How to Become a Fighter Pilot in the Air Force: Requirements & Pilot Training
Get all of the information you'll need to explore a career as a fighter pilot. You'll learn about the educational requirements, the requisite training, the key skills and the salary.
Career Information at a Glance
Fighter pilots fly some of the world's most advanced aircraft, typically for training, reconnaissance or warfare. The United States Air Force looks for candidates with at least a bachelor's degree, advanced flight training and a high level of character. For a brief overview of the fighter pilot profession, take a look at our handy chart.
|Degree Required||Bachelor's degree|
|Education Field of Study||Aviation preferred, not required|
|Training Required||Air Force Academy (AFA), Air Force ROTC or Officer Training School; Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training|
|Key Skills||Physical fitness, leadership, high character|
|Median Salary (2019)||$75,076*|
What's It Like to Be a Fighter Pilot?
While there might not be such a thing as a ''typical'' day for a fighter pilot (this career exists in rarified air), we can give you a basic overview of the day-to-day duties. As a fighter pilot, you'd wake up before first light to start planning the training or mission of the day. This can take a few hours and involves understanding objectives, orchestrating complex navigational plans on a computer and completing a flight briefing with fellow pilots.
You'd then suit up and get airborne, putting the aircraft through several maneuvers, performing fight simulations and logging training hours. Of course, in an actual war, these missions might involve dropping bombs, engaging with the enemy or doing reconnaissance work.
Once you're back on the ground, you'll watch video recordings of everything you did in the sky and analyze them in a debriefing.
What Does It Take to Be a Fighter Pilot?
The requirements for being a fighter pilot are pretty rigorous. First, you can't be colorblind; you have to have 20/20 vision, and you can't have a history of allergies or other conditions that include asthma and hay fever. When standing, you have to have a height between 5'5'' and 6'4'' and, when sitting, you're required to be between 34 to 40 inches tall. You must also hold a bachelor's degree.
You'll be eligible to begin pilot training from the time you turn 18 until you turn 29. You'll also have to demonstrate a high level of character to be considered. To be in the Air Force, you have to pass the USAF Physical Fitness Test, but to be a fighter pilot, you'll have to undergo the even more difficult Fighter Aircrew Conditioning Test as well.
What's the Training Like for Fighter Pilots?
In addition to meeting all of these prerequisites, aspiring fighter pilots in the Air Force must complete an officer training program. Options include attending the Air Force Academy or completing specialized training through the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) while in college. Aspiring pilots can also complete Officer Training School (OTS) once they join the Air Force.
The next phase is to go through Air Force Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training. Pilots start with academics training and learn to fly the T-6 aircraft. Then they can choose a track - T-38s (fighter track), T-1s (heavy track) or helicopters.
How Much Do Fighter Pilots Make?
The most reliable source for salary information, the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, doesn't provide specific data for fighter pilots. However, according to Payscale.com, fighter pilots in the U.S. Air Force make a median salary of $75,076 as of November 2019. Like much of the military, pilots get free housing on a base or a housing allowance, plus health care. In addition, fighter pilots can receive retention bonuses for staying in the service.
What's the Job Outlook for Fighter Pilots?
The BLS doesn't offer job outlook data for non-civilian careers, but according to the publication Military Times, there's a severe shortage of fighter pilots. In other words, the jobs are there, but the pilots to fill them aren't. To fight this shortage, the military is extending deployments and offering more retention pay. There isn't hard data to point to future trends, but a shortage could mean that the jobs will be there for officers who meet the rigorous training requirements.