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Curious About Military Flying?

So you want to be a professional pilot, and you’re thinking about going the military route?

You’ve probably got a million questions, possibly starting with these:

What does it take to get in?

Do I need prior flight experience?

I don’t have a degree in Aeronautical Engineering. Can I still get through the program?

How dangerous is it compared to civilian training?

What are the other people like that I’d be going through training with?

What is the lifestyle like?

Let’s start at where you are right now – just considering going into the military. I can tell you where I was when I made the decision. It took me six and a half years to get my Bachelor’s degree; partly due to immaturity and partly due to economics. But I’d finally gotten tired of being a college student – full of potential with nothing really to show for my life except the degree. I knew I wanted to be a pilot, but had no idea how to get there. I had always loved military airplanes, made a hundred models of B-17s and A-4s, etc. Didn’t really make a lot of models of Cessna 172s or 737s. Besides, I was somewhat of a non-conformist. During my college career I spent time on both academic and disciplinary probation (sometimes at the same time). So as I pondered my wide-open future, I had an unusual moment of clarity. I didn’t want to turn the horribly ancient age of 30, start to look back on my life, and think “gee, I really wish I would’ve done that when I had the chance.” I decided to go for it. If it didn’t work out, well, then it didn’t work out and that would be just fine. At least I wouldn’t be starting my life wondering and what-if-ing. Good words for just about any phase of life, by the way.

Which brings me to the first question I’d like to answer:

What does it take to get in?

Each service will have their own set of prerequisites (just like all professions), but the basic requirement is that you have a bachelor’s degree. The most important thing is having that four-year degree - not what the degree is in. Getting that little piece of paper is the first indication to the military Selection Board that you are mission-oriented. You are capable of setting a goal, and then achieving it. You can multi-task and adjust priorities. In short, you have discipline - and a little discipline my friends, is one of those things that you need to get yourself from dreams to reality.

However, before you jump in any cockpit and go supersonic in the verticle, the first training that you MUST complete is an Officer Training School. ALL pilots are Commissioned Officers first, and pilots second. Your Recruiting Officer will be looking to place you in a commissioning pathway, with a guaranteed follow-on slot in flight school after your successful completion of Officer Candidate School. This usually takes about 14-16 weeks and is your gateway to military life, usually under the close and personal supervision of a Drill Instructor. What that is like is for another post. The only exception to this would be the US Army, where you do not need a 4-year degree to to be a helicopter pilot. You would be something called a Warrant Officer, which is something between an enlisted person and a Commissioned Officer. The Army would prefer the 4-year degree (and have you be a Commissioned Officer), but it is not necessary.

Do I need prior flight experience?

No, you don’t need prior flight experience. In fact, the military would probably prefer that you not have a whole lot of flight experience going into their program. That way they can train you the way they want you to fly, rather than you having to unlearn some bad habits that you may have already picked up. Now, I’m not saying that prior flight experience doesn’t help – it does to a degree. But there is a quickly diminishing benefit to it. Like I said, the USN or the USAF could care less if you 350 hours and an instrument rating. Walking in with some swagger because you have an advantage over your fellow student pilots won’t win you any friends, and will probably put you in the cross-hairs of your flight instructors. I watched it happen countless times. The military is going to invest several million dollars in your training, with most procedures written in blood, so you’d better be doing it their way right down to the letter - from the very beginning.

I don’t have a degree in Aeronautical Engineering. Can I still get in and get through the program?

Absolutely. The military flight program (all branches) is designed to take a college graduate – ANY college graduate – and teach them how to fly. That means people with anthropology, economics, music, early childhood education, yes – even art majors, should be able to complete the training. Aviation is math intensive, but it’s the basics (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) that you will spend most of your time doing. OK, there are terms like coefficient of lift and Bernoulli’s Principle but they are more concepts that you need to understand, not formulas that you will be expected to regurgitate and apply in the cockpit. If you have good study habits, and some amount of personal discipline to stay focused on taking things one class, one test, or one flight at a time – you will do well.

Is the training more dangerous compared to civilian training?

Yes and no. Yes in that the airplanes you will be flying are more sophisticated, with higher performance, than a Cessna or Cirrus that you might start out in the civilian world. The first airplane you fly, the T-6 Texan II, has a turboprop engine and ejection seats. After about a hundred hours (if you get selected for jets) you would find yourself in the cockpit of a T-45 (transonic) or T-38 (supersonic) advanced jet trainer. In the Navy, after about 200 hours, you would be making your first carrier landing. Sounds more dangerous then flying around the cabbage patch in a Cessna 152 working on your private pilot’s license? Well common sense would say yes, but wait . . .

Depending on the branch of service and the type of equipment you might be flying, the military is going to spend millions on your training - probably anywhere from 2-5 million dollars. This involves the finest aircraft, with the finest instructors, with the finest ground schools and simulators, IN THE WORLD, all in a program that has been continually refined over the last hundred years or so. They know what works and what doesn’t. So while the training might seem accelerated and more dangerous due to the performance of the airplanes, those risks are mitigated due to the much higher quality of training.

