Review by Takis Diakoumis.
It’s sometimes hard to imagine the making of a fighter pilot, at least for someone like myself who has been in quiet awe of anyone who’s had the tenacity and aptitude to have those precious wings pinned to their chest. I would spy them at airshows as a child and into my teens and wonder if they were really good at maths, maybe super athletic, perhaps football stars. Of course, eventually you read enough to know that it’s some of that and sometimes none of that. In Call-Sign Kluso: An American Fighter Pilot in Mr. Reagan’s Air Force, Rick Tollini certainly had one thing going for him – a simple love of flying instilled by his father, an aircraft mechanic and pilot. Rick’s father, Mark, would take him and his brother up in a Piper Cub from the local aero club he helped establish working as a mechanic repairing battle-scarred machines returning from Vietnam. Access to these surplus aircraft made it easy for the group to build out their stable for what was otherwise a very expensive and inaccessible pastime. The classic ‘learning to fly a plane before you learn to drive a car’ was Rick’s story.
Shaped by the tumultuous American experience in the 1960s, Rick describes himself as ‘Kevin Arnold’ from The Wonder Years television show – an average all-American boy. His teen experiences through the 1970s are a relatable, if not extraordinary, story of curiosity and mischief with the local kids. It is in these early chapters of Call-Sign Kluso that you become very comfortable with Rick’s language and style, indeed every detail of his experience; it perhaps could have been you or anyone you knew growing up and shredding it around the neighbourhood in search of thrills and local legends. Rick makes a point through the early chapters of keeping the story connected to aviation, either through more Cub flights or as he begins to reveal an interest in the air war of the Second World War. This is the first time any hint is dropped that he perhaps secretly always wanted to be a fighter pilot – as he read the exploits of aces including Adolf Galland and Saburo Sakai – adding that he never thought he had what it takes.
After high school, Rick enrols in an aeronautics programme at San Jose State University and formally gets his pilot’s licence, later also working as a Certified Flying Instructor. The grand plan at this point is to help pave the way towards what he calls the ‘golden ticket’, an airline job. His plans are upended upon running into an old classmate with similar aspirations who chose to join the Air Force instead and was on his way to flying tankers as another route to the airline industry. Rick credits this almost serendipitous meeting with his old friend as the major turning point that alters his life’s trajectory.
Turning up at an Air Force recruiting office as an unlikely candidate, his long hippie-inspired hair and scruffy beard initially leaves the attending sergeant rather unenthused until Rick unloads his licences and ratings on the table as he ticks off the entry requirements for Officer Training School (OTS).
OTS is described as enjoyable but not the ‘Real Air Force’. Rick’s Real Air Force experience would eventually begin with flight training at Williams Air Force Base (AFB) in Arizona in the T-37 Tweet. As one of the few with any actual flying experience, he seems to breeze through this first phase as some students begin to drop off early. The T-37 portion was an important milestone as getting through would usually mean you were unlikely to ‘wash out’; after OTS and the T-37, most people who would struggle in subsequent phases were gone. The next huge leap was supersonic in the T-38 Talon. The Talon would finally separate the few as Rick aimed to establish himself in the top ten per cent of his class to help assure his first pick of aircraft assignment.
Aircraft assignments are normally based on the needs of the service but do take into account a candidate’s desired posting. Like everywhere else, your chances of getting what you really want are greatly enhanced by being really good; Rick Tollini was really good! Finishing in the top group of his class, he was lucky to get his choice of aircraft, the F-15 Eagle, if not the specific posting, ending up at Kadena AFB in Okinawa, Japan, instead of his first preference of Eglin AFB in Florida. As he would soon learn, the cream job was in fact at the ‘tip of the spear’; Kadena was the place to be for the best flying and training in F-15s.
Rick Tollini spent the next three years out of Kadena with the 12th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) honing his skills not only as a pilot but as a tactician and flight lead. His experience at Kadena would take him on war-like alert flying from Osan, in South Korea, to the mass composite force exercise Cope Thunder out of Clark AFB in the Philippines with allied air forces including Japan and Australia. Rick was on his way to mastery and among a few selected for Dissimilar Air Combat Training out of Nellis, that also included exposure and training against ‘real’ MiGs with the at-the-time super secret Constant Peg and the ‘Red Eagles’, as well being offered an Aggressor pilot slot out of Clark flying F-5s with the 26th Aggressor Squadron. He received a follow-on F-15 assignment, an ultra-rare gift given to a single pilot from the wing each year, and was on his way, finally, to Eglin AFB to join the Gorillas!
Rick arrived at the 58th TFS as a senior leader and qualified instructor operating under the direction of the squadron commander, the legendary Lieutenant-Colonel Frank ‘Paco’ Geisler, a former Red Eagle from the Constant Peg programme. Rick would ‘retrain’ with the Gorillas and master the classic Eagle four-ship interceptor mission as he was soon on his way to Weapons School at Nellis. As it is for most attending pilots, Nellis would be another critical turning point in his career. He continues his honest account, this time duelling with the best among them, winning plenty when manoeuvring against other Eagles but also coming up short in dissimilar basic flight manoeuvres against F-16s. Through candid debriefs with Nellis instructors, and applying lessons learnt, Rick would soon be so above his earlier game he could barely recognise his former self.
Action in Desert Shield and Desert Storm follows where Rick and the Gorillas, now a finely tuned team, score more kills than any other unit by a wide margin. He credits Paco’s leadership for delivering such an outstanding result, though it’s pretty clear Rick, as the key tactician in the squadron, deserves as much credit. Indeed, his input to the overall air superiority strategy of the war becomes critical. The pace picks up dramatically here as he delivers detailed accounts of the 58th shooting down MiG-29s and Mirage F1s, as well as his own MiG-25 victory. What is especially interesting here is his clear respect for the Iraqi pilots and their mounts as he takes nothing for granted and is even surprised by some of the tactics the Iraqis employed in the face of a massive coalition armada. His own duel with the MiG-25 is dramatically replayed as he encounters what was clearly an above average adversary in the huge Russian fighter.
With only brief direct reference in early parts of the book to the subtitle Mr Reagan’s Air Force, it’s not until the final chapters that you begin to understand the choice of words as Rick describes the post-Cold War reductions that would strip the Air Force bare, including closing down the 12th TFS at Kadena. His words echo so many other veteran accounts who graduated during the golden era force build-ups of the late seventies and eighties and then witnessed the enormous and rapid drawdown immediately after Desert Storm that continued for most of the nineties.
Call-Sign Kluso is without doubt one of the more honest and approachable modern fighter pilot accounts you are likely to find. This is a story about an average American boy, a ‘Kevin Arnold’, that would go on to achieve well above average results in the most unforgiving environment. Rick’s ability to always reflect with great candour on his own performance was a key element that allowed him to rise to the top among distinguished peers. His contribution to the overall success of not only his squadron but of the entire air-superiority mission during Desert Storm is felt to this day as tactics for force employment developed then endure. By the time I got to the end of the book, I had already established what my likely takeaway would be: Rick Tollini’s basic and unshakeable core humanity. It was in the way he told his story. It threads its way through the whole book, reaching a crescendo in the final chapters as he prepares to leave the Air Force and begins to come to terms with not only his sterling career but also with his storied MiG-25 encounter. Call-Sign Kluso traces the incredible journey of a teenage American boy through Air Force stardom and then back down to earth to reconnect with the world around him in a most profound way.