This Week’s Book Review - Air Force Disappointments, Mistakes, and Failures

Looking for a good read? Here is a recommendation. I have an unusual approach to reviewing books. I review books I feel merit a review. Each review is an opportunity to recommend a book. If I do not think a book is worth reading, I find another book to review. You do not have to agree with everything every author has written (I do not), but the fiction I review is entertaining (and often thought-provoking) and the non-fiction contain ideas worth reading.

Book Review

Sometimes an Eagle Hatches a Turkey

Reviewed by Mark Lardas
April, 21, 2024

“Air Force Disappointments, Mistakes, and Failures: 1940-1990,” by Kenneth P. Werrell, Texas A&M University Press. March, 2024, 312 pages, $55.00 (Hardcover)

Over its existence the US Army Air Force and its successor, the US Air Force produced war-winning and spectacularly successful aircraft. Among them were the P-51, B-29, B-52, C-130, and F-15. Not all their aircraft were eagles. There were turkeys in the mix; even a few goose eggs.

“Air Force Disappointments, Mistakes, and Failures: 1940-1990,” by Kenneth P. Werrell, looks at the flip side of the coin. It examines not-so-great entries to the Air Force inventory. It includes missiles and electronics, too.

Some aircraft included in this collection are those you might expect to see. The YP-75 Eagle, a fighter produced from bits and pieces of other aircraft by automaker General Motors, set a benchmark for awful. So did the parasite fighter XF-85 Goblin. The nuclear-powered NB-36H takes a prize for the “what were they thinking?” award.

Others, like the B-58 Hustler, XB-70 Valkyrie, and Rockwell B-1A were spectacular aviation achievements. They just lacked a meaningful role after newer technology made them impractical. Others were good ideas that did not pan out. These included the XB-40, the escort version of the B-17 or the idea of putting ICBMs on railcars. A few, like the F-104 Starfighter, were downright dangerous, even if commercially successful.

Yet most were not outright failures or mistakes, Werrell shows. They were disappointments. They came in second best to a better aircraft, like the B-32 did to the B-29 or the B-70 did with the B-52. Or they were forced on the Air Force to fit a mission the Air Force did not fill. Navy dive bomber in World War II (the Douglas A-24 and A-25 – aka the Dauntless and Helldiver in the Navy) or the F-111 were examples. In World War II ground support was better done by fighter-bombers and the F-111 simply attempted too much by being all things to all services.

Werrell provides 26 case studies involving nearly fifty different aircraft, missiles, and weapons systems that failed to deliver the goods for the Air Force. Each one goes into the thinking that started each project. He then traces what went wrong and why. He shows the importance of function. If the aircraft fills an unneeded function or cannot fill it better than other candidates, disappointment follows.

“Air Force Disappointments, Mistakes, and Failures” is a fascinating book. While mainly of interest to those fascinated by aircraft, it is a marvelous examination of the engineering process.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is


That “Swiss Army Knife” approach to military equipment may be a good proxy for our institutional & societal decline. Apparently, during the 1950s & 60s, there were generally multiple aircraft under development for various different roles (some of which, as the author notes, fell short).

With the ossification of the military, the growing failure of the Political Class, the rise of the bureaucrats, and increasing centralization in manufacturing, we have ended up focusing most resources on only a few dubious aircraft like the F-35 which were intended to fill all roles – decades in development to produce an overly-expensive, arguably under-performing “stealth” aircraft.

It does not help that China claims to have been able to develop new methods for detecting “stealth” aircraft much faster than our creaking bureaucracy can develop new planes.
Chinese Breakthrough: Radar Technology Boosts Detection of U.S. F-22 Stealth Jets by 60,000 Times! (


Well, China. Can you trust them?

Convincing us that our stealth aircraft are useless and abandoning them is a cheap way to remove them from the playing field. It is an old trick. In WWII the British convinced the Germans they were tracking U-boat by using the Mextox radar detecting antennae to locate a U-boat. It was theoretically possible, but impossible in practice. The German scientists concentrated on the theoretical part and U-boats stopped using them. Meanwhile radar-equipped British aircraft were able to attack German U-boat, which would previously been warned by Mextox without warning.


