20 years, over 600 combat hours, 151 combat missions, 21 hard kills on surface-to-air missile sites, four Distinguished Flying Crosses with Valor, eight Air Medals with Valor, five Meritorious Service Medals, one Purple Heart. Dan Hampton is one of America's most decorated fighter pilots of modern times and he holds nothing back when it comes to his views on air combat.
In his New York Times best selling memoir Viper Pilot, Dan takes us through his career, one fraught with danger and extreme competition, and puts us right in the cockpit of his F-16 through battles that read more like the finale of the 1980's cult classic Iron Eagle than reality. Yet his recollections are all true and he has a chest full of medals to prove it.
Dan has penned his third book, Lords Of Sky, which is receiving fantastic reviews, so Foxtrot Alpha thought it would be a good time to catch up with the notorious Viper pilot and get his views on some of the hottest topics in air combat and to share some of his seemingly endless experiences flying and fighting as a Wild Weasel in the Lockheed Martin F-16CJ.
#1: What makes a good Wild Weasel?
Most types of pilots are trying to avoid getting shot at while they do their mission - a Weasel is trying to get shot at so that others do not - and so he can locate the SAMs/AAA and kill them before they get anyone else.
Fighter pilots, by nature, can function well when everything around them is falling apart. Weasels must have an extraordinary level of situational awareness as they're not only delivering ordnance, but hunting and killing unknown threat systems.
#2: Does being a fighter pilot and wearing a flight really help seal the deal with chicks?
Absolutely! How does a guy in [a] blue polyester getup compete with a man in a flight suit, covered with patches? Though it's not just what he's wearing - without sounding too egotistical, the profession makes the man. It has to or we'd never survive being fighter pilots. There is something primal, yet not completely brainless, about a fighter pilot that many women respond to. I, of course, was always off improving my mind and practicing the violin.
#3: What was the most frustrating thing about being a fighter pilot in the USAF?
That flying is not the focus of the USAF. It sounds axiomatic but it's true. Political correctness, appearances, humanitarian missions, and not offending anyone are the focus.
#4: If you could snap your fingers and one thing would be instantly done that you think would lead to a more effective and deadly United States Air Force what would it be?
A wartime mentality. We are always at war, whether declared or not, whether the public is aware of it or not. When that mentality dominates, the correct priorities are made for weapons, aircraft and research, and the correct folks take command because they have to.
#5: The F-16 is like a main character in your memoir, can you explain why you have such an affinity towards the Viper?
I love the Viper - a perfect melding of man and machine. Most fighter pilots feel that way about their jets, as if they 'wear it' instead of simply fly it. I loved the way it felt and that I knew everything about it. I got to that wonderful point when I knew there wasn't anything that could happen that I couldn't handle with that jet. I do wish it had more weapons stations though!
#6: So much of your memoir is about employing the F-16 against ground targets, care to share any good stories about fighting with the Viper in the air-to-air arena?
In actual operations no MiGs would fight us... Too bad. I loved the training sorties for air-to-air because they were physically brutal. 9 Gs hurts...
Here are a couple of memorable air-to-air stories-
One day over Iraq (between the wars) the AWACs declared an unknown jet coming out of Baghdad as 'hostile.' By the rules of engagement I could have shot it down - but something didn't 'feel' right. Despite AWACs' bleating and over their protests, I ran a visual intercept on the target and found it was an unscheduled commercial flight full of UN diplomats. Can you imagine what would've happened if I'd listened to the back-enders and trusted the electronics instead of my own instincts and eyeballs? Technology is a wonderful thing - but situations like this (and real combat) is why the fighter pilot will ALWAYS be needed.
Four Egyptian Vipers (me leading) go into the Sinai for a SAT (surface attack tactics) training mission. We hit the target, roar out through the mountains at 100 feet and 500 knots, cross the Red Sea coast and I check six (because I'm an American and we do that) and pick up two more Vipers behind us... I pitch back in (the Egyptians never see a thing and keep heading home) and merge with two lizard painted F-16s - with big blue Star of Davids on the tails...We go round and round a few times, then rock off. They go east and I go west.
#7: You are a graduate of both the USAF Weapons School and the TOPGUN, what does it take to wear those coveted patches?
TOPGUN was just the TOGs portion (ground school and academics) The Navy philosophy was to put a lot of guys through an intense, relatively short (6 weeks) top-off program. In those days you only had to be a flight lead to be eligible. Good course, but much different than the USAF's Fighter Weapons School. For FWIC (Fighter Weapons Instructor Course) you had to be the top instructor pilot (much higher than a flight lead) in your fighter wing, pass a board of selection and the course was 6 MONTHS long.
