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Whoa!  You’re in the Air Force?!  Are you like, a pilot then?

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When most people think of the Air Force, they immediately picture a gleaming jet with an intrepid, helmeted fighter-pilot pulling G’s and dogfighting with a similarly equipped adversary. The reality is far more complex and involves a huge array of individuals for proper execution. Some of these individuals are on “crewed” aircraft, serving in one of several roles; this course will focus on these roles – specifically the career paths of non-pilot, rated aviation-officers. These include ABMs (Air Battle Managers) and CSOs (Combat Systems Officers).

But it’s fighter pilot or nothin! Right…?

Image Credit: Adobe Stock
I get it. You grew up watching Top Gun and you want to be MAVERICK; out there dog-fighting bad guys and saving the day by getting too close for missiles and switching to guns. But even MAVERICK, with all of his swagger and bravado, would be unable to take to the skies and accomplish his mission without a RIO (Radio Intercept Officer) in the backseat. In the USAF, CSOs take on the role of supporting the pilot and running systems, operations, radios and equipment related to accomplishing the aircrafts’ mission while ABMs train in air-combat coordination aboard highly-specialized aircraft. This, then, presents an excellent opportunity for plenty of aspiring aviators. As such, there are several specific reasons one might choose the path of a “backseater.”  

Perhaps the pilot-side of the house just was never all that appealing to you, but you still crave being in the air and on the leading-edge of operations. Perhaps you like the technical challenge of operating specialized equipment. Maybe that 10-year commitment is just a bit too much for you. Or maybe that highly-coveted pilot slot just didn’t quite pan out for you for any number of reasons – you may have washed out of UPT, or been narrowly disqualified for medical reasons or whatever else. Or maybe there just weren’t any slots available for your ROTC class that year. It happens to the best of us, and there is no shame in dusting yourself off, checking your pride and tackling your opportunities head-on. 

Ok, I’ma be a CSO or an ABM. Now…what’s it all about? 

The CSO-role is subdivided into several distinct categories based on differing skill-sets and aircraft missions. Born out of the old Navigator and Bombardier roles, these aviators wear USAF Navigator wings, though each role may include more than a few skills which don’t involve the map and compass with which their forebears made their contributions. The CSO catch-all term now includes not only Navigators, but several distinct career-paths, each of which places these aviators in the backseat of a crewed USAF (United States Air Force) aircraft. There, they operate various systems and fulfill functions critical to the successful completion of their given mission. Some airframes have updated their nomenclature to calling these aviators CSOs, while others tend to retain their traditional job title. In other words, everyone goes to CSO school and graduates as a CSO, but specific individuals may go by another title depending on their specific track, job and function. Specifically, the CSO-rating captures the following subsets and associated titles:

EWO – Electronic Warfare Officer

WSO – Weapons System Officer

NAV – Navigator

CSO – Combat Systems Officer (some functions, particularly those in AFSOC, exclusively use the CSO title)


ABMs, or Air Battle Managers, are rated, flying officers who fly aboard highly-specialized and sophisticated aircraft to coordinate and control airborne assets.  In many ways, they are much like air-traffic controllers, except that the circumstances in which they operate are wartime- and combat-related, rather than simply controlling takeoffs and landings. They may also be managing airstrikes, responses to approaching enemy fighters, surveillance on enemy ground-positions and movements, and airborne refueling. They regularly work across the spectrum of US Military assets, from Army Special Operations to refueling Navy fighters to coordinating strikes by USAF bombers. ABMs also operate from mobile and fixed ground-facilities, serving similar roles as when airborne. Frequently, they manage assets from foreign allied nations. 

The first portion of this course will include a brief look at each category to get an idea of the role and the mission airframes involved. From there, we’ll delve into job opportunities, locations and how to begin your journey through either Active Duty service or part-time via the USAF Reserves or Air National Guard. Next, we’ll give you a solid primer and an inside peek into the first few stages of training to help you land your dream aircraft and assignment. Finally, we’ll look into further career-progression, to include transitioning out of the military and how, if desired, you can even pursue a pilot career later on.