I guess I trust them about as much as I trust my own government. FYI:

China retains crown in scientific papers, widens lead over U.S. - Nikkei Asia.

Also, a large percentage (a majority?) of STEM papers from American institutions are authored by people with Chinese names. I just assume that China knows everything that America knows when it comes to tech and defense.


It’s an easy assumption. That does not make it true though. China has a long history of talking big, but failing to deliver - just like Russia. If you want to believe them, be my guest. Bad information leads to bad decisions, though. Consider the effect that Pinkerton’s assessment of Confederate strength had on McClellan’s field decisions in the American Civil War.


Comparing China to the Confederacy is like comparing apples to bicycles. Believe whatever you want, but I have a sinking feeling that hubris will be America’s downfall.


I’d worry more about it if I hadn’t heard this song before. Different words, but same song. This was back in the late 1970s when I was in my early 20s. Except then it wasn’t China, it was the Soviet Union. I was told we had already lost to them, we were just waiting for them to sweep us off the board and the best thing the US could do was negotiate the best terms of surrender we could. Reagan comes along in 1980 and reframes the issue as “we win, they lose.” By the time the decade ended, so had the Soviet Union.

China is in much the same position today as the Soviets were in the late 1970s. On the surface they seem invincible and invulnerable. But they are in the middle of a demographic collapse. There economy is in shambles due to Xi’s policies. They have killed the golden goose called Hong Kong in pursuit of political purity. High tech and slave labor really don’t work well together. They can imitiate but not really innovate. Give it 10 years and all that will combine to make China not a has-been but a never-was. Like Argintina, promise without delivery.

If you want to worry about a threat to American primacy worry about a real threat to it: India. They now have a free-market economy. They have a highly-literate and highly educated population. They have adequate resources. They have better demographics than both China (a basket case) and the US (below replacement without immigration). India has positive population growth without a population explosion - like US growth in the 1960s.

China is headed for the same destination as the Soviet Union. The US might end up there, too, but it won’t be due to China. It will be do to us, and this country being unable to outdo India.


Go to most technical conferences these days, and that is what you see. The papers not presented by authors with Chinese names are often presented by researchers from India. There will, of course, be a few papers presented by white women on behalf of teams with a lot of Chinese & Indian names.

At a recent conference, I got into a discussion with two academics about the research environment in US STEM universities. There are almost no US-born graduates in post-graduate research. The academics agreed part of the issue was that US technical graduates can get reasonably-compensated jobs and start paying off their heavy student loans, which they find preferable to adding further debt in a graduate program. The female academic also noted a lack of “passion” for their discipline on the part of most US STEM graduates. When it comes to hiring new academic staff in STEM disciplines, she noted that 90% of the applicants are foreign-born – which says volumes about the future of US universities.

Using Google Scholar these days, it is surprising how many Chinese-language papers are thrown up in technical disciplines. Bottom line is that it would be foolish for us to under-estimate the rising challenge from Chinese-based research.

The other side of this issue is that knowledge flows fairly freely around the globe. It does not matter where a discovery is made; what counts is how rapidly that discovery can be put to good use. Back in the 20th Century, the US used to lead Europe in that regard, with European discoveries being commercialized first in the US. Let’s not rule out the possibility that an over-lawyered, over-regulated, de-industrialized US is losing (has already lost?) that edge to China with its much larger manufacturing infrastructure.


With tongue somewhat in cheek, let me offer up this review of an underground movie: “India: the worst country on Earth”.
FILM REVIEW India: The Worst Country on Earth (2024) (

From the review:
However those who bear through to reach the title and hear the inspired musical choice of Open Your Eyes by Guano Ape soon see the sight of men touching live high-voltage wires, dead bodies floating in the Ganges, dozens of deaths of stupidity, multiple rapes, scatalogical and hygenic horrors straining comprehenision, and even worse things I cannot bring myself to describe.

India apparently has its problems too. I wonder if the country fated to become the next world leader is actually Brazil?


Add to this that there appears to be a large outflow of young, educated Chinese, tired (:slight_smile: ?scared) of Tsi’s foolish party policies.

China, like Russia before it, has some advantages. It is NOT, however, at least IMM, the juggernaut everyone seems to be afraid of currently.