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Becoming a fighter pilot will give you the opportunity to fly the world’s most advanced aircraft. Here’s a complete guide on how to become a fighter pilot.
To become a fighter pilot, you need to choose either Active Duty or joining the Air National Guard/Air Force Reserve. Then you need to obtain a Bachelor’s degree, pass initial flight training, pass undergraduate pilot training and get assigned to a fighter, and complete specialized training.
If you’re reading this, then the allure of flying the fastest, most advanced airplanes in the world while also defending your country has probably brought you here. But becoming a fighter pilot is not so easy, or else more people would do it. In this article, we’ll teach you what being a fighter pilot really means, how to become one yourself, and we’ll finish off by discussing a little bit of if it’s worth it or not.
At SkyTough we want to provide our readers with only the most helpful content out there. For a topic like this one, inaccurate information is entirely useless. So this article is the result of countless hours of research and discussion with people who have actually gone through the process themselves to become fighter pilots. When you’re done reading this, you’ll know everything you need to know to become a fighter pilot yourself.
What Is A Fighter Pilot?
As you more than likely already know by the time you’re reading this, a fighter pilot is the common name for a pilot that flies military fighter jets. While many people think that a fighter pilot and an Air Force pilot are the same thing, they actually are not. You can be an Air Force pilot and never fly a fighter jet in your career. And you can also be a fighter pilot without being a member of the Air Force.
How is that possible?
All branches of the military actually have their own squadron of fighter pilots, not just the Air Force. The Marines, Navy, Army, and Coast Guard all have fighter jets and their own fighter pilots, and you may even be shocked at how many pilots there are in each branch. To take it a step further, Air Force pilots can be assigned to fly different types of airplanes and never get to fly a fighter jet.
You could do everything right and still never get the opportunity to become a fighter pilot and fly the aircraft of your dreams. These are some of the fastest, most technologically advanced aircraft in the world. So getting the chance to fly fighter jets is something that you need to take very seriously. It’s not easy, but if you’re successful you might have the chance to get some of the best perks in the aviation industry.
Sure, becoming a commercial pilot is an amazing path to take in your life that will likely grant you a career full of perks and benefits in its own right. But if you become a fighter pilot, you’ll get to fly at supersonic speeds, reach new heights, and have the benefits of a government/military career that will set you up nicely for retirement.
How To Become A Fighter Pilot Step By Step
All that said, there is really no guaranteed way to become a fighter pilot as you’ll see shortly. But we can give you a complete guide on what you need to do to give yourself the best shot at it.
Step 0: Prepare On Your Own Time And Meet Minimum Requirements
I’m labeling it as Step 0 because the things I’m going to talk about here are not technically required to become a fighter pilot, but it will make the experience much better. This stuff will also raise the odds and better your chances of succeeding, so I strongly recommend accomplishing as much of this as you can!
Stay in Great Physical Shape
The first thing you should do if you’re thinking about becoming a fighter pilot is to get in shape and stay that way. Not only will you have to pass physical fitness tests while in the military, but flying a fighter jet is far more physically enduring than you might think. It’s not quite the same as flying commercial airplanes, and if you’re out of shape you’ll struggle in the cockpit.
With fighter jets, especially if you’re ever engaged with an enemy, you’ll be pulling G’s, performing all sorts of aerial acrobatics, and doing everything you can to stay alive. On top of that, the helmet and incorporated heads-up display are much heavier than you might think. So being in shape, both in terms of muscle development and cardio, will really come in handy while you’re flying a fighter.
Earn Your Private Pilot License (PPL)
This might seem a bit odd as a stepping stone for becoming a fighter pilot, but earning your Private Pilot License (PPL) could give you a huge advantage compared to the other pilot candidates you’ll be competing with. I’ll touch on this more later, but becoming a fighter pilot is a big competition against every other person that is in your class. Fighter pilot spots are very limited and very exclusive, so every advantage will help.
The reason that I recommend getting your PPL is that it will give you a huge edge over the majority of candidates that have very little (if any) solo time at the controls. And since there is no minimum age to fly a plane, and you only have to be 17 years old to obtain your PPL, you can begin working on this early in life.
- At least 17 years old
- Read, speak, and understand English
- Completed flight school
- 40 hours of flight time (including solo flight)
- Pass medical, written, and practical exams
Again, there’s a bit more involved in earning your PPL, but it doesn’t actually take as long as you might think. You can do it in just 2-4 months from start to finish and, in my opinion, it’s well worth the time!
Earn an Instrument Rating
In addition to earning your PPL, I recommend that you take the time to earn your instrument rating as well. Although this is not entirely necessary, it will again give you a big advantage over other candidates that you’re going up against since you’ll already be certified in flying using the plane’s instruments and you’ll likely be able to perform and score better than those who have not yet been trained.
