The Last Fighter Pilot

The new F-35 fighter jet is so sophisticated, so automated, so connected, it’s fueling a debate: Do pilots still need to fly?

On a dusty tarmac, about 20 miles from downtown Phoenix, Capt. Joseph Stenger stands in 109-degree heat, barely sweating. A 32-year-old fighter pilot with the slicked-back hair, steady eyes, and ropey forearms you see on movie posters, he is admiring an equally impressive piece of flying machinery: the F-35 Lightning II fighter. In his green flight suit, and standing a little over 6 feet tall, Stenger is nearly face to snout with this menacing jet.

It’s his job to figure out what it can do in combat, and to teach that to hundreds of other fighter pilots.The F-35 started arriving here at Luke Air Force Base this past winter. It is the most sophisticated fighter ever built. It is stealthy, so it can appear the size of a golf ball to enemy radar, if it’s detected at all. It can also jam enemy radar—or make it seem there are 100 golf-ball-size targets in the sky. It can travel at Mach 1.6. It carries a 25 mm cannon, air-to-air missiles, two 2,000-pound guided bombs, and four external laser-guided bombs. But what truly sets it apart is its brain, 8 million lines of software code—more than any fighter in history—fusing navigation, communication, and targeting systems.

Stenger explains it like this: In older jets, he has to manually operate things like radar (pointing it at the ground to search for missiles shot at him, or at the sky, to look for enemy planes). He has to monitor a high-speed data link for plane-to-plane communications and texts from ground troops. He or his back-seat weapons guy must pick through data before locking on a target and firing. “You can imagine that’s pretty time consuming and requires a lot of cognitive processing,” Stenger says.


The single-seat F-35 does much of this for him, by fusing and automating dozens of sensors. So, for instance, if his heat sensor picks up an enemy missile headed his way, a chime will sound, “like a doorbell” he says, and a computer voice will say, “Missile left, nine o’clock.” When Stenger looks there, a green circle pops up on his helmet’s face shield, pinpointing the missile’s site, along with its speed and time to impact. Just by looking at the circle Stenger can aim his weapon and fire at the enemy, then outrun the missile. Six external cameras also capture a 360-degree view outside the jet and feed it to his face shield. If Stenger looks down he can see through the cockpit floor to the ground.

Lockheed Martin, the defense contractor that makes the F-35, will deliver thousands of these jets over the next few decades to the U.S. Navy, Marines, and Air Force. The USAF will take 1,763, and Stenger will help train the aspiring F-35 pilots set to come through Luke’s sand-colored gates. With more than 200 flight hours in the F-35 so far, he knows it as well as any Air Force pilot here. When he’s not on the flight line, he spends days in classified briefing rooms, reading tactical manuals on the F-35’s capabilities. He can tick off the jet’s attributes like a new crush.

Stenger and most others in the military see the plane as the key to America’s continued air superiority, and yet it could also spell the beginning of the end for an iconic American profession. The F-35 is so high-tech, so automated, so smart, so connected, that in May, the secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, declared: The F-35 “should be, and almost certainly will be, the last manned strike fighter aircraft the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly.”

To Mabus and others, the job of a fighter pilot has changed over the years. No longer do pilots sneak up on each other’s tails, train their crosshairs, and fire. They glean information from screens that look like iPads or from helmet displays. Electronic sensors, networked warfare, and air-to-air radar-guided missiles can take down enemy fighters from 100 miles away. Most of the time, pilots in a conflict never see one another at all. If that’s the case, many argue, why not have pilots on the ground—scanning the same screens and pushing the same buttons—out of harm’s way?

Stenger has considered this question before. As a pilot in Afghanistan, he flew more than 330 combat hours, doing things like blowing up Taliban fighters and safe houses, taking out missiles launchers, and providing cover for coalition forces. And yet, in his nine years in the Air Force, he’s never been in a dogfight or even encountered an enemy fighter—or any sort of enemy aircraft. When faced with the argument for unmanned fighter jets, he takes a philosophical line. “I wouldn’t offer up a conjecture because I’m a captain, and my job is to fly the F-35,” he says. “And that’s what I’m going to do. If another manned fighter comes up, great. If not, well that kind of stinks for the next generation because they’ll never get to know what being a fighter pilot is like.”


