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 Fâ??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 Fâ??15 EAGLE DETONATING ON AN IRAQI MIGâ??29 FULCRUM DURING OPERATION DESERT STORM.
A snapshot from the doorstep of oblivion, the photo is a reminder that the game of single combat played by Rico and Mole, and by fighter pilots ever since the First World War, is the ultimate one. It may have come to resemble a video game, but it is one with no reset button, no next level. It is played for keeps.
When Rodriguez retired two years ago from the Air Force as a colonel, his three air-to-air kills (two over Iraq in 1991 and one over Kosovo) were the most of any American fighter pilot on active duty. That number may seem paltry alongside the 26 enemy planes downed by Eddie Rickenbacker in World War I, or the 40 notched by Richard Bong in World War II, or the 34 by Francis Gabreski across World War II and Korea. Rodriguez's total was two shy of the threshold number for the honorific ace, yet his three made him the closest thing to an ace in the modern U.S. Air Force.