In modern-day airplanes, you’ll be flying using the instrument panel more than anything else, known as Instrument Flight Rules (IFR). This form of navigation is so powerful because it enables pilots to see at night, no matter the conditions or how good their vision is. Instruments can see what pilots cannot, and it can be a game changer when it comes to knowing where to fly.
Earning your instrument rating will require a minimum of 40 more hours of flight time, broken up into at least the following:
- 15 hours with an instructor
- 250-nautical mile cross-country instrument flying
- At least 3 different types of approaches using onboard instruments for navigation
If you stay in shape, earn your PPL, and obtain an instrument rating, you’ll be way ahead and greatly improve your chances of becoming a fighter pilot. But even if you don’t do these things, you can still become one by following the steps below!
Step 1: Choose Your Path (Active Duty or Air National Guard/Air Force Reserve)
The first thing you should decide when you’re thinking about becoming a fighter pilot is if you’re going to do so via the Active Duty route or if you’re going to try by joining the Air National Guard or Air Force Reserves. The vast majority of people will become an Active Duty member of the military to become a fighter pilot, but that’s not the only way.
Although the majority of this article will focus on joining the Active Duty military (especially the Air Force), it might not even be the best way to become a fighter pilot. Many people use the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve as a sort of backup plan if the Active Duty route fails, but joining these two organizations can often be the single best way to become a fighter pilot, all things considered.
Active Duty Route
If you decide to join the military (Active Duty), then the military will be your full-time job. You’ll have to work 5 days a week like any other job, and you’ll likely have other duties to attend to besides just flying. But since it’s a career, you’ll get great pay and benefits like health insurance and a pension when the time for retirement comes.
That said, you’ll also have to commit 8-10 years’ worth of full-time military service as a pilot. This is because if the government is going to spend all that time and money making you into a pilot, they want to get some sort of return on their investment. So you become a fighter pilot, and then you serve for 8-10 years.
While serving, you’ll have to go to whichever base(s) you’re assigned to and you’ll likely be deployed multiple times during your tenure. Deployments typically last up to 6 to 12 months and you can have just a few days’ notice before you ship out. And since you’re committed for 8-10 years, you don’t get much say in where you go or which deployments you want to go on.
Lastly, you could offer your 10-year commitment and then not even be selected for fighter pilot track. Even if you do everything right and are at the top of your class, there might not even be a fighter slot available for you when you finish training. It’s a lot of luck and hard work, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll end up flying a fighter, yet you’ll still owe the entirety of your service commitment.
Joining the Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve
Instead of the traditional route of joining the Active Duty military, you can choose to join the Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve. While these two organizations are usually seen as part-time jobs, you can actually request full-time orders within your unit. And speaking of units, you get to pick and choose which units you apply for before signing any sort of service commitment.
That’s right, you can apply for only the units that generate fighter pilots and fly fighters like the F-22 and F-35, which, if accepted, guarantees that you will get to actually be a fighter pilot. As strange as it is, joining one of these two organizations is actually the only way to guarantee that you’ll graduate and become a fighter pilot, which can potentially make this a more favorable route than Active Duty.
Once accepted, you’ll still have to agree to a 10-year service commitment, but it can be part-time and usually just requires one week per month. Many pilots in these organizations work as a commercial pilot full-time while tending to their fighter pilot requirements as needed. This can be the perfect way to have a fulfilling career as a pilot while also guaranteeing that you get to actually become a fighter pilot!
Step 3: Obtain A Bachelor’s Degree
All pilots in the US military are commissioned officers, which requires having a four-year degree, typically a Bachelor’s degree. So although pilots don’t need a degree in the civilian world, it is required to become a fighter pilot.
Your major and the subject of your degree doesn’t actually matter — you can major in anything, as long as you have a degree at the end of the day. The more important aspect of your college career is your GPA, which you should aim to finish school with a minimum of 3.0, but you’d be in much better shape if you’re able to graduate college with a 3.5 or better.
Although your major doesn’t technically matter, your future self would likely thank you if you opted for a more technical or scientific area of study. Check out a full list of the best majors for pilots in our full article on the subject, but here are some to consider:
- Aviation Technology
- Aerospace Engineering
- Mechanical Engineering
- Aviation Maintenance
- Aeronautical Science
- Other STEM Majors
The reason that these majors are the best to choose from is because you’ll need to know many of these topics while training for and becoming a fighter pilot. So choosing the right major will just be another advantage that you’ll have over others. But don’t sacrifice GPA for a hard subject, so make sure you can still do well!