Luke is typically a busy Air Force base. Every 15 minutes, the desert air rumbles with the sound of jets taking off and landing. For the past 32 years, it has served as a major training base for the F-16 Fighting Falcons that sit in endless rows beneath sun canopies on the flight line. Those planes will be phased out as the F-35s arrive and squeeze them for space.

During flight training, Stenger’s students learn many skills, and dogfighting is still among them. With 1.7 million acres of Sonoran Desert and 57,000 cubic miles of airspace at his disposal, Stenger can orchestrate the kind of tactical dogfight scenarios seen in Top Gun. “We can set up 100 miles apart for air-to-air combat training,” says Stenger, seated in a bare second-floor office, which he moved into in July. In training, Stenger would pit two of his F-35 students against four F-16s fighter pilots. (This is the same class of fighter jet that Russia and China possess, and the type that could face off against the F-35.) “You employ the tactics you were taught, and you will kill them before they ever see you,” Stenger says, “well beyond visual range.”

Air Force Capt. Joseph Stenger has 200-plus hours flying the F-35. Spencer Lowell

That phrase is crucial to the argument for unmanned fighter jets. Nearly every air-to-air engagement on the planet has been well beyond visual range since the early 1990s. That’s around the time modern militaries began relying on networked warfare: A system that combines GPS satellite locators, infrared radar, secure data links for ground and air-to-air communication, surveillance aircraft like Boeing’s E-3 Sentry, and, of course, radar-guided air-to-air missiles.

As networked warfare has risen, incidents of aerial combat have decreased. Since 1990, only 54 fighter jets have been shot down globally, says John Stillion, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, and a former Air Force officer, who put together a database on all confirmed aerial victories between 1965 to 2013.

Of course, geopolitics can partially explain that trend. Few nation states with fighter jets have been warring with each other in that period. But Stillion argues that technology is driving change as well. The increase in sensor-driven flying and beyond-visual-range shooting, he says, has rendered a jet’s traditional strengths—things like high speeds, acceleration, and maneuverability—less important than they once were. What matters most now, he argues in a recent paper, “Trends in Air-to-Air Combat: Implications for Future Air Superiority,” are sensors, powerful and long-range weapons, aircraft flight range, and network connectivity.

“Those are things normally associated with long-range bombers,” Stillion says. “So maybe our future fighter jets resemble unmanned long-range strike platforms.”

It’s an interesting position, and one that makes both technical and fiscal sense. Drones can pretty much do—and in some ways do better—everything a manned fighter jet can. They can stay aloft 24 hours at a time, while manned fighters are limited to the amount of time a pilot can stay in a cramped cockpit seat, several hours at best. In addition, drones don’t need to be trained and retrained, as pilots do. And ending that practice could save a lot of money.

The F-35 Lightning II uses 8 million lines of software code and can reach Mach 1.6. Spencer Lowell

The cost of training can be staggering: The Air Force spends $14,183 an hour to fly a single F-35A, according to the 2015 Department of Defense Budget. That’s just in peacetime training. Budgeting 13 hours of crew time per month, that equals $2.2 million a year, for one crew’s training. When its F-35 training program is fully running in a few years, Luke will have 144 of those planes. Each squad on the base will be made up of 24 aircraft with several hundred support personnel. When you do the math, people are expensive and impractical.


Though many agree that the role of fighter jets, and therein fighter pilots, will change in the future, how that will play out is up for debate. Stillion argues that the next-generation fighter jet should more closely resemble long-range strike bombers. Those planes are bigger than fighters, by far. They could carry a crew—one even big enough to swap out shifts—but they wouldn’t have fighter pilots, per se. Instead, the bomber would be equipped with long-range missiles and a complement of four drones, each of which would have its own advanced radar and medium-range missiles.

In a future dogfight against nations like China or Russia, Stillion envisions those drones flying in a picket line deep into enemy territory, and acting as lookouts. The bomber would follow about 100 miles behind them. The crew would control the drones and use them to double the bomber’s sensor-detection range. As Stillion depicts it, in a duel against eight fighter aircraft. At that point, the bomber team would fire long range missiles (good for about 250 miles), taking out up to six enemy jets at once.

Drones can pretty much do—and in some ways do better—everything a manned fighter jet can.

