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How to become a pilot in the U.S. Military

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posted on Feb, 28 2005 @ 11:55 PM
Okay, I am bored and feel like writing, but I was thinking a lot of people don't realize that to become a pilot in the U.S. military (jet pilot even) does not mean you have to go through the Academies. There are a lot of methods and they differ.


To become a pilot in the U.S. Army, there are multiple ways, but there are two types of pilot.

Warrant Officer: Warrant Officers in the U.S. military are specialized technical experts who focus their military career on specializing in a specific technical area, rather than assuming leadership positions as they advance through rank. To become a Warrant Officer, with the exception of pilot, you must join as an enlisted member and prove yourself a good military member, then you can apply to Warrant Officer Candidate School (WOCS) later on.

The only Warrant Officer job in the Army that allows one to go straight to WOCS is that of pilot. It is called the "High School to Flight-School" program, but it is not easy per se. It is better if you have a college degree first, though you still can apply right out of high school.

Commissioned Officer: Commissioned officers in the Army are also pilots, however, unlike in the Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, in the Army, Warrant Officers do the majority of the flying. WOs specialize in flying throughout their entire career; it is the majority of what they do, whereas commissioned officers, even though they fly, have to take up more advanced positions of leadership in the Army as they advance in rank. Higher leadership = more paperwork = less time flying. Now, that doesn't mean that WOs don't get leadership positions as well to an extent, but not in the same way a commissioned officer will.

To become a Warrant Officer pilot, there are two ways: (1), enlist in the Army and then apply to WOCS, or (2) submit a packet for the contract where you go to WOCS right after Basic Training ("High School to Flight School"). One thing that is a pain is the recruiter will most likely tell you you must go in enlisted first, then apply to WOCS. The reason for this is because it is a HUGE pain in the butt for the recruiter to do all the paperwork to submit a packet for you for WOCS. They get virtually no credit really; the recruiter's job is to get enlisted personnel. My father was a recruiter in the Army and he told me he even told the other recruiters to tell potential recuits this, as the recruiter needs enlisted folk, not being burdened with a WOCS packet. But you just have to bug the recruiter and make a firm stance that the "High School to Flight School" is the ONLY thing you want.

To become a Commissioned Officer, there are three ways: (1) Go to the United States Military Academy at West Point, which you can apply to straight out of High School OR you could go in enlisted first and then, if you do very well, apply to West Point too (but I think that is if you have not already attended college yet). You can apply to West Point from other colleges too I believe. **On a side note, if you want to be a Warrant Officer, the Army has programs to provide funding for enlisted men to go to college, then you could apply for WOCS. Or you can apply to WOCS regardless. Just college makes your packet more competitive.**

The second option (2) is Army ROTC. This is where the Army gets most of its officers from. Basically you go to college, but you participate in military drills and so forth, and take military science classes. You can get a scholarship to fund college as well. You then serve in the military as an Army Officer.

The third option (3) is Army OCS (Officer Candidates School). This you can apply to if you are a college graduate or nearing completion of college. It throws you officer training into approx. 10 weeks of training, then you are commissioned. You would then go to Basic Training for your "soldier training."

The Warrant Officer program is the only one that will guarantee you to go to flight school if you apply to it. If you become a Commissioned Officer through West Point, ROTC, or OCS, you could apply for aviation and end up in artillery. Where as with WOCS, if you apply for flight school and get rejected, then you are just rejected. You can apply again and again until accepted. This goes for the High School to Flight School program and for enlisted personnel applying. Some guys had to apply for 8 years before getting in.

Army Aviation is mostly rotary-wing aircraft, with very few fixed-wing aircraft and NO jets. The helicopters they use primarily are the UH-60 Blackhawk, the AH-64D Longbow Apache, the AH-1W (I think) Cobra, the MH-53 Pavehawk (I think), the Kiowa Scout chopper, and the, umm.....CRAP, I forget its name, but it is the tandem rotor helicopter (the one with two sets of rotors, a big cargo-hauler). There are also some helos they use that I am forgetting I think. As to WHAT you'll fly, that is determined by your grades, your selection, and of course needs of the Army.

