and they're only a mile apart or something, and nobody's been able to hit the other one, if one of them turns away, the other guy gets on his same line and fires an air-to-air missile of a heat seeker, and they really work from the back. You weren't going to miss many heat seekers from the rear. So that might work. Some of them, you might not miss them, but the missile may not work.
The crux of the whole matter is that everything doesn't always work like it's supposed to. And if the long range missile misses, if the short range, if the shorter range missile isn't any good, the next thing you know, you're within sight of him, you have to turn with him or do something very dumb like turning away, and all of a sudden you're in a turning battle with the guy. And it doesn't matter whether you can go Mach II and he can go Mach X, you're still in a turning battle with him. And one of the two of you is going to be able to outturn, or has to be, has to know the basic principles of dog fighting in order to get yourself out of that predicament. And so dog fighting still, it may not be... In World War I, it was the primary thing. In World War II, it was still really primary. In Korea, it was primary. In Vietnam, it was secondary. We always had missiles first, but many times we ended up there going round and round with another airplane that either one of us could do 1,500 miles an hour, but there we are clunking around a circle at 300 knots trying to do something that we don't want to do. And to me, that's the afterglow. That's the thing that people have got to think about. Right now it's the third step down. And as a fighter pilot, you can't afford to know step one and step two, and not step three.
“No Guts, No Glory” Will Never Be Obsolete
In short, the information in no guts, no glory is not really obsolete and it's not obsolete because radars go out. Pilots make mistakes. Missiles don't work, all kinds of things can happen during the mission to keep you from getting the kill that you think you're going to get at 25 miles and you don't get it at all. And in the final analysis, it's the pilot's ability. Iit can very easily come down to the fact that it's the pilot's ability to maneuver his airplane, know how to get the maximum performance out of it that will determine whether he lives or dies. And for that reason, I don't think it's obsolete
Fighting to Keep Guns on Planes
Jim Hagerstrom and I were two of the older fighter pilots. We had gotten kills. He got 8 and I got 10 in Korea. And I think he had one or two even in World War II while I was sitting on my fanny at West Point. But we were very concerned about the trend in the Air Force of getting rid of guns. And they aren't everything, but they are necessary, in our opinion.
We went up to see General Momyer. General Momyer was the Director of Requirements in the Pentagon at the time, he was a Brigadier General, eventually became a four-star. And he agreed to see us. We went in, and he started off by saying, "Well, I understand you two guys want to talk to me about guns." And we said, "Yes, sir, we do." And he said, "What the Hell do you think you're going to talk about guns?" He said, "Guns are passe. Haven't you guys gotten rid of that? You know, you shoot down a couple airplanes with a gun, and you think that's the only thing in the world that's ever going to do it. That's gone down, that's history. We've got missiles now, we don't need that sort of thing." And he gave before we could ever utter a sound, he gave us a real dressing down on the fact that we thought it was important enough to come up and talk to him about it. So it was obvious we'd lost the battle. And I said, "Well, General Momyer, let me just say this. You and I are locked in a phone booth, and we're in a death fight. We each want to kill each other. I've got a pistol, and you've got a rifle, you could kill me at 300 yards. My pistol is maybe only good for 50 yards, but we're in a phone booth. Who do you think is going to win that? You think you can get your rifle aimed at me in a phone booth? I can get my pistol aimed at you." So a short range weapon sometimes can be the only thing that you not only need, but the only thing that you want. It might be the only thing you can use. What good are missiles on the airplane if you're inside the range where the missile works? What good is that? And he said, "No, I never really thought about it that way." And he kind of waffled around a little bit and out we went.
But he reminded me of that later. And when I was a director of operations of the 366th Wing at Da Nang, I got there in F-4s no guns. The F-4 had no gun, but I knew from the training program in the states that there was a big pod called the Sue 16 pod that had a 20 millimeter gun in it. And it could be slung underneath an F-4. I knew it could be done. I'd seen it done and watched it fired at Edwards. So I got my people to requisition a half a dozen of those. Everybody said, "You haven't got a... They're going to send you those things over here." Just requisition. And God, a couple of weeks later, we got these two great big things, and we got six of these big guns. So we had them hung on the airplane. Made sure that the crew chief knew what the hell they were doing and that sort of thing.
