Welcome back to Part 2 of our series about career progression for Air Force pilots, from the pilot perspective.
If you haven’t already read Part 1 about career progression as an officer, I recommend you click here and read it first.
For better or for worse, it’s necessary to look at your Air Force career progression from both of these perspectives. The Air Force is very fond of reminding its pilots that, “You’re an officer first and a pilot second.” You could be the greatest pilot in the world, but if you aren’t a “good” officer in the Air Force’s eyes you may not get the career progression opportunities you want.
Perhaps the most poignant example of this was Colonel John Boyd. (Here’s a fantastic biography about him.) He was inarguably the best fighter pilot of his time. More importantly, he was the first fighter pilot in human history to use thermodynamics and computer analysis to figure out the math behind dogfighting. He developed fighter doctrine and tactics, based on hard science, that USAF fighter pilots still use to this day. And that was just one of his major accomplishments in the Air Force.
You might think that the Air Force would have sung his praises and promoted him all the way to 4-star General. Unfortunately, Boyd was sort of a terrible person. He wasn’t great with people and didn’t meet the Air Force’s ideals as an officer. He missed out on opportunities because he was so focused on the pilot side of things that he struggled on the officer side. It was a fight for him to get promoted to O-6.
You’d think that the opposite would also be true: you must be a good pilot to get promoted in the Air Force. Surprisingly, this isn’t entirely true. Up to a point, yes, you have to check some of the pilot career progression boxes we’ll discuss here as part of your officer career progression. However, there are opportunities to spend a lot of time in non-flying assignments and get promoted anyway.
Many pilots pursue those non-flying opportunities thinking they can easily return to command a flying squadron when they reach the appropriate rank. Many of these pilots do get assigned as flying squadron commanders. However, their success in that job can suffer if they failed to take care of the pilot side of their career development.
Unlike many other professions, aviation is based on “street cred” and your performance comes with immediate feedback. Whether you’re flying in a formation or flying next to another pilot on a crewed aircraft, someone always sees if your skills aren’t up to par. There’s no way to hide it, and word gets around.
If you fail to take care of your pilot career progression, everyone around you will know about it. You might be assigned to command a flying squadron later in your career because your record, on paper, looks very competitive. However, if you lack credibility in your aircraft, your ability as a leader will be greatly diminished. (In a fighter squadron, you must be an IP to serve as a DO or Squadron Commander. Fail to earn that upgrade, and a lot of leadership opportunities will just be closed off to you.)
Your performance as a squadron commander weighs heavily on your subsequent assignments and promotions. Air Force squadron commander tours are usually only two years long. If you have to spend part or all of that time struggling just to regain credibility (or even earn it in the first place) you will not have a successful command.
This means both parts of this series are important to you. It’s a lot of work to check all the boxes required for development as both an officer and a pilot, but that’s what you signed up for. You need to be good as a pilot if you want to be an effective officer. Let’s examine what this career progression looks like, and then figure out how to do it well.
Table of Contents
- Flight Training
- Flight Lead/Aircraft Commander
- Instructor Pilot
- Evaluator Pilot
- Other Certifications
- Maximizing Your Progress
- Upgrades and Your Future
- How to Ask for Upgrades
- Wrap Up
A military pilot’s career starts at a commissioning source. For many, this is the USAF Academy or ROTC. For pilots smart enough to go directly to the Guard or Reserve, this will mean OTS (now called TFOT). The honest truth is that it doesn’t matter how you earn your commission. From here on out, all that matters is how good of a person and a pilot you are.
There are always rumors that one group (especially Academy grads) favors their own unfairly. In my experience, most of the people who get really worked up over this getting passed-over because of shortcomings on their personal or pilot side, rather than their commissioning source. Don’t be that guy or gal.
Once you become an officer, your first stop will be Initial Flight Training (IFT). For USAF pilots this happens at an IFT program run by a company called Doss, now owned by L3 Harris, flying Diamond DA-20s in Pueblo, Colorado. This isn’t a garden spot, and the program isn’t designed to be especially fun, but it is important. It’s structured like UPT, so take advantage of the opportunity to put yourself in that mindset.
