When Major Will Andreotta began flying for the Air Force in 2006, he had to do a lot of work. He was training on the F-16, a fighter jet first deployed in 1978, and almost everything was analog. “I would tell my wingman to target something, then call over: ‘Confirm your this, because I’m seeing that,’ ” he says.

In comparison, the F-35 that Andreotta flies now is a marvel: It has six external articulating infrared cameras and sensors that send maintenance data to the ground crew. And, as of this year, it comes with a helmet unlike any other in the world—one that synthesizes all the live feeds from the plane’s exterior cameras and sensors into a lucid, customizable augmented-reality display. Developed by Rockwell Collins, the company responsible for avionics in the Boeing 787 and for NASA’s unmanned aircraft projects, the Gen III Helmet Mounted Display System gives a pilot as much visibility as he would have if the entire cockpit were made of glass. “What I wore on the F-16,” Andreotta says, holding up the $400,000 carbon-fiber masterpiece, “was a literal helmet compared to this.”

The difference such a piece of equipment makes to flying is striking: Now, when Andreotta looks down at his boots in the cockpit, the helmet pulls data from a camera under the plane and shows him a thermal image of whatever’s below, as if there were no floor. If he tells his wingman to target an enemy, he watches for a circle to appear around that plane or building. “I can do all that in five seconds or less without having to ask for confirmation,” he says.

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