Here’s an example. In the Navy, before you make you first carrier arrested landing (that skill that sets you apart from all other aviators on the planet), you will have spent countless hours in a simulator perfecting your skills. These simulators cost millions of dollars are have full visual and full motion capabilities. You will have seen the carrier, felt what it’s like to land on one, hundreds of times before you actually go out and do it in real life. You will also practice it a few hundred times more in the jet doing touch-n-goes at the Naval Air Station that you fly out of. The runway is set up like the flight deck of a carrier. The procedures are exactly the same as what you will use out on the ship. All of this before you ever make your first carrier arrested landing. Like I said – the best training in the world.

What are the other people like that I’d be going through training with?

I remember for me, this was one of the biggies that I was concerned with before I went in the Navy. Would I be surrounded by a bunch of autobots, overly gung-ho, who only wanted to kill people and blow things up? How would a long-haired, slightly counter-culture, political moderate fit in to the huge machinery that was the United States military? Would they de-rez my personality and turn me into a mindless killing machine?

Well, I had a couple of relatives who were in the military, and they seemed OK. The recruiter seemed like a decent enough guy. I swallowed hard, signed on the dotted line to enter the USN Aviation Officer Candidates School in Pensacola, FL, and reported for duty. And much to my surprise and astonishment, I found out that my classmates were . . .

. . . just like me.

To my great relief, everybody seemed to be somewhat well-adjusted, conscientious human-beings. With unique personalities. And faults. And strengths. And fears. And ambitions. In other words, they were pretty normal. Only later, as our training progressed, did I find out just how terrific these individuals really were. My greatest friends came from the military; friends that I might only have the chance to talk to a couple of times a year nowadays, but they are still my greatest friends. Why? Because we shared the thrills, the misery, the BS, the “dark and stormy nights” together, the bonding that only the drudgery and occasional terror together as classmates or squadron-mates can instill.

What is lifestyle like?

This is where you separate yourself from the rest of society. It is most definitely different. You may be moving – a lot – compared to other walks of life. I’ll use the Navy as an example: 4 months of Officer Training in Newport, RI; then 3 months of Aviation Indoctrination in Pensacola, FL; then 6 months of Primary flight training at Pensacola or Corpus Christi, TX; then 1 year of jet training in either Kingsville, TX or Meridian, MS; then you get those coveted Wings of Gold pinned on you and off you go to the Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS) to learn how to fly and fight the airplane that you will be flying out in the Fleet. That training takes about a year, after which you will finally report to your first fleet squadron. Let’s say you get selected to fly F/A-18 Hornets. The west coast squadrons are based in Lemoore, CA and you will be attached to that squadron for 3 years. But during that time you will deploy aboard an aircraft carrier, so half of that 3 years you will be “haze, grey, and underway”.

If you are in the military, you kinda bounce back and forth between home stations and deployments. Then throw in the moves you will making from one command to the next every 2-3 years and you get the picture. Fun if you are single and unattached, and more difficult if you are married and with a family. But doable, nonetheless. It is an adventure, and all adventures include good places/times and not-so-great places/times. However, having your wife be able to fly out and meet you in Singapore during a 5-day port call is something unique in a marriage.

Beyond that there is way too much for me to go into about pay/benefits/intangibles in this posting, but let’s just say that you will never belong to a more close-knit organization in your life. As an Officer, you will be placed in charge of men and women in which your leadership goes beyond just their job performance. You will be responsible for the quality of their lives, including their families. You will at times be a marital counselor, financial counselor, professional counselor, and life coach. If they have problems – they are your problems. The military takes care of their own. No other profession in the world has such a wide scope of responsibilities, or offers such a pathway of satisfaction in the growth and care of the people that work for you and with you. That is what makes you unique and special when compared to the outside professional world. And it is what you will take with you when you leave the military to whatever profession lies beyond.


Lots to think about and ponder as you face a decision like this. Talk to as many people with military experience that you possible can. Don’t be shy. Any of us would be more than willing to spend a little time helping you out, because we were ALL there once. Learn the different branches of military service. They all have their plusses and minuses, and their own unique personality. Look for the one that fits you the best. I will say, that as I “play the back nine” in life, that we regret the things that we didn’t try the most. Trying something and finding out that it is NOT what you want to be doing is just as good as trying and liking it. That question is now answered. Close that door and move on without regret.

Flying for the military is always voluntary. If you choose to leave Officer Candidate School, for example, you are free to return to civilian life. If you don’t finish flight school, you will have the choice to become a Naval Flight Officer (think Goose in Top Gun), or a boat driver (Surface Navy), or any number of choices – all good ones (remember, you are an Officer now) – for any career path after your minimal initial obligation to the military.

Oh yeah, did I mention the Montgomery GI Bill for having your Masters, etc. paid for? 30 days paid vacation? Free health/dental care? A great starting salary? Not having to pick out your clothes before you go to work in the morning? AND . . . flying the world’s greatest aircraft for the world’s greatest military, all while serving the world’s greatest country. It ain’t for everyone, but it is easily one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It could be for you too.

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