The Ultimate Guide to Earning a Pilot Slot in Air Force ROTC, Part 2

In part one of this article series, we discussed what Air Force ROTC is and what it is like. This article will detail how you can earn a pilot slot through the program and attend Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) upon your commission. As discussed in the previous article, the majority of AFROTC Cadets will commission to Active Duty (AD). This article will explain the AFROTC AD pilot selection process as well as the newer, less known AFROTC to Air Force Reserve program and the possibility of AFROTC to Air National Guard.

Table of Contents

  1. Active Duty
  2. Air Force Reserve
  3. Air National Guard
  4. My Experience, Lessons Learned, and Advice

Active Duty

Earning an Active Duty (AD) pilot slot in Air Force ROTC is the most common route. AFROTC cadets will meet a Rated Board in the Spring of their Junior year (AS 300 year) or in the Fiscal Year (FY) preceding the FY they will be commissioning, depending on the length of the individuals AFROTC program. For the Rated Board, cadets will rank their preference of Rated position from None to High. As discussed in the previous article, there are 4 Rated career fields: Pilot, RPA, CSO, and ABM. You must rank all of the Rated career fields when you meet the board. Cadets will simply input their preferences online and the AFROTC detachment Cadre members will route the paperwork up to the Rated Board (i.e. you will not physically meet a board, your paperwork will).

When the board convenes, cadets are selected for their respective Rated position based on an Order of Merit (OM) score. This score is comprised of a given Cadet’s Pilot Candidate Selection Method (PCSM) Score, Relative Standing Score (RSS), GPA, Physical Fitness Assessment (PFA) Score, and Field Training Ranking. The RSS is easily defined as your Commander’s Ranking in your AFROTC detachment relative to all of the Cadets in your detachment.

Some great advice is to focus on the scores you can control. Keep your grades up, study for the AFOQT (specifically the pilot section), stay in shape, be present for AFROTC events, and maybe get some flight hours to help out your PCSM score. While the Rated board does not convene until your AS300 year, your work to earn your pilot slot begins day one of AFROTC.

Following the Rated Board, if you were awarded a pilot slot, you will sign paperwork accepting the slot or not and committing to 10 years of service post UPT graduation. After that, you will go to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base for the Flight Physica. If you pass the Flight Physical, upon commissioning you will await your Enter Active Duty (EAD) date and report to your UPT base.

In your last year of AFROTC you will be able to submit base preferences and you should find out when your EAD will be. Around October of your last year of AFROTC you will have the opportunity to compete for a Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training (ENJJPT) slot. Earning an ENJJPT slot is very competitive, there are less ENJJPT classes per year than other UPT bases and those who attend ENJJPT will track T-38s (fighter/bomber track), other UPT bases have less T-38 slots. To apply for ENJJPT in AFROTC you simply check a box stating that you would like to volunteer for ENJJPT and then wait for the results.

An 80th Flying Training Wing Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Program pilot takes off for a night flight in a T-38A Talon, Sept. 12, 2013, at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas. Pilots train to fly in any kind of instrument weather condition, to be comfortable flying at night as they are in the day. (U.S. Air Force photo/Danny Webb/Released)

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Air Force Reserve

In an effort to better incorporate the Total Force Integration concept in the Air Force, AFROTC and Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) released the Reserve Categorization Process-Rated (RCP-R) program a few years ago. This is a smaller program with somewhere around 15 Cadets being selected each year (this number fluctuates and may increase or decrease at any time).

In the Fall of their AS300/Junior year/the FY before their projected commissioning date AFROTC cadets will have the opportunity to apply for the RCP-R program either sponsored or unsponsored. Sponsored means that you have been hired directly by a specific AFRC squadron and unsponsored means you have not been hired by an AFRC squadron. The majority of AFROTC cadets will apply to the board unsponsored, but as this program gains traction, more cadets have become interested earlier on and have sought sponsorship from Reserve squadrons before the RCP-R board.

