Ace Combat: Remembering The Last Ace
Updated: Sep 23, 2022
Back in 2011, the announcement of Ace Combat: Assault Horizon (ACAH) shook up the Ace Combat series in a way that impacted it deeply. A significant part of the attempted reboot was bringing the series to the Earth we currently live on. Giving up the fictional world of Strangereal for the more grounded real world, the back story of the new characters and new game also found their roots in conflicts from the past. Of the various media created to support this change, a prequel novel titled "The Last Ace" was authored by Jim DeFelice.
Though this novel prominently features the future protagonist of Ace Combat: Assault Horizon as its main character, the title refers to a problematic, veteran pilot the future protagonist once flew into battle with.
As mentioned in a previous article about this novel, during a test flight of a modified F-22A nicknamed "Righteous," United States Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William "Brass" Bishop found his mind wandering back to his past combat experiences. Briefly recalling his actions in the Second Gulf War (2003) and the military intervention in Libya (2011), his mind settled on his first combat sorties in his military career.
Following a mix of skilled flying during training and knowing the right people in the right places, the then lieutenant Bishop was transferred to a squadron that was about to see combat. Bishop's squadron participated in Operation Deliberate Force (1992-1995), a sustained air campaign conducted by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization supporting United Nations Peacekeepers intervening in the Bosnian War (Encyclopædia Britannica). Their sorties consisted of kill-box assignments and close air support at the regulation of the UN against military units of the Army of Republika Srpska (ARS) – described in the novel as "the rump Yugoslavia force threatening the UN-controlled area of Bosnia."
The young Lieutenant Bishop flew a General Dynamics F-16 under the command of his squadron leader, Lt. Colonel James "Skull" Scranton. Often only referred to as Skull, he had flown during the Vietnam War piloting F-105 Thunderchiefs for the United States Air Force out of Thailand. When Skull left Vietnam, he had three confirmed aerial victories. Bishop remembered him as a "hell of a pilot," "an old school SOB," "hard ass," and someone he regarded as one of the greatest pilots. It was known that Skull would not only be hard on his pilots but even to the maintainers and the rest of the ground crew.
Skull preferred to have the new guy, Bishop, fly as his wingman. Partly to chide Bishop and push him in the old-fashioned method of pressuring someone in every way possible to bring out their best performance. As Bishop recalled, despite the abuse, Skull "[...]was a good teacher: watch what he did, and you couldn't help but learn." As frustrating as Bishop thought his cold demeanor, long silences, and short responses could be, that type of skill and instinct was something special the legendary dogfighters of both world wars once had.
For the most part, the story of The Last Ace remains within historical facts in all but one area—aerial combat. In Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, the primary adversary to the future Colonel William Bishop is a former-ace pilot of the Russian Federation with his own ties to the Bosnian War. It was somewhat of an open secret that Russian pilots flew Yugoslavian-owned combat aircraft against UN and NATO forces. This information was hidden from the world to prevent a potential third World War in Europe. In the novel, all of this information was deemed highly classified and remained hidden even decades later.
The first air combat encounter came during a search and destroy mission at an airfield. While awaiting clearance to attack a group of Mil Mi-24 Hinds, the two-ship F-16 flight of Skull and Bishop were ambushed by a flight of four MiG-29 Fulcrums. With the Fulcrums flying low, fast, and during a rotation between AWACS aircraft on station in the area, they were able to come within 30 miles of the F-16s before being detected. With no AIM-120 AMRAAMs on their aircraft, the F-16s were at a disadvantage. The ensuing air battle saw Skull taking Bishop through a sharp dive towards the ground to vertically notch incoming R-27R semi-active air-to-air missiles from the Fulcrums. Predicting where the Fulcrums would attempt to flee from after their attack failed, the F-16s throttled up during their dive to maintain speed and energy as they transitioned to pursue the now fleeing MiG-29s, which had lost speed during their course change to leave the area. As Skull and Bishop caught up to the first pair of MiG-29s, coming just into maximum AIM-9 Sidewinder range, Skull advised Bishop to wait for the optimal missile shot, saying, "be patient[...] make every second a lifetime."
Seconds later, both F-16s fired scoring kills. Though Skull immediately committed onto the second pair of fleeing Fulcrums despite being in a dangerously low fuel state, that engagement yielded no aerial victories. While Bishop personally questioned the actions of Skull putting himself in danger to score the fifth kill, he never brought it up publicly.
