Unveiling the Air Force’s Advanced AI Pilot: The Rise of X62 Vista in Air Combat

The Air Force’s AI pilot at F sixteens are getting good. And when I say good, I mean really good. Now, we first heard about the Air Force using an AI agent as their known to pilot a real F16 through air combat exercises in December of 2022. Well, technically, we Learned about it a few months later because those drills were held in secret. But since then, we know that a heavily modified Block 30F16D known as the X62 Vista has flown dozens and dozens of sorties and all sorts of different air combat exercises, often against real human pilots, gathering experience for one or several AI agents that will ultimately be passed with flying similar tactical aircraft in real combat operations in the future.

Now just a few weeks ago, on May 2nd, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall took the front seat position in the X62 Vista for a series of air combat exercises against a real human fighter pilot with more than a decade experience in the cockpit. And according to Kendall, it was a pretty close fight. In fact, I’m gonna quote him directly. Basically, when you’re in an engagement like that, what the two pilots are trying to do to gain an advantage is fly the most optimal possible trajectory for their aircraft so you can get a missile off. And he’s trying to do the same to you. So the skill of the pilots is really important. We were up against a pilot who had two or three thousand hours of experience. He was very good. It was roughly an even fight, but against a less experienced pilot, the AI and the automation would have performed better.

And I think people don’t understand that because they just lack the frame of reference to contextualize this statement. If you were to join the Air Force today and somehow had a guaranteed spot to fly the F16, you likely still wouldn’t see the inside of the cockpit until 18 to 24 months after joining, while you accumulated between 200 and 250 hours in various train or aircraft. So let’s say you start flying the F16 about two years into your career. Most pilots accumulate between 200 and 220 hours in their aircraft per year in the best of circumstances. But there are lots of situations that can curtail those hours, including maintenance requirements for the aircraft or training requirements for the pilot. Not to mention, as your career progresses, you may be assigned billets and duties outside of the cockpit that pull you away from the aircraft and put you into more of a managerial position as a result, a pretty best case scenario for crossing the 2,000 hour Mark in an F16 may come between 10 to 12, maybe even 14 years into your career. And crossing the 3,000 hour Mark may never come at all. In fact, to date, there are only 311 pilots in the world in all of the f sixteens history since entering service in 1978 to cross that 3,000 hour Mark. And to give you a sense of just what that takes, let’s look to one of the last pilots to do it, lieutenant colonel Bo Dears, who at the time was the commanding officer of the five hundred and 50th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron. He crossed the 3,000 hour Mark in 2020. And all it took him was 17 years and six combat deployments to do it. And this all makes sense because the X62 Vista and DARPA’s Air Combat Evolution or ace program that’s devising the AI to pilot it, are all being run out of the Air Force’s Test Pilot School, home to the branch’s most capable, competent and experienced aviators. In other words, this AI pilot at F16 is not squaring off against run of the mill fighter pilots. It is squaring off against some of the best the Air Force has to offer. So that means for Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall to say the AI in the X6D2 Vista is pretty evenly matched with the test pilots with some 15 to 20 years experience in the cockpit of the F16 is a pretty darn big deal.