The program manager has released a detailed guide to obtaining an AFRC Undergraduate Flying Training (UFT) slot and section 8 of this guidebook describes in detail how the AFROTC program works. If selected, Cadets will sign a commitment to serve 10 years in the AFRC upon UPT graduation and may NOT apply for the AFROTC AD Rated Board the following Spring. The signed commitment to the AFRC will be contingent upon passing the Flying Class I Physical at Wright-Patterson AFB.  If you do not pass, you will be reverted to your AFROTC AD commitment.

After selection, Cadets will be contacted by an AFRC Recruiter who will help usher them through the paperwork process of being gained by the 340th Flying Training Group (340 FTG) upon commissioning. The 340 FTG will administratively “own” you throughout training; all training will be completed in an AD status. If the Cadet is selected as a sponsored candidate, they will inprocess with the 340 FTG, attend IFT/UPT/SERE/FTU and return to their sponsoring unit. Cadets who apply to the RCP-R sponsored are more likely to be selected.

Second Lt. Morgan Eckert, a 14th Student Squadron student pilot, puts on her G-suit Oct. 1, 2018, on Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi. Eckert commissioned through the ROTC detachment at Indiana State University. The RCP-R can help you get to this stop at UPT, which is the most important thing. You can work to find sponsors before you get here, but worst case you’re still an Active Duty USAF pilot. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Christopher Gross)

If the cadet is selected for UFT unsponsored, they will also be processed with the 340 FTG and attend IFT/UPT/SERE/FTU, but it will be very much on the cadet to find and earn sponsorship by a Reserve squadron, NOT an ANG squadron.* It is important to note that if you are selected unsponsored you will automatically track T-1s at UPT, meaning you will go the tanker/cargo route.

Currently, you may seek fighter/bomber sponsorship only up until you inprocess with the 340 FTG following commissioning. If you earn an AFRC UPT slot in the Fall of your Junior year you will have just over a year and a half before you inprocess. This is because they plan your training pipeline based on track selection, so it is not simple (though not completely impossible) to change your training pipeline after you have started UPT.

Creating relationships with squadrons you are interested in flying for is imperative to end up where you want to be. I recommend beginning to make these connections as early as possible. Timing is extremely important when applying to AFRC squadrons. If you do not attain sponsorship by a squadron by the time you arrive to your UPT location, your sponsorship will become a job for the Reserve Liaison Officer (LNO) at your base. He or she will reach out to squadrons and set up interviews for you. As an unsponsored selectee, it is possible to be randomly assigned to a squadron based on the needs of the Air Force at any time between inprocessing and assignment night of UPT. However, you have two and a half years or more to secure a sponsorship from the time you are selected by the RCP-R to track select at UPT.

Note that the RCP-R is currently an option, but this is not guaranteed to remain an option. If you do join AFROTC it is highly recommended that you be prepared to serve on Active Duty. This program is still newer, so do not be alarmed if your Cadre members do not know about it or how it works; it will be a learning experience for everyone.

As an AFROTC Cadet earning squadron sponsorship brings unique challenges. In general, as college students Cadets do not have unlimited funds to travel the country and rush/interview with squadrons. If you are interested in applying to the program, be aware that you will be responsible for the time, effort, and money it takes to earn sponsorship. Additionally, many of the Reserve squadrons still do not know about this program and will have a lot of questions about it.

I may be biased, but I do believe that despite the hard work up front, this program absolutely is worth it. I was selected alongside 12 other Cadets for this program and most of them have already or will be beginning UPT before December of this year, while those that we did AFROTC with and are going the AD route will be waiting until April of next year or later to begin training.

*There have been a select few cadets in the past who have been selected by the RCP-R, found sponsorship with ANG squadrons, and were released from the AFRC to the ANG. These were special circumstances, do not expect the AFRC to release you to the ANG.

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Air National Guard

Commissioning out of AFROTC into the Air National Guard is again not a very common or traditional route. It is certainly NOT guaranteed to be an option, but it is possible and has been done in the past. Essentially, if you are interested in applying directly to ANG squadrons, you will be applying like other candidates off the street.

Coming from AFROTC may be an advantage for you for ANG squadrons as you will get a commission and security clearance in AFROTC (and may get a Flight Physical depending on what you AD job selection is). Some squadrons may find these things beneficial while other squadrons will not really understand what it means to commission from AFROTC and join the Guard. It will likely be a learning process for both you and the squadrons you apply for.

