This post is the first in an ongoing series covering Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training. The intent is to provide a simplified overview of the process and help manage expectations. Throughout the series we will post articles by both current and former UPT instructors and students. Keep checking back!
Every kid has a dream of what they want to be when they grow up. It’s typically something exciting like firefighter, racecar driver, stuntman, fighter pilot, or something of the like. The majority of kids, however, will grow up and change their career plans to something that they see as a bit more practical. The biggest reason for this is that people have no idea what the path is to achieve their childhood dream. As someone who has been fortunate enough to travel the path of an Air Force Fighter Pilot, I am here to tell you the steps required to put yourself in that cockpit. As it turns out, it’s really not that hard and anyone can do it.
Step 1: Get a Bachelor’s degree. It is a requirement; however, it does not matter whether it’s in aerospace engineering or underwater basket weaving. In the eyes of the Air Force, a degree is a degree. That said, grades DO matter, so do the best you can. I got picked up with just a 3.14 GPA, but obviously, the higher the better.
Step 2: Complete an Air Force Officer Commissioning Program. There are three ways to earn your commission and become an Air Force Officer (Service Academy, ROTC, or OTS). The Air Force Academy (like the Naval and Army Academy) is a 4-year University where you complete your Bachelor’s degree and military training courses at the same time. It is completely free to all candidates, and you are even paid a stipend while you are there. Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) is similar with the same end result; however, you attend the college of your choice with military training occurring once a week on campus. There are scholarships available to ROTC students that do not depend on need, but rather your achievements. A stipend is also paid to ROTC cadets. I took this route out of the University of Southern California. Finally, Officer Training School (OTS) is a 12-week program that is completed AFTER you have a Bachelor’s degree in hand. This is the route you may want to take if you have your degree already completed. Regardless of which route you choose, you will compete with the peers in your graduating year-group for a coveted pilot slot. The road to success here is to get decent grades and get as involved as you can in your training program of choice. If you do these things and pass the physical examination, you will find yourself on full pay with great benefits as you head out the door to Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) as a second lieutenant in the USAF. It is important to note that you must be able to complete UPT by age 30 (unless you obtain a waiver). I would also like to point out that contrary to popular belief, you don’t need perfect vision. It simply needs to be correctable (with glasses/contacts) to 20/20.
Step 3: Once at UPT, it is your performance compared with your peers that will determine which airframe you are assigned. UPT is a one-year flying program that is broken down into two main segments. The first 6-months are spent flying the T-6 Texan. Based on your performance and preference, you will either do the second half of UPT flying the T-1 (track for cargo and refueling pilots) or the T-38 Talon (track for fighter and bomber pilots). A third track is possible for pilots who aspire to fly helicopters, but you need to make that known early. Upon finishing the second 6-months of pilot training in your respective aircraft, you will earn your wings and be assigned to a specific airframe based on your performance and preference. Graduates from the T-38 track will typically be assigned to the F-22, F-16, F-15C/E, A-10, B-52, or B-1B. Graduates from the T-1 track will typically be assigned to the C-17, C-5, KC-10, KC-135, C-130, E-3, or E-8. Another option is to become an Instructor Pilot (IP) immediately in one of the airframes you flew in UPT (T-6, T-38, or T-1). First Assignment Instructor Pilots (FAIPS) will perform IP duties for 3 years before being assigned to one of the airframes described above. FAIPS also have the opportunity to go directly to the U-2 or B-2. You really cannot lose. Every airframe in the Air Force inventory is exciting in its own way. Following UPT, you will move to the training location for your specific airframe. After three months to a year of follow-on training in your assigned airframe, you will become a mission ready pilot, where you can go to work each day and truly say you are “living the dream!”
That’s pretty much it. There are some details and nuances I left out of this post that we will cover later, but if you are truly interested in becoming a fighter pilot or an Air Force pilot in general, shoot us an email. We will answer your questions and help you get on track to achieving your dreams. In the meantime, check out the frequently asked questions (FAQs) below. Good luck and never give up on your dreams!
1. What if I have a bachelor’s degree already but still want to do the ROTC program?
It is possible to do an ROTC program while you earn your Masters Degree if you prefer this to OTS, but keep tabs on your age. Remember you want to complete UPT by age 30 to avoid the pain and chance of having to obtain an age waiver.
2. My eyes are not perfect. Is this a problem?
Absolutely NOT. Many pilots fly with glasses, contacts, or even have laser surgery to correct their eyes to 20/20.
3. Should I see a local recruiter?
Most recruiters are there to recruit “enlisted” troops, NOT officers. Since you have to become an officer in order to be an Air Force Pilot, you need to make sure you talk to an OFFICER recruiter. They are hard to find, so if you contact a recruiting office, but sure to insist on speaking with someone who can help you get in to OTS immediately. Don’t just blindly accept the explanation that you have to enlist first. I know an enlisted troop who wanted to be a pilot before he joined. His recruiter told him it would be easier to become an officer and get picked up for UPT if he “enlisted” first…NOT true! Additionally, you can go to www.afrotc.com for information on the ROTC program, www.afoats.af.mil/ots for information on the OTS program, and www.academyadmissions.com for information on the USAF Academy program.
4. What if I want to become a Remotely Piloted Airframe (RPA) pilot?
If you are interested in becoming an RPA pilot, you will still need to get your degree and finish a commissioning program as described above. The difference is that you will apply to RPA training school INSTEAD of UPT. Think carefully before you choose this option, because once you become an RPA pilot, you will never fly manned airframes.
5. What if I want to fly for the Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, or Army?
If your desire is to fly for the military, your best chance is in the Air Force as we have the highest number of pilots. That said, if you desire to fly for another military branch, go for it. You will still need a degree and a commission (exception: Army allows Warrant Officers without degrees). The other services have service academies and ROTC programs just like the Air Force.
6. How do I get more information from you guys?
Email us anytime at email@example.com. We are more than happy to help in any way that we can.