On Fighter Jets

I’ve been a jet anorak for as long as I can remember. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, the sort of place you’d immediately describe as ‘quiet.’ But every 10 minutes or so, an RAF Tornado from the nearby military training ground would howl over the house, ripping through the silence. As a dedicated Thunderbirds enthusiast, I loved it, and spent almost all my spare time teaching myself the difference between MiGs and Mirages, Harriers and Eagles. 

On 14 September 2001 (I remember this because it was a Friday – and, it now occurs to me, roughly a month after I’d first seen Roy Lichtenstein’s Whaam!), I was out in the car with my mother when the radio was suddenly drowned out by a dull but almighty noise. We stopped the car and got out. Above us the sky was Ben-Day dotted with transport aircraft and fighter planes, which I recognised as American. It didn’t surprise me in the slightest when three weeks later the US Air Force attacked Afghanistan.

I didn’t have the language or self-importance to express it then, but what we’d seen was the ultimate expression of post-war America’s moral crusade. Obviously, a nuclear weapon would have the edge over an air armada – but a missile in a silo (or, for that matter, a mushroom cloud) is never going to have the heroic symbolism of a fighter pilot in a supersonic jet.

But what was it that attracted me to jets? For a start, they’re attractive things. It’s a happy coincidence that aerodynamic shapes are so appealing to look at – or are they? I’ve always wondered whether defence ministries specify that new designs must be photogenic. I’d be amazed if they didn’t, because the earliest jet fighters went through a real ugly duckling stage. The first one to enter service, the Messerschmitt Sturmvögel, was a plane that bore more resemblance to a garden gnome than a bird of prey, or indeed any other metaphorically apt predator. Then there were the pug-like interceptors of the Korean War, the MiG-15 and the Sabre, their open nose ventilators gurning like dead mackerel.

But pretty soon, something must’ve clicked. If you’re going to have a weapon that makes for good propaganda, you should probably sex it up a bit. The next generation of jets had the Phwoooaaar factor alright. They were the sports cars of the sky – the American Starfighter (nicknamed the ‘Widowmaker’ due to its unfortunate tendency to explode in mid air), the French Mirage, the Indian Marut, to name a few – in appearance at least, all were visual shorthand for the space age.  

Beyond this, I suppose it’s the idea of speed that makes even the ugliest jets so alluring. To boldly go faster and higher than anyone else’s fighters was the very macho design imperative. And for the young men who flew them, that was about as sexy a job as the mid 20th century had to offer.

‘The mythological particularity of the jet pilot,’ argued Roland Barthes in Mythologies, ‘is that he embodies none of the romantic or individualist elements [of the traditional hero].’ Had he lived another six years, I’ve no doubt he’d have gone to see Top Gun and changed his mind. (Barthes was rigorous in his efforts to keep up with popular culture. Read his Nouvel Observateur article about Sister Sledge – it’s a riot.) Stripped of the Harold Faltermeyer soundtrack and the stupid nicknames, it’s basically a film about the chivalric code. 

I’m sure a lot of pilots subscribed to the idea that they were knights in fireproof armour. Of course, this is entirely detached from the rest of the stuff that happens in a war. When you’re an obnoxious 22 year-old in possession of enough ordnance to flatten a small town, vanity becomes a problem.

No work of art illustrates the detachment and deadly amour-propre of the fighter pilot better than James Salter’s first novel The Hunters, published in 1956. The plot revolves around a squadron of F-86 Sabres (like the one in Whaam!) during the Korean War. Their role in the conflict is simple – to shoot down as many Chinese jets as possible. For the American flyers, this is more a sports competition than a war, and the frustrated rivalry between them is remarkably juvenile.