If you decide to go this route and do get hired by an ANG squadron, you will need to work with your AFROTC Cadre and HQ AFROTC to get permission to be released from your AD commitment upon commissioning and transition to an ANG commitment. If you choose to go this route and have received an AFROTC scholarship, your scholarship may be impacted, speak with your Cadre about possible ramifications. HQ AFROTC has allowed Guard hires to commission into the Guard in the past, but again, this is not guaranteed. If HQ AFROTC does release you to the ANG, upon commissioning you will work with your Guard squadron to swear in, get IFT dates (if necessary), and get UPT dates.

So, there you have it: how to become a pilot in the United States Air Force through AFROTC. The process seems long and daunting, but I can assure you nothing is more gratifying than hard work paying off, commissioning, earning a pilot slot, and finding sponsorship with the squadron of your dreams.

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My Experience, Lessons Learned, and Advice

This section of the article will describe my experience with the RCP-R program and earning a sponsorship in excruciating detail, as well as what I have learned and advice for those interested. As mentioned in the previous article, I was a four-year AFROTC Cadet who recently commissioned. When I began AFROTC I just knew that I wanted to serve and was hoping for the opportunity to fly.

After my freshman year I was selected to attend Ops AF where I spent three weeks at an Air Force Base shadowing various career fields with 20 other AFROTC Cadets from different detachments around the country. The base I went to has a fighter wing and after getting the opportunity to shadow some of the pilots, visit their range to see jets in action, and “pet the jet,” I knew that was the job for me and I have been dead set on becoming a fighter pilot ever since. I spent most of my free time after Ops AF trying to figure out how I was going to earn a pilot slot and in turn become a fighter pilot.

U.S. Air Force Capt. Kyle Benham (right), 62nd Fighter Squadron (FS) F-35A Lightning II fighter jet pilot, talks to another Airman after landing in Red Flag 19-2 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., March 9, 2019. Benham started flying fighter jets in the summer of 2012 after graduating from Brigham Young University (BYU) and attending Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Bryan Guthrie)

My sophomore year of college and AFROTC, one of my AFROTC mentors was applying to a fighter guard unit. I had no idea what that meant, but I was interested. When I learned that he was directly applying to fly fighters, I was hooked. I genuinely did not know that was possible. After that, I began looking into the Guard/Reserve myself and started contacting fighter squadrons. I got an overwhelmingly negative response from most places, telling me that I was too far off from graduating to rush their squadron or that since I was contracted in AFROTC, I would never be allowed to go Guard. It definitely was sad to hear, but I did not stop working at it.

In the Fall semester of my Junior/AS300 year, a different AFROTC mentor of mine sent me a text that quite literally changed my life. He had commissioned the previous year as a Gold Bar Recruiter, and he received an email about a small program where Cadets could apply to commission into the Air Force Reserve. The text he sent me simply said “I remember you looking into the Reserve, are you still interested? Not sure if you have seen this announcement but thought I would share.” …I had not heard of this program.

I immediately sent an email to my AFROTC Cadre members and asked what was going on and if it was real. My cadre looked into it, and it turns out it was the RCP-R program. I had two weeks to get everything together to apply as well as decide if this was something I actually wanted to do. When I applied to this program, it was only the second year it was offered, so there was hardly any information available about it. I found someone on Reddit who had done the program, asked him for some of the details, and decided to apply because I figured I had nothing to lose.

After a few agonizing months of waiting, my Cadre called me into my Commander’s office, which actually had me freaking out. They made up a whole story and had me read a memorandum, I definitely thought I was in trouble. The last page of the memorandum was the selection results from the RCP-R program with my name highlighted and I could not believe it was real; in the Fall of my AS300/Junior year I was selected to attend Undergraduate Pilot Training.

While I felt a huge amount of excitement and relief in that moment, I had no idea what was to come. I was selected as an unsponsored candidate, so the next day I was already reaching out to Reserve squadrons with a UPT slot in hand trying to explain my situation. Prior to being selected I had done a bunch of research on what squadrons I was interested in. I found out that *at the time* only four Reserve fighter squadrons hired for UPT, with one of the squadrons hiring about every three years.