IFT only gives you 20 hours of flying. It’s not enough, but it’s better than nothing. As a former UPT IP, I could tell a distinct difference between a student with just 20 hours in IFT, and a 40+ hour Private Pilot. If there’s any way to earn your pilot’s license before you get started on this whole track, it’ll be worth it. If you want to go further above and beyond, check out this post where I explain some of the other ratings and training you could consider.
After IFT, you’ll go to Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT). We’ve written in detail about this program. If you need more info, I recommend starting with our series describing all three phases of training, and our series on Winning UPT.
After UPT graduation, you’ll probably go to SERE and Water Survival. Check out our post on these schools for details.
Fighter pilots go to one unique training event at some point after UPT. They attend Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals (IFF) where they hone their skills as wingmen, learn basic fighter maneuvers and some surface attack procedures in the T-38. I’m looking for a reserve IFF IP to do an interview for a more in-depth article on this program. (Let me know if you’re interested.)
The next major step for every pilot is getting qualified in their first operational aircraft. The Air Force frequently refers to these aircraft as a Major Weapons System (MWS) or Mission Design Series (MDS). The course itself can be called an Initial Qualification Course (IQC), a Formal Training Unit (FTU), a Reserve Training Unit (RTU), or simply “The B Course” (B for Basic). In most cases, this course lasts for 6+ months.
Like UPT, FTU will include academics, sims, and flying the aircraft. Unlike UPT, you’ll also learn some specific tactical mission events. Although I hope you enjoyed loops to music and lunch & backs in UPT, this training will be more fun and engaging overall because you finally get to start learning the skills you’ll be using to fight the war.
Your initial qualification course usually includes two formal checkrides that each produce a USAF Form 8. One is your Instrument/Qual Evaluation that proves you’re capable of taking off, going somewhere, flying an instrument approach to a landing, and dealing with emergencies. The other is your Mission Evaluation that proves you’ve achieved at least basic competence in your aircraft’s specific mission events. Many communities accomplish this checkride at the schoolhouse, though fighter pilots should expect to not do this until they get to their operational squadron. You should be proud to qualify in your first aircraft, but don’t get too excited. You still have some hurdles to cross before you’re ready to go to war.
After FTU, you’ll finally be sent to your first operational squadron. In most communities, you’ll arrive as a “qualified” pilot, but that’s not good enough. Most communities will conduct a (relatively) short in-house training curriculum called something like Mission Qualification Training (MQT) to verify and start improving your skills. Some operational squadrons have targeting pods, weapons, or other equipment that the schoolhouse doesn’t, and you’ll be trained on these. Otherwise, MQT is mostly “just” a run-through of all your standard mission sets.
In a fighter, bomber, and a few other types of squadrons, MQT culminates in an event called Verification where you’ll plan a real-world mission and brief it to a “murder board” including an auditorium full of senior pilots up to and including your Wing Commander. In some wings, you even get to fly simulations of this mission. It’s a grueling week or two of work, but you’ll feel a huge sense of accomplishment when it’s done.
Assuming all goes well, you’ll be awarded the status of Combat Mission Ready (CMR) at the conclusion of MQT. This is finally the point where you’ve been deemed sufficiently trained and competent to deploy with your squadron and fly a real combat sortie.
Given frequent delays between training programs, it’s not unrealistic to expect this whole process to take 2-3 years from the day you commission to the day you become CMR. The Air Force has to make a huge investment in you just to get you to square one. As a pilot, there’s plenty of career progression to consider from here.
In most cases, when you finally reach CMR in a new aircraft, you’ll be a Wingman (fighters) or Copilot (crewed aircraft). Although it’s rough to be the most junior pilot in any flying organization, this will be one of the best times in your career. At this point, your entire job is to learn everything possible about your aircraft and get good at flying/employing it. All those years you spent dreaming about what it would be like to fly as a military pilot? This is what you were imagining.
As a fighter pilot, new wingmen are expected to be at work all the time. If you aren’t mission planning, flying, or debriefing, your default location should be the vault – a set of rooms with high security where all of the unit’s classified documents are stored. (Other acceptable locations are the gym getting swole, cleaning/stocking the squadron bar [aka: Heritage Room] or mopping the floors. Expect more on these parts of your job in another article.)
