Become an Air Force Pilot: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Should I Become An Air Force Pilot?
The United States Air Force is the branch of America’s military that is primarily responsible for aerial warfare, transport, and reconnaissance. Air Force pilots fly a variety of aircraft including fighters, bombers, transport planes, tankers, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Air Force pilots are the men and women who conduct the actual flight operations of America’s military aircraft. Not all of these highly skilled and trained people are combat flyers. Most fly less glamorous, but equally important missions.
Individuals become pilots in the Air Force by becoming an Air Force officer and completing extensive flight training. Being an Air Force pilot requires extensive training and the willingness to commit to ten years of active duty Air Force service. Pilots may be stationed in remote or undesirable places and may be exposed to danger. However, the flight training they receive at Air Force expense is highly valued.
Career Requirements
Degree Level Bachelor’s degree
Degree Field(s) Aviation or related field suggested but not required
Requirements Completion or Air Force ROTC, Officer Training School, or graduation from the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) or other U.S. service academy; be 18-30 years old (waivers possible up to 35 years old); receive at least a 10 for the quantitative and 15 for the verbal composite scores on the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test (AFOQT)
Required Training Pass Initial Flight Training (IFT) and Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT)
Experience None
Key Skills Motor coordination; aptitude for and mastery of flight skills; ability to operate highly complex machinery
Annual Salary (2019)* Starts at $3,287.10 for Second Lieutenants*
Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, *U.S. Air Force
To become an Air Force pilot you need a bachelor’s degree. It helps, but is not required, to have a degree in aviation or a related field. You must also undergo extensive ground school and in-the-air instruction along with having excellent motor coordination, aptitude for and mastery of flight skills, and the ability to operate highly complex machinery.
Steps to Becoming an Air Force Pilot
Let’s look at the steps you need to take to become an Air Force pilot.
Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
The U.S. Air Force does not require pilots to have specific majors ( However, degrees in aviation or related areas help students to complete flight training and courses in aerodynamics, aviation laws, aviation meteorology, and aircraft systems. Students who enroll in Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) in college or attend the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) can become officers after graduating.
In the AFROTC, students complete field training and take extra classes in aerospace, leadership, Air Force organizations, military laws, and military customs. Students who attend the USAFA can take airmanship courses, and those who desire may take a flight course in which they learn to pilot a propeller driven aircraft.
Step 2: Meet Officer Qualifications
Individuals must be 18-34 years old and U.S. citizens in order to pursue Air Force officer training. Aspiring officers take the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test (AFOQT) and must receive at least a 10 for the quantitative and 15 for the verbal composite scores.
The AFOQT consists of 12 subtests, including general science, arithmetic, reasoning, verbal analogies, instrument comprehension, and math. Officer applicants must also pass physicals and background checks at a Military Entrance Processing Station.
Step 3: Attend Officer Training School
Officer applicants who did not participate in AFROTC or graduate from the Air Force Academy or other U.S. service academy must attend the Officer Training School. To guarantee trainees are capable of daily physical conditioning, instructors administer the Air Force Physical Fitness Test the first week of training. The 2-month training program includes classroom lessons in a variety of topics and also in-the-field exercises in land navigation, first aid, self-defense, tactical marches, and base defense.
Step 4: Pass Initial Flight Training
Air Force officers begin flight training by passing Initial Flight Training (IFT), which is a process that allows instructors to assess a candidate’s ability and desire to learn aviation skills. Instructors introduce pilot candidates to aviation basics prior to entering advanced training. Candidates must have a flight physical and Student Pilot certification before attending IFT.
Step 5: Complete Undergraduate Pilot Training
Officers become Air Force pilots after finishing Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT). Here, they learn navigation, aerobatics, formation flying, and how to use aircraft instruments. After initial flight training, officers are placed on the airlift/tanker or bomber/fighter tracks. Some officers may be selected to operate unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) after gaining basic flight skills.
Assignments are determined by officers’ preferences, aircraft availability and training evaluations. Upon receiving track assignments, officers receive specialized training where they develop the skills needed to operate the specific type of aircraft.
Step 6: Advance Your Career in the United States Air Force
Trained pilots are among the most valuable assets our military services have. By completing the Air Force service obligation and performing up to standard, a pilot demonstrates great competence and a mastery of aviation. Subsequently, these people will advance to higher rank and greater responsibility. By the end of their active duty commitment, they will have logged many flight hours, making them even more valuable to the Air Force or to civilian employers. Leadership experience gained from being an Air Force officer will provide its own career value to pilots seeking future careers in other non-flying, potentially aviation related fields.
Becoming an Air Force pilot requires a commitment to the U.S. Air Force, extensive training and testing, and a bachelor’s degree.
Expert Contributor: Sean Harrington Sean has two master’s degrees from the University of Arkansas in Operations Management and Engineering. He has ten years of teaching experience.
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