An F-35 pilot explains why Elon Musk is wrong about the end of the fighter-pilot era

US Air Force F-35 pilot cockpit
An F-35 student pilot climbs into an F-35 at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, July 7, 2017.

  • Autonomous drone warfare “is where the future will be,” Elon Musk said last year.
  • Drones will play an important role on the battlefield, but it’ll be a very long time before they cand do what human pilots can do.
  • Hasard Lee is a fighter pilot currently flying the F-35 Panther, the US’s newest 5th-generation stealth fighter.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

As a fighter pilot, I have a lot of respect for what Elon Musk has accomplished. His ability to not adhere to dogma has allowed him to revolutionize two industries through SpaceX and Tesla.

Much like a physicist, he relies on first-principle science to solve problems, which allows him to see things from a fresh perspective. However, he is wrong about the fighter jet era being over.

“Locally autonomous drone warfare is where it’s at, where the future will be,” Musk said to Air Force Lt. Gen. John Thompson at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium.

“It’s not that I want the future to be this. That’s just what the future will be. … The fighter jet era has passed. Yeah, the fighter jet era has passed. It’s drones.”

As a fighter pilot, my job is to not fall in love with the aircraft I fly, but to use it as a tool to accomplish a mission. We are constantly looking for ways to optimize our lethality while minimizing risk.

If there is a better way to accomplish a mission, then it is our duty to use it. While I agree with Elon Musk that the future is drone warfare, I think we’re a lifetime away from seeing a fully autonomous Air Force.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have fundamentally altered the way we train and fight. I’ve integrated with them extensively over my career and seen first-hand how valuable they are.

Their persistence is unmatched – an MQ-9B recently flew for nearly 2 days without having to refuel. The sensors they carry are equally impressive, due to the weight savings from not having to keep a pilot alive. Perhaps most important, though, is that they don’t put human lives at risk.

MQ-9 Reaper
An MQ-9 Reaper drone.

It’s important to understand that these UAVs are not autonomous – there is someone, usually half a world away, controlling every move by the aircraft. They are a lot more, in effect, like scaled-up radio-control aircraft than they are like robots.

As we move away from limited conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq to near-peer adversaries with high-end capabilities, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the integrity of that signal. This means that to replace manned fighters, these drones will need to be autonomous, or make decisions on their own, in order to be effective.

As Elon Musk is finding out, making an autonomous vehicle is incredibly difficult. While Tesla’s autopilot can navigate reasonably well on highways, they have a much harder time in the city. There are so many edge cases (problems that only occur under extreme circumstances) involved in city driving that are nearly impossible to predict.

When several of these one-in-a-thousand events happen simultaneously, the car’s autonomous software becomes overwhelmed. Remember, these cars are operating in a highly regulated environment where the rules are clearly defined.

Combat is the most dynamic environment imaginable. The fog and friction of war prevent a full understanding of the battlefield.

In addition, the enemy is specifically targeting your weaknesses. Teslas don’t have to fight state actors that are specifically trying to make them crash.

Imagine a city that is more like “Mad Max,” where there are adversaries painting street lines into telephone poles and shining lasers into the car’s cameras – they wouldn’t go a block without being disabled.

Air Force pilot Justin Lee
Capt. Justin “Hasard” Lee heads to his F-16 at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, July 11, 2016.

The same is true for an autonomous drone – it not only has to be able to make decisions on its own, but it must overcome an adversary that is specifically targeting its weaknesses.

And that is where the human brain thrives-coming up with dynamic and creative solutions to undefined problems.

The current Venn Diagram of manned and unmanned aircraft capabilities is so far apart that neither is close to being replaced. The future is finding ways for both to operate as seamlessly as possible.

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23 terms only fighter pilots understand

US Air Force F-35 pilot cockpit
An F-35 student pilot climbs into an F-35 at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, July 7, 2017.

If you’ve ever hung out with military aviators (or watched movies like “Top Gun” or “Iron Eagle”) you know they tend to use a lot of strange lingo when they talk, even when they’re out of the cockpit. Trying to hold a conversation with them can be tough – until now.

WATM presents this handy list of fighter speak that will help keep that social interaction going, which is important because fighter guys have a lot of wisdom to put out and it would be a shame if it got lost in translation.

So here’s the gouge . . . er, here you go:

1. ‘Angels’

Altitude in thousand of feet. (“Angels 3” is 3,000 feet.)

