Military pilots fly various types of specialized aircraft to transport troops and equipment and to execute combat missions. Military aircraft make up of one of the world’s largest fleets of specialized airplanes. The U.S. Armed Forces are composed of five separate military services: the army, air force, marines, navy, and coast guard (which is now part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security). Pilots within these branches train, organize, and equip the nation’s air services to support the national and international policies of the government.
Those who choose to join the armed forces dedicate their lives to protecting their fellow Americans. More than 2.6 million people served in the Armed Forces in 2005, and 1.4 million of these were on active duty. There are approximately 16,000 airplane pilots and 6,500 helicopter pilots in the military.
Military Pilot Career History
The air service grew from somewhat unusual beginnings. The Civil War marked the first use of aircraft in the U.S. military, when a balloon corps was attached to the Army of the Potomac. In 1892, a formal Balloon Corps was created as part of the army’s Signal Corps. By 1907, a separate Aeronautical Division was created within the army. Air power proved invaluable a few years later during World War I, bringing about major changes in military strategy. As a result, the United States began to assert itself as an international military power, and accordingly, the Army Air Service was created as an independent unit in 1918, although it remained under army direction for a time.
With the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, America was plunged into World War II. At its height, 13 million Americans fought in the different branches of the military services. When the war ended, the United States emerged as the strongest military power in the Western world. A large part of America’s military success was due to the superiority of its air forces. Recognition of the strategic importance of air power led to the creation of the now wholly independent branch of service, the U.S. Air Force, in 1947. Two years later, the various branches of military service were unified under the Department of Defense.
Since then, military pilots have played an integral role during the Cold War, Korean War, the Vietnam Way, the Persian Gulf War, and countless smaller skirmishes and engagements, as well as in noncombat and peacekeeping situations.
Reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, suddenly changed the role of the military from a peacekeeping force to an aggressor in the attempt to destroy the strongholds and training camps of terrorists around the world. President Bush said the war against terrorism would likely be a sustained effort over a long period of time. U.S. troops, warships, and dozens of fighter planes were deployed to south-central Asia and the Middle East and air and ground strikes began. In addition to military action, the administration planned to use diplomatic, law enforcement, and financial strategies against those believed responsible for the attacks.
Military Pilot Job Description
Military pilots operate many different jet and propeller planes. Aircraft range from combat airplanes and helicopters, to supersonic fighters and bombers. In addition to actually flying aircraft, military pilots are also responsible for developing flight plans; checking weather reports; briefing and directing all crew members; and performing system operation checks to test the proper functioning of instrumentation, controls, and electronic and mechanical systems on the flight deck. They also are responsible for coordinating their takeoffs and landings with airplane dispatchers and air traffic controllers. At times, military pilots may be ordered to transport equipment and personnel, take reconnaissance photographs, spot and observe enemy positions, and patrol areas to carry out flight missions. After landing, military pilots must follow “afterlanding and shutdown” checklist procedures, and inform maintenance crews of any discrepancies or other problems noted during the flight. They must also present a written or oral flight report to their commanding officer.
Military aviation specialties include flight navigators or radar technicians, who use radio, radar, and other equipment to help military pilots determine aircraft position and determine its route of travel, and flight instructors, who teach flight students how to fly via classroom training and inflight instruction.
Opportunities as a military pilot are available in all five branches of the U.S. Armed Services. The following paragraphs detail these opportunities by military branch.
Although the army is best known for its land-based occupations, it also employs military pilots to serve in combat, rescue, and reconnaissance settings. Army pilots are classified under the warrant officer designation along with other skilled experts in nonaviation fields.
The air force has the largest number of military pilots. These pilots work in a variety of specialty areas including bombers, airlifts, special operations, surveillance, and navigation. Specific job titles in this branch of the military include air battle managers, airlift pilots and navigators, bomber pilots and navigators, fighter pilots and navigators, reconnaissance/surveillance/electronic warfare pilots and navigators, special operations pilots and navigators, and tanker pilots and navigators.
Marine aviation officers provide air support for ground troops during battle. They also transport equipment and personnel to various destinations.
Pilots in the navy are called naval flight officers. Unlike other military pilots, they take off and land their airplanes on both land bases and aircraft carriers. Depending on their specialty, they receive advanced training in air-to-air combat, bombing, search and rescue, aircraft carrier qualifications, over-water navigation, and low-level flying. Naval flight officer specialties include turboprop maritime propeller pilots, who track submarines, conduct surveillance, and gather photographic intelligence, and navy helicopter pilots, who search for underwater supplies, deliver supplies and personnel, and participate in emergency search and rescue missions.
The U.S. Coast Guard is the only armed force in the United States with domestic law enforcement authority. Nearly 800 aviators at 28 air stations enforce federal laws and treaties and conduct military operations to safeguard the American homeland.
Military Pilot Career Requirements
You will need at least a high school degree in order to join the armed forces, and a college-preparatory curriculum is recommended. High school courses in science, mathematics, physics, computers, and physical education will be the most helpful. It’s also a good idea to take a foreign language, which may expand your job opportunities. To enter the military, you must be at least 17 years old. Applicants who are age 17 must also have the consent of a parent or legal guardian.
A four-year college degree is usually required to become a military pilot. Courses in engineering, meteorology, computer science, aviation law, business management, and military science are especially helpful. Physical education courses will also be important, as your physical health and endurance levels will constantly be challenged in the military.
