Book Review - Master of the Air: William Tunner and the Success of Military Airlift (RCAF Journal - SUMMER 2016 - Volume 5, Issue 3)

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Master of the Air: William Tunner and the Success of Military Airlift

By Robert A. Slayton

Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2010
303 pages
ISBN 978-8173-1692-1

Review by Dr. Richard Goette

Master of the Air is a biographical study of the American air force champion for air mobility / strategic airlift, Lieutenant-General William Tunner. Robert Slayton, a professor in the Department of History at the Wilkinson College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Chapman University, California, calls Tunner “the father of military airlift.”[1] This is an appropriate label, given that this remarkable American air force general played a key and often leading role in some of the most important airlift endeavours of the mid-20th century, including “the Hump” in Burma, the Berlin Airlift, Korea as well as the development and growth of the United States Air Force’s (USAF’s) air mobility community.

Within the pages of this book, Slayton outlines Tunner’s long career in strategic airlift and, in particular, his constant endeavour to make military air mobility an equal partner to some of the other, more kinetic, air force communities such as fighters and bombers. In so doing, the author colours Tunner in an almost Billy Mitchell-esque manner. Tunner is compared not only to the famous American air power theorist’s more inclusive interpretation of air power but also to his staunch and even crusading advocacy of what he believed in—which in Tunner’s case was airlift. Indeed, Slayton calls Tunner a “transformation agent,”[2] emphasizing individuals as agents of change for institutions “who challenge the very core of the institutions’ beliefs and practices and force them to change for the better.”[3] However, Slayton does not focus on Tunner at the expense of others; indeed, the author effectively demonstrates a crucial aspect of leadership—having capable subordinates (what Slayton in Chapter 4 calls “Tunner’s Men”) on one’s staff in order to enable a leader and their mission. Tunner was not one who suffered fools, but neither was he an overly authoritarian leader, as he also recognized the importance of healthy competition between aircrews to increase efficiency and that humour was essential in maintaining morale.

Although Slayton is clearly an admirer of Tunner, he does not back away from directing criticism at the USAF general where it is due. In particular, Slayton highlights how Tunner’s incredible work ethic also meant that he expected the same from those under his command, resulting in his tendency to overwork his personnel and the subsequent development of morale problems. Furthermore, Tunner’s grand vision to justify airlift as an equal partner sometimes blinded him to other pressing issues, such as being too focused on “getting immense supplies of goods in, and not stopping to take them out.”[4] One is also reminded of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s (RCAF’s) own Air Marshal Gus Edwards when reading that Tunner worked so hard it literally made him sick.[5]

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The highlight of the book is Slayton’s examination of Tunner’s role in Operation VITTLES during the Berlin Airlift, which it could be argued is one of the greatest demonstrations of the utility of air power (especially air mobility). Slayton makes the interesting point that the Soviets, based on the Luftwaffe’s experience at Stalingrad in 1942–43, downplayed the ability of airlift to sustain a surrounded force or population.[6] He also desires to set the record straight in that, although General Lucius Clay got most of the credit for the Berlin Airlift, the true genius behind it was Tunner: “He became the architect of the airlift, the true victor of Berlin in those dark skies of 1948 and 1949.”[7] Tunner devised the intricate system of cargo flights into and out of the beleaguered city and, in so doing, developed a variety of procedures and best practices for military and civilian aviation for years to come (i.e., uniform parallel runway orientation).

Much like the concept of the indivisibility of air power, which dictates that the military use of aviation should be handled by those with expertise (airmen and airwomen), Slayton also highlights Tunner’s beliefs that airlift cannot be handled by an ordinary air force officer and that the individual has to be specifically trained in airlift—by those who totally know what they are doing.[8] This also includes command and control of air mobility resources: Tunner’s “experience in Korea had confirmed the notion that all military transport should be centralized under one command and that only people experienced in this field should be in charge.”[9] Another interesting aspect of Slayton’s book is his emphasis on the business/professional aspect of Tunner; Slayton explains that the USAF general saw the running of an airlift command organization and mission as being like running a business.

At times the author tends to go off topic by focusing too much on the context without tying back to how it relates to Tunner himself (i.e., several pages of context without mention of Tunner). In these cases, however, Slayton paints an interesting picture of the events that surrounded Tunner’s career, in particular the Burma Hump airlift and the Berlin Airlift. Though the author describes in detail Tunner’s advocacy for airlift, describing it as one of the air force’s “core missions,”[10] Slayton does not go so far as to explicitly identify air transport as a mainstream form of air power.

Nevertheless, such shortcomings are minimal. Master of the Air is a meticulously researched book that is very readable. Slayton has made a vital contribution to the history of military air transport and the study of air power. In particular, this book is a welcome addition to the literature that otherwise largely focuses on more “kinetic” forms of air power. This book is, therefore, highly recommended for students of air power, aviation enthusiasts and, in particular, professionals in the air mobility community.


Dr. Richard Goette lectures on air power and teaches in the Defence Studies Department at the Canadian Forces College. He is also an Associate Editor-in-Chief of Airforce magazine, the official publication of the RCAF Association.

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Abbreviations

RCAF―Royal Canadian Air Force
USAF―United States Air Force

Notes

[1]. Robert A. Slayton, Master of the Air: William Tunner and the Success of Military Airlift (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2010), 2.  (return)

[2]. Robert A. Slayton, Master of the Air: William Tunner and the Success of Military Airlift (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2010), 1.  (return)

[3]. Robert A. Slayton, Master of the Air: William Tunner and the Success of Military Airlift (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2010), 3.  (return)

[4]. Robert A. Slayton, Master of the Air: William Tunner and the Success of Military Airlift (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2010), 155.  (return)

[5]. Robert A. Slayton, Master of the Air: William Tunner and the Success of Military Airlift (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2010), 212.  (return)

[6]. Robert A. Slayton, Master of the Air: William Tunner and the Success of Military Airlift (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2010), 87.  (return)

[7]. Robert A. Slayton, Master of the Air: William Tunner and the Success of Military Airlift (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2010), 2.  (return)

[8]. Robert A. Slayton, Master of the Air: William Tunner and the Success of Military Airlift (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2010), 168.  (return)

[9]. Robert A. Slayton, Master of the Air: William Tunner and the Success of Military Airlift (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2010), 231.  (return)

[10]. Robert A. Slayton, Master of the Air: William Tunner and the Success of Military Airlift (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2010), 3.  (return)

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