You will spend months in the vault studying systems, weapons, enemy threats, tactics, and more…and you still won’t be able to cover everything. You’ll be expected to know all of this on your training flights, so the sooner you can gain some competence here the better.
Other types of units may have a vault for new pilots to study in, but most aren’t as intense as fighter squadrons. You’ll still have time to go to the gym, eat lunch with your spouse or friends, and get home at a reasonable hour.
The dichotomy between life as a fighter pilot and almost any other type of pilot is stark. I think most people who aspire to become fighter pilots understand and welcome the amount of work they’ll have to do. If there’s even a small part of you that thinks, “That sounds terrible. I’d hate working that hard for that long,” then you need to make sure you don’t get assigned to fly fighters.
No matter what type of squadron you’re in, the senior pilots pay attention to everything you do. They know if you get along well with others, they know if you work hard in the squadron, they know what your knowledge level is, and they know exactly how well (or poorly) you fly. They also talk about you all the time. Even if you aren’t in a fighter squadron, you want to make sure that you’re constantly studying to improve your knowledge. You need to do what it takes to fly well. If this means chair flying at home and spending extra time in the simulator, then do it! You need to make yourself available to fly and focus on flying as your primary job.
Why work so hard? You’re trying to earn the right to take the next step on your career progression. Called “upgrades,” these steps aren’t just given out arbitrarily. You must demonstrate competence at your current level of qualification and the potential to figure things out when you advance to the next level. I’ve flown with pilots who were doomed to never be anything more than a copilot in our aircraft. That’s not the end of the world. These guys still gave valuable service to their country. However, you don’t want that to be you.
Flight Lead/Aircraft Commander
Once you’ve gained some experience and demonstrated the ability to do your job as a Wingman/Copilot, you’ll be selected for upgrade to Flight Lead (fighters) or Aircraft Commander (crewed aircraft). In some communities, this means a TDY back to the schoolhouse for a few weeks. Most fighter squadrons, and many other types of units, do Flight Lead or Aircraft Commander upgrades “in-house.”
Going TDY for upgrade training is nice because it allows you to focus on your training with fewer distractions. However, these courses are usually pretty demanding. In-house upgrades are nice because you’re flying with people you know and they can feel slightly more collegial. However, it can be very difficult to study and prepare for training events when you have all the demands of your office job and family to worry about too. You probably have no say over which type of upgrade you do, so ask around your squadron for strategies to succeed at whichever one you get.
Once you finish your upgrade course, your squadron leadership will probably pair you with the absolute best Copilots and Wingmen for a while to help you learn your new role. However, you should be prepared to fly with the weakest pilot/crew pretty soon. There’s a lot more to think about in this new role, but you’ll learn it as time goes on.
In a fighter squadron, that initial upgrade only makes you a 2-ship Flight Lead. (This course is sometimes referred to as 2FLUG [FLUG = Flight Lead Upgrade]), and it’s a critical point in your career. It’s one thing to be good enough as a Wingman to get picked for 2FLUG. It’s something else entirely to learn to effectively execute as a FL during your upgrade process. FLUG will be a tough program requiring a tremendous amount of study and preparation for each and every training event. Your performance in that program will earn you a reputation in the squadron – either as someone who does whatever it takes to be ready and shines when it’s time to perform or someone who struggles through new challenges. This is a sort of the first impression of your potential as a future fighter pilot. You need to work hard and get it right.
You’ll need to gain experience and prove yourself in that role in hopes of being picked for 4-ship Flight Lead upgrade (4FLUG). In a fighter squadron, there are never enough Instructor Pilots to go around. The fundamental warfighting unit of a fighter squadron is a flight of four aircraft. As such, 4-ship Flight Lead is quite possibly the most important role in a fighter squadron. Although they aren’t officially Instructors, they’re expected to plan and fly missions, and conduct debriefs in a way that ensures every member of the flight learns something every time they go out.
Life as an FL or AC is pretty good. Copilots and Wingmen catch a lot of crap from everyone in the squadron. As an FL or AC, you’ve proven yourself competent enough and earned some respect. People will come to you with questions, and you’ll get the benefit of the doubt when you make big decisions in the jet. This is a fantastic place to be as a military pilot, and you should enjoy it. However, you still need to study and work hard in hopes of progressing further.
