Flying Camels: The Cultural and Technological Origins of Fourth Generation Fighter Aircraft

Sunday, January 8, 2017: 12:00 PM
Governor's Square 15 (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Michael Hankins, Kansas State University
Military aviation projects have grown more costly and controversial, yet our historical understanding of their development process remains limited. The F-15 Eagle and F-16 Falcon in particular have been depicted as key to changing the Air Force’s approach to war. They are typically seen as products of a doctrinal shift away from strategic bombing and toward tactical roles. Historians have viewed this shift, and by extension, these aircraft, as partially responsible for moving the Air Force from the trauma of the Vietnam War to the victory of Desert Storm. This narrative overlooks two elements. First, by emphasizing the combat efficiency of these planes, the existing literature has neglected the role of institutional culture on the design process. Secondly, scholars have praised these aircraft as the brainchildren of visionary individuals, discounting the various cultural, political, economic, and psychological influences on their development.

Through an examination of cultural artifacts (such as recruitment and promotional material, uniforms, architecture, curriculum, doctrinal statements, service journals, and oral histories), this paper will argue that the technological decisions that produced the F-15 and F-16 were expressions of a shift in institutional identity that occurred in the Air Force during and after the Vietnam War. Furthermore, these aircraft came to embody what historian David Nye called “systems of meaning” as symbols of a cultural narrative about the Air Force’s reformed identity and the type of rugged, masculine individualism that fighter pilots celebrated.[1] By applying the tools of cultural analysis, this work provides valuable context for a transformative moment in Air Force history. More broadly, this paper deepens our understanding of the aircraft development process, aiding our attempts to understand, critique, or justify the large expenditures involved in increasingly controversial military aviation projects.

[1] David Nye, Technology Matters: Questions to Live With (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006), 2-3.

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