If you want to go to the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), well, that is the top 5 percent of Army aviation, so basically be a damn-good pilot for a few years, then hopefully someone may recommend you or you can go to the SOAR itself and hope they'll screen you, then you basically learn a whole lot more about flying. The 160th flies in everything from Rangers to SEALS to Delta. If you wish to fly Blackhawks for the 160th, but that isn't your current aircraft, I believe you can become a Blackhawk pilot in the 160th from another aircraft, but in general, I think if you are already a Blackhawk pilot, it is a big plus. If you want little birds, try to get the Cobra first. The 160th gets unlimited funding so they can try and experiment with various technologies, and they use extremely advanced helicopters. If you want to be amongst the absolute best helo pilots in the world and fly THE most advanced helos, the 160th is for you. But like all Special Ops forces, it is no cakewalk to get into.

On a final note, lately WOCS has become very competitive to get into I have heard, because they go overflowed by a lot of very qualified applicants for the High School to Flight School program (we're talking medical school graduates who graduated with like a 3.9 gpa, aced the Army PFT, recommendations from multiple Army officers, etc....) so it was just insanely competitive. I am not sure if this has died down or not, but if you really want Army aviation, just apply, apply, and apply again. Same for all the services.

Well, that is up to you. Look for aviation forums and research it a lot. The age limit for Army aviation is 29 I believe, waiverable to 31 if a prior service applicant. So if you are say, 19, and want to become an Army Ranger first, or heck, even a Navy SEAL first if you are that tough, you could do that, then apply to WOCS and hopefully get switched over to Army aviation. You could serve for 4 years (until 23-24, so you'd still have plenty of time to apply for aviation). The BAD part to that is if while a Ranger or SEAL or whatever, you permanently injure yourself, that's it, no hopes for aviation.

You must also pass the Army PFT (Physical Fitness Test) with high scores. It consists of pushups, situps, and a 2.5 mile run (or a 2 mile run; I forget).

To become a pilot in the Marine Corps, there are multiple ways, but in this case (and for the Air Force and Navy), only Commissioned Officers are pilots. How to become a Commissioned Officer?

Platoon Leader's Class (PLC): This is a program where, while in college, you go to two 6-week summer sessions of OCS (Officer Candidate School) for your officer training (this is for freshman and sophmores), OR, go to one 10-week summer session if you're a junior or senior (PLC-Combined). PLC offers ground, law, and air contracts. Law and Air contracts are the same as ground, except with them you are guaranteed to go to Law or Flight School provided you graduate college, PLC, and The Basic School.

So a aviatior wannabe would graduate Marine PLC, then graduate college with his/her degree, upon which they are then commissioned an Officer in the United States Marine Corps. You THEN go to The Basic School (TBS). This is where you will be trained to be an infantry Marine, stuff like how to lead men into combat, fire all the weapons in the Marine Corps inventory, call in an airstrike, etc....the training is more extensive then any other military branch because the Marines have that adage, "Every Marine a rifleman." And they mean it. You must qualify on the pistol and the M-16 rifle. After TBS, you then go to flight school.

Now, AN AIR CONTRACT IS NO GUARANTEE YOU WILL BECOME A PILOT. It is a guarantee you'll go to flight school. Once there, it is up to you to pass through. There is no boligation to join the Marine Corps upon completion of PLC (unless you accept tuition assistance), or if you drop it (unless tuition assisstance was accepted), however, if you drop it, you most likely won't be able to re-apply.

United States Naval Academy: Well, you can also apply to this from being enlisted, or apply straight from high school. You may also be able to apply from other colleges too. Here, you'd take the Marine Option. There is no guaranteed aviation contract though.

Navy ROTC- Marine Option: In this method, you go through Navy ROTC and take the Marine option. With this, it's the same as Army ROTC; there is no guarantee you'll get flight school. Because of this, even if your school has Navy ROTC, I'd recommend trying for Marine PLC-Air. Because then flight school is guaranteed, provided you don't get injured along the way in TBS.

I also believe Navy ROTC requires you to take classes such as physics and calculus, regardless of yoru major, whereas with PLC, you can be virtually any major and they will take you.

OCS: OCS is known as the OCC (Officer Candidate's Class). In this program, which is for college grads, you go to OCS for 10-12 weeks of officer training. You then go to TBS, then your designated school. I am not sure if you can get a direct flight school contract with this or not.

The longer you wait, the harder it gets to apply for flight school is the main motto. So apply early. Marine Aviation has an age limit of about 27 years I believe, with waivers, but that depends.

MECEP: With this program, I am not sure if one can get a guaranteed flight contract at all, but it is for enlisted Marines who want to go to college. It is a very good deal. If you are an enlisted Marine who hasn't yet gone to college and desperately want to fly for the Marine Corps, MECEP is a sweet deal. It will pay for college completely, then you are commissioned an officer and you can try for flight school.

