Articles dedicated to Fighter Mafia members Colonel John Boyd, Thomas P. Christie, Pierre M. Sprey, Chuck Myers, Colonel Everest Riccioni, and Bob Dilger with the Military Reformers and Boyd acolytes Harry Hillaker, Dr. Raymond Leopold, James Burton, Colonel Mike Wyly, and Franklin “Chuck” Spinney – the Fighter Mafia and Acolyte core; an independent, free-thinking group of pentagon analysts, pilots, and engineers that demonstrably changed the culture, theory, and production of air combat assets.
As the third installment in the Fighter Mafia series, (please read the first and second articles in series: Part 1 – John Boyd and Part 2 – Pierre Sprey), we learn about Thomas P. Christie, the mathematician behind Boyd, the secret weapon in the F-16 / A-10 procurement, and the wizard behind the pentagon curtain. Without Tom Christie, Boyd’s Energy Maneuverability calculations and development of F-16 /A-10 most likely would never have happened. Tom’s abilities, influence, and leadership directly impacted the future of our National Defense.
Reared with little money in Pensacola, Florida and the oldest of five siblings, Tom lacked a positive fatherly role model. His mother, a trained nurse from New York, and his father disputed often with Tom intervening for his mother. Attending a Catholic High School under a scholarship program – Tom possessed no desire to continue schooling, and after graduating in 1951, began working manual labor. However, during that summer after graduation, the Principal and Tom’s math teacher knew Tom possessed a capability for mathematics and arranged a scholarship to Spring Hill Jesuit College in Mobile, AL, then cajoled Tom into enrolling. Tom found his niche, performed exceptionally well during College, and graduated with a B.S. in Mathematics in 1955.
Without an immediate job prospect, Tom moved back home to his family home in Pensacola. An older friend of Tom’s arranged an interview for Tom with a contractor in charge of computers at Eglin AFB. Without means of transportation, Tom hitchhiked the 50 miles to his first job interview. Though qualified, the contractor viewed Tom as “draft bait” and declined to hire Tom. Tom’s friend then mentioned visiting the Eglin personnel hiring office upon which they subsequently hired Tom on the spot. With job in hand, Tom hitchhiked back home (how many of us could say that?).
Wizard at the Emerald Coast: Eglin
Tom began working with the computer group that had developed the bombing tables and weapons delivery manuals during WWII. In the Ballistics Division, Tom researched nuclear device delivery for Tactical Air Force airplanes like the F-100, F-105, and F-86 aircraft. The group prepared tables for pilots to plan missions for weapon delivery. These tables included settings for fire control systems to launch and escape. Tom specialized in developing the most effective maneuvers to escape the blast. The computer systems used took up an entire floor, required programming using octal machine language, converted into binary, put on paper tapes and fed into computer. Tom became extremely familiar with this process and excelled at the craft.
After six years working in the shop, management selected Tom for a Master’s Degree program of his choice. Looking to specialize in Applied Mathematics, two programs existed – University of Maryland and New York University. Tom chose NYU and received his degree in 9 months. Returning to Eglin early, management stated that they paid for a year of college and he was to go back for the rest of year. Tom spent another three months in New York enjoying the sites.
John Boyd Meets the Wizard
Once Tom completed the year in New York, within a week of reporting back to Eglin, Tom met John Boyd in September of 1962. Still living at his childhood home in Pensacola, Tom routinely participated in a carpool for the 50 mile daily trip, but decided to drive to work one Friday to attend the afternoon officer’s club Happy Hour. Upon walking into the club, Tom saw John Boyd with young officers around him, telling stories and captivating the crowd. Familiar with Boyd’s Aerial Attack Study, Tom introduced himself and later Boyd stopped at Tom’s table to talk.
Boyd listened to Tom speak of calculating aircraft escape maneuvers after a nuclear delivery, then began speaking about his ideas. Knowing that Tom had access to computers, Boyd stated he would be by Tom’s office “first thing” Monday morning. Though Tom laughed that off at the time, sure enough, Boyd was there waiting for Tom “first thing” Monday morning. They spent several hours discussing ideas of quantifying aircraft maneuvering capability, not only for the US inventory, but as a comparison tool between adversary and ally airframes. The Energy Maneuverability (EM) study began and continued for several years, but not without some hiccups.
Usage of computer time for the EM required assigning a project number against the work. Though Boyd tried several methods of getting his EM work approved officially, the Air Force declined to assign a project to him for this endeavor. Tom, the Wizard, provided the relief from this setback by using fake project numbers to get programmers, computer time, and graphics for their collaboration. Within a year, Boyd began using products generated from their work to brief those that would listen regarding this important and breakthrough concept.
In late 1963, early 1964, John and Tom found out about an Inspector General complaint regarding the unauthorized use of computers. Tactical Air Command learned that Boyd had been briefing this EM theory and sent the IG to investigate how Boyd developed this using resources he did not have access to with approval. Departing on a Friday afternoon, John and Tom decided on a short-notice trip to the west coast to visit airplane manufacturers such as Lockheed, Northrup, and North American to avoid the IG (Inspector General) process and show the Energy Maneuverability cards. During this trip, they met future Fighter Mafia member Chuck Myers, a Lockheed test pilot at the time.
