Overview of Air Force Aircrew Careers

In today’s gigantic, technically sophisticated military, not all soldiers are guaranteed the chance to fire a shot in anger (especially if they’ve got a desk job.) Likewise, not all airmen will necessarily set foot on an airplane other than as a passenger. If you’re seeking career skills as part of an in-flight crew, or just looking for adventure in the “wild blue yonder,” you’ll need to guarantee yourself an Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC) in the Aircrew Operations Field. This article is the first of two highlighting careers in that field.

Education

Unless otherwise stated, all careers below require at least a high school diploma. Aerial Gunner is the only occupation here that may also be open to recruits with a GED, according to Air Force regulations. But if you don't have a diploma, play it safe and check with an Air Force recruiter, since the acceptance of GEDs can change depending on the Air Force's current personnel needs.

Military Requirements

All aircrew jobs require specific medical clearances for aviation duty, and all except Flight Attendant require normal depth perception. Background checks are also required for all aircrew members for various levels of security clearance, due to their access to sensitive materials, so keep an eye on your credit report. 

01
Flight Engineer

Two pilots working controls in a KC-135
Tyler Stableford / Getty Images

Today’s large aircraft are too complicated for just one or two pilots to keep an eye on everything. A dizzying variety of aircraft systems need to be monitored and maintained, and it isn't practical to bring along all the mechanics for the ride. That’s why enlisted flight engineers have to hop aboard. According to the Air Force’s Enlisted Classification Manual, they oversee the safe functioning of “electric, communication, navigation, hydraulic, pneudraulic, fuel, air conditioning, and pressurization; ventilation; auxiliary power unit; and lubrication systems.” That's a long list of duties and flight engineers are really expected to be jacks of all trade.

Education: The Air Force recommends those with a background in high school mechanics and mathematics courses. The two-month Basic Flight Engineer Course can be taken at Kirtland Air Force Base (AFB) New Mexico, Lackland AFB Texas, or Fairchild AFB in Washington State.

Military Requirements: Secret Security Clearance.

02
Aircraft Loadmaster

Air Force cargo plane
  Timm Ziegenthaler / Getty Images 

Here’s a member of the crew whose job is much more exciting than it sounds. The aircraft loadmaster makes sure cargo loads on planes like the C-17 Globemaster are within weight limits and are distributed properly (since tipping the plane on its side should be the pilot’s job, not the cargo’s.) Loadmasters also operate forklifts and other loading equipment and perform pre- and post-flight checks.

What is most fun about the loadmaster’s role in airdrops? When it comes time to deliver supplies to the troops—without ever touching the ground—loadmasters are in charge of strapping parachutes to giant pallets of material and sliding them out the back of the plane on a carefully rigged rail system. It’s like being the guy who pushes paratroopers out the door, except the paratroopers are giant crates of food and ammunition. Heads up!

Education: Mathematics and general science backgrounds are recommended. A three-month Aircraft Loadmaster Course is provided either at Lackland AFB or Fairchild AFB.​

Military Requirements: Secret Security Clearance.

03
Flight Attendant

Air Force plane
  cweimer4 / Getty Images 

The Air Force operates several military adaptations of commercial passenger planes, such as the C-20 Gulfstream, in which flight attendants provide for passenger safety, comfort, and meals. They often cater to military passengers, as well as military retirees and family members on "Space Available" flights. These folks are also the crew on VIP flights like Air Force One—a coveted duty assignment reserved only for the cream of the crop in the field.

Education: Recommended background courses are home economics, customer service, and speech. Military training starts with about a month and a half at Lackland for Aircrew Undergraduate Course and Basic Flight Attendant Course, followed by Combat Survival Training and Water Survival, 19 days total, at Fairchild AFB.

Military Requirements: This job is only open to those already serving in the Air Force who are at least 21 years old. A Top Secret Clearance, good speaking abilities, and a government vehicle operator license (obtained in the service rather than at the DMV) are all prerequisites.

04
Aerial Gunner

Aerial Gunner with machine gun pointed out of the open side door of an aircraft.
  Stocktrek Images / Getty Images 

Riflemen of the sky, aerial gunners bring the fire from above in some impressive flying machines, such as the AC-130 Gunship and the MH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter. The handiwork of AC-130 gunners in the War on Terror became quite popular in YouTube videos. Gunners also maintain the weapons in case of inflight malfunction and assist with other flight crew functions and safety briefs as needed.