And I took, first of all, I just took him up with a pod on one airplane and no pod on the other. And the reason I did that was that the wing man, he's always in there, he's flying formation and he's jockeying. If I make a turn, he has to increase his power. And traditionally the wing man will come back with less fuel than the leader. That's the basis of that. So if I put a pod on my airplane and I use a little bit more fuel than he does, we'll probably come back pretty close to the same. So it shouldn't hurt anything.
So for about two weeks, I had myself and another guy major named Dilger who had been in one of the commands that was doing experimental stuff in the states and was now one of my pilots. And Dilger and I alternately flew these pods. And we did hard turns with them. We did air to ground work. We went out one morning about, oh, I don't know, six o'clock, 6:30 in the morning was barely light. And we got up there and went along the coast. And here, there must have been 200 sand pans, all of them up on the beach. And all these guys were pulling supplies out of the sand pans and they're taking them over and putting them in caves or something. We came up there with that 20 millimeter [inaudible 01:44:41]. That thing puts us... It puts around every eight inches. That's how bad it is. If you could get a guy in an airplane like this, and all you got to do is just pass it through is wing like that. It puts a hole about that big every eight inches across there and tears the wing. And then the air pressure will tear the wing off. So we went down there and just fired all the way down in the sand pans. Just cut them in half. They just fell apart like that. We had guys running all over the place and fires going and all that. We brought back some film.
So at the end of a week, two weeks, it was really, I got all this data together, along with a little bit of film. And we did some air to air fighting, and I showed him how I thought we ought to do it. We didn't have a computing gun site, but we did have a number of people who'd been through the fighter weapon school, myself, and some a bunch of other guys. And I felt that I could teach him about roughly don't ever put the pipper on the airplane and fire that ain't going to do any good. Because everything, you fire, everything you shoot is going to be back here. So the average guy would say, "Okay, well let's put it out here and then maybe he'll run into it." That's exactly what we want you to do. Move it out here a little further than you think it ought to be and start firing and let him fly into it. And so we figured that'll work.
So I took the whole thing down and I went, I got a permission to go in and see General Momyer. And here he is now, he's a commanding general of Seventh Air Force. So I had a 10 o'clock briefing with him and about five minutes to 10, I'm sitting in the chair, outside with all my stuff, waiting to go in and brief him. And out he comes out of the office with Robin. And Robin had been there the hour before or the half hour before he had been down on some kind of a problem that General Momyer wanted to brief him on or something. And when Momyer saw me, he said, "Oh yeah." He said, "Hey Robin, Blesse here from the 366th is going to give me a briefing on guns in the F-4. He said, "Would you like to sit in on that?" "Oh yes, sir." So the two of them sit in there. I gave him his briefing and went all through everything we had done showed him how we were going to do air to air, showed him what the results were on the air to ground, showed him about fuel consumption. Showed him about Gs and how many GS you could pull before you could actually have any trouble pulling that thing off the airplane. I really did... If I say so myself gave him a very, very thorough briefing. I was proud of it. I was glad of it. I knew that I had covered all the points that I wanted and I stopped briefing. And I said, "Well, that's about it, general. What do you think?" And he sat there for a minute and he turned to Robin and he said, "Robin, what do you think about that?" And Robin, without any hesitation, Robin says, "General, I wouldn't touch that with a 10 foot pole." I could have gone over three rows of seats at his throat. I was so damn mad at him for doing that. So, oh God, finally though, Robin left. Momyer and I discussed it a little bit. And he said, "Well, Blesse, you and I have been through this before. You do remember that." "Oh yes, sir. I remember that". And he said, "I think you got a hole in your head, but there is some possible merit to it. Go ahead and give it a try and keep me informed." Okay. So out I went.
Now I got permission to try it. The next two days, Dilger and I take a wing man and a pod. And we go up there and we go up with the strike force. And then we mill around waiting for some MIGS to come up and try to interfere with the strike force or something. Nothing. Even after they'd all gone home, we even stayed there and made a couple circles of the area. And that's usually you get a SAM fired at you or some damn thing]. But nothing. Two days, next day, same thing, nothing happened. The third day, I had some very good colonels that were fire weapons, fighter weapons school qualified that I had checked out on this and had brought them into it. I had formed a tactical, a wing tactical section, and these were guys were part of it.
