The Helicopter’s Unrealized Potential

Book Review:

How the Helicopter Changed Modern Warfare

by Walter J. Boyne

Pelican Publishing Co., 2011


This book is a must-read for anyone interested in flying machines and particularly for those who like military history.

For everyone attending the 2011 Winston-Salem Air Show at Smith Reynolds Airport, Boyne’s appearance downtown at the BOOKMARKS Festival of Books (1:30 to 2:15 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 10) marks a unique opportunity to combine watching aerial performances with hearing a leading authority on air power talk about the helicopter.

Boyne, a retired Air Force colonel, combat veteran, founder of Air & Space Magazine and one of the first directors of the National Air and Space Museum, has authored 36 nonfiction books and five novels. He combines his skills as a historian and novelist to ensure that this book is no dry dissertation on technology. His narrative captures the political, cultural and economic contexts in which the helicopter evolved as a military vehicle and fighting machine.

Boyne cites Medivac operations as the helicopter’s greatest contribution to warfare, saving countless lives by plucking wounded soldiers from terrain where they otherwise would have died on the battlefield. However, development of the helicopter to meet modern warfare needs has lagged its potential, he argues, blaming Congress and the Department of Defense. The result is a failure rate—noncombat losses exceed combat losses four-to-one—that would be unacceptable for any other aircraft. “Military services have treated the helicopter the way a family might treat an amiable but very troublesome rich uncle,” he writes.

The book covers the role of helicopters for military use from 1939 to the present and includes sections on every major conflict that utilized them. It has an appendix (interesting enough to have been part of the main text) discussing historical concepts for helicopters from the Fourth Century A.D. to the designs of Leonardo da Vinci.  Another appendix lists the technical specifications for every military helicopter.

So there you have it—facts and figures, science and technology, politics and public policy, history and storytelling—if this book were a helicopter, it might represent the kind of advanced, well-rounded aircraft that Boyne says has not yet been built, but could be.

Don’t miss Walter J. Boyne at the BOOKMARKS Festival of Books, Saturday, Sept. 10.

Frazeology end note

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Eric F. Frazier

Eric F. Frazier is an independent writer, editor, book reviewer and co-author of GPS Declassified: From Smart Bombs to Smartphones.