How to Become a Fighter Pilot
Have you seen Top Gun or any of the (objectively terrible) Iron Eagle movies more times than you’re willing to admit? Do you daydream of flying twice the speed of sound, pulling 9Gs, and dominating the airspace over any country on the planet, at will? Perhaps you’re motivated by the idea of protecting troops on the ground through close air support or just being a part of an elite aviation fraternity (for both guys and gals) full of rich history and tradition. If any of this sounds like you, serving your country as a fighter pilot may be the perfect career (and calling) you’re looking for.
One of the questions we get most often here at BogiDope is: “How can I become a fighter pilot?” We’re not surprised at how often we hear this. In many ways, flying a fighter is the pinnacle of human aviation. It’s both incredibly demanding and incredibly rewarding. Our hope is that what follows will serve as a useful answer to this question.
Table of Contents
- Choose a Path
- Academic Preparation
- Physical Preparation
- Aeronautical Preparation
- Social/Cultural Preparation
- Execution – How to Get a Guard/Reserve Fighter Pilot Slot
- Execution – How to Get an Active Duty Fighter Pilot Slot
Choose a Path
There are two main paths you can take to become a fighter pilot, Active Duty or Guard/Reserve. Both paths can lead to the same destination, but there are critical differences as to how to get there and quality of life along the way.
The first path is serving on Active Duty (i.e. Air Force, Navy, or Marine Corps). This is what most people think of when they picture someone serving in the military. Being an Active Duty pilot is a full-time job. You show up for work 5 days per week, whether you’re flying or not. This path offers fantastic pay and benefits and a government pension if you serve a full 20 years.
The Active Duty path essentially entails competing for the opportunity to attend pilot training while earning a commission through a service academy, ROTC, or OTS/OCS. Then you will commit to 10(ish) years of full-time military service before knowing what airplane you will fly. (You commit to 10 years after completing pilot training in the Air Force, only 8 years in the Navy and Marine Corps.) This leaves you beholden to the whims of the Air Force, Navy, or Marine Corps. You’ll be assigned to a new base every 3 years, or so. You’ll be deployed to combat zones for 6-12 months at a time, sometimes with only 72 hours notice. Since you’re serving out your 8-10 year obligation, you don’t get to decline any of these orders.
Your performance at pilot training relative to your peers will determine the order in which you can choose your aircraft. However, the needs of that particular branch of service will determine which aircraft are available when it’s your turn to choose. For example, if you’re ranked 5th in your pilot training class, and there are 5+ fighter slots available, you will have the opportunity to pick one (although it may not be the exact fighter you want). If on the other hand, there are only 3 fighter slots available, your dream of flying fighters may be over forever. As they say, timing is everything.
Air National Guard / Air Force Reserve
The path I wish I’d known about is the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve. These two organizations are theoretically backups for the Active Duty Air Force, and they’re intended to be a part-time job for most pilots. The tagline you often hear is “one weekend a month, two weeks in the summer,” though as a fighter pilot you’ll have to spend at least one full week per month in your squadron just to maintain your qualifications.
One of the biggest benefits of the Guard and Reserve is that you only apply to the units that you want to join. You can be hired with no military experience (and before signing any military service obligation) to fly the A-10, F-15C, F-16, F-22, or F-35. To see a full list of fighter squadron locations in the Guard and Reserve, check out the BogiDope Map.
You will attend the same Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) as your active duty peers, but you will have the benefit of knowing that not only will you fly fighters, but you will know exactly which type of fighter and the location of your assigned squadron for the rest of your career. This is critical:
Joining the Guard or Reserve is the only way to guarantee that you’ll get to fly a fighter.
The Guard and Reserve also offer nice pay and benefits, though these work differently than Active Duty. The Guard and Reserve also have a pension for pilots who give at least 20 years of service. Again, this works differently than the Active Duty version.
Earning pilot wings in the Guard or Reserve still obligates you to 10 years of service; however, that service can be part-time. You’ll still end up deploying, though there tends to be a lot more flexibility on when and how often you go. Most Guard and Reserve pilots have other full-time jobs. Airline pilot is by far the most common “other” job, though I’ve heard of anything from lawyer, to entrepreneur, to beach bum. If, on the other hand, you want to work full-time at your Guard or Reserve unit, there will almost always be full-time orders available in most fighter squadrons.
There are pluses and minuses to each path. However, if your ultimate goal in life is to become a fighter pilot, we absolutely recommend choosing the Guard or Reserve path. For more information on the (very different) application processes for these paths, check out our 2-part series here.