So I stepped down, Dilger stepped back and gave these other two guys the pods and up they went and the MIGS were all over the place naturally. And they got two MIGS. There was a flight of four. One of the guys fired an AIM-7 that missed. Another guy fired an AIM-9. And he got a kill with it, with the AIM-9. And the other two people that fired got in maneuvered and got in gun range, knocked down with the gun. So that night we hit. So we got three kills and a miss with the long range missile.
In that rate, because my commander was over in Hong Kong, I got to write the daily operational report. So, Robin was a west pointer. And so was I. And there was a west pointer back in the 1860s, General Winfield Scott, I think he was in the sixties. And he always made an... Started his opinions with the statement. “It's my fixed opinion that…”, so I knew if I used that phrase, Robin would catch it.
So we went all through the ground stories and what we'd attacked and that sort of thing, no losses, this or that and the other. And then I said in the air, the air war, however, there was a great deal of activity. And we ran into a lot MIGS. We had two of the pods in the area and in those flights, we expended one AIM-7 without results that missed it. We expended one, AIM-9 with the... And he got a kill with it. And we got two kills with the gun. And I said, the AIM-7 cost the Air Force... I've forgotten these figures if they're right or wrong, cost the Air Force $67,000 and produced nothing. The AIM-7, which cost the Air Force $14,000 produced a kill. The first kill with the gun, the pilot fired a little over a hundred rounds. And at $5 a round that cost the air force $500. And then the other one was so mething like $350. And so when I got all through and I said, "I thought these were rather significant results in that you would appreciate this." And then I said, "Finally, to sum up my report, it's my fixed opinion that there will be two pilots meetings in the theater tonight, one of them will be in Hanoi and the other room will be in the 8th Stack Fighter Wing at Ubon. And that thing that Momyer had gotten on the wire and Robin was furious. He's on the... I was on the phone. "You son of a bitch , you try to ruin my career. What do you..." I said, "Robin, Robin, wait a minute, calm down." I said, "You dug yourself such a deep hole. You're down the bottom of that hole. I can't understand what you're saying." “You son-.” He kept swearing at me. So finally he hangs up and we had already been fairly good friends, but Robin had ranked me for the whole time we were in the Air Force. He was a major before I got out of the academy and only he only got out two years ahead of me.
But so anyway, about a week later, I was coming back from a mission and the weather was terrible at Da Nang. We couldn't get in and we diverted and went over to Ubon land. Went over there. Guys landed. We went over to the club, have a Coke or whatever. And we were sitting around at that at the table. And all of a sudden it sounded like somebody had fired a gun. And everybody in the place jumped and turned around and looked in the doorway. There was a swinging door, it wasn't a full door. It was just a half swinging door like this. Robin came in, whacked that door and it went back and it slapped against the wall and sounded like a gunshot. And he got in and he looked around like this and he sees me over there and he's coming right straight over for me. And about this time looking at his size, I'm looking for a chair or something, because that's not going to be good. And Robin comes over. He gets about... He's stern faces. He gets about as close as you and I are, breaks into a great, big, huge grin, sticks out his hand. And he says, "It's been a long time since I got my ass chewed by a junior Colonel." But that was Robin. That's the kind of a guy he is. And that's one of the things that made him such a tremendous commander. He was probably in my opinion, the best fighter group commander or fighter wing commander we had in Vietnam. He really was good.
The Decline of Dogfighting Ability
In reference to dog fighting and the decline in our dog fighting ability, it might be described at in Vietnam, we had some real problems. Right after Korea... Korea was a gun war. Korea, we finally ended up with the F-86. It had two 20 millimeter guns in it, the F-86F, and most of the kills, most of the aces we had, all the aces but two that we had that got 10 or more all got them between March and July of 1953 when we had the better armament and a little bit better airplane. After the war was over, we got into the missile thing. The missiles came along and… I hate to say this but I think our hierarchy... Some of the higher ranking officers in the air force, maybe that weren't doing enough flying or just didn't see it this way, felt that because of the missiles you don't need to dog fight anymore. Dog fighting's passe. It's not necessary. You got missiles that'll get kills at 25 miles. What do you want to dog fight for? That was the attitude, and that's one of the reasons they quit doing it. Of course the wing commanders, they weren't going to do it if there wasn't any requirement to do it because it was dangerous and every now and then a couple of guys would run together, there'd be an accident. New commander. So if they didn't have to do it, they weren't going to do it. The big wigs, a lot of them, had already made up their minds that it really wasn't necessary.