Stillion is not alone in reimagining aerial combat. Lockheed Martin’s experimental Skunk Works site in California has dozens of technicians combining unmanned systems with artificial intelligence. Its secret Minion project is developing a reconnaissance drone, like Stillion’s advance drones, that would also jam enemy radar, drop GPS-guided bombs, and shoot a high-powered microwave to disable electronics. “You could project forward to where there is a time when you can replace human cognitive capability with artificial intelligence,” says Bob Ruszkowski, director of advanced air dominance and unmanned systems at Skunk Works. But he also believes that there will always be a need for “a mixture of manned and unmanned working together.”

Northrup Grumman’s engineers are focused on the problem too. Its experimental X-47B unmanned combat jet has already made successful takeoffs and landings from an aircraft carrier (as well as made midair refuelings). The company believes a dogfighting drone is just years away.

What might slow progress are the ethical questions that arise when speaking about drone fighter jets. “Sometimes war is about breaking things, and sometimes it really is about killing people,” says Heather Penney, an Air National Guard F-16 fighter pilot who deployed twice to Iraq. “Even with remotely piloted aircraft, there are still humans in the loop. Regardless of how good Siri might become on your phone, I don’t think we as a society will ever get to the point where we trust weapons platforms to make autonomous decisions about life and death.”

Penney knows that work well. On the morning of September 11, 2001, as a rookie in the D.C. Air National Guard, and its first female fighter pilot, she found herself at Andrews Air Force Base taking off in an F-16. Her orders that day: Bring down United Airlines Flight 93, packed with passengers—and hijackers—headed for the nation’s capital. She had no ammunition. Rather, she was tasked with a suicide mission: Ram the plane if need be. The passengers ended up taking down the flight themselves.

Penney, who works as director of USAF Air Superiority Systems at Lockheed, personally believes Stillion’s concept makes a lot of sense. “But there are a lot of technological what-ifs that go along with it,” she says. Among the biggest is the development of directed-energy weapons—lasers that will travel at the speed of light to take out aircraft and destroy network data links and communications. Every major nation—the U.S., China, Russia, most of the European countries—are pursuing them.

So if most of your air force is made of drones, and they rely on data links, and if the enemy can fry those links with an electric pulse, then your drone says, “‘I’m not talking to my pilot anymore; I’m going to fly home because that’s what I’m programmed to do,’” Penney says. “Then the bad guy doesn’t even need to shoot it down. The effect is the same. They’ve won the air space.”

Actual pilots, on the other hand, will work toward a mission objective even as the battle space degrades, Penney says. “They can sit gracefully operating, with manner and intent, and to the best of their ability.” Penney also believes that only humans, not drones, can best figure out how to get in the enemy’s head and mess with it in a way that cripples him. “Your job is to create confusion in the enemy,” Penney says, “get in his line so you are making better decisions faster than he is, causing him to make mistake after mistake.” For that, she says, nothing can touch human cognition. So far.


Following my tour with Stenger, just as the Arizona sun is starting to bake Luke’s miles of tarmac, I head over to a freshly paved stretch of road in a far corner of the base. Things are quiet. There’s a rare three-day break in the flight schedule and the crews are taking advantage of the downtime. Despite the midday heat, teams of airmen play volleyball in a sand pit. Others sit on picnic tables, in the shade of pine trees, drinking Cokes and watching the games. The scene is so straight out of Top Gun that it conjures a Kenny Loggins backing track (though the heavyset airmen have none of the moves of Maverick and Iceman).

Nearby stands a two-story stucco building with a soaring atrium and a pitched roof that resemble jet wings. Recently constructed, it looks like a Southwestern high school, but it is a $47 million training center. Inside it smells like new carpet and holds some 18 classrooms, a 240-seat auditorium, a vast expanse of as-yet-to-be-used cubicles, and, tucked behind heavily guarded double security doors, space for 12 brand-new, state-of-the-art, F-35 flight simulators that cost $23 million apiece.

Air Force Lt.Colonel Rhett Hierlmeier trains F-35 fighter pilots. Spencer Lowell

Lt. Colonel Rhett Hierlmeier heads up the center’s operations. The 38-year-old pilot used to fly F-15C Eagles out of Okinawa, mostly around the Pacific and Guam and Japan, and later F-22s. Both planes are air-to-air fighters. “So over the past 10 years, there’s really not been much for us to do,” he says, sitting in a sparse second-floor office, overlooking dozens of empty cubicles. “The deployments were really about presence, show of force.” He notes that the last time a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot shot down an enemy plane was in the late ’90s, during the Balkan Wars. “With Iraq, those guys ended up burying their jets because of our superior presence,” he says.

