The Last Ace

American air superiority has been so complete for so long that we take it for granted. For more than half a century, we’ve made only rare use of the aerial-combat skills of a man like Cesar Rodriguez, who retired two years ago with more air-to-air kills than any other active-duty fighter pilot. But our technological edge is eroding—Russia, China, India, North Korea, and Pakistan all now fly fighter jets with capabilities equal or superior to those of the F-15, the backbone of American air power since the Carter era. Now we have a choice. We can stock the Air Force with the expensive, cutting-edge F‑22—maintaining our technological superiority at great expense to our Treasury. Or we can go back to a time when the cost of air supremacy was paid in the blood of men like Rodriguez.
Going Acro

The skills that make a fighter pilot great have, like aircraft, evolved. Japan’s celebrated World War II ace, Saburo Sakai, who shot down more than 60 planes in aerial combat, described in his memoir, Samurai!, the extensive acrobatic training he and his fellow recruits received in pilot school to improve their strength and balance even before they flew. They worked on reducing their reaction time and perfecting their hand-eye coordination by swiping flies out of the air. Balance, coordination, reaction time, a feel for the airplane, gunnery, the ability to calmly perform complex aerobatic maneuvers while under fire, a talent for thinking and acting quickly even while upside down or tumbling or out of control—these were all vitally important. But the paramount skill, Sakai recalled, was something the recruits had at the start: exceptional vision.

All of the young pilots had been selected for their perfect eyesight, but even more important was how broadly they could see, how wide a horizon they commanded, and how quickly they could focus in on the faintest off-center visual cue. They competed to locate stars in daylight. Sakai wrote:

Gradually, and with much more practice, we became quite adept at our star-hunting. Then we went further. When we had sighted and fixed the position of a particular star, we jerked our eyes away ninety degrees, and snapped back again to see if we could locate the star immediately. Of such things are fighter pilots made.

I personally cannot too highly commend this particular activity, inane as it may seem to those unfamiliar with the split-second, life-or-death movements of aerial warfare. I know that during my 200 air engagements with enemy planes, except for two minor errors I was never caught in a surprise attack.

Surprise attack—seeing the enemy before he sees you—is still the killing edge, which is why Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the fighter pilot and author, described dogfighting as less combat than “murder.” Getting the jump on an enemy, hitting him before he sees you, is the best-case scenario, or the worst, depending on where you sit. As the air war over Japan turned increasingly one-sided, in 1945, Sakai’s eyes kept him alive; only two other pilots in his unit survived.

Today, of course, electronic systems extend a fighter’s vision well beyond the range of the most acute eyeball. Aerial combat is no longer a matter of fixing your sights on a dodging enemy. Most of the maneuvering in air-to-air combat today takes place BVR, or beyond visual range. The modern fighter pilot flies strapped into the center of a moving electronic cocoon. His speeding jet emits a field of photons* that can find, identify, and target an enemy long before he will ever see it. At the same time, his electromagnetic aura defends him by thwarting the enemy’s radar. American pilots strive to find and shoot down enemy aircraft from outside what they call the WEZ, or “weapons engagement zone,” which means safely beyond range of the enemy’s missiles. Traveling faster than sound, the fighter pilot is part of a network that can spot an enemy over the horizon, sometimes before he even leaves the ground; that can attack multiple targets simultaneously; and that in an emergency can react to an incoming threat before the pilot is even aware of it. Today’s jet is a machine so powerful, so smart, and so fast that the fighter jock’s biggest challenge is to safely fly and land it.

Combat in this arena has become virtual in every way except in its consequences. Tactics in a world of dueling electrons can be best understood in the abstract. Pilots speak of the need to extend their “timeline.”

“When cavemen fought they had their fists, first of all,” F‑15 pilot Colonel Terrence “Skins” Fornof explained to me last year in Alaska. “Then someone came up with the sling, which meant he could attack his enemy before he could get close enough to take a swing. The history of warfare technology has all boiled down to increasing the distance between you and your enemy’s fist. Distance means time, and you gain the advantage by extending that timeline. Our goal is the same as it ever was: to kill the enemy before he even has a chance to employ his weapon. War is not fair. You don’t want him to even get close enough to fight.”

The best flier in the world stands little chance against a superior aircraft, but that doesn’t mean just anyone can be a good fighter pilot. The skills required today are related to those of the early aces, but different. Perhaps the best way to explain is to take a closer look at Rodriguez.

A lifelong military man, he is of average height with a bullish torso, a round face, brown eyes, and thinning gray hair. The house in Tucson where the picture hangs has been his home for two years—longer than any other place he has ever lived. He exudes brisk, straightforward confidence, without pretense or misgiving. Asked to name his single most important flying skill, the modern equivalent of Sakai’s peripheral vision, Rodriguez struggles for an answer. It is something harder to grasp. It boils down to a talent for processing multiple information streams simultaneously.