All US fighter pilots are commissioned officers, which means you must have a college degree. How well you do in that college program will often determine your competitiveness for any pilot training application. The most fundamental and objective input into any of these rankings is your GPA.
One school of thought says that you should take the easiest classes possible to make sure you get straight As and maximize GPA. At the USAF Academy, one of the most common majors is Management. It’s lovingly (or derisively) referred to as “The M-Train” because so many people hitch a ride to maximize the class rank to effort required ratio. I’m not a huge fan of this mentality, for reasons we’ll discuss in a moment. However, this is a delicate situation.
On a Guard or Reserve hiring board, the value of your GPA is very important. A 3.5 GPA in Business will stand out more favorably than a 2.6 in Engineering. You should choose a degree program in which you can maintain at least a 3.0, though you’re a lot better off keeping your GPA even higher than that.
That said, you need to learn how to handle a challenging academic load at some point. Being a fighter pilot requires a lot of studying throughout your career. It also requires actually absorbing and being able to apply the information you study. If you somehow manage to get to a fighter squadron having never learned how to study, you’re in for a rough life. Taking some classes in high school and college that actually challenge you will help you learn to study. It’s not about English, or Chemistry, or Social Studies now…it’s about weapons specs, tactics, and threat profiles later.
Another reason to choose a more challenging program is that some of the easier college degrees are worthless. We wish everyone reading this a long career of healthy flying, but that doesn’t always work out. If you were to find yourself medically unqualified at some point in the future, a marketable degree will be invaluable. Choose wisely.
For me, the most important reason to take hard classes is that it will make you a better fighter pilot. Up through the 1960s or so, there wasn’t really a systematic development of fighter pilot tactics. Generations of fighter pilots did the best they could, but the truth is that nobody really had things figured out. Then, a man named John Boyd joined the Air Force. He intuitively figured out better ways to fly a fighter and could beat just about anyone he went up against. Then, the USAF sent him to get a Master’s degree in mathematics at Georgia Tech.
Boyd studied math, physics, computer programming, and thermodynamics. He realized that it was possible to scientifically derive the facts that he intuitively knew about flying fighters. He scammed time on a bunch of computers (they were all building-sized mainframes back then) and developed a way of thinking about and flying fighter aircraft that changed our world forever. The F-22 is a technological marvel, but its pilots still train and fight according to Boyd’s concepts.
Boyd was one of the best fighter pilots of his time because he understood the math and science behind what he was doing. He changed the world because of that education.
If you don’t like math and science, you can still learn how to fly a fighter. However, if you’re willing to put in the effort to understand the math behind what’s going on, you will be far better. It’s the difference between being a technician and a master at your craft.
If I’ve persuaded you to take more challenging classes, make sure that you can keep your GPA at or above a 3.0. If you’re finding that difficult, you’re better off changing to something more manageable.
Two other critical components of your application’s overall score at a Guard or Reserve unit are how well you do on the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test (AFOQT) and your Pilot Candidate Scoring Method (PCSM) score. There are several services that can help you study for the AFOQT and it’s important that you do your best to ace it! Your goal should be to earn at least a 90 in the AFOQT Pilot sections and a 90 on your PCSM. Don’t be discouraged if your scores aren’t quite there yet. You can improve your scores by retaking the tests and/or increasing your flight time.
BogiDope has an entire series dedicated to the AFOQT. You can start reading it here. The PCSM score is based on your AFOQT score and some other factors. You also need it to be as high as possible. You can read our series explaining the PCSM score here.
Hollywood movies have done you a great disservice by making it look like flying a fighter isn’t physically demanding. The truth is that a 1-hour BFM sortie (Basic Fighter Maneuvers, aka: dogfighting) will leave you physically exhausted, if you’re in good shape. If you aren’t able to maintain great physical conditioning, flying a fighter could be deadly.
This video shows a pilot going through centrifuge training. He does well through his test, and then tries out an intentional G-Induced Loss of Consciousness (G-LOC). It’s funny to watch here, but we’ve lost far more fighter pilots in the last 40 years to training accidents caused by G-LOC than from flying combat missions.
The fundamental way to prepare for this environment is to learn to lift weights early in your life. A fighter pilot needs strong legs, abs, and glutes, but it doesn’t hurt to set up a lifting program for your whole body. The Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS) is heavy, and you need good core strength to support it while you’re pulling 7-9 Gs and looking over your shoulder to fire an AIM-9X at your enemy.
You also need to make sure you’re in decent cardiovascular shape. It’s one thing to do a loop or two on a sunny day. It’s something else entirely to fly BFM for upwards of an hour.
