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How to Become a Fighter Pilot

I am a former Vietnam-era AF air navigator with degrees in History and Economics. Areas of interest include aviation and military history.

The Training is Grueling

Fighter pilots fly high performance jet planes in combat. Their primary job is to defend our troops and positions against attacks by enemy aircraft.

To become a fighter pilot, you first must join the armed forces. For Americans, the only domestic employers of fighter pilots are the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy, and the Marines.

The Marines have some attack aircraft but they mostly fly support for Marines on the ground.

The Army uses mostly helicopters and the Coast Guard uses aircraft for rescue. Neither of these two branches of the service engage in extensive air-to-air combat.

Inside cockpit of USAF F-15E Strike Eagle flying in formation with other F-15E fighters (photo courtesy of USAF)

Inside cockpit of USAF F-15E Strike Eagle flying in formation with other F-15E fighters (photo courtesy of USAF)

Requirements for U.S. Fighter Pilots

All pilots in both the United States Air Force and Navy are commissioned officers, and all commissioned officers in these two branches must be college graduates. So the first requirement for a fighter pilot is to be a college graduate.

The next requirement is that a candidate meet the physical, psychological, and intellectual requirements for admission to officer training.

This process starts with completing a long and very detailed application which can best be described as telling them everything about your life to date. Don't lie or omit anything on this application as the application will be given to the FBI who will use it as the starting point for a full investigation of your background.

This FBI background investigation includes going through sealed court records, so if you had any run ins with the law as a juvenile, include this information even though the court told you the record would be sealed and not available for viewing.

Past transgressions, both as a juvenile and as an adult, won't necessarily prevent you from being accepted for officer training, but NOT disclosing them and having the FBI find them will almost certainly be grounds for rejecting your application on the grounds that you lack integrity and cannot be trusted.

Even if the FBI overlooks the record on this first check, they will do a more extensive background check before you graduate from flight school and they will most likely discover the record that time and you will be removed from flight school.

Admission to officer training also requires the passing of a test which tests your knowledge (this part is very much like the Scholastic Aptitude Test or SAT that you took to get into college) as well as having a psychological test built into it.

The psychological questions are intermixed with the knowledge questions. In addition, the test is in sections and, once one section is completed, you cannot go back and change answers in the previous sections.

So, by the time you have figured out where they are going with the psychological portion of the exam, it is impossible to go back and change answers in order to present the right psychological profile.

In general, the USAF and Navy are looking for people who are motivated, aggressive, have initiative, and are team players. This is what the psychological portion of the test looks for.

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Finally, you will also have to pass a rigorous physical exam.

Pilot candidates usually also have to take additional knowledge and psychological tests as well as meet higher physical standards, especially in the area of vision.

Assuming you meet all of the qualifications, the next step is officer training. All officer candidates, except those who received their commission through ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) in college or as a graduate of the Air Force Academy or the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, have to go through the officer training program following acceptance into military service.

While in officer training school, you are not an officer and are treated much the same way as those in the enlisted ranks are treated in basic training.

Physical training is a major part of the program as are the academics, which are focused mainly on the history and traditions of the Air Force or Navy.

Physical and mental stress play a big role in the training as one of the goals of the program is to weed out those who can't handle the stress and who are not fully committed to becoming an officer.

Expect to have to meet tough physical and mental demands as you undergo your training.

Flight School

Once you complete officer training and receive your commission, you will be sent to flight school. As an officer you will be treated with more respect and have more freedom than a cadet in officer training.

However, pilots are an elite fraternity within the service, especially in the Air Force, which is all about flying. You will still be in a second class position as you will be both a student and one who has not yet earned pilot wings.

Flight school is a combination of academics, this time dealing with more serious aviation related subjects such as meteorology, aeronautic theory, principles of flight, etc., as well as flying, both in simulators on the ground and in planes in the air.

Stress is also a big part of flight school as they want people who can not only deal coolly with the stress of in flight emergencies, but the added stress of flying under combat conditions.

The intent is to identify and force out those who can't handle the stress as well as those who do not measure up academically or whose flying is not up to standards.

It is not uncommon for a number of people to wash out of flight school and not become military pilots. Flight school will take about a year and, if you successfully complete flight school, you will be awarded your wings as a pilot.

Throughout flight school you will be continually evaluated and ranked. The rankings will be posted, so everyone will know where they stand in relation to everyone else.

As the class progresses, the higher ups in the chain of command will review their needs for pilots and send a list of open assignments to the flight school. These assignments will be based upon the needs of the service and there will be no guarantee as to how many, if any, of the assignments will be fighter jets.

Worse still, people are assigned to planes according to their rank in class with the top ranked person having first choice of assignments and the bottom ranked person getting the plane that is left after everyone else has chosen.

Since fighter jocks are the elite of the elite, you can be certain that any fighter assignments will be taken by those at the top of the class. So, if you want to be a fighter pilot, you had better work hard to be at the top of your class in flight school.

Scenes From Fighter Combat Mission in Afghanistan

The Lucky Few Go On to Advanced Training as Fighter Pilots

In the case of the fighter jets, especially the newer high performance ones, the assignment is not to fly the jet but, rather, a seat in the school that trains people to fly these jets. While you are waiting for your fighter jet class to start, you will probably to sent to wilderness survival school to learn how to survive in the wilderness if you ever have to bail out and live off the land for a few days while waiting to be rescued. There will be a few days of class where you will learn which bugs, critters, roots, and leaves are edible and then turned loose in the woods for a few days where you can immediately put this knowledge to use by living on these same creatures as you make your home in the wilderness. Disgusting as it sounds, this is actually the easy part of the training as the next stage is to continue to survive on eating bugs and whatever else you can find while, at the same time, evading capture by the enemy. Of course, you will be captured and will spend the next few days as a prisoner of war undergoing the same psychological and physical torture as you would receive from a real enemy.

The final stage is to attend and complete training in the fighter aircraft that you have chosen. You are now both an officer and a pilot, so you are well into the ranks of the elite. Even if you fail to complete this school, you will be given another flying assignment, although not necessarily in a fighter jet. In addition to learning how to fly your chosen aircraft, there may be additional training beyond how to operate the aircraft. Upon successful completion of your training, you will be a full fledged fighter jock, one of the most prestigious positions in the Air Force, overshadowed only by the tiny clique of test pilots and astronauts.

USAF F-15E Strike Eagle in flight.  (Photo courtesy of USAF)

USAF F-15E Strike Eagle in flight. (Photo courtesy of USAF)

USAF F-100F Fighter Jet at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, AZ

USAF F-100F Fighter Jet at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, AZ

Indian Air Force- Su MKI 30 - Heavy Combat Aircraft

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2006 Chuck Nugent

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