In the 70s the USAF and RAF Were Both Tired, But RAF Pilots Were Better Off

The 1970s were a disastrous decade for the USAF. Having failed to defeat North Vietnam, there were serious issues that persisted. In his 2022 book And I Lived To Tell The Tales: The Life of a Fighter Pilot, retired USAF Lieutenant Colonel Ed Cobleigh, who flew the F-4 in Vietnam, said: “By the mid-1970s, USAF F-4 Phantoms were tired, many were worn out. Years of combat missions in Vietnam coupled with intensive training missions in the US all had taken their toll. At Nellis, we flew the newest F-4Es in the fleet but even there the aircraft were often unavailable awaiting repairs or spare parts. As the SEA [South East Asia] conflict wound down the constant protests against that sorry-ass war and against the US military in general also affected our USAF personnel. Morale, particularly among the enlisted troops, measured lower than whale poop. Spare parts were hard to come by. Trained maintainers left the service in droves for greener and less controversial pastures. It was not uncommon to plan for a flight of four F-4s at 0600 and find out after the pre-mission briefing there were only enough serviceable aircraft for a flight of two, or a flight of none. At least we got briefing practice.” (pp. 124-125). In contrast, Colonel Cobleigh noted that when he trained pilots in the Imperial Iranian Air Force, then a staunch ally, “[it] was like being in a brand-new air force. The jets were pristine, right from the factory, and well-maintained by enthusiastic troops. Everything on the air base was shiny new, no expense had been spared.” (Ibid.)

Like the USAF, the RAF went through hard times in the 70s, and Cobleigh knew all about it as an exchange pilot flying the Jaguar. He observed: “In the mid-1970s, the Royal Air Force experienced serious decline. The force’s point air defense interceptor, the English Electric Lightning, was obsolete as were its missiles. The most modern aircraft the RAF deployed, the F-4K Phantom, was wearing out and anyway wasn’t really up to the challenge.” (p. 190) So both the USAF and RAF were using worn out F-4s, so they had that in common. The new Jaguar had serious deficiencies at first, but eventually became a pretty good airplane. “Once the aerial refueling glitches were solved, RAF Jaguars deployed across the Atlantic, and clear across the US, to participate in Operation Red Flag at Nellis AFB. There they gained a reputation for expert low flying. During one full-scale exercise, [RAF pilot] Chris McCairns called, and was credited with, an air-to-air kill on a USAF F-15 Eagle, which pleased him to no end.” (p. 197) He concluded “What success the Jaguar achieved was due in large part to the dedication and professionalism of its RAF pilots.” (Ibid.)

Indeed, despite its material deficiencies, the American fighter pilot saw things he liked about the RAF. He noted for example that at the time it was still quite common for an RAF pilot to have only a high school education, unlike the USAF, so despite the fact that Britain is a class-based society, the unnecessary educational credentialism that plagues the US was slower to develop in the UK. (Ibid.) He also admired the fact that it was still possible for an RAF senior officer to continue his or her flying career long after his USAF peer would be in a desk job. As he put it “Once I finished the basic conversion course on how to fly the Jaguar, I went through a short course, upgrading to be an instructor, teaching other junior birdmen to fly the jet. My final check ride was with the boss, Wing Commander Johnny ‘Whiskey’ Walker. I found this to be extraordinary. In the USAF, by the time an officer becomes a wing commander, equivalent to a full colonel, whether or not they actually command a wing, his or her piloting skills have usually atrophied to such a degree that they are barely able to hack a notional combat mission profile. Service schools, staff tours, additional duties, liaison jobs, all take their toll of flying nous eroding that once-vital edge. Full Colonels rarely have the time nor the inclination to maintain top proficiency.” (p. 201) This indicates a greater level of overall airmanship at senior levels, and it is something the USAF should consider.

Finally, Colonel Cobleigh mentioned that there were fewer useless rules and regulations that the RAF fighter pilot must contend with. For example, he offered the following comparison to the USAF: “The USAF’s set of flight operations orders, including safety instructions, numbers hundreds of pages. It is several inches thick. The equivalent RAF manual is 12-13 pages. Instead of relying on detailed orders and rigid procedures, the RAF expects its pilots to demonstrate what it calls ‘Airmanship.’ Airmanship is the attribute of learning your job well and exercising good judgment in aerial flight. The Queen expects the individual pilot to make correct, informed choices and not to rely on volumes of regulations which may or may not apply. The typical USAF pilot is used to following ‘The Book’ and thus doesn’t develop the personal judgment needed to make reasoned risk/reward tradeoffs nor to think through unfamiliar situations.” (p.218) Thus the RAF pilot of that era was better prepared for the unexpected, which is an important virtue for a warrior. My contacts tell me that RAF pilots are still blessed to have more freedom to use their judgment in today’s world than their friends in the USAF, and that is a shame.

Like I said at the beginning, the 70s were a bad decade but in some ways the RAF was better off than the USAF. The RAF doesn’t use the Up or Out system, and it is therefore much less affected by careerism than its American ally. Its pilots are less bound by micromanaging regulations and are allowed to do what they think is best for the mission, which sadly is not the case with USAF pilots. I have often said that USAF pilots should be required to do an exchange tour with one of the highly professional air forces of the British Commonwealth, including the Royal Australian Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force, if they want to become generals someday. This way the very top brass would have exposure to another way of thinking, of doing things, and might learn that USAF could pick up a lot from its trusted allies and friends.


Ed Cobleigh, And I Lived to Tell the Tales: The Life of a Fighter Pilot. Check Six Books. Kindle Edition.

Roger Thompson is a research fellow at Dalhousie University’s Centre for the Study of Security and Development, the author of Lessons Not Learned: The US Navy’s Status Quo Culture, a former researcher at Canada’s National Defence Headquarters and Korea’s first Star Trek professor.