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 suicide mission. 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”? OK, sorry; that won’t happen again.
So you want to be a fighter pilot? Well, you’re not alone. 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.
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 throughout history 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 (hint: “ace” means five or more kills) like Billy Bishop, Oswald Boelcke, and Manfred von Richthofen—the Red Baron—were among the first to develop many of the dogfighting techniques that are still in use today. But 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.
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. In addition to the machine guns that pilots like the Red Baron had access to, fighter planes today 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. With all of these advances, aerial supremacy is even more important today that it was 100 years ago. Not to mention that kids grow up using joysticks for video games today, an advantage that pilots back then didn’t have. So next time your parents yell at you for playing Star Fox too much, tell them you’re gaining practical flight experience.
Unfortunately, advanced technologies are also taking away certain roles, making it more difficult than ever to be chosen for a coveted fighter pilot slot. Unmanned aircraft and stealth, radar, and satellite capabilities 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. Dag nab robots taking over the world. 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 that drain the brain of blood and could cause them to blackout. Add to that the strain of flying at supersonic speeds while cramped in a tiny cockpit and the stress that generally comes from the life-or-death missions that almost everyone in the military is exposed to every day, and you’re looking at one of the most extreme situations a human being can put him- or herself in. There’s a reason why NASA requires 1,000 hours of jet piloting experience for its astronauts; they know that fighter pilots are tough. (Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the first two men on the moon, both flew jets in the Korean War.)
Does this all sound a bit too much? Have we dissuaded you? No? Good. If you’re still interested in becoming a fighter pilot, you’ve got a couple options. First you need to decide if you want to fly with the Air Force or the Navy, which really comes down to whether you’d rather sing “Wild Blue Yonder” or “Anchors Aweigh” for the rest of your life. (Pilots in the Marines fly with the Navy; the Army used to have pilots, but they separated to form the Air Force in 1947.) Once you’ve decided which branch of the military you’re going to join, the next step is to… well, join. You have to be an officer to become a fighter pilot, so if you are so inclined, you can attend an Academy, ROTC program, or 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.
We’ll get to the rest of the qualifications in the Qualifications tab, but in the meantime, we want you to think long and hard about whether this is really the career for you. Flying fighter jets is an extremely dangerous gig, and those planes cost hundreds of millions of dollars. We wouldn’t want anything to happen to them. You. We meant we wouldn’t want anything to happen to you. This is awkward…