How to Become an Air Force Pilot

Image by Tim Liedtke. © The Balance 2019 

Becoming an Air Force pilot is no easy task. If you make it, you will be among the elite of the elite in the United States armed services.

Here’s what you need to do if you’re going to try to reach this lofty goal, from age and education to physical condition and flight school training.

Education

Aircraft pilot conducts pre-flight checks.
Stacy L. Pearsall/Aurora/Getty Images

To qualify as an Air Force pilot, you need at least a bachelor’s degree from a civilian college or university or the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The Air Force prefers a degree in the sciences, such as aerospace engineering, physics, computer science, or chemistry. To be competitive, you will need to have a high grade point average, generally 3.4 or above.

Candidates with civilian flight training, such as a private pilot's license, tend to have an edge with the selection board.

You also must be between the ages of 18 and 28. Aspiring pilots must appear before the military board that commissions officers before turning 29 and must enter flight training before turning 30. Age waivers are possible in some cases up to age 35.

Rank You Need

You must be an officer, commissioned at the rank of second lieutenant. There are a few ways to accomplish this:

Citizenship

You must be a citizen of the United States to become an Air Force pilot. If you are not a citizen but are in the military, your service gives you a leg up on the citizenship ladder.

If you’re not yet a citizen, you can apply to become one as soon as you enlist. Normally, you’d have to be a legal permanent resident for five years before applying, but an expedited process for members of the military was put in place in 2002. 

Aptitude Testing

You’ll need to earn a score of at least 25 on the pilot portion and a combined score of 50 on the pilot-navigator portions of the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test.

This is an aptitude test similar to the SAT. The test is divided into 12 sections and measures your academic aptitude, verbal, and mathematical ability, and personality traits.

Physical Condition

As part of your evaluation, you’ll be subjected to a battery of physical, psychological, and background tests, including a Flying Class I physical.

Aspiring pilots must be at least 5 feet 4 inches tall, but no more than 6 feet 5 inches tall, and they cannot be overweight. Their seated height must be between 34 and 40 inches.

Vision can be no worse than 20/40 in either eye for near vision and 20/200 for distant vision and must be corrected to 20/20.

If you’re color blind, have poor depth perception, or have had laser eye surgery, you’ll be disqualified. Other disqualifications include a history of hay fever, asthma, or allergies after the age of 12.

Flight School

If you’re among the select few, you’ll undergo training in two stages at the Air Education and Training Command based at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio. This includes:

  • Introductory flight training. The program consists of 25 hours of hands-on flying for ROTC or Officer Training School graduates who don’t already have a civilian pilot’s license. Civilian flight instructors teach the introductory course using a small, single-engine, propeller-driven plane. You must fly solo at least once before you’ve reached the 17th hour of required flying time. You’ll also receive 25 hours of classroom instruction in flight techniques.
  • Specialized undergraduate pilot training. This year-long program consists of 10- to 12-hour days of classroom instruction, simulator training, and flying. You’ll learn basic flight skills common to all military pilots at one of three sites: Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi, Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas, or Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma. Next, you’ll follow one of four advanced training tracks based on your class standing and learn how to fly a specific type of aircraft, such as the T-1 Jayhawk or the T-38 Talon.