Becoming an Air Force pilot: a worthwhile challenge

  • Published
  • By Air Force Staff Sgt. Blake Mize
  • JBER Public Affairs
The U.S. Air Force is widely recognized as the best air and space force the world has ever known. To maintain this status requires filling its ranks with some of the best educated and highly trained aviators in the world. While many career fields throughout the Air Force are experiencing a reduction in force due to the current fiscal environment, pilots continue to be in high demand.

Even during a time of monetary restraint, the Air Force requires the services of those who can successfully complete the extensive training needed to fly.

"Since the Korean War, this nation has deployed about seven million men and women at arms to different contingencies around the world, and tens of thousands of them have died there," said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh at the American Enterprise Institute in December. "None of them have died as a result of enemy air attack - that doesn't happen by accident."

The general's quote articulates the Air Force's contribution to national defense, although some have recently discounted it, and the importance of pilots to the Air Force mission.
To become an Air Force pilot, one must first commission into the Air Force. There are three ways to accomplish this - the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., the Reserve Officer Training Corps program and Officer Training School.

"During the commissioning process you apply for various jobs in the Air Force," said Air Force 1st Lt. Brendon Boston, 90th Fighter Squadron F-22 Raptor pilot. "Depending on your performance, you may or may not get what you put down as your number one choice."

Only those who distinguish themselves from their peers are selected to go to Undergraduate Pilot Training. Selection depends on variables such as grade point average, fitness scores, an aptitude test, prior flight experience and hand-eye coordination.

Once selected to go to UPT, candidates go through a thorough medical screening and Initial Flight Screening.

"IFS is a short program out in Pueblo, Colo., where you learn the basics of flying and you are essentially screened to see if you have the aptitude, attitude and ability to learn the military way of flying on their timeline," said Air Force 1st Lt. Kyle Oliver, 90th FS F-22 Raptor pilot.

Getting selected and screened at IFS is relatively easy compared to what it takes to complete the grueling, year-long UPT course at either Columbus Air Force Base, Miss., Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas or Vance Air Force Base, Okla.

"Every student starts out in the T-6 [Texan II] learning basic aviation skills, aerobatic confidence maneuvers, emergency procedures, instrument flying and basic formation," Oliver said. "After six months, the classes are divided into three tracks for the fighter and bomber aircraft, cargo and tanker aircraft, and helicopters."

Students on the fighter and bomber track spend the remainder of the course becoming proficient in the T-38 Talon. Those selected for cargo and tanker aircraft learn in the T-1 Jayhawk and future helicopter pilots go to the TH-1 Huey helicopter.

"There is a significant amount of dedication required for pilot training," Boston said. "There is an immense amount of material to learn and to be able to recall from memory on the spot. There is always something - the next flight, simulator, academic test or emergency procedure evaluation - to prepare for. Twelve-hour days are commonplace."

Air Force Capt. Jared Moore, 517th Airlift Squadron C-17 Globemaster III pilot, emphasized the need to be focused solely on becoming an aviator during those 12 months.

"You need a pure passion for aviation," Moore said. "Aviation regulations are typically written in blood from someone else that messed up in the past, so you need to be committed to what you're about to do and be able to learn from others' mistakes. Pilot training is a fun time with great people, but you have to have your priorities in life set straight so that you can dedicate all your spare time to ensure that you succeed in pilot training. As a pilot, you can't study enough. The more you study, the more you learn how much you don't know."

Upon graduation from UPT, pilots are assigned to a specific airframe and begin learning to fly it. There are differing courses and durations of training depending on which airframe a pilot is learning. An F-22 pilot, for example, will complete a 12-week Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals course at either Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, Sheppard Air Force Base, or Columbus Air Force Base, Miss., then go to Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., for F-22-specific training, which is approximately eight months long. Pilots then arrive at their assigned duty station where they begin Mission Qualification Training. Once that is complete, there is a continuous process of upgrade training in place that spans their entire Air Force career, said Air Force Capt. Ryan Sivertsen, 90th FS F-22 Raptor pilot. They never stop training until the day they no longer fly.

"It's all stepping stones," Sivertsen said. "Once you feel like you're starting to learn how to do something, they throw something else at you that you have to learn. You never fully master anything before you're already moving on to the next thing. It's all building blocks."
Sivertsen said being a pilot is not for everyone.

"The best thing is to get some exposure," he said. "Make sure it's actually what you want to do, because it's a lot of work once you get there. You want to be certain that's what you want to do."

Despite all the hard work, long days, sacrifice, studying and never-ending training, you'd still be hard pressed to find an Air Force pilot who would trade his or her job for any other.
"Being an Air Force pilot is an absolute blast," Boston said. "It's a huge commitment but it is well worth it."

For more information on how to commission into the Air Force, contact your base education center or go to