By Wally Miller
Imagine yourself in the seat of a Navy or Marine Corps F/A-18 fighter plane on final approach to an aircraft carrier at 2 a.m. after a combat patrol over some trouble spot halfway around the world. Interested?
Think about it. That really could be you a few years from now!
Or try flying the right seat of a Coast Guard HH-65 Dolphin helicopter suddenly diverted from a drug interdiction mission or oil spill inspection over the Pacific Ocean. Now you're maneuvering for a small-boat rescue off Puget Sound in pitching seas. That family down there is depending on you -- and how well you can fly in the gusty salt spray -- to save them.
As the young aircraft commander of a multimillion-dollar, state-of-the-art glass-cockpit Air Force C-17 transport, your mission might be to deliver food and medicine to famine-wracked Africa. You and your crew plan your own single-ship, 5,000-mile relief flight, conduct the mission, and get into a remote airfield miles from the nearest ground-based navaid. Then you launch as soon as possible and stand by for a satellite radio linkup with instructions to divert somewhere else and do it all over again.
Or how would you like to drive a giant KC-10 refueling tanker, topping off a flight of three F-15s crossing the Atlantic on their way to Italy? Maybe, if you're good enough, you could be holding the stick of one of those F-15s in a couple of years, or even a new F-22 fighter.
Maybe you're already an experienced helicopter CFI. Army rotary-wing flying today is some of the most exciting, demanding, and challenging in the world. Your sights could be set on one day being an instructor at the Army Flight Center in Fort Rucker, Alabama, where many of the world's helicopter pilots are initially trained.
As the school year starts, job forecasts usually range from rosy to disastrous. I started learning to fly in the Air Force and owe my love of aviation to Uncle Sam. After 28 years of military flying and 25 years of general aviation instructing, I'm still learning. After a succession of military cockpits and aviation-related "behind the lines" jobs, I can tell you that the diversity a military aviator can experience will blow your mind, and the training I have received over the years is worth millions of dollars.
There currently are more than 25,000 pilots on active duty with the U.S. military, including the Coast Guard. Aviation is a significant component of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and, of course, the Air Force. Each year, the armed services train more than 3,000 new pilots. Of that number, nearly half come from the services' nonflying ranks or directly off the street.
Most military pilot trainees are (or become) commissioned officers before they begin flight training, although the Army has a unique "high school to flight school" program that allows high school graduates and those who have not yet completed college to receive commissions as warrant officers and enter flight training.
Each service has an officer training or officer candidate school whose mission is to screen and train college graduates to serve as officers in that branch. Many enter pilot training.
Today, far more than in the past, there is combined flight training. The Navy trains Marine Corps and Coast Guard pilots until they receive basic military "wings." The Army provides primary rotary-wing training for the Air Force, then Air Force instructors assigned to Fort Rucker complete the last part of the rotary-wing course with Air Force students. The Air Force and the Navy train a limited number of pilots for each other, and all services train pilots for their allied counterparts.
After varying periods of introductory orientation, primary flight training begins. This initial training is called by different names, but it is similar in objective: to teach basic pilot skills (see table above). At the end of "primary," students are assigned to various tracks for advanced training, depending on their performance in initial training and the needs of the particular service. Although there are different names for these tracks, they focus on specialty areas with such labels as fighter/strike, bomber, multiengine, maritime patrol, helicopter, trainer, and tanker/transport. Each track trains to very specific pilot requirements.
The U.S. Army, of course, has no bombers, fighters, or tanker aircraft, but within the Army helicopter community there are specific assignments that support focused Army missions (attack, support, etc.). These specialties are pursued in advanced training after Army wings are awarded. The Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard use "tracked" systems, tailored to each service's requirements, as standard training before awarding basic pilot wings.
Individual pilots then obtain more experience, either through additional, more specialized training or by going directly into operational units where they serve their initial pilot duty in specific types of aircraft. At the completion of this follow-on operational and mission training, military pilots are declared fully qualified and mission-ready. Then most take their places on the "line."
In addition to active-duty options, many states have Air National Guard and Army National Guard or reserve units that are allocated aircraft and flying positions. Specific flight training slots are assigned to these units, and they select pilot candidates from within for flight training; the pilots return to these units instead of going immediately onto active duty. This is another potential route for those who are willing to compete for those positions, but keep in mind that guard and reserve forces can be-and are-called to active duty in time of national need.
The most traditional route to a military cockpit, of course, is through a service academy or one of the officer training programs (ROTC) associated with a college or university. Many prominent military aviators, including the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the chief of staff of the Air Force, are graduates of ROTC programs at civilian institutions.
In addition to pilot candidates who come from academies, ROTC, or within the services, all branches of the armed forces offer "off the street" opportunities for highly qualified pilots and nonpilots who can meet published physical and mental standards. This year, in-service acceptances and those selected from off-the-street to military pilot training could number nearly a thousand -- and the annual starting pay of about $37,000 isn't bad, especially when combined with military benefits and the best flying training in the world!