2. ‘Cherubs’

Altitude in hundreds of feet. (“Cherubs 3” is 300 feet.)

3. ‘Bandit’

A known bad guy.

4. ‘Bogey’

An unknown radar contact.

5. ‘Bent’

If a piece of gear is inop it is “bent.” (“Giantkiller, be advised my radar is bent.”)

Air Force fighter pilot
A US airman photographs himself and a three-ship formation of F-15Es, August 3, 2006.

6. ‘Bingo’

Low fuel status or direction to head for the divert field. (“Lobo is bingo fuel,” or “Ghostrider, your signal is bingo.”)

7. ‘Blind’

Wingman not in sight.

8. ‘Delta’

Change to a later time, either minutes or hours depending on the context. (“Delta 10 on your recovery time” means the jet is now scheduled to land 10 minutes later.)

9. ‘Firewall’

Push the throttles to their forward limit. (“I had that bitch firewalled, and I still couldn’t get away from that SAM ring.”)

10. ‘Buster’

Direction to go as fast as possible. (“Diamondback, your signal is buster to mother.”)

Air Force F-22 Alaska
A US Air Force pilot climbs aboard an F-22 at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, March 24, 2016.

11. ‘Bug’

Exit a dogfight rapidly. (“Gucci is on the bug.”)

12. ‘Fragged’

An indication that the airplane is loaded weapons-wise according to the mission order. (“Devil 201 is on station as fragged.”)

13. ‘Grape’

A pilot who’s an easy kill in a dogfight.

14. ‘Naked’

Radar warning gear without indication of a missile threat.

15. ‘Punch out’

To eject from an airplane.

f22
A pilot gets situated in his F-22 at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.

16. ‘RTB’

Return to base. (“Big Eye, Eagle 301 is RTB.”)

17. ‘Spiked’

Um, not that “spike.” The real “spiked” is an indication of a missile threat on the radar warning receiver. (“Rooster has an SA-6 spike at three o’clock.”)

18. ‘Tally’

Enemy in sight (as opposed to “visual,” which means friendly in sight). (“Nuke is tally two bandits, four o’clock low.”)

19. ‘Texaco’

Either a label for the tanker or direction to go to the tanker. (“Gypsy, Texaco is at your one o’clock for three miles, level,” or “Gypsy, your signal is Texaco.”)

20. ‘Nose hot/cold’

Usually used around the tanker pattern, an indication that the radar is or isn’t transmitting.

US Air Force Greece
A US Air Force pilot prepares for a mission at Andravida Air Base in Greece, April 1, 2019.

21. ‘Vapes’

The condensation cloud created when an airplane pulls a lot of Gs. (“Man, I came into the break and was vaping like a big dog.”)

22. ‘Visual’

Wingman (or other friendly) in sight (as opposed to “tally,” which means enemy in sight). (“Weezer, you got me?” “Roger, Weezer is visual.”)

23. ‘Winchester’

Out of weapons. (“Tomcat 102 is winchester and RTB.”)

Bonus 1: ‘G-LOC’

“G-induced loss of consciousness.” (Not good when at the controls of a fighter traveling at high speed at low altitude.)

Bonus 2. ‘The Funky Chicken’

“The Funky Chicken” is what aviators call the involuntary movements that happen during G-LOC.

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The highest-scoring F-14 Tomcat pilot ever set his record while flying for Iran

GettyImages 143817260
Iranian F-14 fighter jets fly during the annual Army Day military parade in Tehran, April 17, 2012.

  • Jalil Zandi joined the Iranian Air Force when it was still the Imperial Iranian Air Force and the country was close to the US.
  • The Iranian Revolution changed that political relationship, but the Iran-Iraq war soon followed, meaning pilots like Zandi were badly needed.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Jalil Zandi’s Air Force legend almost never made it off the ground. He joined the Iranian Air Force when it was still the Imperial Iranian Air Force, under Shah Reza Pahlavi.

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Zandi stayed blue – a risky move at a time when Iranian military officers were being executed for doing their duty to one’s country.

But fighter pilots need to be bold and take risks. Zandi did spend some time in a prison cell, sentenced to 10 years for … whatever. Does it matter?

In September 1980 – less than a year after the revolution in Iran – Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi troops invaded Iran, whose military was woefully undermanned.

So Zandi was back in the pilot’s seat within six months.