Education: A mechanical and electrical course background in high school is recommended. Airmen attend the two-and-a-half-month Basic Aerial Gunner Course at Lackland, Fairchild, Pensacola FL, or Kirtland.

Military Requirements: Gunners must have normal color vision and be eligible for a Secret Security Clearance.

05
Airborne Operations (Battle Management Systems) Technician

CGI of 3 air force fighter jets flying in formation
  aapsky / Getty Images

In flying battle fortresses like the AC-130 gunship, Airborne Operations technicians use radar, communications, and other systems to coordinate the fight. You’re most likely hearing the Airborne Operations tech over the radio, telling the gunners which targets are friend and foe, which are off-limits due to the rules of engagement (like the mosque), and coordinating with mission control for to-the-minute updates of the tactical situation on the ground.

Education: Diploma or GED with 15 college credits. After basic training, the Airborne Battle Management Systems Course at Lackland lasts 28 days.

Military Requirements: Secret Security Clearance.

06
Airborne Mission Systems (Communications and Electronics) Operator

The Blue Angels flying in formation
Samdiesel / Getty Images 

 ​These C-130 crewmembers, known as Airborne Mission Systems operators, are responsible for keeping up electronic communication networks and equipment, including “radio, audio, distribution, data, cryptologic, satellite communications, multiplex, electronic warfare (EW), intercept, analysis, recording, broadcasting, imaging, and computer equipment,” according to the Air Force Enlisted Classification Manual. In short, they’re the IT department of the sky. That’s not just a clever turn of phrase: The Community College of the Air Force offers a degree program in Information Systems Technology that they recommend to airmen in this specialty.

Education: High school diploma or GED with 15 college credits. Physics, math, and computer science backgrounds in high school are helpful. Entry-level technical training is delivered in a seven-month course at Lackland Air Force Base (AFB) TX, Fairchild AFB WA, or Tinker AFB OK.

Military Requirements: Secret Security Clearance. Normal color vision.

07
In-Flight Refueling Technicians

A fighter jet closing in on the refueling nozzle from a tanker in mid-air.
  guvendemir / Getty Images 

In-flight refueling technicians are the gas attendants of the sky. They man KC-135 Stratotankers—maintaining the onboard equipment, keeping track of the refueling craft’s weight and load, and coordinating with the pilot who is getting gassed up to make sure he or she stays in position. (On that note, ever seen someone leave the pump in their car and drive off? We imagine the consequences are a lot direr for all parties when an F-18 flies off with the pump.)

Education: Here, again, the Air Force likes to see students of physics and math coming out of high school. Twenty-eight days of initial job training are provided at Lackland.

Military Requirements: Top Secret Security Clearance and normal depth perception.

08
Airborne Cryptologic Linguist

Military flying refueling tanker fueling two fighter jets in a cloudy sky.
  fhm / Getty Images 

Not all military aircraft are for fighting or transport. Surveillance craft also cruises the skies and listen in on enemy communications. Problem is, we’re not likely to go to war with someone who speaks English unless we time-travel back to 1776. And despite how fun Maverick and Goose made it look to “keep up international relations” with a tactically deployed middle finger in Top Gun, that just doesn’t cut it when you need to gather actionable intelligence. Hence, the Air Force has crew members aboard its surveillance craft who monitor enemy frequencies and keep their trained ears peeled for clues in the enemy’s native tongue.

Interestingly, this job—unlike earthbound Army interpreter/translators—doesn’t require fluency in any particular language to start with. As the Air Force’s recruiting website states, “Persian Farsi, Chinese, Russian, Pashtu, Japanese and Korean are just some of the languages you can learn as an Airborne Cryptologic specialist.” 

Education: Diploma or a GED with 15 college credits. The Air Force prefers students with coursework in foreign languages, math, keyboarding, and computers. Military training at Lackland, Goodfellow AFB TX, or in Monterey CA can last anywhere from 8 to 23 weeks. “Why so long,” you ask? Well, how fast can you learn a new language?

Military Requirements: This is an intelligence job, so you’ll also need to qualify for a Top Secret Security Clearance. Last but not least, you must be able to type at least 25 words per minute.

Medically speaking, airborne linguists must have “[n]o record or history of temporomandibular joint pain or disorder” per the Enlisted Classification Manual. (In layman’s terms, you need to be able to talk a lot).

Even though fluency isn’t required, new applicants must take the Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB) in addition to the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) and show sufficient language-learning potential. If you’re already fluent in a language the Air Force desires, of course, you get a pass on that.