So you still want to become a pilot in the United States Air Force do you? How many of us attended air shows, watched aviation-themed movies, or heard stories from our pilot predecessors only to walk away with an unquenchable thirst to become an Air Force pilot? As we grow older, sometimes our dreams either fade or change. Hey, that second kid running around the house may make you feel less inclined to take the risks associated with sitting on the pointy end of a supersonic fighter – there’s nothing wrong with that. But for those of you who eat, sleep, and breath military aviation, here are four things you need to know before you choose to become a professional pilot in the U.S. Air Force.
1. Competition for manned cockpits is fierce.
The composition of the USAF’s fleet of aircraft has changed significantly over the past decade. Most recently we have seen the U-2 and A-10 programs on the chopping block. The U-2 will be replaced by an unmanned ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance), while the A-10 will likely cede its amazing air-to-ground role to the F-16, and eventually the F-35. Additionally, the Air Force recently announced it would be retiring 51 of its F-15C air superiority fighters in 2015 drawing the fleet down to a mere 179!
Unmanned aircraft are certainly en vogue right now. They are low-cost platforms and bring a very important capability to our Air Force. They are also a driving force in the defense-contracting sector. Large sums of money are being put into research and development as companies seek to capitalize on the appeal of lowering combat risk by taking the human out of the cockpit.
What does this mean to you? It means there are fewer fighter spots coming out of UPT and more RPA positions that need to be filled. Competition for a manned cockpit – be it in a fighter or a heavy – is intense. In order to get into one of those precious few cockpits, you must be at the top of your game and dedicate yourself whole-heartedly to study and practice during your 12 months of UPT if you even want to think about flying a manned aircraft. It’s not impossible, and the odds are still in your favor to get into a manned cockpit, if that’s what you want to do. (Yes, there are several folks who choose RPAs!)
2. The operations tempo is high and will likely remain high.
Although there are fewer cockpits and fewer pilots, the operational needs of manned aircraft have not changed much. This results in a higher operational tempo for those in the cockpit. Many fighter units are executing a “six-on-six-off” schedule – they are gone for six months, then home for six months before leaving again. Tanker and transport pilots continue to see high workloads. It is not uncommon for a heavy pilot to be gone 250-300 days out of the year.
For a young, single pilot this may seem thrilling, and it is – at first. But over time it can take a toll, especially on those with families or those with interests outside the military. CNN recently released an article on the emotional and psychological effects a high operational tempo can have on the families of those who deploy. While difficult to sustain, it is not impossible. Some people find the high ops tempo both challenging and rewarding. In any case, do not discount the high ops tempo and its effects on your family when considering a career in the military.
3. Flying isn’t your only job.
Many people think a pilot shows up to work, climbs in the jet, goes out and rages in the airspace, lands, and goes home. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are many other expectations of a military pilot that don’t have anything to do with flying. Fighter pilots refer to duties and responsibilities not related to flying as “qweep”. Although the origins of this “term of endearment” are unknown, the term is widely used. About 50% or more of your time will be spent doing qweep. At the end of a long fly day, the qweep is still there waiting for you, so be prepared for some long workdays. (Be sure to read our article on A Day in the Life of a Fighter Pilot)
Pilots are commissioned officers, and as such take on a leadership role in the Air Force. Early in your career you will find yourself in a functional job like tracking pilot training requirements and currencies or working in the squadron scheduling shop. You will eventually progress to being a flight commander or working in a Group or Wing-level staff job. Regardless of what your ground duties are, you must always be cognizant of the need to prepare for promotion by ensuring you have something to put in your Officer Performance Report and by attending Professional Military Education. Obtaining a Master’s degree is an all but unspoken requirement if you want to go anywhere in the military.
While some fighter pilots complain about the extra duties, many look at them as an opportunity to grow and progress. A good friend of mine told me there was a point where he stopped seeing himself as “just” a fighter pilot and started considering himself a professional military officer. For many, this is a natural progression when the years of deploying and “pulling Gs” have taken their toll and the fighter pilot is ready to pass years of experience to a younger generation via leadership rolls.
4. The only constant is change.
Just when you think you’ve got things figured out, they change. Leadership is constantly turning over, just like every other job in the Air Force. With a new leader comes a new mindset and a new way of doing things. Leaders typically must react to Congressional requirements. Over the past decade we’ve seen force shaping going to extremes (“We need pilots! Wait, we DON’T need pilots! Wait, we NEED pilots!”) We’ve seen the nightmare associated with sequestration and budgetary constraints. If you resist the change, you will find yourself becoming frustrated and falling behind. It is essential that you maintain a positive outlook and be flexible if you wish to make a career out of the Air Force.
There are a lot more nuances associated with a career as a military pilot, but these four are crucial aspects that need to be thought through before deciding on an Air Force career. I know they may seem pretty obvious, but if you join the military without realistic expectations, you will find yourself re-thinking your decision, and worse, washing out of pilot training like six guys in my class did (Air Force flying just “wasn’t the type of flying they thought it would be”.) Put some thought into it, and if you have a spouse, be sure to get their buy-in.
In spite of these challenges, a career as an Air Force pilot can be highly rewarding. You will get to go places and do things you would never get to see or do otherwise. If you ask me if it’s worth it, I would say, “ABSOLUTELY!”