I knew it was a long shot, but I would do everything I could to try and secure a fighter sponsorship. I learned very quickly how much work went into finding squadron contact information, actually being able to get in contact with them, and putting together application packages. As a fulltime college student STEM major in AFROTC, I was in over my head.

The following semester I took the semester “off” of AFROTC while I studied abroad in Europe, definitely not good timing for trying to earn a sponsorship. I do not regret studying abroad one bit, however, looking back I could have used that time and money to rush squadrons. While I was abroad, I kept emailing every squadron I could and kept trying to make connections.

At a certain point, I realized that I was just not a candidate for fighter squadrons. Despite having a guaranteed UPT slot in hand, a high GPA, and some great letters of recommendation, my AFOQT and PCSM Scores were not cutting it, I did not have a PPL (in fact, I only had 7 flight hours), and at the time I did not realize it,, my resume and cover letter needed some work. I was not about to give up on my dream of flying fighters, but I knew I needed to expand my horizons.

When I returned from studying abroad, I went on a trip to rush some squadrons. I flew across the country and rented a car to visit four different places, a fighter squadron, and a few other squadrons with different jets and missions. Long story short, one of the places I went (not a fighter squadron) I had not been able to get in contact with despite calling every day for a month and emailing a few different times. I knew they were having a UTA weekend, and I had access to the base as a contracted AFROTC Cadet.

Basically, I showed up on base, stalked some dudes in flight suits with the squadron patch, one of which ended up being the Squadron Commander (yikes), and walked up to them and explained my situation. They sent me to the squadron to hang out and somehow the next day I had an interview. This was truly a crazy experience and while I ended up getting an interview, I do not recommend trying this anywhere.

You should absolutely speak with squadrons prior to showing up. I had absolutely no intentions of interviewing and was far from prepared. This interview was basically me sitting in a chair in front of 40 pilots who all just threw questions at me. I ended up feeling pretty good about the interview, and I was called in by the Chief Pilot moments after. They told me that it wasn’t a no; I could have a job there if I wanted it, but they wanted to make sure it was where I wanted to be. With that in mind, I continued on the journey of going for a fighter squadron.

I spent every day (and lots of money that I really didn’t have) for the next 8 weeks at my local airport to earn my PPL. When I landed from my PPL check ride and my DPE congratulated me, I was extremely excited (and kind of shocked). I had no intention of earning my PPL a few months before that, but I am so happy I did because while I wait for UPT, I can still go fly. Now that I had the PPL and more flight hours, my PCSM Score was boosted to 69 (nice). I continued to reach out to fighter squadrons and try to rush.

I had plans to rush one squadron on my trip back to my college after that summer, at this point it was looking like the last Reserve fighter squadron I would be able to apply for. While I was on my way there, I got an email from one of the pilots that I was not competitive and I would not receive an interview, so I should not waste my time rushing. I was crushed.

While I was grateful, they let me know so I didn’t waste my time and money, I thought my dream was over. It was that day that I called my AFROTC Cadre and asked to be scheduled to retake the AFOQT.

In AFROTC, it does not really matter what your AFOQT scores are as long as you pass. The pilot score is important, but generally does not need to be as high as it does for Guard/Reserve fighter squadrons. When I took the AFOQT the first time, I did relatively well and got a pilot score in the 70s with no prior aviation knowledge and minimal studying; I was content. This time I studied really hard and ended up crushing the AFOQT, raising my PCSM more than 20 points.

Don’t underestimate the power of earning your Private Pilot License when trying to raise your PCSM score!

Now I was competitive for fighter squadrons but did not know who was hiring at that point. That was around the time I discovered BogiDope and job listings. I knew I was supposed to apply only to Reserve squadrons, but I decided to also apply to some Guard fighter squadrons that I saw were hiring.