A week and a half after the first air battle, Wolf flight had just completed an airstrike when it was tasked with shooting down a pair of ARS-controlled Mi-24 Hinds. After dispatching both helicopters, Wolf flight was informed that a four-ship of MiG-29s were lifting off from an airfield within their vicinity, but they were of no threat. Regardless, Skull ordered the second half of the flight to return to base. Bishop, inquiring about the plan was, was told to follow Skull, and the two began pursuit of the Fulcrums despite only having a pair of AIM-9 Sidewinders per aircraft. Without tasking from the AWACS to do so, Skull was advised that a pair of F-15 Eagles were being vectored into the area to engage the Fulcrums. Skull continued pursuit, declaring that he was attempting to ensure the Fulcrums would not attack other allied forces until the F-15s arrived. With such a significant distance between both groups of aircraft - at a maximum of 50 miles apart at the start of the engagement -, it was unrealistic for the F-16s to close distance to utilize their AIM-9s before they ran out of fuel. However, as the pair of F-16s gradually closed distance, the pressure applied by their presence forced the flight of MiGs to begin separating their formation. A lone MiG-29 aggressively changed course at low altitude and turned to engage Skull and Bishop. The pilot either being inexperienced in air combat or eager to gain a kill of their own.
Hoping this would happen, Skull pressed the engagement with the single Fulcrum noting that the pilot fired an R-27R outside of its launch parameters. Commenting on the MiG pilot being "hyped on adrenaline," Skull fired an AIM-9 well outside of its effective range in a head-on approach to the MiG. This scared the pilot and forced them to evade and lose even more speed. Skull rapidly gained altitude as the MiG pilot completed their evasive maneuvers, predicting that the Fulcrum pilot would lose sight of him and gain altitude to spot Skull's aircraft easier. The instinctual flying skills of Skull already had him place high and behind the confused and climbing MiG-29 even before it began its ascent. Though the Fulcrum eventually spotted the F-16, an attempt to dive to the ground at full afterburner still resulted in Skull's AIM-9 proximity bursting into the Fulcrum, forcing the pilot to eject from losing control while in a rapid dive. Scoring his fifth kill and becoming the first American ace since the Vietnam war, the celebration was stifled by the arrival of the rest of the fallen MiG-29's flight.
Though they managed to survive the air battle long enough for friendly F-15s to begin their attack, both F-16s were considerably damaged. In particular, Skull's F-16 was heavily damaged by cannon fire from an especially skilled MiG-29 pilot. With his aircraft in shambles and unable to return to base, Skull attempted to eject from the aircraft multiple times but could not due to battle damage. Skull told Bishop to shoot the canopy of his damaged aircraft as his last chance to escape alive. After two sweat-drenched attempts, Bishop was successful in destroying the canopy and enabling Skull's ejection.
After confirming the ejection and coordinating the arrival of a search and rescue helicopter, Skull passed words of respect and thankfulness to Bishop, thanking him for his support and telling him that he could finally call Skull "an Ace". As Bishop departed the area to meet up with a tanker aircraft, the rescue helicopter was ambushed by ARS infantry with a shoulder launcher surface-to-air missile. The helicopter was destroyed, killing all on board.
Decades later, the older Colonel William Bishop deliberated an offer to lead a NATO-led task force against an African insurgency in 2015. Eventually deciding to take the assignment, his recollection of Skull and his ambitions to be a fighter pilot aided him in this decision. While Bishop thought about whether or not he had achieved his goal in life as a test pilot, he reasoned that Skull achieved his life goal, and it inspired him to do the same: to become the best pilot in the sky.
"[Skull] got his fifth kill. He died happy. Fulfilled. The last ace." -Colonel William "Brass" Bishop
This article was written with a copy of the transcript for "The Last Ace," the prequel novel to Ace Combat: Assaults Horizon. We would again like to thank the author for sending us this material to discuss this novel further.
About the Author
Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza
Co-founder of Skyward Flight Media. After founding Electrosphere.info, the first English Ace Combat database, he has been involved in creating flight game-related websites, communities, and events since 2005. He explores past and present flight games and simulators with his extensive collection of game consoles and computers. Read Staff Profile.