Have You Been Thinking About Becoming A Pilot In The Air Force?
If you are an aviation enthusiast in the United States, the thought of becoming a pilot in the United States Air Force has probably come across your mind. It is natural to look at some of the military aircraft and just say “wow”. The thought of formation low levels, aerial refueling, and seeing the world does not sound like such a bad gig. But how do you become one?
In this article, we will go over what it takes to become a United States Air Force pilot. We will get into requirements, the typical paths, and some tips that will help you should you decide that you want to join the prestigious community of military aviators.
Table Of Contents
- Minimum Requirements
- National Guard, Reserves, and Active Duty
- Commissioning Routes
- Aircraft Selection
- Common Questions
Minimum Requirements To Become A USAF Pilot
Unfortunately, not everyone can become a pilot in the Air Force. There are certain requirements and criteria that must be met before being considered a candidate. Below is a list showing the minimum requirements to receive your wings.
- Completion of Air Force Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training
- Completion of a Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI)
- Completion of Officer Training School (OTS), Air Force Academy (AFA) or Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC)
- Must have begun pilot training between the ages of 18 and 33
- Be A U.S. citizen
- For pilot and aircrew positions, height specifications vary by aircraft and most applicants can successfully pursue a career in aviation with the U.S. Air Force. Applicants who are significantly taller or shorter than average may require special screening to ensure they can safely perform operational duties. Applicants of all heights are encouraged to apply.
The specialized undergraduate pilot training is just a fancy way of saying pilot training. You will also see “UPT”, “UPT 2.5”, “UPT Next”, and others. These are all referring to pilot training for the Air Force. To earn your wings, you must complete this training.
You will complete a background check when you are becoming an officer and a more intensive check if you are becoming a pilot. This is because you will potentially be working with material that has a security clearance on it.
We will dive further into the OTS, AFA, and AFROTC later in this article.
Lastly, if you are unsure if you’d qualify due to being close to one or more of the requirements, such as being really tall or if you are close to the age, it does not hurt to ask and try. The military is really good at waiving certain parameters depending on what they need. The worst that they can say is no, but the answer is definitely no if you do not ask and try.
National Guard, Air Force Reserves, and Active Duty
What are the differences?
You have three options of serving as a pilot in the Air Force. The National Guard, the Reserves, and the Active Duty. Think of Active-Duty as a full-time job and the Reserves and the Guard as part-time jobs which allow them to hold other jobs as well. This is the simplest way of looking at it. The Reserves and Guard also in some circumstances work full-time for their units as well.
With the Guard and Reserves, you have the chance to apply to units around the nation if you meet their requirements. It is important to do your homework. Each unit is different and performs a different mission with a specific aircraft. You must also take the time to talk with loved ones and do some soul searching on what is best for you and your family, and/or your future family. This is true for each one of the three options. When applying, it is a good idea to go and see if you are a good fit for the unit and vice versa.
A big advantage of going through the Guard or Reserves is the fact that you will not have to move around. Once you are with a unit, you are there for good, if you so choose. You also know what aircraft you will be flying before you even start pilot training, which those in the Active Duty do not have either luxury.
A route that is often followed by Active Duty pilots is serving their commitment and eventually switching over to the Guard or Reserves. Often times, it is to the same aircraft. The reason pilots do this would be to continue serving in the military and earning time towards retirement, while also holding a second job which often times is working for an airline.
Being an officer is another requirement to get selected to go to pilot training. To become an officer, you must also have a bachelor’s degree. The degree will not matter, but the Air Force will look more favorably if it is a technical degree such as engineering for example. There are three routes you may take to commission as a 2nd Lieutenant.
- The United States Air Force Academy
- Air Force ROTC
- Officer Training School
Both the Academy and ROTC are 4-5 year programs on average. The Academy is all paid for and you receive a stipend as well. ROTC offers scholarships, some of which offer a similar deal as the Academy, but at a “normal” college/university.
OTS requires your degree to be already finished. It’s length has varied, but it typically is a 9 week course at Maxwell, AFB in Alabama on how to be an Officer. It was designed to take people who have no military experience and turn them into a military officer within the allotted time. Many of those who were prior enlisted take this route if they decide they want to become an officer.
