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.

Rodriguez and his wingman, Craig “Mole” Underhill, confronted their first Iraqi MiG‑29s early on the third morning of the war that took back Kuwait from Saddam Hussein. They were leading a helicopter assault on Saddam’s early-warning radar sites on the border with Saudi Arabia, clearing the way for devastating bombing runs on Iraqi airfields.

The air battle in this conflict was brief, decisive, and more intense than most Americans realized. By the time the Pentagon began showing off publicity videos of “smart bombs” pulverizing Iraqi targets, America and its allies owned the sky, but in getting there, 38 allied aircraft were destroyed. On this early sortie, Rodriguez and Underhill were flying out of Tabuk, an air base in northwestern Saudi Arabia, near the border with Jordan. As often happened in this fast-moving arena, they were initially tasked with one objective and then reassigned when they were airborne. They moved out at the head of a 36-aircraft strike force bearing down on a target 40 miles southwest of Baghdad. As they approached, several MiG‑29s came up to challenge them.

The MiG‑29, like the F‑15, is considered a “fourth generation” fighter. (Since the first jet fighters started flying, there have been four great evolutionary advances, each representing a quantum leap in technology.) The Soviets began deploying the MiG‑29 about nine years after the F‑15s went on line, and the plane itself is comparable to its American counterpart. But given all the other advantages enjoyed by the allied pilots, the brave, outnumbered Iraqi pilots launching themselves at the approaching juggernaut might as well have been committing suicide.

“From Western eyes, it’s a suicide mission,” Rodriguez told me. “From the eyes of the guy being invaded, he’s protecting the homeland.”

Even greatly disadvantaged, the Iraqi fighters were dangerous, and as it happened the large American force made a potentially fatal mistake that Saturday morning. The incoming MiGs were spotted, of course, but in the confusion of the moment either tactical errors were made by the strikers, or the Iraqi pilots exploited a seam in the American defenses. The AWACS command had spotted the MiGs immediately when they took off, and had handed them off to a Navy formation of F‑14s, which failed to intercept them. When Rodriguez and Underhill were alerted to the approaching threat, it came as a jolting surprise. The MiGs were just 13 miles out and closing at a speed of more than 1,000 nautical mph. Both pilots immediately began evasive maneuvers.

Rodriguez dove steeply, getting below the lead MiG, where he would be harder to find on its radar—pointing down, the radar’s signal can get confused by all the signals* bouncing back up from the ground. Then Rodriguez began flying in a low arc, keeping the MiG on his wing line, making himself “skinny,” presenting as small a radar target as possible. Within minutes the two fighters would be in a visual turning fight, a situation familiar to many experienced pilots from earlier wars, but one that is not supposed to happen in modern air warfare. The biggest difference between this fight and the old ones was speed. It would unfold not in minutes but in seconds. Rodriguez’s posture was strictly defensive: he could not target and shoot at the Iraqi plane, but it could shoot at him.

A cockpit alarm warned him when the MiG’s radar locked on him. The threat was still just a blip on his screen; he hadn’t actually seen it yet. He was frightened and thinking furiously when in his headset he heard Underhill shout, “Fox!”—the code word for I have just fired a missile.

Rodriguez looked back over his shoulder, following the smoke trail of Underhill’s missile, and then, looking out ahead of it, caught his first and only glimpse of the MiG. This is the precise instant captured from the Iraqi pilot’s perspective in the photo on Rodriguez’s wall. It turns out that the picture does not preserve a moment of personal triumph for him, as I had originally supposed, but one of intense fear and vulnerability. Rodriguez’s little F‑15 in the distance was not predator but prey, trapped and awaiting a kill shot that would never come, because in the next instant the MiG became a huge fireball in the sky. The whole encounter lasted a little more than 10 seconds.

“Mole saves my bacon because he kills this guy before he can take a shot at me,” Rodriguez said as we sat in his office.

There was no time to celebrate, because the destroyed MiG’s wingman was now closing in on them, just seven miles out. Underhill and Rodriguez split their planes wide apart and assumed different altitudes. That way, the incoming MiG might spot one of them, but probably not both, and they improved their chances of eyeballing it. Before shooting at it, they had to make sure it was Iraqi—many planes were in the air that morning—but they wouldn’t have time to run the normal electronic matrix used to distinguish friend from foe.

