The Real Poop
There's a highly dangerous and classified mission: a flight deep into enemy territory to bomb their supply train before it reaches the front lines. The Air Force only has one shot, and they're looking for a pilot who can pull the trigger at the critical moment on what could well be a lethal mission. Sound serious? It's as serious as flying a million-dollar war machine near to the speed of sound while 30,000 feet in the air (so, pretty serious).
Are you that pilot? Do you think you've got The Right Stuff to be a Top Gun and fly that "highway to the danger zone"? Okay, sorry; that won't happen again.
Becoming a fighter pilot means joining the esteemed ranks of Buzz Aldrin, Ted Williams, and Eddie Rickenbacker, all three of whom served their country by flying the unfriendly skies. It also means earning around $100,000 by the midpoint of your risky, exciting, financially fantastic career (source).
To be a fighter pilot, though, you've got to be more than just determined and qualified. You also have to be open to change and adaptation. The world of aerial warfare is continually evolving. While militaries have used kites and balloons in battle since ancient times, powered military aviation is barely a century old.
In fact, air-to-air combat didn't even exist until World War I. Prior to 1915, military airplanes had only ever been used for bombing missions and reconnaissance. Once engineers and aviators began to come up with more efficient ways of firing guns from aircraft in flight—read: without blasting off their own propellers—fighters were required to escort bombers and recon planes on their runs.
World War I flying aces (not just a card reference, ace actually means five or more aerial victories) like Billy Bishop, Oswald Boelcke, and Manfred von Richthofen—or as you know him, the Red Baron—were among the first to develop many of the dogfighting (combat in the skies) techniques that are still in use today.
Even though many of the principles of aerial combat remained steadfast, by the time World War II began just two decades later, the life of a fighter pilot had changed drastically.
As more technologically superior fighter planes were built, pilots had to adapt to the increased speed, maneuvering, and altitude capabilities of their aircraft. Think of the difference between hi-speed Wi-Fi on an iPad and dial-up on an Apple II; it's kinda like that, only if your computer crashes it doesn't kill you (even if it feels like it does).
These advances have continued on into the present day. Military technology in the 21st century allows for many things that World War I aviators probably never even imagined. Back then, they were lucky if their machine guns didn't malfunction and take out the propeller; nowadays, fighter planes can be equipped with a variety of missiles, and some can even double as fighter-bombers.
Air forces around the world are equipped with flying tankers that can provide air-to-air refueling. Fighters are routinely capable of breaking Mach 1, which means that they can fly faster than the speed of sound (there's a lot of terminology you'll have to learn).
Unfortunately, advanced technologies are also taking away certain roles, making it more difficult than ever to be chosen for a coveted fighter pilot slot. Stealth, radar, and satellite capabilities—not to mention unmanned drones—have advanced to the point where fewer and fewer missions require the aid of a fighter escort.
Bombers and helicopters are still in high demand, but aerial dogfights are not nearly as common today as they were in the wars of the past century. Now everybody wants to use robots instead.
That isn't to say that fighter pilots are no longer necessary, of course, but it does mean that you seriously need to be at the top of your game if you're hoping to earn a slot.
Today's fighter pilots are expected to be able to execute extremely complicated aerial maneuvers while succumbing to g-forces (a.k.a. the amount of gravity they're physically feeling) that drain the brain of precious blood and could cause them to blackout.
Add to that the strain of flying at supersonic speeds while cramped in a teeny tiny cockpit and the stress that generally comes from the life-or-death missions that almost everyone in the military is exposed to, and you're looking at one of the two most extreme situations a human being can be put in (the other of course being hot dog eating contests).
There's a reason why NASA requires a thousand hours of jet piloting experience for its astronauts; it lets them know they can handle the physical, mental, and emotional pressures (source). The edge of space is not exactly where you'll want to suddenly need your teddy bear.
Does this all sound a bit too much? Have we dissuaded you? No? Good, that means you may have a shot at this. If you really want to become a fighter pilot, there are a couple options. First you need to decide whether you want to fly with the Air Force or the Navy, which may come down to whether you'd rather sing "Wild Blue Yonder" or "Anchors Aweigh" for the rest of your life.
The Marines have pilots too, but they fly with the Navy; the Army used to have them as well, but the military split them to form the Air Force in 1947 (probably because they wanted an even number of college football teams).
Once you've decided which branch of the military you're going to join, the next step is to actually join. All fighter pilots are officers, which means you must attend a military academy, join your college's ROTC program, or fly off to officer training/candidate school to make sure you don't end up swabbing the poop deck while some other hotshot flies the bird that was meant for you (source).
While it may be one of the more exhilarating careers you can choose, flying fighter jets is an extremely dangerous gig, and those planes cost of millions of dollars. You've got to be expertly trained for this, because we wouldn't want anything to happen to them.
You. We meant we wouldn't want anything to happen to you. But seriously, you break it you bought it.