There are several paths that you can choose from to get your postsecondary education. You may want to attend one of the four service academies: the U.S. Air Force Academy (for the air force), the U.S. Military Academy (for the army), the U.S. Naval Academy (for the navy and the marines), or the U.S. Coast Guard Academy (for the coast guard). Competition to enter these institutions is intense. You will need to have a very strong academic background, involvement in community activities, and leadership experiences. Most applicants also need a nomination from an authorized source, which is usually a member of the U.S. Congress. If you choose one of these four academies, you will graduate with a bachelor’s degree. You are then required to spend a minimum of five years on active duty, beginning as a junior officer.
Another option is to attend a four-year school that has a Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program. Most state-supported colleges and universities have aviation programs, as do many private schools. Some schools focus solely on aviation education, such as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and The University of North Dakota’s Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.
Each branch of the Armed Services has specific training requirements for its military pilots. Training in all branches will include flight simulation, classroom training, and basic flight instruction. For more information on specific requirements, contact a recruiter for the branch in which you are interested in entering.
Certification or Licensing
The military does not offer certification or licensing for military pilots. During the advanced portion of your civilian flight training, though, you must pass the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) guidelines and regulations. If you hope to someday transfer your military skills to a similar job in the civilian sector (for example, with a commercial airline), you may need additional training and/or certification or licensing.
Stable physical and emotional health is essential for the aspiring pilot. Military pilots are expected to remain calm and levelheaded, no matter how stressful the situation. The physical requirements of this profession are very strict—you must have 20/20 vision with or without glasses, good hearing, normal heart rate and blood pressure, and no physical handicaps that could hinder performance.
You should have quick decision-making skills and reflexes to be a successful pilot. Decisiveness, self-confidence, good communication skills, and the ability to work well under pressure are also important personality traits. You should maintain an adaptable and flexible lifestyle, as your orders, missions, and station may change at any time.
Although military pilot careers are available to both men and women, some combat positions are only open to men.
Exploring Military Pilot Career
Military recruiters often visit high schools, so be sure to take advantage of this opportunity to learn more about this field. Take a tour of a military base or an aircraft carrier if you get the chance. Talk with family and friends who have served in the Armed Forces to get advice and information.
To get a real feel for what it’s like to be a military pilot, check out one of several air combat schools that exist throughout the country. Through such programs, you can experience the cockpit of a fighter plane alongside an instructor, and even experience “dogfighting” in the sky. Air Combat USA, which is one such program, operates out of 32 airports nationwide.
Military pilots are employed by the U.S. government. More than 2.6 million people served in the Armed Forces in 2005. There are approximately 16,000 airplane pilots and 6,500 helicopter pilots in the military.
Once you’ve decided to become a military pilot, you should contact a military recruiter. The recruiter will help answer questions and suggest different options. To start out in any branch of the military, you must pass medical and physical tests, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery exam, and basic training. You must also sign an enlistment contract. This is a legal agreement that will bind you to a certain amount of military service, usually eight years. Active duty comprises two to six years of this agreement, and the remainder is normally spent in the reserves.
Each military branch has 10 officers’ grades (O-1 through O-10). The higher the number is, the more advanced a person’s rank is. The various branches of the military have somewhat different criteria for promoting individuals; in general, however, promotions depend on factors such as length of time served, demonstrated abilities, recommendations, and scores on written exams. Promotions become more and more competitive as people advance in rank.
Military pilots may train for different aircraft and missions. Eventually, they may advance to senior officer or command positions. Military pilots with superior skills and training may advance to the position of astronaut. Astronauts pilot the space shuttle on scientific and defense-related missions.
Congress sets the pay scales for the military after hearing recommendations from the president. The pay for equivalent grades is the same in all services (that is, anyone with a grade of 0-4, for example, will have the same basic pay whether in the army, navy, marines, air force, or coast guard). In addition to basic pay, personnel who frequently and regularly participate in combat may earn hazardous duty pay. Other special allowances include special duty pay and foreign duty pay. Earnings start relatively low but increase on a fairly regular basis as individuals advance in rank. When reviewing earnings, it is important to keep in mind that members of the military receive free housing, food, and health care—items that civilians typically pay for themselves.
All military pilots serve as officers in their respective branches. According to the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, officers starting out at a grade of O-1 received basic monthly pay of $2,343 in 2004. This would make for an annual salary of approximately $28,123. An officer with the grade O-5 and more than four years of experience earned $5,021 per month, or approximately $60,256 per year. An officer with the top grade of O-10 and more than 20 years of experience had monthly basic earnings of $12,963, or approximately $155,556 annually.
Additional benefits for military workers include uniform allowances, 30 days of paid vacation time per year, and the opportunity to retire after 20 years of service. Generally, those retiring will receive 40 percent of the average of the highest three years of their base pay. This amount rises incrementally, reaching 75 percent of the average of the highest three years of base pay after 30 years of service. All retirement provisions are subject to change, however, and you should verify them as well as current salary information before you enlist. Military pilots who retire after 20 years of service are usually in their 40s and thus have plenty of time, as well as an accumulation of skills, with which to start a second career as a civilian pilot or in a related field.
The work environment for military pilots is rewarding, varied, and sometimes stressful. Pilots may be assigned to one or more air bases around the world. They may take off and land on aircraft carriers, at conventional airports, in desert conditions under fierce fire from the enemy, or in countless other settings. They may fly the same routes for extended periods of time, but no two flights are ever the same. Military pilots can expect excitement and the chance to see the world, but they are responsible for the safety and protection of others.
Military Pilot Career Outlook
The outlook for military workers, including military pilots, is expected to be good through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Approximately 170,000 new enlistees and officers must join annually to fill vacated spots. In recent years some branches, such as the navy, have fallen short of meeting their recruitment goals, and opportunities in these branches are even more plentiful than the average. While political and economic conditions will have an influence on the military’s duties and employment outlook, it is a fact that the country will always need military pilots, both for defense and to protect its interests and citizens around the world.