Each route has their advantages and disadvantages, and it comes down to personal preference on which route you would like to take.
Each year the Air Force has a specific number of pilot slots that they will assign to those who are eligible and apply for it. The Academy consistently gets the greatest number of slots, ROTC will get the second most, and OTS will get the rest. Many things go into the selection of pilot slots. Grades, commander’s ranking, and test scores are some examples.
This section will mainly apply to ROTC and OTS candidates:
To receive a pilot slot, you must pass the Flying Class 1 physical, take the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test (AFOQT), and Test of Basic Aviation Skills (TBAS). After taking both tests, you will receive a pilot candidate selection method (PCSM) score. This score is used to compare against the rest of the candidates and reflects what the Air Force thinks your chances of completing pilot training are. They are essentially racking and stacking candidates to give the Air Force the best chance of creating the pilots that they need.
There are ways of increasing your PCSM score and subsequently your chance to get a pilot slot. For one, make sure that you study for the AFOQT, and take it more than once if necessary. The second is to get flying hours. The PCSM score also takes into account the number of flying hours that you have and can potentially increase it by a lot depending on how many hours you have.
What does pilot training include?
Initial Flight Training
The first piece of training is an Initial Flying Training course in Pueblo, Co. This is meant to be a basic introduction to flying and to get students used to the fast-paced and stressful military-styled training. This training is done in the mighty 125 hp DA-20. Note, if you have your PPL you get to skip this. This can make the start of Undergraduate Pilot Training harder though since your peers have a better understanding of how training will be conducted
Undergraduate Pilot Training
Currently, the syllabus of pilot training is being changed what seems to be on the daily. Your experience and training may be different than your friend’s training who decided to go to another pilot training base. Regardless, the training is an intense year-long course that is meant to make students into military aviators by the end. Training starts on the T-6 and eventually will lead to phase three which is when you fly either the T-38 for the fighter/bomber route or T-1 for mobility or heavy pilots. One of the current syllabi takes out the entirety of phase three but extends the T-6 phase. Note, both the T-1 and T-38 will be transitioned out soon. The T-38 will be replaced by the T-7 Red Hawk. The T-1 may or may not be replaced.
How does the selection of aircraft happen?
Near the end of pilot training, there will be a day dedicated to students finding out what they will be flying in next. It is known as “Drop Night.” It is one of the most memorable nights for any military pilot. For those who flew the T-1, will be assigned to a heavy or mobility aircraft such as a C-17, C-5, etc. The T-38 students are considered universally assignable and may receive any aircraft, but typically will get either a fighter or bomber such as the F-16 or B-52.
Those who went the National Guard or Reserves route will already know what aircraft they will be flying for the foreseeable future.
Active Duty, on the other hand, do not know until they turn around and look on the screen to see what aircraft they will be flying. These picks are based on the ranking of the student among their peers, their personal preferences, and what is available.
The Air Force finds the holes in each of their flying units to see what needs to be filled by those who are finishing up with pilot training and the students are provided a list of what is available and they put their preferences down. The Air Force decides what you will fly at the end of the day for Active Duty.
Here are a few questions that we are constantly being asked on this topic.
Columbus AFB, MS
Vance AFB, OK
Sheppard AFB, TX
Laughlin AFB, TX
Pilot training is designed to be a stressful course that weeds out those who aren’t committed. It takes hard work, a lot of studying, and commitment. It is only as hard as you make it. If you take the time and put in the effort, that is half of the battle and it will significantly raise your chances of making it through.
The bare necessities are provided to you, but it would be helpful to get some of your own gear. This article is a good guide on that.
It varies depending on how long you are in the program, which syllabus you are on, and if you fly the T-38 or T-1. On average, it costs roughly around $1,000,000 to train a pilot.
There is a 10-year service commitment for the Active-Duty pilots that starts the day they graduate from pilot training.
There will always be some students who do not make it through the training. This is due to self eliminations or the inability to perform. Making sure you are prepared for each flight, studying, and putting in the effort will significantly raise your chances.
Becoming a USAF pilot is hard work but well worth it if you are trying to see the world, join a great community, and serve your country. If this is something you are interested in doing, it is important to arm yourself with as much knowledge as you can and get the ball rolling. As you can see, it is a process that takes time and effort. Good luck!