The idea is to painfully train a very few individuals to the highest possible point and have them disseminate the information to everyone else. The Patch is instant respect... though like everything else in the fighter world, you have to prove it every time you fly. There are a few dual patch wearers... in the USAF it's usually the Test Pilot School and FWIC. My thesis was on Infrared Countermeasures - they make you a master by breaking you into little humble pieces (not easy for IPs) and then slowly rebuild you. What a nightmare.
During FWIC we flew against Israeli KFIRs, French Mirages and German MiG-29s which was interesting...hardest fight is still the USAF though.
#8: What were some of the best technological revolutions that you experienced while being a fighter pilot in the USAF and was there anything you wanted but never got?
Data link, towed decoys and JHMCS...absolutely. GREAT stuff! Also NVGs... much better than the straight FLIR system though they are best together. I always wanted colored MFDs and didn't get them until the F-16 Block 60...which the USAF did not buy. Better SA...really accurate weapons targeting (within a foot) and the ability to do it day or night in any weather. The countermeasures are Gucci to a Weasel...they've saved my life more times than I can count.
#9: Did you ever want to go to Test Pilot School, fly for the Thunderbirds, become an astronaut or 'fly' a cushy Pentagon desk during your highly decorated career?
TPS (Test Pilot School) is a different route, it is just as specialized as FWIC (Fighter Weapons Instructor Course), but different. I was a fighter pilot and became one to fight - not test aircraft or do loops to music. Nor did the astronaut program appeal to me - too PR oriented. One of the nicest guys I ever knew became an astronaut and eventually left because even he couldn't stomach it any more. I did a staff tour at Langley as a major because I was tired, needed a break and staffs need operational guys to filter in to provide a dose of reality. I don't know of any glamorous non combat jobs in the USAF - there are lots of jobs 'good' for your career if you think that way, but I never did. Flying and fighting was what it was all about for me - not rising to a corner office in the Pentagon.
#10: How do you feel about the F-35 program?
I was with the F-22 for a few years trying to make it an alternative to the F-35. Didn't work. It was never meant to be a multirole fighter. The whole $3B add ons program was for appearances. They wanted me to fudge reports to make it appear more capable than it was - wouldn't do it. I think the F-35 is the way of the future BUT the unit cost is so high that it will never be able to assume all the commitments faced by an air force deployed around the globe. Either the commitments decrease or we keep around a few older aircraft. I believe the F-16 is the real answer for that as it's a real multi-role fighter.
#11: What are your thoughts on women in the role of fighter pilot?
As for women in fighters... if someone was selected the same way I was, went through the same nasty process, and came out good enough to get into fighters (with no exceptions nor quotas) then I don't care who it is; what color they are, if they sit to pee or how they pray.What I care about is them doing their job and not getting me killed.
#12: What do you think of unmanned military aircraft?
I think they're a good tool, like intel, weather etc. They have a purpose and perform well enough in relatively benign situations. They also are not survivable in a real shooting war. That said, they make excellent bait for SAMs and with their long loiter time provide very useful battle damage/intel gathering services - but only after the threat is neutralized.
#13: You are widely described as "America's most experienced Viper pilot," considering fighter pilot culture, what is that like?
Very nice to say but I never claimed that - nor would I. I have a lot of flying hours, many in combat, am a Targetarm (FWIC grad) but so do a few others. I will say that I don't know of anyone who has killed more SAMs. By killed, I mean with hard ordnance or the gun, not lobbing HARMs at it. To answer your question (I think) I will say that there is nothing more satisfying in any profession than to be respected by those in your profession. It also left me with nothing to prove - ever- except to myself. THAT is a wonderful position to be in.
#14: So much of flying fighters is hard work and focus but what was the most fun or awe inspiring moment you ever had under the Viper's iconic bubble canopy?
Functional Test flights were always fun because the whole idea was to wring the jet out and make sure everything was working properly. There was never a brief or complicated plan or anything tactical. It was just you and the jet.
The most beautiful sight I ever saw in the cockpit was briefly discussed in the 'Valley of the Shadow' chapter in Viper Pilot... I thought I was dead. And to punch up through the clouds, into the sunlight and clear air, and living through that mission is something I'll NEVER forget.
#15: From fighter pilot to fiction pen, what led you to becoming a New York Times best selling author?
I was a commercial real estate developer after I retired from the USAF and I did quite well, yet I just couldn't get used to living on a beach drinking champagne every night while Iraq and Afghanistan were still going on. So I became a mercenary - sorry, private military consultant. More bad things happened to me and I thought I'd better get some of my experiences down on paper before I disappeared permanently. So I wrote Viper Pilot and The Mercenary.
Books follow books, if you're fortunate, and so came Lords of the Sky. As for Lords Of The Sky, the story needed to be told - people need to know how we go to this place in history and about those who got us here. You'll learn things you never knew - not just about pilots and aircraft, but the events of the last century that created them. As for the future, I have two more contracts with Harper Collins Publishing and am still in the private military business, though with my own company.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer that maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com