They both saw the MiG at the same time. It had an Iraqi flag painted on it. Rodriguez passed the enemy fighter about 300 feet off its wing.

“He notices that I am there,” Rodriguez said. “He also notices that Mole’s about 20,000 feet above us. But at no point do I think he correlates the two of us as a formation.”

If the MiG pilot went for Underhill, then Rodriguez could shoot him down; if he came for Rodriguez, “then Mole eats him up.” Confused, the angling MiG started up, and then down, which gave Rodriguez time to fly inside his turning circle, putting himself into roughly the same attack position the earlier MiG had had on him.

The Iraqi pilot, no doubt hearing an alarm telling him that an F‑15 had locked him in its radar, attempted a classic split‑S maneuver, which is the quickest way to reverse direction in the air. Flying parallel to the ground, he flipped his aircraft upside down and then attempted to fly a half circle, diving down, pulling up, and leveling off to head in the opposite direction. It was the right escape maneuver for an altitude of at least 5,000 feet, but the pilot, in his alarm and haste, neglected to compute one vital bit of data: he was only 600 feet up. He flew his jet straight into the desert floor.

“He had lost his situational awareness,” Rodriguez explained. “He was trying to perform a maneuver that he can do comfortably at 5,000 or 10,000 feet, and doesn’t realize that the fight, which started at 8,000 feet, had degraded and degraded closer to the desert floor. It’s a lack of training, a lack of experience, but given the situation he was in against two F‑15s, my argument is that no one would have done much better. He’s already seen his flight lead explode. He might not have hit the desert floor, but he was going to die anyway.”

These air kills were among the first by American pilots since Vietnam. An entire generation of fighters had come and gone without encountering an enemy in the sky. Three dozen Iraqi jets were shot down in the war, and Rodriguez was one of six pilots in his squadron who got two.

The second of his aerial kills was what he called “more routine,” more typical of modern aerial combat. A week after the first episode, he was flying in what the Air Force calls a “wall of Eagles,” a formation of four F‑15s spread out in the sky over roughly five to eight miles at 33,000 feet to maximize their visibility and radar range. Beneath them was thick undercast, a carpet of clouds opaque to their eyes but transparent to electronic surveillance systems. At that point, the remaining Iraqi air force was so vulnerable that the AWACS plane assisting the F‑15s picked up the enemy jets the minute they started their engines, while they were still on the ground. Rodriguez and the other pilots watched three radar blips form on their screens as the MiGs took off and climbed. Rodriguez assumed that the planes were, like the rest of Saddam’s air force, escaping into Iran.

“They were basically running scared,” he says. “Extremely scared.”

It took a few moments to identify the jets as MiG‑23s, and then the wall of Eagles began preparing to launch missiles at them.

“We think we’re going to have to stay above the clouds and we’re never going to see the missiles do their job, and all of a sudden there’s a big sucker hole, an opening in the clouds below,” he says. “The F‑15s dove to about 13,000 feet. The fleeing MiGs were hugging the terrain, flying just 300 to 400 feet above the ground, when we started launching AIM-7 missiles at them.

“And, sure enough, the missiles did their job.”

The Iraqi flight leader took the first hit. An American missile sliced through his plane, taking out the engine but leaving the shell of the plane intact. Trailing a thick cloud of smoke, the pilot began turning to the north, apparently trying to return to his base. Rodriguez’s flight leader fired a Sidewinder, a heat-seeking missile that lit up the sky when it hit, turning the unfortunate Iraqi pilot and his plane into an enormous fireball.

Rodriguez’s missile ripped straight through his target. The MiG apparently flew right into it. There was no large explosion. The missile just tore the jet to pieces, turning it into what Rodriguez called “a ground-level sparkler,” scattering debris across a wide swath of desert.