An experienced Aircraft Commander or 4-ship Flight Lead may eventually get selected for upgrade to Instructor Pilot. The Air Force regards IP as a serious responsibility. Unless you fly fighters, this upgrade is more likely to necessitate a TDY back to the schoolhouse. IPs teach upgrades, help pilots reset currency items they haven’t done in a while, train pilots on new aircraft upgrades, and much more. It’s a busy job.
If a fighter pilot’s progression ends at 4-ship Flight Lead he or she should feel a huge sense of accomplishment. The time it takes to go from a freshly commissioned officer to Flight Lead is several years. The Air Force assignment system doesn’t always allow for more. For any pilot to make IP is also a great honor and a deserving pinnacle of career development.
An Instructor Pilot is the only person who can fly with another pilot who isn’t qualified in his or her aircraft. There is a high amount of risk associated with signing for a multi-million dollar aircraft and letting an unqualified person take the controls. IPs are also responsible for documenting the training progress of each student, and making the call if a student’s performance isn’t good enough to move on in a given training program.
Most squadrons are chronically short on IPs, so you’ll get to fly a lot more with this upgrade. Nice, right? When I first upgraded to IP, I excitedly explained to my wife how I’d be flying more often and assuming more risk every time I went. Her response was a question: “And how much extra are they paying you for all this extra risk and work?”
Then she gave me The Look.
This upgrade comes with a lot of personal fulfillment, and that was rewarding enough for me. However, realize that every time you go out as an IP you’re accepting more risk than the average pilot. As long as you adhere to procedures, rules, and standards you should be fine. Don’t ever let your guard down though!
Some IPs will get selected for upgrade to Evaluator Pilot/Flight Examiner (EP or FE). Up until this point, the Squadron Operations Officer (DO) “owns” all of the upgrade programs. Decisions on upgrades are always a collaborative process between the Commander, DO, and other senior pilots, but the DO has a lot of say. EP upgrade is different. This program is owned entirely by the Squadron Commander. A squadron can always use more IPs, but it only needs a few EPs. Don’t be surprised or disappointed if you don’t get picked for this job. If you do, it’s because your commander identified you, specifically, as a pilot with great judgment.
Being an EP may sound prestigious, but it actually means you’re always busy doing a difficult job. Instructing is fun – you get to interact with the other pilot(s) and help them get better. A Flight Examiner exists to give checkrides – something nobody likes. The Examiner is supposed to sit quietly and not give any input on the flight unless he or she is part of the crew. If the pilot getting the checkride screws something up, the EP is immediately thrust into a minefield.
When trying to decide whether a given mistake was bad enough to deserve a failing grade, an EP has to consider several questions:
- How bad was that mistake?
- Did Emet recover from it quickly or not?
- Am I allowed to let him try it again? If so, should I?
- Can I debrief the mistake and let him pass the checkride, or are my hands tied?
My first time as an EP was in a unit where we deployed 20% of the squadron every month. Somehow, checkrides always seemed to get pushed to the absolute last minute…meaning if I awarded a failing grade there was a chance it’d screw up the deployment schedule for the entire Squadron. It also sucks that you’re flying with your friends. Checkride failures aren’t the end of the world, but they can impact your career both as a military aviator and in the civilian pilot job market. It’s not the EP’s fault, but it sucks to make that call and give that news.
This all makes the job of an EP a different kind of difficult and stressful. One of the nice things about this job is that there is always time to get a second opinion. It is 100% acceptable to land after a checkride, and then immediately go find another EP or two and lock yourselves in a room to talk things over. I probably did this on 50% of the checkrides I gave in the Air Force. It’s generally even acceptable to debrief the basics of the sortie for the formation/crew, but tell the examinee that you’ll finish his or her checkride debrief the next day.
I frequently counseled with my DO and/or commander about iffy situations on checkrides. I was surprised and impressed that none of them ever told me what to do. They always gave advice and suggested options, but made a point of leaving the final judgment up to me. They always backed up that eventual decision, without question. It’s nice to have that kind of support for this job.