Step 4: Pass Initial Flight Training (IFT)
To become an Air Force Pilot, you’ll have to attend (and complete) your Initial Flight Training (IFT) in Pueblo, Colorado. This program — also known as Initial Flight Screening — provides introductory flight training for all US Air Force pilots, no matter which type of aircraft you end up flying upon completion. This program is for pilots of both Active Duty pilots and those that are in the Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve.
During IFT, you’ll be assigned a roommate and paired up into rooms that are similar to hotel rooms in a large facility. Within this facility, you’ll have access to everything that you need. The gym, telephones, barber shop, cafeteria, etc. are all there so that you never have to step foot outside except to get to your aircraft.
The point of this training is to immerse you and the other candidates into a full military flying training environment in order to prepare you for the next step along the way.
Step 5: Pass Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training (SUPT)
Upon successful completion of IFT, you’ll attend Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training (SUPT) at one of the three following bases in the US:
- Columbus AFB, Mississippi
- Laughling AFB, Texas
- Vance AFB, Oklahoma
These bases, all under the Major Command (MAJCOM) known as Air Education and Training Command (AETC) specialize in training pilots to actually master the aircraft they’ve been learning about. At all three bases, students will be required to fly the T-6 Texan II aircraft. This training will teach you contact flying, instrument flying, low-level flying, and formation flying.
Once you complete training in the T6, this is what it all comes down to — what will you be assigned to fly? When it’s time to move forward, students will be selected to continue training on one of four tracks. The tracks are based on the current needs of the Air Force, available slots, and class rank and are:
- T-1 Jayhawk — Airlift and tanker pilots
- T-38 Talon — Bomber/fighter pilots
- TH-1H — Helicopter pilots
- RPA — Remotely piloted aircraft
To become a fighter pilot, you’ll have to be selected to continue on the bomber/fighter path and begin training in the T-38 Talon. If you’re selected to one of the other three programs, then that will likely be the end of your fighter pilot journey. Due to the way the timeframe works and the commitment you have to make, it’s almost impossible to become a fighter pilot if you’re not selected for the T-38 training program.
Both the T-1 and T-38 programs are continued at the three bases mentioned above, so you’ll likely end up staying at the same base for all of your training. Helicopter pilots will be relocated to Fort Rucker in Alabama.
Step 6: Complete Specialized Fighter Track
You did it, you’re here! Once you get selected for the T-38 fighter program, you’re in position to become a fighter pilot and all you have to do is complete your training and excel in everything that you’re assigned. The kicker to all of this is that even at this stage, you may not actually become a fighter pilot.
You’ll train in the T-38, but it will still depend on what the Air Force needs when your training is complete. You could be assigned to a bomber or something else entirely. This is another reason why you might want to consider joining the Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve so you can apply directly for specific fighter units.
In any case, best of luck and thank you for your willingness to become a fighter pilot and serve your country!
Is It Worth Becoming A Fighter Pilot?
This question is quite a bit subjective and the answer is a personal one that will be different for each and every person. But due to how big of a commitment you have to make to become a fighter pilot, determining if it’s really worth the time and effort is something that you’ll want to sit down and really think about.
It’s nigh impossible to get out of a commitment with the military, and you can’t really deny any of the orders you receive either during your commitment. You might get stationed somewhere you don’t want to go. You might be forced to go on a deployment and be away from your family for 6 to 12 months (or longer). If you become a fighter pilot at 30, you’ll be at the whim of the military until you’re 40 years old. Are you prepared for that?
Additionally, keep in mind that you could give a 10-year commitment to the military and never actually become a fighter pilot. You may end up flying transport or cargo planes. Or maybe you’re ordered to pilot unmanned aerial aircraft. If you go the Active Duty route, you’re forced to commit to all those years without knowing when, what, or even if you’ll be flying. Keep all of that in mind.
I know, that’s a bunch of doom and gloom so far, but it’s the reality of this decision. I strongly recommend that you sit down with friends and family and really discuss whether or not this is the right decision for you and your family. I’m not here to persuade or dissuade anyone from becoming a fighter pilot, I just want to make sure everyone knows what they’re getting into in any case.
All that said, I have never spoken to a single fighter pilot that regretted their decision. If you’re a lover of all things aviation like myself, then having the chance to fly fighter jets is something like an itch you just can’t scratch. Everyone I’ve spoken to that has become a fighter pilot wouldn’t trade that career for any other job in the world, and I don’t blame them.
So if you are ready to commit to the job and you’re okay with the possibility that you might not get to fly fighter jets in the end, then the job could very well be worth it. But if you’re worried that it might not be right for you, I would suggest you strongly consider your decision. Don’t just rely on talking to recruiters to figure it out, it’s their job to actively recruit people to join the service.
No matter what you decide, best of luck out there! If you’re interested in becoming a pilot but you’re not sure if the military is right for you, check out our complete guide on How to Become a Commercial Pilot.