A question I hear from a lot of young people is, “How do I become a U.S. Air Force pilot?”

As with 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 at 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 United States Air Force. The United State Air Force Academy (USAFA) in Colorado Springs, Colorado is the primary commissioning source for the Air Force officer corps. There are several other sources for earning a commission, to include Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC), Officer Training School (OTS), other service academies (West Point, Annapolis and the Merchant Marine Academy), in addition to training programs in the Air National Guard (ANG) and the Air Force Reserves (AFR).

A bachelor’s degree is a prerequisite to earning a commission. Individuals attending USAFA, AFROTC or the 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.

The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds fly the Delta formation
The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds fly the Delta formation May 28, 2014, over Falcon Stadium during the U.S. Air Force Academy graduation ceremony. The flyover marks the first return of the Thunderbirds to Colorado Springs since sequestration last year. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr.)

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 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.

Once PQ, all Air Force pilot candidates attend Initial Flight Screening (ISF) in Pueblo, Colorado. During the 40 days of ISF, candidates fly 25 hours in the Diamond Aircraft DA-20. The training culminates in a check-ride requiring the candidate to demonstrate proficiency in approximately 20 basic flight maneuvers.

A Diamond DA-20 aircraft awaits students
A Diamond DA-20 aircraft awaits students of the Air Force’s new Initial Flight Screening program on the flightline of Pueblo Memorial Airport in Pueblo, Colo. Currently, 10 aircraft are on site — a number that is planned to increase to 44 as the Air Force phases in IFS completely over the next two years. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech Sgt. Mike Hammond)

SUPT training assignments are awarded based on merit using a combination of academic, military and athletic performance during commissioning, in addition to flight performance during IFS. The number of SUPT training slots varies year to year based on the needs of the Air Force.

On average, the Air Force trains 800-1,000 new pilots each year. As an example, the USAFA Class of 2013 graduated 1,035 new Second Lieutenants, of which 432 went to SUPT. The balance of those 800-1,000 SUPT slots were filled with graduates from AFROTC, OTS, officers “cross commissioning” from other service academies, and the ANG/AFR. The ANG and AFR have a slightly different and separate process for awarding their SUPT training slots, which will be covered later.

Once selected, student pilots attend SUPT at one of five pilot training bases: Columbus AFB, MS; Laughlin AFB, TX; Vance AFB, OK; Sheppard AFB, TX and NAS Whiting Field, FL. SUPT is approximately 12 months long and consists of three phases:

  • Phase 1: Academics
  • Phase 2: Primary Aircraft Training
  • Phase 3: Advanced Aircraft Training

Phase 1 Academics is six weeks of classroom study covering everything from aircraft systems to basic instrument flying procedures. Following Academics, student pilots move to the flight line and start Phase 2. Over the next 22 weeks, student pilots fly a total of 90 hours in a Beechcraft T-6 Texan II while learning basic flight maneuvers/aerobatics (contact), basic instrument flying and basic 2-ship formation flying.

Student and Instructor run pre-flight checks
VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. –Student pilot 2nd Lt. Grant Webber and instructor pilot Lt. Col. Mike Jansen perform pre-flight checks on a T-6 Texan aircraft at Vance AFB, Okla. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Staff Sgt. Brian Hill)

At the completion of Phase 2, student pilots select one of four different Phase 3 training tracks. Those selecting the fighter/bomber track go on to fly the Northrop T-38 Talon, the airlift/tanker track the Raytheon T-1A Jayhawk, the multi-engine turbo prop track the Beechcraft TC-12B Huron/T-44 Pegasus, and the helicopter track the Bell UH-1H Huey. Selection is again based on merit and the needs of the Air Force. In the simplest terms, the student pilots in a SUPT class are ranked base on academic, flight and military performance. Then the number one student pilot gets his or her first choice of the available tracks, then the number two student chooses and so on.

From left: A T-38 Talon, T-6A Texan II, and a T-1 Jayhawk
From left: A T-38 Talon, T-6A Texan II, and a T-1 Jayhawk are posed in front of the base control tower on the Vance flightline. (Courtesy photo)

Phase 3 is approximately 24-28 weeks long, during which student pilots log 100 plus hours learning more advanced formation and instrument flying skills in addition to more mission-specific aircraft maneuvers. Just prior to the completion of Phase 3, students receive their operational aircraft or Major Weapons System (MWS) assignment. Once again, these assignments are based on merit and the needs of the Air Force. Upon finishing Phase 3, students are awarded the official Air Force Aeronautical Rating of “Pilot” and receive their silver pilot wings. The cost of SUPT is close to $1,000,000 per student. To insure that the Air Force gets their money’s worth, pilots incur a 10 year Active Duty Service Commitment effective the day they finish training and pin on their wings.

Brand new pilots then move on to complete additional training, such as Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) training, water survival and, in the case of those going to on to fly fighters, Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals (IFF). With that training compete, pilots go to their MWS Replacement Training Unit (RTU) for an additional 3-6 months of training, where they learn to fly their assigned aircraft before moving on to their permanent duty station.


In the subsequent segments of “The Road To Wings” I will cover all of the above in much greater detail. Next up? Commissioning sources for the Air Force, starting with “The Zoo”–the U.S. Air Force Academy and a look at cadet life in Colorado Springs.