Cleve, the protagonist, is 31 – and already his time as a pilot is coming to an end. A veteran pilot, he has expectations forced on him and to his horror, he finds himself failing to live up to them. The repellent Pell – a much younger pilot – shoots down MiG after MiG as Cleve languishes unblooded. There is barely a nod to the reasons why the pilots are in Korea, let alone to the destruction wrought by the war. The pilots live a sealed existence, rotating between their airfield, combat missions and periods of leave in Tokyo. The frozen ground and bombed-out towns don’t make much of an impression from 45,000 feet – they are just so much ‘cracked icing on pale French pastry.’

Just as Salter’s pilots were disengaged from the reality at ground level, so they themselves were dehumanised when seen from below. As a Cold War symbol, the American (or Russian) jet was a handy icon – look at a painting like Gerhard Richter’s Phantom Abfangjäger of 1964 and you think of politics, not pilots.

The image depicts a flight of American Phantom aircraft cruising through the clouds, softened at the edges by the blurring typical in his work of the period. For his source image, Richter used a photograph from a West German magazine, showing some of the jets that were keeping the Federal Republic safe from the Soviet threat. They’re like Max Ernst’s Murdering Airplane, but stripped of its fragile and grotesque humanity.

It can’t have been for nothing that Richter chose to paint planes with such a name. His country was less than 20 years clear of the Holocaust, and the ghouls of the Old Germany were still floating around – as were American airplanes, only a few generations down from the ones that obliterated Dresden and Hamburg. A year after he finished Phantom Abfangjäger, it took on a new significance when the Phantom became notorious for its role as a ground attack weapon in the Vietnam War.

But let’s forget symbolism for a moment. The truth is that the jet fighter is now obsolete. The dogfights of The Hunters and the comics that inspired Lichtenstein’s jet paintings were a thing of the past by the 1960s, as short-range missiles (which were still actually pretty long-range) replaced machine guns. Now, surface-to-air rockets can perform the job of an interceptor jet better than a fighter, and drones are replacing piloted aircraft as ground attack weapons. Imagine the bewilderment of future generations when confronted with a film like Lewis Gilbert’s Reach for the Sky: ‘What, you mean they actually used to send people up in those things?’

You sense the Futurists would have loved these developments. Hollywood producers probably less so. Can you imagine a Top Gun re-make set in the Drone Command Center outside Las Vegas? You might as well write a script about Tom Cruise playing Flight Simulator while eating sandwiches at his desk. Whatever the ethics of drone warfare (which, although even further removed from human involvement than conventional bombing, don’t seem that much worse to me) the future of fighter pilot fiction is in the past.

Two epitaphs for the jet age are Fiona Banner’s installation Harrier and Jaguar and Hidden, John Kippin’s photograph of a crashed English Electric Lightning. The latter shows a wreck, its wings torn off as if it were a fly captured by a sadistic child, its fuselage riddled with bullet holes. It lies tilted on bleak moorland, the air intake on its nose gaping open like the mouth of a beached whale. Banner went one better and actually put her eponymous jets into the room with you. She tipped the Jaguar on its side and hung the Harrier jump jet from the ceiling, like a dead shark on a fishing boat.

The first thing that strikes you is just how colossal they are, nearly as big as the model of the blue whale in the Natural History Museum. They’re impotent, these monsters, completely incapable of performing their basic function – which is, lest anyone forget, to blow people up. At the same time, they are lithe rather than cumbersome – and somehow all the more menacing than they might be in the air.  With the Harrier in particular, there’s an echo of Anselm Kiefer’s history paintings – its leaden grey colour scheme making the jet almost magnetically heavy. One critic compared it to Mussolini’s corpse, dangling from the rafters of Milan station.

I read both works as riffs on ‘Ozymandias’ (with hints of Nash’s Totes Meer thrown in for good measure) – and that sense of obsolescence will, I think, only become more palpable as combat aircraft are phased out of service. Banner’s jets have now been melted down and cast into ingots. The last I heard, Kippin’s wreckage was still in the same place he found it – at Otterburn military training ground, near where I watched the US Air Force en route to start its longest war.