Miles's Reviews > Viper Pilot: A Memoir of Air Combat

Viper Pilot by Dan Hampton
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Dec 31, 12

Read in November, 2012

I bought this for my 15 year old son who has a particular interest these days in books about combat and war, in Iraq and Afghanistan. For my part, the only war stories that have ever really interested me involve airplanes. So I thought I could get something we'd both like.

The story of Dan Hampton's air force career is filled with cockpit narratives of electronic warfare and aerial combat, and much discussion of training and education and career building in the air force. It's also VERY full of Dan Hampton, because he is a fighter pilot, and there is nothing that fighter pilots are more full of than themselves. That's just the way it is with those guys - if you have a problem with it, then don't spend time with their stories. You get to be a fighter pilot by believing you are God's gift to the military and then being able to prove it in a jet, beating out many, many other similarly cocky competitors. On the way, you become a Bush admiring, Arab-trashing, loud-mouthed military guy, and when you're all done, if you write a book, you are not shy about sharing the amazingness of you with the reader.

(As a democratic socialist and anti-imperialist I choose not to reconcile my dislike of American imperialism with my interest in stories about military aviation, technology and combat. Some contradictions must remain unresolved.)

That said, the idea of whipping an F-16 through the sky, dodging missiles and attacking ground radars, is fun to imagine. I guess the problem here is that air warfare is ultimately a three dimensional art/game/fight, and rendering it in a one dimensional string of words is just hard to do well. Unless you can see the action in three dimensions, and only to that extent, it is difficult to fully assimilate the reality that is being conveyed. Hampton does an OK job in this respect but maintaining positional and situational awareness is difficult for the reader.

True, an inordinate and unnatural love of military acronyms will help. But unless you've paid attention, at least at an amateur level, to the variety of SAM types, gun types, aircraft types, and the like, the distinctions upon which the author's life, and this narrative depend, this book may seem impossibly obscure. Sad to say, I have paid attention to those details so the narrative is fully coherent to me on that level.

I doubt that my son will pick it up when I toss it on his desk, casually, so as not to suggest that I care one way or another if he reads it, and all the while secretly hoping that he does read it. I think he is attracted to the camaraderie of the ground combat war stories he reads - this is a story of a lone wolf. Maybe his lack of interest would be a good thing - I've been trading off the encouragement of reading (anything, even war stories) against exposing him to the world of militarism. But in the end, if I have to choose I'd rather risk the militarism if that's what draws him into reading and more reading. There's plenty of time for him to sort out his real political and moral beliefs in the future.

If I hadn't had a lifelong fascination with airplanes I probably wouldn't have stuck this one out. But I did and I do and it was a moderately interesting telling of a 20 year career that concluded in about 2004 in Iraq, as a Wild Weasel anti-missile fighting F-16CJ pilot. It's readable enough if you're into that kind of thing.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Jeremy Wow, I think you just don't get it. True, I've read some more "well written" air combat memoirs before, but this one is right up there with them, even if a little short on details. You don't get your call sign as a fighter pilot on your own - it's given to you by your mates. I suppose you missed that chapter? And while I've never been in combat, I think Mr. Hampton has earned the right to have every bit of bravado you chastise him for. You also seem to forget the entire chapter about his stint in Egypt - he hardly seems the so-called bigoted far right kind of guy if he did his best to help train a bunch of idiots in Egypt how to fly an F-16!


Miles I think that bravado goes with the territory - you probably can't be a fighter pilot without thinking you are God's gift to aviation - and I don't begrudge him that. The statements "Bush loving" and "Arab trashing" are well supported in the text. If you think that "training a bunch of idiots in Egypt" is not Arab trashing then, we probably have a different definition of what it means to trash other nationalities. Yes, it did sound like the Egyptian pilots weren't very good, and maybe he was right to call them out on that, but that wasn't his only example of "Arab trashing" as I recall it.

What you see as a bit of bravado, I see as bravado plus contempt.

I thought it was pretty good memoir and I gave it four stars. Good for what it reveals, but not only in a good sense. I don't regret reading it.


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