Steps to becoming a fighter pilot
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.
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.
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. 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