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Savannah Book Festival: Dan Hampton

Dan Hampton appears 1:30 p.m. this Saturday at Trinity United Methodist Church.

A DECORATED combat pilot who retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel, Dan Hampton has built quite a second career for himself as a best-selling author.

Best known for his memoir Viper Pilot: A Memoir of Air Combat, Hampton writes from his perspective as a veteran of the Iraq War, the Gulf War, and the Kosovo conflict.

His newest book, Chasing the Demon, chronicles the leadup to the breaking of the sound barrier in the years after WWII.

Most Americans know of the exploits of famed American test pilot Chuck Yeager from Tom Wolfe’s novel (later movie), The Right Stuff.

But Hampton says the story didn’t necessarily go down that way. We talked to him ahead of his appearance this weekend at the Savannah Book Festival.

Most Americans associate Chuck Yeager with breaking the sound barrier, mostly from The Right Stuff. Your book says a close look at history shows that Yeager wasn’t actually the first to break the sound barrier, it was a pilot named George Welch.

The Right Stuff was slanted toward Yeager, but it's definitely more complicated than that. Nobody's taking away anything from Yeager. Nothing I write is meant to detract from his accomplishments. But he wasn't the first.

Also if you look at the aviation side of it, Yeager is flying a rocket. The X-1 was basically a research tool. But Welch was flying a true jet fighter off the deck. 

It’s been an open secret all these years. A lot of it is whoever gets the best press. Welch never got the credit he deserved, and he wasn’t the kind of guy to seek the limelight for himself. I see this as more a case of credit being given where it’s due.

Welch is a fascinating guy in and of himself.

Welch was actually one of the only two American pilots to get airborne during the Pearl Harbor attack. They were hungover! When the Japanese attacked, he and his buddy drove to the alert strip. They were still half-dressed in tuxedoes from the night before. You can see this in the otherwise horrible movie Pearl Harbor with Ben Affleck (laughs).

There are anecdotes of pilots in WWII briefly breaking the sound barrier while engaged in air combat, usually in steep dives. Did this actually happen or is it mostly apocryphal?

We don't really know, precisely because they weren't test pilots. They were busy fighting. The other part you have to keep in mind is the instruments at the time weren't calibrated for that kind of precision at that high a speed. So there's no way to get an accurate measurement in those kinds of situations, with those instruments. I wouldn't be surprised if the Germans may have done it in their jet fighter, the ME-262.

There's a lot of revisionist history about the Cold War, but it was a strategic victory, accomplished without the feared nuclear war. Now people mostly concentrate on how expensive it was.

Which was still a heck of a lot better than the alternative! It was indeed a strategic victory, with very little loss of life, especially compared to any kind of nuclear exchange.

That said, we came closer than people recognize to WWIII. In the period in which the book takes place, the Russians were in an expansive mode. I’m not a warmonger. I believe the best way to fight an ideology is with another ideology. Sometimes though, there’s no alternative.

As a fighter pilot, what do you think of the Air Force’s new drive toward Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, i.e. drones?

A lot of these ideas come from what we call the “Shiny Shoes” Air Force — the desk jockeys who sit at computers all day coming up with new ideas, mostly divorced from reality.

Think about it: Would you get into an airliner without a human pilot? Would you really? We can’t make even make self-driving cars work!

There’s definitely a purpose for human pilots. Until they can come up with a computer than can do a trillion calculations a second, like my brain and your brain can, we will always need them.