Many young people ask, “How do I become a US Air Force pilot?”

Like most things in life, there is no single path to achieving a goal, and earning your wings is no different. Each possible course to that particular end is long, challenging, and very competitive. In this multi-part series, I will examine the most common routes individuals take to earn their pilot wings and investigate exactly what it takes to get into an Air Force cockpit.

Part 1: An Overview

The first step to becoming an Air Force pilot is to earn a commission as an officer in the US Air Force. The United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) in Colorado Springs, Colorado, is the primary commissioning source for the Air Force officer corps.

However, several other sources for earning a commission exist, including the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC), Officer Training School (OTS), other service academies (West Point, Naval Academy, and Merchant Marine Academy), and training programs in the Air National Guard (ANG) and the Air Force Reserves (AFR).

A bachelor’s degree is not just a pre-requisite but a significant milestone on your journey to earning a commission. Individuals attending USAFA, AFROTC, or other service academies secure their degree as part of the program.

Those entering OTS or ANG/AFR training must arrive with their bachelor’s degree already complete, underscoring the importance of academic qualifications in this field.

USAFA graduation ceremony
The US Air Force Thunderbirds roar overhead as the USAFA Class of 2014 graduates during commencement exercises. (DVIDS)

After earning a commission as a Second Lieutenant, the next step is earning a pilot training slot, formally known as USAF Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training (SUPT). To be eligible for SUPT, individuals must pass an Air Force Flight Physical to be physically Pilot Qualified (PQ).

While not the only physical requirement to be qualified, the most often discussed area is vision. Contrary to popular belief, individuals don’t need a perfect 20/20 vision to be PQ. Vision only needs to be correctable to 20/20 with eyeglasses or corrective surgery (LASIK or photo-refractive keratectomy) performed by an Air Force ophthalmologist. One word of caution, though – any corrective surgery not performed by an Air Force ophthalmologist will result in an automatic physical disqualification. Keep in mind that there are other vision tests, such as colorblindness and depth perception, which must be passed in order to be PQ.