These are the primary steps in an Air Force pilot’s career. Almost every community has upgrades through these positions, and as a pilot, you should always be working to earn the right to take that next step.
- 2-Ship Flight Lead/Aircraft Commander
- 4-Ship Flight Lead
- Instructor Pilot
- Evaluator Pilot/Flight Examiner
Along the way, there are other upgrades and training courses that count as career progression for pilots. Each community has a unique set of opportunities that you’ll learn about when you get there. We’re going to discuss a few to give you an idea of what to expect. We’ll also look at a few opportunities that are available to most Air Force pilots. You’re always better off pursuing these opportunities than not. (We’ll discuss if or how you should ask for these upgrades later on.) This list is far from exhaustive, but here are some of the other upgrades and training you should pursue as part of your pilot career progression:
- Functional Check Flight (FCF) pilots fly aircraft when they get out of major maintenance to ensure that nothing got missed during repairs. On an FCF sortie, you get to fly your aircraft to or even slightly beyond the envelope in every possible direction. It’s fun and challenging flying. (Also, guess which pilots are statistically the most likely to declare emergencies during their careers.)
- Airdrop & Assault Landing. Although the Air Force makes a big deal of our ability to safely drop things out of airplanes and land on short, semi-prepared surfaces, not all pilots of C-130s, C-17s, C-145s (and to a lesser extent C-5s) are certified to do this. Each of these activities is a separate upgrade with currencies that must be kept. In many cases, only certain squadrons are designated for these missions, and only some of the pilots in those squadrons are trained.
- Some aircraft have the opportunity to lead Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) missions from the air using the callsign “Sandy.” This is one of the most honored, challenging, and dangerous missions in the military. We all hope that they train very hard, and never get to use their skills in a real-world situation.
- TAC(A) and FAC(A) – Tactical Air Coordinator (Airborne) and Forward Air Controller (Airborne) are two levels of a similar discipline. This job involves working with forces on the ground and controlling a stack of aircraft. A FAC(A) has the authority to plan Close Air Support (CAS) attacks and clear aircraft to release weapons. A TAC(A) can do most of what a FAC(A) can, except for clearing people to release weapons. Both types of pilot work for a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) on the ground, although a FAC(A) is qualified to operate without a JTAC.
- Weapons Officer is more than just an upgrade. It’s a six month school that covers a brutal and fascinating syllabus at the USAF Weapons School. Weapons Officers get a special career track from that point on. The details on this upgrade will get a full post of their own…some other time.
- Mission Commander is a crew member in charge of an entire package of air assets. This is the person leading the entire push at Red Flag…or against the Russkies when WWIII kicks off. If you thought leading a 4-ship was demanding, you’re in for a surprise! For some aircraft, Mission Commander Upgrade (MCUG) is optional and somewhat rare. For a fighter pilot, it’s most common to do this as a 4-ship FL, before you upgrade to IP.
- MAFFS, fighting fires in a C-130 with the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System, is a unique and challenging upgrade that got its very own BogiDope article.
- Launch and Recovery. The average MQ-9 pilot is neither trained nor qualified to takeoff or land a drone. That’s a separate upgrade. You may think this is a prestigious way to advance your career, but be careful. The only drone pilots who deploy are the ones who hold L&R qualification.
- Nukes. Within the communities of aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons, not everyone gets certified to do so. You have to pass psychological and other tests. You have to go through a specific, and very detailed training program. You have to maintain strict currency requirements and undergo periodic testing. You have to follow special procedures for certain dental and medical appointments. Honestly, this is all so much work that many pilots avoid it. However, it’s an important mission for our country’s defense.
- The Advanced Instrument School (AIS) is a fascinating course where you study instrument flying, but also instrument approach/departure design. It’s great enrichment for any pilot, and it also looks good on both Air Force records and future job applications.
- Safety School is another training course available to pilots in any community. The Air Force actually offers several different courses at this school, but if you take the right combination you can be officially designated a Safety Officer. This makes you eligible for safety-related jobs and qualifies you as an accident investigator. Most wings have assignment slots reserved for safety-qualified pilots that are usually unfilled. If you’re trying to get to a specific assignment, having completed Safety School can open up doors that are closed to most pilots. The flip side of this is that deployed bases all need a Safety Officer. You’ll be vulnerable for these deployments, and no-notice call-outs to conduct accident investigations. It’s a great power/great responsibility type of opportunity.
