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How the Air Force makes the 'smell of victory'

"I love the smell of napalm in the morning." That line from the classic war movie Apocalypse Now ranks as one of cinema's all-time bests. But just how, exactly, do you make napalm? How do you produce the flammable liquid that, as Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore would say, smells like victory?


While the Oxford Dictionary describes napalm as a mixture of gasoline and certain types of soap, the definitive, World War II version used a combination of phosphorous, naphthalene, and palmitate. Modern napalm is a mix of gasoline, benzene, and polystyrene.

An Ecuadorian air force Kfir aircraft drops napalm on a target range during the joint US and Ecuadorian Exercise BLUE HORIZON. (USAF photo)

The mixture is designed to stick to a target and burn hot for a long time. Oh, and it has its own oxidizer, so you can't smother it and water won't put it out. As you might imagine, prepping bombs for a napalm strike is a complicated procedure. In some rare cases, the mixture would leak from bombs like the M47, which was the primary delivery system for napalm weapon during the Vietnam War.

According to a United States Army document, the M47 was a "chemical bomb." Officially classified as a 100-pound bomb, the actual weight depended on what it was loaded with. This bomb could carry a form of napalm known as Incendiary Oil, but it also could carry white phosphorous, mustard gas, or a field-expedient mixture of rubber and gasoline.

Sgt. Jamal G. Walker and Lance Cpl. Carl Feaster tighten the sway braces on a Mark 77 napalm bomb while loading it onto the wing pylon of a Marine Strike Fighter Squadron 321 (VMHA-321) F/A-18A Hornet aircraft. The Mark 77 is the modern version of the napalm bomb. (US Navy photo)

The current "napalm" bomb in the American arsenal is the Mk 77. This bomb replaces the gasoline with kerosene, and it was used during the early stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Battle of Tora Bora, and during Operation Desert Storm.

In general, the use of napalm has declined as more and more precision-guided bombs have entered service.  Still, there is something to be said about dropping napalm on the bad guys.

See how some of the older napalm bombs were prepared and dropped in the video below.