Physical standards for military flying are generally high, requiring passage of what is called a Class I physical, but a general aviation pilot in good health with 20/20 vision and no significant waivers should have no qualms about jumping into the fray. Some seemingly minor things that might not occur to you could cause disqualification. Some fighter cockpits, for instance, are designed to tight specifications. A too-tall "sitting height" could disqualify otherwise healthy applicants.
The Air Force, to amplify this example, requires the same physical standards of all of its pilots. Even though large transport aircraft can accommodate larger frames, uniform height standards are applied to all pilots because the type of aircraft a pilot eventually will fly is not determined until well into training. That's why sitting height could be disqualifying for initial pilot qualification. Once in flight school, however, such items usually may be waived, but can influence the track that a pilot pursues.
I remember one airplane for which I couldn't physically qualify because I wear a size 13 shoe (I was already a pilot with a few thousand flying hours). The maximum shoe size for this particular airplane was somewhere around 11. The problem was that the emergency egress/escape procedures for that airplane, the supersonic B-58 Hustler bomber, required encapsulation in a metal ejection pod. Big feet like mine resulted in a little too much toe crunching.
Vision is especially important, particularly for combat pilots; the standards in this area are usually 20/20. The Air Force requires an uncorrected near vision of 20/20, which cannot be waived; distant vision, however, can be 20/70 if correctable to 20/20. Each service's requirements vary. Check with a recruiter.
In addition to good aptitude scores and a passing physical profile, a proven ability to fly (i.e., a pilot certificate) is definitely a plus and increases your odds of selection. The more certificates and ratings that you possess, the better your chances for selection into flight school. Prior or current military service is also a plus for selection.
Assuming test scores comparable to those of other candidates, an applicant with airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates, for instance, might stand a much better chance of selection than one with only a private pilot certificate -- or none at all. The odds of selection will change because the number of pilots accepted off the street varies; chances also vary by service.
A little more than half of the entrants into flight training typically come from the service academies and ROTC units, and these numbers are relatively stable. The remainder is divided among service members who apply for officer training and subsequent flying duty and off-the-street candidates with college degrees who want to fly in the military. The latter take up the slack in times of variable pilot demand, but on average can account for more than 40 percent of the pilots trained each year.
The table on page 30 provides an overview of facts, figures, general information, and opportunities, but it's just a starting point. Each service has Web sites with all sorts of data, and the Department of Defense has a central Web site. Talk with friends and instructors at your FBO or flight school; chances are good that one or more of them learned to fly in the military and will be glad to help point you in the right direction to find out what you want to know. Even better, look in any telephone book for the address and telephone number of your nearest recruiter.
There are several non-government Web sites operated by organizations looking to make a buck. Some of them are badly outdated. Make sure the information you get from these places is accurate by cross-checking it with other sources. And information is constantly changing. Your local recruiter really does have the latest info.
Off-the-street pilot trainees usually begin with a short period of initial military training after their selection, initial recruitment, or accession. Some programs require the service's standard basic training.
Before qualification for entry into pilot training, the Air Force requires a private pilot certificate or, for those tentatively accepted without one, a pilot screening course of approximately 50 flight hours. Screening -- or a private pilot certificate -- are predictors of success in flying training, according to Air Force officials. With screening, the rate of eliminations is much lower.
Once actual flight training formally begins, it usually takes 12 to 14 months before "wings" are awarded. Army helicopter flight training requires only eight to nine months. After "wings" training, each service has programs of advanced operational training specifically tailored to its aircraft, missions, and operational environment.
Military pilots are deployed around the world in both combat and noncombat environments. The amount of flying time available varies widely, depending on missions and circumstances. It would be fair to say, however, that the modern era stresses the air components of all the services. There is plenty of opportunity to gain flying experience and assume responsibility.
It can be easy to get caught up in the thrill of flying and forget the purpose for which our armed forces -- and their air elements -- were formed. Each service has a significant "air arm" that supports the nation by bringing its power to bear anywhere in the world -- through the air.
Military flying is not for everyone. But for those called to serve its objectives, military aviation is the way to go! You'll never know until you investigate the possibilities, opportunities, challenges, and responsibilities.
The active duty service commitment required after flight school may cause some people to think twice about military flying. But consider this perspective: It's the same thing you do when you commit yourself to an airline career. If you decide to embark on an airline career, you voluntarily enter a multiyear "pipeline" that begins in the right seat of a commuter or regional, then the left seat, before moving into the right seat at a major airline.
Even the short-term benefits of military aviation are impressive. Great starting compensation plus benefits, outstanding training, lots of variety, real challenges, and experiences you wouldn't encounter in a thousand years of civilian flying. Take a look. Military flying might be what you've been looking for.
Wally Miller is president of an aviation training, consulting, and marketing firm in Monument, Colorado. He is a Gold Seal CFI who has been instructing for more than 30 years and flying for more than 40.
Links to additional resources about the topics discussed in this article are available at AOPA Online.