Defense Media Network

Book Review – How the Helicopter Changed Modern Warfare

By Walter J. Boyne; Pelican Books; 352 pages

“No new military helicopter has been procured for the U.S. armed services since 1990,” writes Walter J. Boyne, who may very well be the world’s premier author on aviation. In his new book published this month, Boyne provides a handy history of military rotary wing aircraft. He follows the design, development and operational and combat use of the helicopter from the Sikorsky YRB-4B Hoverfly in Burma in 1944 to the helicopter’s potential successor, the tilt-rotor CV-22 Osprey in Afghanistan in 2010. Anyone searching for a breezy, accessible history of military helicopters will want this volume.

Anyone searching for a breezy, accessible history of military helicopters will want this volume.

Boyne, a retired Air Force colonel, bomber pilot, former director of the National Air and Space Museum and National Aviation Hall of Fame inductee, has given us a book that’s valuable as both an entertainment and a work of reference. But he has also done more: Boyne points out that while the helicopter “has significantly changed the face of modern warfare” it has done so in spite of “a combination of factors, including arguments over the machine’s role in the military,” and in recent years “no radical advances in helicopter performance that materialized in production aircraft.”


How the Helicopter Changed Modern Warfare

How the Helicopter Changed Modern Warfare, by Walter Boyne; Pelican Books, 352 pages

How the Helicopter Changed Modern Warfare tells us that the helicopter has served well in the past but that new technologies – perhaps even new pioneers, in the tradition of Igor Sikorsky, Frank Piasecki and Charles Kaman – are needed today. Boyne discusses the pros and cons of tilt-rotor technology without coming down firmly on either side. Even without tilt-rotor, however, he insists that upgrading old helicopters is no substitute for using the latest science to field new ones. Boyne is not happy that American military members go to war today in Chinooks, Sea Knights and Pave Hawks that were designed before they were born. We need to learn from history, he writes. Air cavalrymen equipped with UH-1D Hueys changed warfare in the four-day Battle of Ia Drang Valley in South Vietnam in November 1965, yet many present-day methods and techniques remain unchanged since that time. Rescue forces flying HH-3E Jolly Green Giants performed brilliant combat search and rescue (CSAR) missions deep inside North Vietnam, yet CSAR forces performed less well in Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The AH-64 Apache emerged from a troubled past to become a world-class battlefield helicopter in Desert Storm, but the Army‘s efforts today to field a newer-technology combat helicopter have foundered.


Learning From Lessons

This reviewer, also the author of a recent helicopter book, learned a lot from Boyne’s history of military helicopters. Boyne’s arguments for and against various helicopter and tilt-rotor technologies are thought-provoking and timely, although he mostly leaves it to us to draw our own conclusions. It would have been nice to have greater specificity in the captions for the 77 photographs, a few of which are perhaps a little too familiar. Perhaps the greatest strides in military rotary wing capabilities were taken in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the U.S. Army formed the 11th Air Assault Division and pioneered the battlefield use of transport helicopters, especially the UH-1 Iroquois, or Huey. Boyne rightly narrates the story of these revolutionary changes in the Army, which occurred in part because Marines had been way ahead of soldiers in fielding helicopters in Korea. In 1965, the 11th Air Assault was redesignated when it hoisted the flag of the 1st Cavalry Division under Maj. Gen. (later Lt. Gen.) Harry W. O. Kinnard. These developments led us into Ia Drang, where American air cavalrymen riding in UH-1Ds proved beyond dispute that disciplined, hardened North Vietnamese regulars could be defeated. Boyne covers all of this, but might have devoted more space, especially to Kinnard’s contribution.

Ia Drang Valley

1st Cavalry soldiers disembark from a UH-1 Iroquois helicopter in the Ia Drang Valley of South Vietnam. The UH-1 and the air cavalrymen of 1st Cavalry Division pioneered the battlefield use of the helicopter. U.S. Army photo

Boyne has such a keen mind and a quick pen that he can make any subject – yes, even helicopters – seem interesting. How the Helicopter Changed Modern Warfare should be required reading at U.S. military service schools and for anyone who wants to be both informed and provoked. And, by the way, about the quote above that begins this review: The U.S. Army’s UH-72A Lakota doesn’t qualify as a “new military helicopter” because it’s essentially a civilian aircraft designed for non-combat use in a benign environment.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...