- USAF Test Pilot School (TPS) is a dream opportunity for many of us pilots. You need at least a BS, if not an MS, in math, hard science, or engineering to go there because the course is as academically intense as it is fun. You get to fly a variety of aircraft and could have checkrides in the F-4, UH-1, Grumman Albatross, and C-130 all in the same week. Upon graduation, you’re eligible for a variety of special assignments and highly competitive for the US Astronaut program. To be fair, the US Navy also has a fantastic TPS. The USAFTPS made pictures and videos tough to find, so here’s a video from the Navy TPS showing just a few of the aircraft they get to fly.
As I said, this list is far from exhaustive. Although some of these opportunities require you to already be a FL, AC, or IP, you earn them individually and in parallel with the more common steps in pilot career progression. Within your community, you should aspire to earn the right to obtain any of the special upgrades available on your aircraft. We’ll discuss shortly how to make that happen.
Maximizing Your Progress
Unlike many civilian careers, and even non-flying military ones, aviation does not allow you to get ahead by faking it or taking credit for the work of others. Your successful career progression as a pilot will be directly proportional to what you put into it.
The first step to maximizing your potential as a pilot is effective studying. If you’re a fighter pilot, the culture will more or less force this on you. If you aren’t a fighter pilot, there may not be as much direct pressure to study. This means the person who can most effectively build his or her knowledge (without failing on his or her other responsibilities) will look the best in the eyes of the IPs and commanders in the squadron.
In addition to studying, the best way to improve at flying is to go fly! You should lobby the scheduling shop (without being annoying) to make sure you’re on the schedule at least as much as everyone else. If a bad deal pops up that nobody else wants, tactfully letting your flight commander and/or scheduler know that you’ll “take one for the team” not only gets you flight hours but makes them feel like they owe you a better (flying) deal in the future.
When you can’t fly, it’s a good idea to spend time chair flying. This can and should be accomplished at home in your living room. Most bases also have simulators available. They’re used for official training, and for the emergency procedures portion of your annual check ride. However, they also spend a lot of time sitting idle. On most bases, you’re free to reserve a sim anytime it’s not otherwise scheduled, for your own practice. I can’t emphasize how beneficial this can be.
When I started flying the B-1B in the 34th BS at Ellsworth AFB, the squadron was getting ready for deployment. The IPs and IWSOs (Instructor Weapons System Officers) in the squadron were so busy that there wasn’t anyone available to teach us Close Air Support. (The RTU didn’t even teach CAS at that time. It was a relatively new mission set for the B-1 and few, if any, of the IPs at the schoolhouse had ever performed that mission. They relied on the operational squadron to teach CAS.)
Instead of sitting around waiting for someone to spoon-feed CAS to us, a bunch of us copilots and baby WSOs took matters into our own hands. We read all of the doctrine and the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs). We talked to the squadron Weapons Officers and got audio recordings of some CAS engagements they’d practiced at Weapons School. Then, we went to the sim 5 or 6 at a time and practiced. We’d take turns as the odd-person out playing JTAC and running the scenario while everyone else tried to figure out how to apply the TTPs. We got the hang of things, and eventually cajoled some younger ACs who had at least some deployed experience to give us some pointers.
Our efforts paid off. When I did my (one) CAS sortie for MQT, it happened to be with the squadron Weapon’s Officer. I learned a lot; however, the comment he left in my gradebook was “Best MQT CAS seen to date.” That was high praise from him, and I felt like the hard work paid off.
As a young military aviator, you should not rest until you’re CMR and then an AC, FL, or IP. There are always things you can learn, and skills you can build. Much of that can be done on the ground.
Flying chairs and other simulators is nice, but you real flying is always better. Most Air Force squadrons have a public address (PA) system, and it’s not uncommon to hear, “Any available lieutenant, report to the step desk now!” Sometimes, this is a trap to gather bodies for emptying the trash cans or mopping the floors. Frequently though, it means that someone dropped out of a flight at the last minute and you have a shot at some extra, unscheduled flying, without having to do any mission planning. This is a great deal, and the more you make yourself available for this, the better.
