For nearly a century, researchers have been seeking to discover why some fighter pilots are aces (five or more aircraft shot down) while most (about 95 percent) are not. Now we have recent studies that have been able to detect unique difference in brain activity among fighter pilots. But little research has been possible on aces themselves, because there are no more of them on active duty. Still, the research continues, as success in this area would make it possible to more efficiently recruit superior fighter pilots, and train them faster and more effectively.
In some ways, the brain scan studies has confirmed some of the earlier work in this area. For example, earlier studies sought to find common factors among aces. For World War I aces, it was found that aces tended to be very accurate shooters, even if they were sometimes lousy pilots. World War II research found some similarities in eye color and the gender of children, and an apparent ability to quickly size up any situation. Further research confirmed that aces were quick thinkers, who were better able to figure out where they were. But it was observed that these qualities were common in all who were more successful in combat, be it as tank crews, infantrymen or commanders on warships. But fighter pilots were individuals that fought in a way where it was easier to measure success, and recognize those who were superior.
Meanwhile, in the last half century, only three U.S. Air Force pilots have become aces. There may never be any more aces. In nearly a century of operations, only 816 American air force fighter pilots have become aces. Most (87 percent) of those were in World War II. There were 39 aces in the Korean war, and only three during the Vietnam war. In the last ten years, seven pilots scored two victories, and three shot down three aircraft. None scored four or more victories.
Since World War II, the U.S. Air Force, along with American naval aviation, have become the dominant air power on the planet. Moreover, the availability of nuclear weapons has restrained the major world powers from fighting each other directly. So the only wars are between second and third rate proxies, versus American fighter pilots. These smaller nations tend to see their air forces destroyed on the ground, or have too few aircraft in the air to allow American pilots to become aces. The biggest threat to American pilots is anti-aircraft fire, either bullets or missiles.
The future of air combat is in unmanned aircraft, including robotic fighters that no human pilot could overcome. This is because the unmanned aircraft can undertake maneuvers that the human body cannot handle. Too tight a turn at too high a speed causes human pilots to black out. Robotic aircraft do not have this problem. Moreover, a robotic aircraft would be run by software, that could possess a better degree of situational awareness than any human pilot. This isnt science fiction, as many current warplanes have numerous functions run by computers. This is often done because a human simply could not make flight decisions, and execute them, fast enough to prevent the aircraft from crashing. Braking systems on many automobiles use the same technology. Its not a revolution in technology that is creating the robotic fighter, but an evolution. The ace is becoming extinct. But the essence of what makes a pilot an ace is still subject to capture, so that it can be incorporated in the software that will act as future combat pilots.