Once you’ve learned to maintain your basic physical condition, you should find some type of sport to play. Sports are useful for conditioning yourself to work as part of a team and continue to give your all even when you’re physically exhausted. However, the most important benefit of sports is that they teach you how to accept criticism.
We’ll discuss this more later, but dealing with (and deriving benefit from) criticism is fundamental to this job. Sports are good at teaching this because no matter how good you think you are, there’s always someone better–there’s always something else to learn. Star NFL quarterbacks throw interceptions. Star MLB batters fail to get on base 7 out of every 10 times they step up to the plate. They’re world-class athletes because they’ve learned to accept those failures, learn from them, and mentally persevere. A fighter pilot must possess that skill.
This benefit of sports is so important, that some fighter squadron hiring boards have been known to take the applicant with slightly lower scores, but a strong athletic background, knowing that he or she will have thick skin and the desire to overcome any obstacle.
It’s important to note that none of these physical activities are the point. You’re not out to be the world’s greatest weightlifter, baseball player, or quarterback. These activities are ways to train your attitude. You should work hard at them to make sure you get that benefit, but don’t let sports get in the way of all the other things you need to do.
I highly recommend that you do some flying before you start military flight training. Yes, most services will get you 20-40 hours in a light aircraft before you start flying the T-6. However, I believe that this isn’t enough. I taught USAF pilot training and I could tell a significant difference between a student pilot who started with 20 hours and one who had a private pilot’s license (PPL). I could also see a difference when I encountered a student with an instrument rating, CFI, and hundreds or even thousands of flight hours. Doing extra flying didn’t always mean that they excelled at aerobatics and formation and ended up flying T-38s, but it sure helped early on!
At the very least, doing some flying training on your own gives you advanced notice if you get airsick. It’s possible for almost anyone to overcome airsickness. The military is very good at getting people through that process, but if you don’t start it until you’re at UPT, your performance and grades will suffer until you get things worked out. Why not start that process on your own before you even get there so that you can maximize performance on all your rides in UPT?
I would recommend at least getting your PPL and Instrument Rating before UPT. This will teach you some fundamental pilot knowledge and airmanship basics. You’ll do better in academics, you’ll learn the traffic pattern faster, you’ll be better at checklists and talking on the radio.
Having an instrument rating will pay huge dividends in UPT. If you’re going to the USAF, try to learn instruments in an older aircraft with individual round-dial flight instruments because that’s what you’ll get in the T-6A. The T-6 GPS is a KLN-900, so you should look for a civilian trainer with a KLN-89, -90, or -94. If you’re going to be flying the T-6B with the Navy, it’s okay to fly an aircraft with newer avionics like the G500 or G1000.
You don’t necessarily need to seek out civilian aerobatic flying before UPT. If you’re nervous about doing this type of flying, a couple of hours might help you overcome your concerns. However, the T-6 is a fantastic aerobatic trainer, and you shouldn’t have any trouble with the aerobatics if you enter the program with just a PPL.
If you have the means to continue your civilian flight training, it wouldn’t hurt to become a Certificated Flight Instructor (CFI). Not only will the hours and training improve your basic flying skills, having this rating will help you understand what your military Instructor Pilots (IP) are watching for and thinking at UPT.
Although I believe that some previous flying experience can go a long way, it’s not entirely necessary. There are people in every UPT class that started with 20 hours in a flight screening program and go on to fly fighters. Don’t sweat all this if you lack the means to pay for civilian pilot ratings.
If you’re applying to a Guard or Reserve unit, however, every competitive candidate will have at the very least soloed, but more than likely earned a PPL. Many candidates don’t go any further than this in their flight training. (And nobody blames them…it’s expensive.) This means that if you can find a way to fund at least an Instrument Rating and/or an aerobatic flying course, it will really stand out on your application.
Believe it or not, I also recommend you do some video gaming as part of your aeronautical preparation. Fighters are getting increasingly systems-intensive. The F-35 isn’t actually a fighter. It’s a technology platform. It’s never intended to actually get into a dogfight. (If you agree with me that this is a ridiculous mindset, you may enjoy an article I wrote on this topic a few years ago.) Being good at flying any fighter these days involves executing sequences of button pushes, quickly and accurately, in response to a threat. Video games are cheap and effective ways to train yourself in these skills.
Once again, gaming is not an end unto itself. It’s a means for building a particular skill set. Don’t get all clanned-up and dive so deep into the world of gaming that you forget to do all the other things we’re talking about here.
Being a fighter pilot all but requires that you adopt specific mindsets in several areas. I’ve seen countless pilots who fail to figure this out until after they become fighter pilots, but they take a beating for it. The sooner you can engrain some of these ideas in your soul the better.