Jalil Z f 14

It was a good thing too. Then-Maj. Zandi had some serious skills at the controls of his F-14 Tomcat.

Forget what you think about the governments of Iran and Iraq in this time period, you have to admire a pilot who fought Iraqis in the skies for eight straight years to keep them from shooting chemical weapons at playgrounds.

Zandi survived the brutal eight-year-long war, and according to the US Air Force’s intelligence assessments, he took down 11 Iraqi aircraft – four MiG-23s, two Su-22s, two MiG-21s, and three Mirage F-1s.

His last engagement of the war saw him go up against eight enemy Mirage F1s over Iraq in 1988. He scored two unconfirmed kills but was badly shot up in the dogfight and had to break off. He was able to fly back to his base in Iran and the war ended that very same year.

He received the Order of Fath 2nd Class for his time in the skies over enemy territory. The Fath Medal is one of the highest awards an Iranian military member can receive and is personally presented by the Supreme Leader.

Jalil Zandi’s 11 kills in the F-14 make him the highest-scoring Tomcat pilot ever. Zandi died in a car accident near Tehran in 2001, having reached the rank of brigadier general.

The F-14 was retired from the US military arsenal in 2006 but is still in use in Iran.

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How video games can actually make you a better fighter pilot, according to a fighter pilot

Air Force Mike Holmes Twitch video games
Air Force Gen. Mike Holmes, head of Air Combat Command, flying a F-15, plays his son, 1st Lt. Wade Holmes, flying an F-16, in an air combat video game.

  • Much of the training fighter pilots do takes place in a flight simulator, which is much like a video game.
  • That means video games, in moderation, can help with processing the information and making the quick decisions pilots need to make, according to Justin Lee, an active-duty F-35A pilot.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Does playing video games and desktop simulators, such as Microsoft Flight Sim, prepare you to become a fighter pilot?

As a fighter pilot, much of our training takes place in a simulator, which is the ultimate video game. Stepping into these rooms, you’re dwarfed by a giant sphere that projects a 360-degree view of your surroundings.

After climbing into an exact replica of the cockpit, a motor then pushes you into the middle of the sphere and it’s fights on – you’re anywhere in the world with any weapons you want and adversaries that can be dialed-up in difficulty as needed. And it’s not just you in there, other pilots are in their own pods fighting alongside you on the same virtual battlefield.

Flying a modern fighter is difficult – these machines are designed to merge man and machine into a lethal combination that can have a strategic level of impact on the battlefield. The stick and throttle alone have dozens of buttons on them.

Most of these buttons can give five or more commands – forward, back, left, right, and down – as well as short pushes and long pushes and multiple master-modes that completely change the function of each button: It’s a PlayStation or X-box controller on steroids.

Air Force pilot T-38 flight simulator
A US Air Force student pilot in a T-38C Talon flight simulator at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, November 8, 2018.

Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, my generation was one of the first to have widespread access to video games. Nintendo, Xbox, PlayStation, N64-I played them all growing up. Using a controller was second nature by the time I got to pilot training.

Now trainers like the T-6 and T-38 don’t have a lot of buttons on the stick and throttle – they’re designed to teach students how to fly. However, the F-16 was a huge jump where we learned not just to fly the aircraft, but to employ it as a weapons system.

There we learned what, at the time, seemed like complex sequences to track targets, launch missiles, and drop bombs.

What I noticed was that my time playing video games allowed me to synthesize information while quickly and accurately passing decisions I made off to the jet. Many of my classmates also played video games growing up and collectively, the feedback we received was that we were a lot more advanced than our instructors were when they were in our position.

Now, a decade later, I can say the next generation, who grew up with smartphones and iPads, have an even greater capacity to process the multiple streams of information coming at them than older pilots like myself. The avionics in jets like the F-35 – which are essentially two large iPads glued together – are second nature to them.

So, to answer the question, do video games help prepare you to become a pilot? The answer is yes, to an extent.

For future fighter pilots out there, I would say a couple of hours a week can help with processing information, making quick decisions, and accurately passing it off to the controls. Anything more is likely a detriment in that it is taking time away from other things you could be working on.

As for the type of video game, it doesn’t matter. Realistic fighter simulators like DCS aren’t any better than Mario Kart: The procedures and tactics in civilian sims are off by enough that it won’t give you an advantage by the time you’re flying the real thing. If it helps stoke the passion, great, that’s the most important trait for success, but not playing them won’t put you at a disadvantage.

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