I was sitting in the library studying for finals when I got an email with the news that I was selected to interview at a fighter squadron. I was extremely shocked to have received an interview from that squadron and could not have been any more excited. I knew I needed to be prepared for the interview and any that I might get in the future, so I did the BogiDope Interview Prep and it truly set me up for success. I did not get hired by the first fighter squadron I interviewed with despite feeling very strong about this interview.  In fact, during the interview, one of the pilots even asked if I had done interview prep. The pilot who called me to let me know that I was not selected told me, “It isn’t a question of if, it’s when you become a fighter pilot.” This feedback had me conflicted, what had I done wrong?

I was upset about it for a while, but knew I had to keep going. At this point, commissioning was just a few months out. I knew I needed to secure a sponsorship to eliminate the possibility of getting randomly assigned, so I started rushing some heavy units that I was interested in. It was awesome; I met some really great pilots, and I learned a ton about what was to come at UPT and beyond. While I enjoyed my time with these squadrons and knew I could have an amazing career at any one of them, something inside me just told me I had to keep trying for fighters; I could not get it out of my head: “It isn’t a question of if, it’s when you become a fighter pilot.” At this point, the pandemic started, squadrons stopped allowing rushing, and interviews were postponed. I definitely thought my fighter dream was gone at that point.

I finished out my senior year of college and last semester of AFROTC on Zoom. I commissioned a few days later and was waiting to inprocess with the 340 FTG, while hoping to hear back from a few squadrons. I noticed that my hometown guard fighter squadron posted that they were holding a hiring board, I had not considered applying to them in the past since they were Guard, but it really was my dream squadron. I had never rushed there and was not expecting much, but it was worth one final shot at fighters. Against all odds, I got an interview.

The next week I inprocessed with the Reserve and knew I had to find a Reserve sponsorship. The interview with the guard squadron was the week following inprocessing, but I could not pass up the opportunity, so I went. I felt intimidated while I was there because everyone else interviewing had rushed the squadron multiple times, some people for years. I interviewed and the next day I was awakened from a nap by a call from the Squadron Commander congratulating me that I had been selected by their squadron.

I was elated, this was my dream and it was happening, I could not believe it. At this point I was pretty uncertain what to do since I was commissioned from AFROTC, I just inprocessed with the Reserve, and now I was hired by a Guard unit. I contacted the Reserve and they have graciously released me to the ANG; I am currently waiting to begin UPT. While it feels like I have worked extremely hard these last two years to gain sponsorship, the hard work has not even begun. I am far from being a fighter pilot, but extremely excited for the opportunity and experiences ahead.

Things worth looking forward to!

So, what have I learned along the way, and what advice do I have? Know what you are getting into if you are interested in applying for the RCP-R program. If your dream is to fly fighters, I might encourage you to stay in the AD route or apply to ANG squadrons independently. If your dream is to just fly anything for the USAF and live a more flexible lifestyle than AD, I strongly encourage you to apply to the RCP-R!

A PPL is not a requirement for the program, but it has proven to be more challenging to gain a sponsorship from any Reserve unit without one, so consider this. Keep in mind that you could be placed randomly into any undermanned reserve squadron. If this does not bother you, this program is awesome.

I will say I know more people who have been placed in their dream squadron from this program than not, so the possibility is there. As with most things, knowing people in the right places can get you a long way in terms of unit sponsorship. If this program interests you, I highly suggest making connections with squadrons that interest you early on. Rushing is very important to many squadrons; show up if the opportunity arises.

If I learned anything from this experience, it has been that you have to be proactive. No one will care about your career as much as you will. It will be a lot of work up front, but being a part of this program exposed me to so much more than I could have imagined. Spending many weekends away from my college campus rushing/interviewing with squadrons allowed me to gain a greater understanding of the Air Force, what it meant to be an Air Force Pilot, what I could expect in my future, and many different leadership qualities. These experiences have been truly priceless and make all of the hard work, time, and money more than worth it.

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< – Back to Part 1

Image Credits:

This post’s feature image shows Boston University Air Force ROTC cadets getting an F-15 tour at the 104th Fighter Wing:

The ENJJPT T-38 blasting off at night is from:

F-35 pilots debriefing:

Lt suiting up in the CBM chute shop:

The pilot flying the Cessna was photographed by Avel Chuklanov from Unsplash.


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