First and foremost: you are a team player. Fighter pilots have to succeed as individuals, but if the rest of the formation or squadron doesn’t also succeed your individual accomplishments are worse than useless.
Trying to get a fighter slot at UPT is a competition. However, some people get a little too cutthroat and try to get ahead at the expense of others. Guess what: your IPs see all of that. In a way, the T-38/T-45 portion of UPT is a multi-month job interview. Your IPs are deciding whether you send you to fly with their buddies. Once the IPs complete their assignment, they’re going to have to fly in the same squadron as anyone they send to their jet. They’re not going to send you there unless they believe that you’ll be a fantastic member of that team. You can do well without undercutting others. You will get further ahead by helping others than by stabbing them in the back.
Next: you must learn to humbly accept feedback without getting emotional or defensive. No matter how well you think you fly, you will get eviscerated in mission debriefs. Your IPs and flight leads will notice every mistake you make. You’ll be told that you’re a bad American because you didn’t try hard enough. They won’t be telling you this to try and upset you. They’ll say it in hopes of making you better. Don’t argue. Don’t defend. Train yourself to humbly “take your spears,” and learn from everything. One of the best pieces of advice that has ever been given to a wingman is:
Never pass up the opportunity to shut the hell up!
Another important part of not getting emotional is to decide not to be offended by behaviors that aren’t acceptable in common society. Yes, there’s a lot of recent emphasis on this stuff, and some behaviors that are no longer acceptable, even in a fighter squadron. That’s a good thing. However, as a fighter pilot your job description includes violating the sovereign territory of another country and murdering its citizens if the situation requires. This is not a profession for sensitive souls.
We should also note here that drinking is a part of fighter pilot culture. You absolutely don’t have to drink, but don’t be self-righteous about it either. You can still hang out with a mug full of root beer. You can take care of your buddies and be the DD. They’ll love you for it!
If you do drink, be careful! One of the best pilots I’ve ever known should be flying the F-22 right now. Unfortunately, he had just a little too much to drink one night in Austin and got arrested for relieving himself in a public location. That single event ruined his chances of ever flying a fighter…of any kind. Is the Air Force a moronic organization for giving up such a great potential fighter pilot for such a minor infraction? Yes! Sadly, it doesn’t matter though. Military commanders are increasingly scrutinized by both their superiors and the media. The USAF doesn’t mess around with this anymore. Remember: there is nothing so fun today that it’s worth sacrificing your future. You absolutely must learn, before you get to UPT, to have a fool-proof plan in place when you decide to go have a good time and get foolish.
As if I haven’t given you enough homework yet, I’m going to assign you some reading. If you want to get a job at Southwest Airlines, you absolutely must read and be able to intelligently discuss the book Nuts. If you want to be a fighter pilot, I recommend you read about some of the best. As a bare minimum, I recommend:
- Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War
- Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds
- Debrief: A Complete History of U.S. Aerial Engagements – 1981 to the Present
- Yeager: An Autobiography
- The Battle of Britain: Five Months That Changed History; May-October 1940
This only scratches the surface of what you could read on this topic. It turns out that there’s a lifetime of great fighter pilot literature in our world. It’s important for you to know about some of the people and events that shaped this profession. This study is another part of the difference between being a technician and a master.
Now that we’ve discussed some general areas of preparation, we’ll go over a step-by-step process for putting it all together. We’ll cover the processes for both paths, Guard/Reserve and Active Duty because they’re different.
Execution – How to Get a Guard/Reserve Fighter Pilot Slot
- If at all possible, join a Guard or Reserve unit immediately after high school.
- Pick a smart major in college. It should be something challenging that offers you a non-flying backup career. However, don’t sacrifice GPA. Your mindset should be: 3.0 is the absolute minimum, 3.5 is better, but no GPA is good enough until you’re sitting in the cockpit of your fighter.
- Do something to gain leadership experience at/after college. This can be a job, a school or club sports team, a civic organization, or some other type of club. It’s not good enough to just be a member of the organization. You need a meaningful leadership position that you can list on your resume.
- Get your PPL. If you can afford it, get your instrument rating as well. (Some aerobatic flying and a CFI are nice, but will be a stretch for many.)
- Study for and CRUSH the AFOQT (especially the pilot sections) and TBAS!
- Network. Throughout your college career you need to build and maintain meaningful relationships with those around you. You’ll want 3-5 solid letters of recommendation from professors, bosses, mentors, etc. when you apply to a unit.
- Check out the BogiDope Job Postings Board for application deadlines. (Plan to apply no earlier than your senior year of college.)