“A World War II pilot would look at all of the things going on in the cockpit today, and his first reaction would be, ‘You guys have too many things going on here at once.’ You know, it is sensory overload,” he said when we talked at his home. “When you put one of those old pilots in a modern simulator, he can fly the airplane. The airplane is as easy to fly today as it was back then, maybe actually easier, because now it has aerodynamic features that make it more forgiving from the standpoint of taking off and landing. But they will very quickly say, ‘I can’t keep up with all the sensors that are buzzing into my brain right now.’ And every sensor that talks to you has a different frequency, a different tone, a different format, and some of them you are only picking up audio, others it’s a visual, some a combination of the two.”

Rodriguez began pilot training in 1981, after graduating from the Citadel. He knew going in that, of the class of 70 pilot trainees, only about five would qualify to fly fighters. Most would graduate and play vital roles in the great air-war machine, but only the cream would win coveted fighter seats. The first wave of washouts came during simple maneuvers on the training jets. According to Rodriguez, “You start maneuvering and they’d get violently airsick. That was the biggest cut.”

In the group that reached the next level, the academic workload sorted out the most-intense players from the wannabes. Rodriguez was used to the cloistered atmosphere and grinding academic pace of a military school, so he excelled in that area, too.

Those who excelled with him faced a new test: going acro.

“Suddenly acro was not just a cool thing you’d watch at the air show anymore,” Rodriguez says. “You were acro. You were part of it and you had to be able to think on your back, on your head, at zero G and then at high Gs, depending on the maneuver.” Avoiding G-LOC, or “gravity-induced loss of consciousness,” during aggressive acrobatics is a physical struggle. As the force of gravity intensifies, blood drains rapidly from the brain unless the pilot fights back. The pressurized suit helps, tightening on the extremities and lower body, but the pilot learns to flex his legs, buttocks, and stomach muscles and to control his breath. He emerges from such maneuvers wrung out and drenched with sweat.

It is a literal gut check. Rodriguez was lucky. He had the constitution for it. The only time he ever got airsick was one morning when the flying conditions looked unpromising and, assuming that his flight would be scrapped, he “proceeded to power down on two big, huge breakfast burritos.” Then he had to fly after all.

“I was told we were going to go up and actually do some advanced handling, which was a fairly physically challenging event because it was putting the airplane to the extreme aerodynamic limits … falling down and getting into spins and stuff like that, so it was one of those things where I go, ‘Okay, stand by one.’ I reached down and grabbed my barf bag, filled it up, put it back in my Gsuit, and said, ‘Okay, let’s keep going.’”

Complex exercises required rapid mental calculations: if you entered a loop 10 knots slower than anticipated, that meant your airspeed would be too slow to complete the entire maneuver, so you would have to make an adjustment, quite literally, on the fly.

“These were the kind of things that you could do sitting on your chair in your room, but when you have an airplane strapped to your back and you’re sweating and you’re pulling Gs, then it’s another matter,” he said. “You had to do the math in your head.” Needless to say, some people were better at this than others. Some pilots seemed to be able to do it intuitively, by the seat of their pants. Rodriguez was not one of them. But patient instructors and long hours in simulators, combined with a kind of desperation to succeed, eventually earned him a chance to fly the Air Force’s hottest jets.

Only then did his real training begin, in Tucson and at Holloman Air Force Base, in New Mexico, and finally at the Air Force’s “top gun” school, Nellis Air Force Base, in Nevada, where he flew training missions against a faux enemy, a dedicated force of experienced pilots trying hard to shoot him down. Technology is only part of what gives American pilots their advantage. As hugely expensive as it is to design, produce, fly, and maintain vanguard fighters, it takes far more effort and money to hone pilots’ skills, to keep squadrons of pilots like Rodriguez constantly flying, practicing, and getting better. Even if other nations had the know-how, few could afford to build a fleet of advanced modern fighters, and fewer still could afford to sustain an up-tempo environment for the men and women who fly and maintain it.

Being the best means learning to fully inhabit that screaming node, high above the slow curve of the Earth, strapped down in a bubble where the only real things are the sound of your own breathing and the feel of sweat rolling down the center of your back. You are alone but not alone. You cope with constant, multiple streams of data, everything from basic flight information—airspeed, altitude, attitude, fuel levels—to incoming radar images displayed on small, glowing green screens stacked in rows before you and to both sides. In your helmet are three or four radio links, with the AWACS, with the ground, with your wingman, and with your flight leader. It is a little bit like trying to navigate at high speed with four or five different people talking to you at once, each with a slightly different set of directions. It is not for amateurs. By the time Rodriguez flew into combat for the first time, he had hundreds of hours of training behind him, and being in the jet was second nature. With him were his wingman, his formation, and the superhuman reach of America’s technological eyes and ears.

Hurling a few dozen jets into the sky against this, as Saddam did in 1991, was most unwise.

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Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. His most recent book is The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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