Flying without little involvement in the mission planning can be perilous. The FL, AC, or IP in charge of the sortie will grant you a little leeway because you weren’t involved in the planning. However, if you perform too poorly it will not reflect well on you. Your reputation won’t benefit from that, and you won’t be offered similar opportunities in the future. This is why it’s critical to make sure your studying, chair flying, and extra sim practice is all keeping you ready for anything.
Upgrades and Your Future
I feel like many pilots try to maximize their progress because we tend toward Type A personalities who want to excel no matter what we do. However, it’s important to understand the short- and long-term career impacts of your ability to progress as a pilot.
There’s enough variation in individual units and situations that nobody has ever established a firm timeline for when a pilot should achieve each upgrade. However, you do need to work to be ready for your next upgrade as soon as you become eligible. (That eligibility is usually expressed in terms of a minimum number of flight hours in your aircraft.) Most fighter pilots will be eligible for 2FLUG with a few hundred hours, and most crewed aircraft will consider a copilot for AC upgrade around 1,000 hours. If you’re a 750 hour wingman or a 1,500 hour copilot, people will notice.
This isn’t the end of the world, and as I mentioned some situations make a big difference here. Most pilots get a lot of flying while they’re deployed. If an experienced pilot started a deployment just short of having enough hours to upgrade, he or she could return home with a lot of hours. Your squadron will know this, and it won’t be counted against you. However, if you haven’t been picked for upgrade because your knowledge or skills are lacking, you will earn a reputation that you don’t want.
When your Squadron Commander starts coordinating for your next assignment, he or she has to consider whether you have the potential to continue as a contributing member of your community. If you want your second assignment to be in another operational squadron, or you want any other desirable assignment, you want your boss to feel inspired to keep you around. Otherwise, you will receive one of the less-desirable assignments that he or she has to give out. This won’t be the end of the world. Maybe it’ll work better for your family to go teach UPT or do something else for a few years. However, if you left your squadron as Maverick the Wingman or Iceman the weak Flight Lead, nobody is going to try hard to get you back. Worse, that reputation will follow you to your next assignment, starting you out at a disadvantage.
At BogiDope, we also see this dynamic play out on Guard and Reserve hiring boards all the time. If you have your heart set on settling down in a specific unit, you need to give them every reason to take you. If you show up as an IP, FCF pilot, Safety School Graduate, and/or Weapons Officer, you’re immensely useful to them. If you show up as the pilot who was that 750 hour wingman and just barely made it to 2FLUG, you could have the best interview of all-time, but not get the job because they know you’d be a drag on their resources.
We feel like most units are willing to give anyone a fair look. They’ll take deployments or other circumstances into consideration. They’ll ask around your community for anyone who knows you, and especially anyone who knew you in the assignment where your career progression seemed to be a little slow. However, if you really want to go somewhere specific, you’re far better off not making them have to research and debate. Showing up with every possible certification you can get is always better.
How to Ask for Upgrades
Most squadrons do a good job of knowing who is ready for an upgrade and getting each person into the pipeline as soon as possible. In my opinion, if you feel compelled to ask for an upgrade, that’s frequently a sign that you’re not ready for it…and oblivious to that fact.
As a baby pilot, you should at least feel comfortable talking with your Flight Commander on a regular basis. As you gain seniority in your unit, you and your peers will be the Flight Commanders. He or she knows that you want to upgrade. If you feel like you’ve been stuck for a while, have a casual but private conversation with him or her. Ask how things are looking for upgrades in the squadron and if there’s anything you need to improve to make yourself eligible.
If your Flight Commander is unavailable (deployed, on leave, etc.) and you feel compelled to press the issue, then it’s okay to broach the subject with your DO or Commander. Again, be very tactful in the way you approach this. You are not entitled to any upgrade, ever. You may “need” it for your overall career progression, but that is not justification if you don’t otherwise deserve it.
You should express a desire to develop and excel. If you’ve been waiting for a very long time, you might express some mild concern or frustration. Don’t whine or complain though, because it will not help your case.