Rodriguez’s third and last kill came eight years later, on March 24, 1999, when he flew his F‑15 as part of the NATO force attacking Serbian positions during the Kosovo campaign. Rodriguez’s squadron was assigned to lead an attack on a Serbian SAM site in Montenegro. On the way they would pass over an airfield in Pristina, Kosovo, where the Serbs had carved hangars for their fighters inside a mountain. No one was sure what kinds of planes, if any, were hidden there.

He took off from Cervia, Italy, on a clear night. As he ascended, Rodriguez could see the Italian coast to the west, lit up like a throbbing discotheque. He was pointed east, toward what was then still called Yugoslavia.

“It was pitch black,” he recalls. “You know, here’s a region of the world that has been at war, and where every light at night is a potential target. So everything below was just pitch black. You go, ‘Man, it’s two different worlds here.’”

The plan was for the multinational formation to fly lights-out, but the different levels of training and experience began to tell. American pilots fly black all the time, so when the order came to turn off lights, it was just another night’s work. But for some of the Dutch, German, British, Italian, Spanish, and Turkish pilots, this wasn’t so easy.

“The first time we tried it, as I looked behind me, I could see a train of fighters spread out over 100 miles behind me, and when the ‘lights out’ order came, they all went black,” said Rodriguez. “Then, sure enough, the comfort factor for some of these guys started to go. They started getting a little antsy and then, all of a sudden, pooh, pooh, pooh, the lights started coming back on. And we go, ‘Okay, guys, we really need to do this completely lights-out. If we don’t do this, we’re not going to be ready.’ But we got everybody into the train.”

A measure of confusion persisted, however. When the target was reached, the squadron commenced an air assault that would have taken an all-American unit five to eight minutes. This one took nearly an hour. Feeling increasingly vulnerable to attack by ground or air threats, Rodriguez circled and waited, trying to make his flight pattern unpredictable. As Rodriguez and his wingman, Bill Denham, turned back toward Italy, they picked up an aircraft coming up from the airfield in Pristina. At first it bore north, away from them, but then it turned.

The American planes began to conduct the standard series of checks to identify the plane. The F‑15 is equipped with a full range of instruments to, in effect, interrogate an unidentified plane in the air. They were coordinating with an AWACS, working through some language difficulties (the controllers spoke accented English). A process that would normally take 20 seconds took three times as long, which is a huge difference when you’re traveling hundreds of miles per hour. Rodriguez and his wingman were rapidly approaching the weapons engagement zone, where they would lose the advantage of their longer-range missiles.

They were on the edge of the WEZ as the ID was completed, and Rodriguez launched an AMRAAM, or “advanced medium-range air-to-air missile,” a new element of his arsenal added after the Gulf War. In the Air Force, they call it the Slammer. One advantage it affords is a “fire and forget” feature; because the missile has its own homing and guidance system, the pilot need not stay pointed at the target. He is free to turn and evade the incoming jet in case his shot for some reason misses. Rodriguez stayed with his missile for as long as he could.

“It all went into slow motion, and I felt like the missile and I were kind of flying in formation for a while,” he recalls. “It just seemed to stay there for a couple of seconds and then, whoosh! It disappears. You see that glow [the missile’s exhaust], and that becomes just a little ember, and then it’s gone. And of course at night you can’t follow it anymore. The smoke trail goes away. But I could see it start to curve, and I go, ‘Okay, it looks like it’s doing the right lead-pursuit tracking.’ And the missile did everything it was advertised to do. We have a little counter display inside the cockpit that ticks down the time to intercept, and when the counter said zero, I looked outside through my canopy to the general vicinity of where I knew the target was going to be. I mean, that fireball was huge.”

Rodriguez said it was as though three or four giant sports stadiums had turned on all their lights at the same time.

“The reason it was so magnificent,” he said, “was because everything was covered in snow. So the fireball reflected off the snow, causing an even bigger illumination of the sky and everything around it.”

It was the first air kill of the Kosovo campaign, and the last of Rodriguez’s career. He gave little thought to the person he had just incinerated.

“I’m sure he had been a Yugoslav air-force pilot, which was a good air force for what they have,” he said. “I don’t personalize the war. He was doing what I was doing for my country.”

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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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