Tom Cooper on “the most colourful volume about military flying in the Middle East – ever”

Hot Skies Over Yemen. Volume 1

One might wonder: what is driving one into painstaking, years-long research about air forces and air warfare in such a ‘corner’ of the world as Yemen?

Within the realms of what can be described as ‘public conscience’ or ‘-perception’, Yemen is nowadays known as a hotbed of international terrorism; a country that is on the receiving end of frequent US air strikes flown by UAVs (sometimes by special forces too). Others might know it as a ‘place’ subjected to ‘barbaric’ bombardment by Saudi Arabia and several of its allies.

I do not know anybody who might describe Yemen as a place that would be ‘relevant’ for latest trends in aerial warfare, and even less so for future developments in this branch. It is not a battlefield revealing new tactical methods (or at least not one where the latest technologies are put to their ultimate test). At most, some knowing more about Yemen might describe it as a country with a brutal history, devastating present times, and an unclear future. Only very few people would describe military flying related to Yemen as ‘worth researching’.

Thus, I have to ask my question again: what is driving one into painstaking, years-long research about air forces and air warfare in that part of the world?

Thinking of an answer, only additional questions with similar content come to my mind, such as: what prompts one to spend days, weeks and then months and years searching for precise details about camouflage patterns and markings of specific aircraft? About the pilots flying them? About the ground crews maintaining them? About the motivation and reasons for political and military commanders ordering humans and machines into wars?

Describing this appears hard to me. For me, it’s far more than issues such as finding out exact details about camouflage patterns, or how many aircraft were shot down by what air force.

It might surprise many of readers of this blog, but for me, one of most fascinating sensations in this process is what I call ‘finalizing a book’: the last two-to-three weeks of highly intensive writing, re-writing, editing and ‘polishing’ of the manuscript before it is delivered to the publisher. In my mind, this is an exceptionally intensive period: a period when in my head, I travel to the part of the world in question, ‘visit’ the various places mentioned, ‘meet’ the people in question, ‘feel’ the heat and dust, and ‘smell’ the kerosene, smoke and exhaust gases.

This experience is something that never ceases amazing me. I enjoy it so much, it is driving me into finalizing one such project after the other.

But, it is also a period of ‘finalizing a product’: a process during which all the work is coming together… all the gaps in knowledge filled. The story gets its flow, and its results are starting to make sense. Very often, it is only then – and rather ‘all of a sudden’ – that I start understanding why the affairs in question developed the way they did; why air forces obtained the aircraft they did obtain, and why they obtained as many (or as few) as they did; why their crews were trained the way they were trained, only poorly trained, or not trained at all. Indeed, it is during this period when I find out and realize why some war erupted and why it developed the way it did.

Much more often than I could ever explain, it is during this period of time that the content of the book turns out to be entirely different than originally planned too.

When all that is said and done, there follows a period of ‘expectation’. The manuscript is delivered to the publisher – and, a few weeks or months later – the editor calls back to provide the ‘proof file’. This is like a birth of one’s child. Although often still months away from the book actually being published and thus reaching its readers, one ‘finally’ gets to see and feel the results of all the work in a ‘book form’. Although sometimes a rather stressful and troublesome period, I enjoy this one very much.

And then, once all of this is over, the book goes into print and, a few weeks later, ‘hits the stores’. Then there is the next period of ‘expectation’: one where I am looking forward for reader’s reactions.

My books are no ‘bestsellers’ – and they are never going to be any. They are read by a relatively small community of readers. Some of my readers can be described as ‘enthusiasts’: people fascinated by all the different camouflage colours and patterns applied by different air forces; people interested in individual markings of specific aircraft; people interested in specific aircraft types (perhaps their service abroad too, or in their national markings). They foremost appreciate the author’s dedication to research, their ability to find necessary sources, and then deliver his or her work with the necessary attention to the detail.

Plenty of others are ‘professionals’: people with one or the other sort of ‘professional interest’ in the topic at hand. Sadly, too few of these are professional historians. Many of them consider books of the kind I’m writing and publishing ‘too technical’. Most other professionals have their very own and very different reasons – ranging from journalism to military intelligence.

I share a lot with enthusiasts and professionals alike, and can only conclude that there is hardly any bigger satisfaction for me than when all of them express their satisfaction with my work.

The final question is: what can readers expect from Hot Skies over Yemen. Volume 1?

This is foremost a story of ‘little known aircraft and little know aviators in a little known corner of the world’. It starts with early (North) Yemeni efforts to establish their own air force (dating back to the 1920s and 1930s), and then goes on with the story of the Egyptian – and then the Russian – military interventions in Yemen of the 1960s. This is set against the backdrop of British military aviation’s presence in what was then the Protectorate of Aden, (later the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, or simply ‘South Yemen’).

I dedicated at least as much attention to detail and illustrations of the growth of no less than two indigenous – Yemeni – air forces of the 1970s and 1980s, and conflicts involving them. The latter cannot really be described as ‘spectacular’, but they were still as ‘fascinating’ to research and describe as ‘surprising’ the outcome of some of wars in question was.

Perhaps the most fascinating result of the work on this book is the realisation just how colourful the camouflage patterns and markings of Yemeni aircraft were. Indeed, in regards to these two topics, I have a strong feeling that Hot Skies over Yemen, Volume 1 is likely to become the most colourful volume about military flying in the Middle East – ever.

The Volume 1 ‘culminates’ in the Yemen Civil War of 1994. This little known, bitter conflict pitted the two Yemeni air forces against each other, and ended with the demise of South Yemen. It was this war that created Yemen as we known it today: a country nominally ruled from Sana’a, but actually dominated by Saudi interests, and one that became a playground of multiple foreign powers.

Hot Skies Over Yemen. Volume 1: Aerial Warfare Over the Southern Arabian Peninsula, 1962-1994 by Tom Cooper is available to preorder here.

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