- Use the BogiDope Application Prep Package to help prepare a world-class cover letter and resume for the squadrons you want to apply to.
- Shotgun your applications out to every single fighter unit that you’d consider serving in. The more you apply to, the better your odds.
- Use the BogiDope Interview Prep Package to help prepare for any interview invites.
- Do great things flying for your state/country!
Execution – How to Get an Active Duty Fighter Pilot Slot
- Get good grades in high school. They don’t have to be perfect, but the higher the better.
- Play at least one sport in high school. These don’t have to be school sports. They could be club or community teams. You need to work to earn the spot as Team Captain, or the equivalent.
- In my opinion, the Guard and Reserves are your best bet for becoming a fighter pilot. If you’re limited to Active Duty though, you have a few different options:
- Your best bet is to attend the USAF Academy. It gets more pilot slots than any other commissioning source. If you’re medically qualified to be a pilot, you stand an excellent chance of getting a pilot slot there. (Also, it’s a completely free education and you earn a valuable degree.)
- The US Naval Academy is a good option if you want to become a Naval or Marine Corps fighter pilot. Most people at that school chase big boats or want to carry rifles through the mud. If you work hard enough to get a good class rank, you stand a good chance of getting a pilot slot.
- Your best remaining option here is college ROTC. They offer great scholarships and you get a far more enjoyable college experience than you do at a service academy. Unfortunately, each individual college only gets a few (if any) pilot slots. You’ll need to work extra hard to earn one of them. You’ll need to serve in a leadership role within your ROTC program and get fantastic grades.
- One final option here is Officer Training School (OTS). This is the officer equivalent of enlisting in the military and doesn’t require any prior military service. It’s the least common way to join Active Duty as a pilot, but could be an avenue worth considering. If you’re interested, read our series on getting an OTS Rated Slot here.
- While in college, get good grades, play sports, and show leadership in some type of extra-curricular activities. No matter where you go to school, the Air Force will eventually rack-and-stack you against your peers. You need to have a variety of activities in which you’ve continued to demonstrate leadership ability.
- Somewhere along the line, you should consider doing the civilian flight training we discussed. The Active Duty path is one long competition towards that fighter slot, so why not get a head start? If you’re really hurting for cash, you could consider the Civil Air Patrol as a way to get some less-expensive flying. I’ve also written about some other ways to earn civilian pilot ratings without breaking the bank. Start here.
- Do everything in your power to be top ranked pilot throughout training. Your individual performance is the only thing you have control over, so take advantage. With any luck, there will be enough fighter slots available by the time you get to choose your destiny. Fingers crossed!
No matter which path you choose, getting a UPT slot is just an intermediate step along the way. Although a Guard/Reserve pilot selectee has a guaranteed fighter slot waiting for him or her, poor performance at UPT can get that taken away. If you want to know how to do well in pilot training, check out our series on Winning UPT.
The list we’ve given you here should sound like a lot of work because it is! Becoming a fighter pilot is not something you can successfully do on a whim. If this sounds like too much, then you may want to consider another profession. The competition at every step in this process is fierce, and you’ll have a tough time staying competitive unless the prize is significant enough for you.
If becoming a fighter pilot is and will always be your ultimate goal in life, I hope that this list gets you excited. It’s a (relatively) concise explanation of most of the big pieces in the puzzle. All you need to do is go out and put them together.
I’ll give you one last book recommendation to help you on your path. I recently read Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, by Dr. Angela Duckworth, and it’s fantastic. It explains why all the things we mentioned here are important. It helps you understand why focusing on your goal is critical. Surprisingly, she also explains some ways to develop grit if you find yourself lacking it. This should be wonderful news. You don’t have to be perfect at any of this right now. If you internalize Dr. Duckworth’s ideas, you can make yourself a better, more effective person and increase your chances of achieving your dreams.
And being a fighter pilot is a dream worth pursuing! It’s almost impossible to describe the sense of power and freedom you get while flying. Work hard and do your best because it’s absolutely worth the effort. Good luck and fly safe!
The JHMCS photo was taken by Staff Sgt. Shawn Nickel of the 354th Fighter Wing at Eielson AFB, AK. https://www.dvidshub.net/image/1925297/maintaining-clear-target
The picture of the L3/Doss Aviation IFT team comes from their website. They’ve been the USAF’s premier IFT provider for decades. https://www2.l3t.com/doss/about/index.htm
The UPT check ride debrief photo was taken by A1C Beaux Hebert of the 14 FTW. https://www.dvidshub.net/image/4690027/theres-no-total-force
All others came from our source of stock images.
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