A former Air Force Academy instructor, Hierlmeier flew the F-35 for the first time three weeks earlier. His job here is to train up an instructor cadre who can then train hundreds of U.S. pilots, as well as pilots from eight coalition countries that have signed on to the buy the F-35. They include Australia, Norway, Canada, Turkey, the Netherlands, and Denmark. The current class is small, including four Americans, three Norwegians, and one Italian, but it will grow to as many as 300 pilots each year.

Hierlmeier leads me through two locked doors and into a vertiginous hall that looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book: Every 15 feet or so, asymmetrical arches painted in disorienting reds and gray, recede down the hall, flanked by blue police strobes. Hierlmeier is not sure why, but they seem meant to confuse intruders. From hidden speakers, a Thin Lizzy song overpowers our discussion: The drinks will flow and the blood will spill/and if the boys want to fight, you better let them. When I ask if it’s to amp up student pilots, Hierlmeier, who is serious, says: “No. There are a lot of classified conversations taking place behind these walls. It’s meant to cover them up.”

We stop at a double door the size of a loading dock. Hierlmeier opens it onto what looks like an amusement-park ride. A white dome, 11 feet in diameter, sits in the middle of the room, surrounded by a massive steel frame and 25 high-definition projectors. A replica F-35 cockpit sits on tracks that disappear into the dome. I ask if I can take a picture. No, says Hierlmeier. But he does invite me to sit in the cockpit, which I do. It’s like sitting in a low-riding Italian sports car. Before they ever get to fly an actual F-35, the student pilots must first spend a month in class practicing on computer monitors with joysticks. Then they do 30 hours inside these simulators, helmets on. Those helmets, made by defense contractor Rockwell Collins, are custom-built for each pilot and cost upwards of $400,000 apiece. “It’s like wearing a laptop on your head,” Hierlmeier says of their computing power.

The sims are the most advanced virtual-reality experience on the planet. A pilot hops into the cockpit and rolls into the dome on the track. Clack. Clack. Clack. Once inside, the projectors shoot Google Earth-quality images of clouds and shadow, mountain ranges rushing past, dusty neighborhoods 30,000 feet below. There are rural landing strips, enemy jets ahead, and missiles whizzing your way. It’s an immersive 360-degree view—with sound effects. Like the F-35s themselves, the simulators are connected to a secure ground server and linked to each other. That way pilots can train together, in separate rooms, on tactical missions. These sims will one day be linked to other fighter-jet simulators at Air Force training bases around the U.S.

And that’s where it gets interesting. Hierlmeier is a student of technology, and grew up reading science fiction and watching Stars Wars. Standing outside the cockpit, he peers into the darkened dome, and says he believes we will one day fight our enemies from inside one of these things. When I ask what that will take, he says flatly, “Bandwidth.”

Bandwidth is a big challenge to networked warfare. And flying a fighter drone from the ground requires sending and receiving massive amounts of data in real time. So engineers are focused on things like improving artificial intelligence so planes can act with more autonomy, thus cutting down on communication bandwidth. If we get machines to think for themselves, we can equip them with a mission objective, rules for engagement, battle scenarios, and then send them on their way. Only by solving the problems of AI and operations autonomy, and onboard processing, says Ruszkowski, can we “reduce communications congestion and usage bandwidth.” Skunk Works has demonstrated that with automated ground-collision avoidance and airborne-collision avoidance systems. If Ruszkowski and his team can extend those capabilities to next-gen stealth fighters, he says, it would go a long way to solving the problem: “We believe that’s the foundation for future military systems.”

Hierlmeier, flanked by a pair of Lockheed Martin contractors and an Air Force PR person tapping her smartphone, leans on the cockpit and considers that future. “I don’t want to be the horse cavalry guy at the start of World War I,” he says. “I’m hoping we’ll see a day when man is not in the machine, in the jet, but man is in the loop. We’ve got to embrace that. I see a day when you’re driving into this dome, and you’re fighting the fight from right here.”

This article was originally published in the January/February 2016 issue of Popular Science.