Cesar Rodriguez, who retired with more air-to-air kills—three—than any active-duty Air Force pilot, stands beside an F-15.
This article has been corrected since it was published in the print magazine.
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Over Cesar Rodriguez’s desk hangs a macabre souvenir of his decades as a fighter pilot. It is a large framed picture, a panoramic cockpit view of open sky and desert. A small F‑15 Eagle is visible in the distance, but larger and more immediate, filling the center of the shot, staring right at the viewer, is an incoming missile.
It is a startling picture, memorializing a moment of air-to-air combat from January 19, 1991, over Iraq. Air-to-air combat has become exceedingly rare. Even when it happens, modern fighter pilots are rarely close enough to actually see the person they are shooting at. This image recalls a kill registered by Rodriguez, who goes by Rico, and his wingman, Craig Underhill, known as Mole, during the Gulf War.
A special-operations team combed the Iraqi MiG’s crash site, and this was one of the items salvaged, the last millisecond of incoming data from the doomed Iraqi pilot’s HUD, or head-up display. It was the final splash of light on his retinas, probably arriving too late for his brain to process before being vaporized with the rest of his corporeal frame. Pilots like Rodriguez don’t romanticize such exploits. These are strictly matter-of-fact men from a world where war is work, and life and death hang on a rapidly and precisely calibrated reality, an attitude captured by the flat caption mounted on the frame: This is an AIM-7 air-to-air missile shot from an F‑15 Eagle detonating on an Iraqi MiG‑29 Fulcrum during Operation Desert Storm.