The Fighter Pilot Personality


Robin Olds

Have you been dreaming of donning a flight suit and slipping into the sleek cockpit of a hi-tech fighter jet?  What’s stopping you?  Are you unsure if you have the right personality for the job?  Fighter pilots are often described as “Type A” personalities, cocky, or arrogant.  The USAF Weapons School, on the other hand, describes its ideal student as “humble, approachable, and credible”.  So which is it?  Either way, there’s no doubt that it takes a special personality to survive and thrive in the world of fighter aviation.  Let’s take a look at the personalities flying the fast jets and see if you measure up!

Let me just start off by saying we are about to jump down the proverbial rabbit hole.  Yet again, I’m broaching a topic that, if given the proper treatment, would be covered in volumes of text instead of a brief blog post.  I guess this really is the fighter pilot way – take a complex mission with hundreds of moving parts and pieces that requires reaching support from assets around the world, brief it up in under an hour (sometimes significantly less), and go fly it!

In 2009, Katie M. Ragan published a doctoral thesis entitled: The Warfighters of Today: Personality and Cognitive Characteristics of Rated Fighter Pilots in the United States Air Force (Florida State University)While I’m not a huge fan of psychology – no offense to my psychologist friends, I just don’t understand it – this study provides for some very interesting reading.  In this thesis, the author asserts that USAF fighter aircrew require psychological attributes different from those of the normal population.  When you find yourself going to a merge at night on NVGs (Night Vision Goggles), or getting gas from a tanker in the weather, you may need to possess certain personality traits in order to keep your stress levels at bay.  I reference this doctoral thesis because it does a good job of summarizing all of the important fighter pilot traits in three general areas.

Cognitive Ability – It should come as no surprise that the average fighter pilot must possess an above average ability to think and reason.  Were it not so, we would see a lot more smoking holes in the ground!  Most fighter cockpits are built for one person – this means the fighter pilot must be always at the top of his game or he won’t come home.

The study found that the range of IQs in the fighter pilot community is no different than those of the tanker, airlift, or bomber communities.  (Yes, there are those not so far to the right of the IQ spectrum in each of the flying communities.)  What the study found, however, was that there is a higher concentration of people with high IQs in the fighter community than in other aviation career fields – the mean IQ in the fighter world is a full standard deviation higher.  Before all of my tanker buddies start throwing spears at me, it’s important to understand that the airframe you fly is not an indicator of your intelligence level – that’s not at all what this study suggests.  Not all smart people choose to go to Harvard in the same way that not all pilots choose to be fighter pilots.

It is safe to say that the ability to multitask on the level required of fighter pilots, make tactical decisions, employ weapons, and communicate efficiently all while maintaining aircraft control takes a high level of intelligence.  In order to ascertain a pilot candidate’s level of intelligence, the USAF requires each prospective student pilot to take the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test (AFOQT).  The AFOQT tests 12 different areas ranging from verbal analogies and arithmetic reasoning to block rotation and hidden figures.  If you want to know how well you measure up, I recommend buying an AFOQT Study Guide (AFOQT Study Guide: Test Prep and Practice Test Questions for the AFOQT) and taking the practice tests.  My scores on the AFOQT came as no surprise to me as I had taken the test several times in practice and had scored nearly the same every time.

Emotional Stability – There can’t be any loose cannons in fighter cockpits.  A fighter pilot must have strong reigns on their emotions if they are to effectively employ their airborne weapon system.  Ragan’s paper stressed the importance of having the traits of “emotional composure, stress resilience, and confidence” in the fighter world.  She cited a 2005 study in which it was found that fighter pilots tend to average higher scores than other USAF pilots in the following areas: Assertiveness, Activity, and Achievement Striving.  Fighter pilots tended to score lower in Agreeableness, Self-Consciousness, Vulnerability, and Warmth than pilots of other airframes.  This is doesn’t mean that all fighter pilots are jerks – my experience has been quite the opposite.  Yes, there may be a higher concentration of narcissistic personalities in the fighter community, but I wouldn’t say it’s the norm.

Here are a few emotional characteristics and personality traits a fighter pilot must possess:


* You may be wondering why I put humility on this list.  Do not confuse humility with meekness (or weakness!).  A humble pilot does not turn a blind eye to his weaknesses.  If you are humble, you recognize your shortfalls, then – being the fighter pilot you are – you aggressively work to wipe them out.  If you’re not humble, you won’t get better.

Motivation – This, in my opinion, is the crux of being a fighter pilot.  One can somewhat make up for a lack in other areas through pure motivation.  If you’re motivated, you don’t need someone else telling you what needs to be done before you do it.  It requires a significant amount of motivation to fly into a robust surface-to-air threat, do BFM with a bad guy, and come home to tell the story to your bros.  Just getting through UPT requires a significant amount of motivation.  Getting that fighter jet you’ve dreamed of requires even more.

I recently had the opportunity to participate in Red Flag, the USAF’s massive large force exercise where hundreds of aircraft are airborne at once, engaged in an all-out air war.  Personalities really come out in the mission planning for such an event.  It was interesting, and not surprising, to see the fighter pilots really driving the fight in terms of coming up with the plan, outlining contracts and contingencies, and disseminating information to everyone who needed it.  That is the personality it takes to safely and effectively run an air campaign.

If you are a proactive individual with a high degree of motivation, maybe joining the fighter community is the right thing for you.  There are many other factors to consider when contemplating a career as a fighter pilot – but I promise you, if you do not possess the attributes mentioned above, you will not enjoy it.  Even worse, you may not last long.  So how about it?  Do you have the personality to fly fighters?