U.S. Air Force: A Complete History

Lieutenant Dik Alan Daso, Hugh Lauter Levin Assoc., Andrews Air Force Base, Md., 2006, $75

Marking the sixth decade of what is now the undisputed master of world air power, U.S. Air Force: A Complete History comes close to living up to its title. The book’s backbone is a timeline of events, leading from the origins of flight and its military application through the Air  Force’s evolution from an intelligence branch of the U.S. Army Signal Corps to the U.S. Army Air Service (during World War I), Army Air Corps, Army Air Forces (World War II) and its reorganization as an independent military arm and beyond. Nearly half its 623 pages deal with pre–Air Force history, but there are plenty of achievements to log from then on. Besides a succession of stunningly rapid advances in the technological state of the art, this impressive tome covers the application of that technology, both in combat and in such oft-overlooked humanitarian contributions as airlifting vital supplies to scenes of war or natural disasters. Actions that earned special honors, such as the Medal of Honor or the Mackay Trophy, are individually noted in their chronological turn.

Fleshing out the bones of the basic timeline are pithy essays focusing on key figures and milestones in the Air Force’s past and current incarnations. Contributors to these more detailed interludes include authors familiar to longtime Aviation History readers. Walter J. Boyne describes the Americanbuilt Liberty-engine version of the de Havilland D.H.4 and the careers of World War I ace of aces Edward V. Rickenbacker and intercontinental ballistic missile strategist Bernard A. Schriever. Carroll V. Glines contributes entries on the first world flight in 1924, the airmail emergency of 1934 and James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle. Smithsonian lighter-than-air expert Tom Crouch gets into the act with a look at “The First Military Airmen,” covering reconnaissance balloons from Revolutionary France’s unprecedented 1st Compagnie d’Aérostiers in 1794 and Thaddeus Lowe’s Enterprise of 1861 through the kite balloons of World War I. The space program, which did not fall within the Air Force’s bailiwick but in which numerous Air Force officers played a major role, is also woven into the narrative.

Hard-core buffs may notice more than one minor error or discrepancy, but the overall scope of the book is impressive. With press time nigh, the timeline concludes with June 7, 2006, when two F-16 Fighting Falcons used precision weapons to kill Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, and one of his key lieutenants near Baqubah. Although that ends the book on an upbeat note, it also serves as a reminder that even the most current chapter in the Air Force’s history is not quite complete: Zarqawi has been replaced (perhaps twice since then), Baqubah remains in dispute and the war in Iraq is still a bloody work in progress. The Air Force will certainly continue to play an active role.

Leather-bound and profusely illustrated throughout with photographs and paintings, some familiar and some new, U.S. Air Force: A Complete History is a handsome, hefty volume and a treasure trove of information.


Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.