There have been documentaries and movies about the U.S. Air Force and historic air combat missions, but never has there been such a detailed look at these unsung air battles as The History Channel’s Dogfights. Advanced computer animation, military archival footage, interviews with historians and pilots, and THC’s master narrator Phil Crowley combine to make the show a fascinating and often exciting look at an often overlooked but incredibly crucial aspect of war.
One of the most important evolutions of modern warfare was the invention of the jet fighter. Aircraft were used before the jet fighter’s invention, but these planes were used for reconnaissance or transport rather than as weapons. The jet fighter signified the way wars were soon going to be fought: fast and hard. This wasn’t just measured in speed or ammunition caliber, but in technological research advances as well.
The show’s beauty is its comprehensive examination of a particular dogfight. There are many facets to a dogfight and the show really observes them to give the air battles context not just as stand-alone engagements but also as key encounters that do influence the war’s outcome. (In “The Zero Killer” the episode recounts the first test at Wake Island of the new American naval strategy of employing aircraft carriers over battleships as the fleet’s main strike force).
One of these facets, of course, is the aircraft itself. These advanced planes are broken down by ability and equipment, which the planes’ pilots know front and back. And for the most part, the pilots know the planes of their enemies as well. At this point, the planes themselves, to an extent, cancel each other out, and the difference becomes the abilities and the experience of the pilots.
It’s here where Dogfights shines because any other show might have been resigned to simply showing recreations of the battles, but Dogfights also includes interviews by surviving pilots and historians to tell the battles like old-fashioned war stories with the computer generated recreations serving as replacements for our imagination. This not only makes the battles more exciting, but also gives you insight into what was going through their heads at specific moments in the battle.
Remember, these dogfights lasted mere minutes whereas land battles could last days and sea battles took hours at the least, so living or dying meant making the right split-second decisions.
Another important facet is the show’s ability to simplify aviation (G-forces) and military terms (the "ace" title), and the science behind aeronautics. In the episode “MiG Alley” a specific wing design (slat replacement) in the F-86F is highlighted to show how it was made to match as closely as possible to the MiG 15’s greatest strength, which was its historically dominant maneuverability.
A natural inclination in looking back at historical events is asking what-if questions. Dogfights is no different and second guesses split-second decisions from the perspective of the surviving pilot and to a point ideas of the unlucky pilot. In “The Zero Killer” Japanese Warrant Officer Toshiyuki Sueda maneuvers his A6M Zero into an upward climb to shoot down his stalled enemy plane. He thinks it’s the underpowered F4F Wildcat that can’t handle the ascent, but doesn’t know it is really the high-powered F6F Hellcat that can handle the ascent with relative ease, which Ensign Robert Duncan skillfully uses to shoot down the Japanese ace.
Many of these episodes create famous dogfights during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, but a surprising inclusion is a famous Middle East encounter during the 1967 Six Day War. The best episode is “Death Of The Japanese Navy” which details the largest naval battle in history at the Battle of Leyte Gulf where a small U.S. navy fleet inflicts heavy damage to a much larger Japanese navy led by their flagship Yamato in order to protect the Allied Pacific fleet.
The DVD set includes two extras. One is the feature-length pilot “Dogfights: Greatest Air Battles” which really should be the set’s centerpiece. The pilot includes a much appreciated World War I dogfight recreation of U.S. Captain Eddie Rickenbacker’s battle against seven German planes, which is fascinating because WWI pilots helped establish original dogfighting maneuvers and tactics while flying what now seem like primitive bi-wing planes but were really advanced for their time. The other extra is the featurette “Dogfights: The Planes” which details many of the planes on the show like the P-51 Mustang and the ME 109. The details include the history of the plane including its milestones and its famous pilots, armaments, and design elements.
The more interesting episodes involve the pre-missile jet fighters because, to a point, the missile age has taken the dogfighting out of the pilot and into the plane. Pre-missile jet fighter pilots had to rely more on their gut instincts because they needed to be closer to their enemy for kill shots rather than needing to be in missile range for computer locks. That’s not to take anything away from more modern fighter pilots but instead is praise to their predecessors whose experiences have laid the framework for basic standard combat tactics and techniques. Dogfights is more thrilling than Top Gun.