I had that “No Guts, No Glory'' thing and I wrote another thing in the front of it called Afterglow that more or less countered that and said, “I know you don't think this is necessary, but missiles don't always work. Pilots make mistakes. Radar people make mistakes in vectors and things of that nature and believe me, there are going to be times when you're in the airplane and you've missed the missile. The missile has missed, and the airplane is down to the point where the two of you are in sight of each other and neither one of you can afford to turn away. The first guy that turns away gets killed. So you turn into each other and as you turn into each other, air speeds decrease, somebody gets around the circle and you've got to know how to handle your airplane and what to do in a dog fight. It's just something that's not ever going to go away in my opinion. You're going to have all kinds of missiles and all kinds of things but there's too many things that don't work, too many people make mistakes and eventually you're going to get down to step three. Step one is knocking him out at a long range. Step two is maybe getting him at short range when he turns away or something like that, and step three is you're inside all your missiles and all you got left's a gun. If you don't know anything about step three and the other guy knows, adios baby.”
The fighters these days are all coming out with guns. Even the F-22, their newest fighter. I feel very, very gratified that if I had only made one contribution to the fighter force and the air force, it was the fact that I got people thinking again that guns were really necessary on airplanes. I had generals that didn't like it and I had generals that told me I had holes in my head, but go ahead and try it, and we tried it and by the kills we got in Vietnam, before we finished in Vietnam we got a new F-4E that had 20 millimeter guns in it. Internal. Since then, nobody's questioned the fact that guns were necessary. Maybe I'm taking too much credit. I don't mean to. I don't care about credit. I just feel that in that area I made a contribution that I'm proud of and just leave it at that.
How Things Have Changed and the Future of Dogfighting
If you look back over history, things have changed so much. Your early airplanes had a closing speed of about 250 miles an hour. Nieuport SPADs against each other, against the Germans, German aircraft and the Fokker D.VIIIs and that sort of thing. By the time you got into World War 2, you had closing speeds of around 800 miles an hour. And then when you got into Korea and Vietnam with the jets, you had closing speeds that could very easily be up around 1500 to 2000 miles an hour. That's the way things have changed in that regard and the importance of that is that there's no longer a time that you can sit up there, twiddling your thumbs thinking, well, maybe I ought to do this or maybe I ought to do that. By the time you think that twice it's too late. You have to know what's coming, what's going on, what you can do, what you can't do and you got to know it now. You can't know it 15 seconds from now because something else has happened. That's one thing.
Secondly, armament changed so drastically. Armament in the World War 1 aircraft, you had 30 caliber guns. That progressed through World War 1. Toward the end I guess you had some that were a little heavier that that. 50 caliber maybe or whatever. By the time we got into World War 2, the arm of it had increased to 50 calibers and 20 millimeter guns. Of course in Vietnam, you're talking about missiles. Things that you can fire and kill somebody from 25 miles away. Those are all things that a pilot has to... He has to take into consideration when he jumps in that airplane and when he talks about going up and possibly shooting down another airplane in combat, he better know all these things and he better know how they affect him, how much time he's going to have, how good he has to be and that sort of thing, or he's going to be a casualty.
And now we have airplanes like the F-22 and the F-23. We have airplanes that they're testing. They have prototypes of them now. They take off vertically like a helicopter and slowly go out of sight and a minute and 30 seconds later, they come across the field doing 700 miles an hour. The progress in aviation has just been catastrophic. We are getting to the point, in my opinion, that a lot of our airplanes are not going to have pilots in them. The machines are going to go, then the machines will still do the things that they do now, and the machines themselves will... The pilot will actually be in a hut 75 miles away with a keyboard and telling that fighter what to do and the fighter will be dropping bombs or turning or doing whatever. He's looking on a screen and sees other fighters.
I just think wars are going to be, they're going to be fought with keyboards and screens. It's going to be a while yet, but they're already doing some of that with the reconnaissance aircraft. They've done it in Afghanistan and Iraq and it's been very successful, and I think that that will expand and it'll tend to cut down people becoming aces and that sort of thing and will change the whole nature of aerial combat.
That was Major General Frederick “Boots” Blesse. Next time on Warriors In Their Own Words, we’ll hear Blesse talk about what inspired him to join the Air Force, what makes a good pilot, and the story behind how he met his childhood hero, the famous WWI pilot, Eddie Rickenbacker.
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Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
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