Once back at Eglin, Boyd spoke with the IG. Essentially, the IG stated they knew computer time was being stolen, but could not track how. Boyd, unafraid of consequences, explained in detail how they assigned fake project numbers or assigned computer time to real projects. The IG asked why and Boyd explained he was tired of boys getting shot down in Vietnam. The IG, while understanding this aspect, validated in their report that computer time had been used without authorization, but the blame went to Tactical Air Command in that the work was not only beneficial, but extremely needed and should continue.
Emerald City Develops – Eglin Empire
During the time Tom and John developed EM, Tom also worked on other breakthrough projects. Namely, Tom’s group examined a tri-service project to quantify damage assessment and weapons effects. These results became published as the Joint Munitions Effectiveness Manuals, of which Pierre Sprey later visited Tom to review. As a civilian, Tom began to get young Air Force officers assigned to him producing these manuals as a result of the Vietnam spinup.
Second Lieutenant Robert “Bob” Speir happened to be one of those young officers. With loosely framed orders to report to Eglin, Bob arrived and as happenstance occurs, met a friend that asked Bob’s new assignment. Without specific guidance, Bob’s friend said to try and get asssigned to Tom Christie’s group. At the personnel office, they asked Bob if he knew his assignment and after mentioning Tom’s office, a First Lieutenant showed to take Bob to meet Tom.
As they arrived to the section, Bob noticed a cigar-filled office featuring a loud, profanity-laced discussion ending with a typical-disheveled Boyd exiting. Bob met with Tom and the interview consisted of what is your degree and what sports do you play. Symbolic of Tom’s leadership style, he let Bob into the group, assigned Bob a project and weeks later, when the actual worksite searched for Bob, Tom already “owned” Bob and kept him working. Tom instilled a simple management philosophy into the troops, go find something useful to study and he would cover their work.
Bob did exactly that by aiding the development of the A-X program. As the technical contact for JMEM weapons effectiveness, AAA survivability, and EM charts for Analytical Services Corporation (ANSER), Bob got to know Sprey and Avery Kay and ran computer simulations comparing various competitive aircraft. True to form, Tom kept everyone away to allow Bob time and resources to fix and perfect the AAA simulations. As these results occurred and passed to ANSER, the work done from Tom’s office helped the A-X project immeasurably. Knowing Tom since August of 1965, Bob worked with Tom many years, remains close friends today, and attributes his successes largely with getting assigned to Tom’s group.
Boyd left Eglin for the Pentagon in 1966, but still needed computer access and work completed. Tom ensured Boyd remained active by always assigning a young officer to liaise with Boyd, whenever Boyd called. One of these officers happened to be Robert Drabant.
In 1967, management asked Tom to get his PhD, from his school of choice again. While Tom was building this organization, he did not see the point in pursuing and turned down the offer. Roughly the same time, Tom was approached to go to Vietnam in an office set up as Scientific Advisor to General Westmoreland and he accepted. The ten-person office provided technical advice to the military command in Saigon. Most of the personnel came from military laboratories with experience and knowledge in weapon systems while Tom provided analysis functions.
After returning from Vietnam, in 1968, Tom secured the contract to complete the Joint Munitions Effectiveness Manuals. They were able to use computer time allocated toward projects without worry regarding budgets. Additionally, Research and Development money could be amassed over many fiscal years and Tom’s office had a surplus that allowed flexibility to travel to field locations, quickly developing a positive reputation among end-users.
In early 1969, Pentagon officials approached Tom to take over the Tactical Air Forces Office in the Systems Analysis Office. Tom interviewed and accepted this position. Unbeknownst to Tom however, the shop had been identified to be abolished and upon receiving a call from a high level official in the shop, Tom backed out.
Having been asked to participate in an exercise looking at Close Air Support capabilities in 1971, Tom spent a considerable amount of time assessing the A-X platforms. At Aberdeen Maryland, Tom studied Army helicopters and fixed wing airplanes for Close Air Support.
During 1972, Tom participated in the drill to get savings on the new F-15 on temporary duty to Andrews AFB. Boyd also had been assigned to Andrews and both Tom and Boyd spent time developing ways to make the F-15 capable and lighter. Through the time of F-15 development, Tom reflected that a dictum existed stating “Not a pound for Air to Ground,” to signify the desire to keep the F-15 as an Air to Air combat vehicle and avoid Close Air Support missions. However, this dictum, in hindsight, proved costly to the future Lightweight Fighter program.
Over the years, Tom continued to visit Washington about once a month. Tom would meet with Pierre Sprey, Boyd, and also became acquainted with Avery Kay. Eglin management promoted Tom, in his early 30’s, to a supergrade civilian position as Director of Weapon System Analysis and Tom’s office grew to over 100 personnel in an effort to keep Tom there.