As long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to fly fighter jets. At my first meeting with my guidance counselor at Bishop Feehan (high school), I was asked what my career goals were. I told the counselor that I planned on attending ROTC and subsequently attending pilot training for the Air Force. My guidance counselor basically chuckled and said that there was a good chance that they may not need pilots by the time I finished college, so I should reassess my goals and get back to her with a more realistic 5 and 10 year plan essentially.
At that point I realized I would need some help figuring out how to accomplish my goals, and unfortunately there isn’t a whole lot of straight forward career path assistance out there to become a military pilot. My goal with this post, as well as by reaching out to the aviation community is to try and demystify the process, as well as give advice to anyone interested or actively pursuing a career in military aviation. Feel free to email me with questions if you think that is you. I’ll try to get back to you in a timely manner.
As far as getting to USAF pilot training, there are 3 main routes. In any case you’ll have to be commissioned as an officer. The three main commissioning sources are the Air Force Academy, the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), and Officer Training School (OTS).
I chose ROTC, so I feel most comfortable talking about that, but there is good information on the Air Force websites about applying to the other two. For me, ROTC was a 4-year program. The first two years focus on learning the history of the Air Force as well as basic customs and courtesies, while the last two are primarily built around learning and practicing leadership skills amongst your peers. The ROTC wing is set up like a real Air Force wing, and cadets take different roles within the wing planning and executing the year’s training goals. You apply for pilot training in your third (junior) year, and the application you submit is based on a 100-point scale, based on a plethora of different assessments the Air Force does, as well as GPA.
If I can give any advice about being successful in ROTC, it’d be to work hard and make sure you keep your GPA up. I had more than a couple classmates that worked extremely hard on the military side but let their GPAs slip, which will work against you when it is time to apply for pilot training.
Once selected for pilot training and done with college, the first flying you do is called Introductory Flight Screening (IFS) at Pueblo, Colorado. You get about 20 hours in a DA-20 learning the basics such as take-offs, landings, stalls, and steep turns. It’s an abbreviated private pilot course designed to reassign those who do not show basic aptitude for flight. If you already have a private pilot certificate, it’s relatively low threat (simple).
After IFS, the real fun begins with Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT). I attended training at Sheppard AFB in a program called Euro-Nato Joint Jet Pilot Training, or ENJJPT. It is a multi-national program with students and instructors from several different countries. I, for example, was in a class with Canadians and Dutch, and flew with instructors from Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Greece, and of course the United States.
The first half of training is completed in the T-6 Texan II. It is a two seat tandem aircraft with a PT-6 turboprop producing 1100 SHP and capable of good aerobatics as well as cross country. The T-6 syllabus is broken down into several phases. The first, contact, is focused on learning the basics of take-offs, landings, engine out procedures, unusual attitudes, spins, and basic VFR navigation. The second phase; instruments, is as it sound. You learn how to plan and fly IFR. The simulators and instructors are second to none, and by the time I flew my first instrument sortie I felt well prepared.
Most of the flights were to local airports, but my class was fortunate enough to do a weekend cross country flight from Texas to Madison, Wisconsin and we attended Oshkosh AirVenture. For a guy who grew up around general aviation, it was a dream come true.
After the instruments phase, you go into advanced contact. This phase is focused on aerobatic flight and advanced aircraft handling. The maneuvers we learned and practiced were barrel rolls, aileron rolls, immelmans, split S’s, and cloverleafs. The goal is not to make you a world-class aerobatic pilot, but rather to create a comfort level with higher “G” flight, as well as unusual attitudes. The last phase is formation, which was the most fun. Fighter aircraft almost exclusively fly in formations of two or more aircraft, so this is the basic building block for that. You will learn the different formation positions, visual references, and how to use lead, pure, and lag pursuit to put your aircraft where you want in in relation to another.
After each phase there is a checkride, which is not significantly different from an FAA checkride. The main difference is since you are constantly being scored against your peers, each event on the checkride can be a pass, a fail, or a pass with a downgrade. So you can pass a checkride with 12 downgraded items, or potentially fail with only one downgrade if it was a safety of flight issue. At most pilot training bases, after the T-6 phase you are “racked and stacked” against your peers based on daily flight scores, as well as checkride scores and academic test scores. You then decide whether you’d like to go the “heavy” route and fly the T-1 Jaybird, or the “fast-jet” route and fly the T-38 Talon. Fortunately at ENJJPT, all students progress to the T-38 because the goal at the onset of ENJJPT was to solely train future fighter pilots. That has changed with the decrease in availability of fighters, but all students still learn to fly the T-38.
The T-38 syllabus is much like the T-6 one, except in a much faster and less forgiving airframe. While the T-38 isn’t exceptionally hard to fly, it is hard to fly exceptionally well. It has significant buffet well before stall, has the fastest final approach speeds of any aircraft in the USAF inventory (think 180 kts over the threshold on a no flap approach), and those speeds can get you into trouble quickly if you don’t plan ahead. Flying formation in the T-38 is easier though, because the centerline thrust is predictable compared to the torque of 1100 SHP and the P-factor. Again, each daily flight is graded, academic tests count, and there are checkrides at the completion of each phase. Towards the end of the T-38 syllabus, students submit their “dream sheets” with their preferences for aircraft after training. The leadership looks at available airframes as well as student performance, and assign each student a follow on aircraft. I was fortunate enough to be selected to fly the F-16 and haven’t looked back since.
Pilot training can be stressful, but honestly was an incredibly rewarding aviation experience.
-Fly Safe, MWetherbeeUSAF