You should focus the conversation on discovering the skills, knowledge, or experience that you currently lack and need to develop to make yourself eligible to upgrade. You are not there to argue against the need for more of any of those or to try and rationalize your upgrade without meeting those criteria. You’re just gathering information so that you can go take care of what you need to.
Once you get some guidance from your leadership, it’s up to you to go follow it. If you need more flying, volunteer for the flying nobody else wants to try and make up the difference. If you’re lacking in knowledge, go hit the books…hard! If you’re lacking in skill, approach the FLs, IPs, and Weapons Officers in the squadron about it. Explain that you’re trying to improve yourself overall, and because you want to earn your next upgrade. I promise they’ll respect your humility and desire to improve. They will go out of their way to help you!
Whether you had to ask about it or not, I feel like most squadrons are very good about tagging you for upgrade once you’re ready. More than once, my DO approached me to let me know I was being considered for an upgrade before I’d even started wondering if I was in the running. Many times, upgrades happen when you’re ready.
If, after speaking to your leadership about what you were missing, you feel you’ve accomplished everything they mentioned without anyone noticing, it’s okay to bring it up again. This discussion also requires a lot of tact. Thank your superior for his or her past guidance and explain what you’ve done to follow it. Then, humbly ask if he or she thinks you’re ready for consideration, or if you’ve missed something else. Remember: you’re never demanding or whining.
One other way I’ve started this conversation is with my annual performance report. You should always get some input on what’s in this report. In many squadrons, you’ll have to write the first draft yourself. The very last line of this report is called the “push” line. It’s a place for your commander to specify what should come next for you in career development. I wanted to go to Safety School, so I just included a recommendation for that in my push line. My commander hadn’t known I’d wanted this, but once he saw it he made me the Chief of Flight Safety and ended up getting me a Safety School slot. I think it’s always better to communicate this kind of thing directly to your chain of command. However, if there hasn’t been a time to bring something up, this isn’t a terrible way to do it.
I like discussing the pilot side of career development because I feel like this is the whole point of being a pilot in the military. Sure, pilots need to also develop themselves as officers and leaders behind a desk. However, there are thousands of officers in the military. We are the only ones capable of employing Air Power against America’s enemies. In my mind, that is by far the most important skill for us to develop. This influences your ability to do your job well now and plays into your future assignments.
It also happens that learning to do new and impressive things with aircraft is a lot of fun. I’ve known pilots who get complacent in their aircraft, and it eventually starts to lose its luster for them. They stop thinking of it as fun and adventurous and start thinking of it as a cubicle with a view. What a tragic waste! By constantly working to earn the next upgrade, you can keep yourself sharp and continue enjoying your job.
If you work hard to be excellent at your current level, I believe that most squadrons will take care of you and slate you to upgrade when you’re ready. There may be situations where you get overlooked. In that case, it’s okay to approach your chain of command about it. Remember that you’re humbly asking what else you need to do to earn your spot. You’re not complaining, and you are not entitled to anything.
I envy those of you just starting out as Wingmen and Copilots. I’d gladly start over again in your place. Work hard, and enjoy the process of learning and mastering your aircraft. You’ll be rewarded with upgrades, but more importantly, you’ll be proud of what you’ve accomplished. Have fun with it and fly safe!
< Back to Part 1: Career Development for Officers | Part 2: Career Development for Pilots
This post’s feature image is from: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/6064881/sunrise-sortie.
The shot of the L3 Harris Doss DA-20s is from the website for their program: https://www2.l3t.com/doss/incoming_students/index.htm.
The 52 FW pilots in their verification exercise is from: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/4024953/members-52nd-fighter-wing-receive-final-qualification-training.
Viper pilot close-up: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/6082501/28th-ears-refuels-f-16s-over-iraq.
The C-130 Aircraft Commander on NVGs came from: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/5682205/c-130-night-ops.
The shot of the view from a T-38C IP seat is from: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/5451310/560th-fts-building-elite-instructor-pilots.
The C-130 airdrop photo came from: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/6062928/exercise-rock-topside-2020.
The BUFF shot is from: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/4916834/gt19.
The Bone sim picture is from: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/584474/bishop-visit.
The CV-22 landing on the USS Ronald Regan came from: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/5681827/cv-22-flight-operations.