Another way also is if enlisted, wait until you're out of the Marines, then go to college and apply for Marine PLC. Just remember about the age limit factors in your decision.

The Marine Corps flies a variety of aircraft. They fly the F/A-18 C/D Hornet, the AV-8B Harrier, the AH-1W and AH-1Y (and hopefully soon AH-1Z) Supercobra, the Huey (and soon an upgraded Huey--the UH-1Y I believe), the CH-46 and CH-53 transport helicopters, and soon the MV-22 Osprey most likely. They also fly the C-130 "Hercules" plane, basically a prop. At flight school, you select from jets, helos, or props, and then its "needs of the Marine Corps" pretty much as well. there are other aircraft as well, such as the Prowler.

To apply for PLC or OCS, you must pass the Marine PFT and you must be close to acing it for each of these classes or you'll be in hell. The Marine PFT consists of: 3 mile run in at least 24 minutes, 10 deadhang pullups, and 80 situps in 2 minutes. To ace it, you need to run 3 miles in 18 minutes or less, do 20 dead-hang pullups, and do 100 situps in 2 minutes.

Why the hard PFT and infantry training; I just wanna fly!!

Well, it is the MARINE CORPS. They have that rep of being the toughest branch for a reason, and they hold true to the adage of, "Every Marine a rifleman." The Marines also do not care if you are a liberal-arts major or someone double-majoring in nuclear physics and electrical engineering. This is mainly because it has been shown that academic brilliance means nothing really with regards to the ability to lead in combat, and the Marines are big on one having that ability. The Air Force and Navy do not go into land warfare (with exceptions to like the SEALS and Air Force Pararescue, etc...), but they have a lot of highly technical jobs, thus to them, having technical degrees is a lot more significant.

All Marine pilots are carrier-qualified (provided their aircraft lands on carriers) and fall under the designation of "Student Naval Aviator" while in training. The Marines do not have any Special-Operations aviation regiment like the Army and Air Force do, but I believe Marine Cobra pilots can transition to the Army's 160th to become little bird pilots. There are also Marine pilots who transition to the Army regardless later on.

Marine aircraft always are older and with second-rate equipment in comparison with what the Army, Air Force, and Navy has. But Marine pilots are known to be amongst the very best regardless.

To become a Navy pilot is fairly similar to the Marine Corps, plus or minus a few differences. Again, there is a Navy equivelant to MECEP for enlisted sailors (but this is very competitive to get), there is the Naval Academy at Annapolis, and of course there is Navy ROTC. These are the same as the Marines, except you are trying to become a Navy pilot, not a Marine pilot.

BDCP: The Marines advertise they are the only branch of service to offer "guaranteed flight school," but this is not fully true. Navy BDCP is a program that pays you to get your degree. If accepted to it, you can have guaranteed flight school. Basically it is college with a paycheck and a guaranteed flight school slot. The kicker is twofold, though. Unlike the Marine, who give you the big flight medical beforehand to tell you if you wualify or not, the Navy doesn't, so you could go through college on a BDCP flight contract only to find out you have some physical ailment preventing you from flying.

The other thing is, I am not sure of this, but unlike with PLC, where if you are rejected for an Air contract, you can just re-apply, if you are rejected from an air contract for BDCP, you are not necessarily rejected from BDCP itself. They may offer you something like Supply Officer, and my guess is, it is a "take it or leave it" kind of thing, where if you don't take it, you can't re-apply to BDCP for a flight contract. I AM NOT SURE OF THIS THOUGH, SO DON'T TAKE IT TOOTH AND NAIL AND RESEARCH THE PROGRAM MORE. A NAVY PERSON MIGHT TELL YOU I AM FULL OF IT THERE. If that is indeed the case, however, you could still take the contract, become a Supply Officer (or whatever officer), and then apply for flight school throughout your career, I believe.

The age limit for Navy pilots is about 27 I believe (could be wrong there too; it is hard to remember all these numbers). You must pass the Navy PFT, which is something like the Army's (pushups, situps, run).

The Navy also prefers you to have a technical degree, like physics or engineering or something, as they have a LOT of highly technical jobs. If you want to be a Navy jet pilot, considering they are downzing right now, essentially try to be as perfect as possible with regards to EVERYTHING you do.

The Navy flies around a crapload of aircraft, everything from big AWACS-type aircraft I believe to fighter planes to helicopters. The majority of naval aviators become helicopter pilots, with the top dogs becoming jet pilots usually (though many guys who could've gone jet do choose helos as well). Some aircraft are the F-14 Tomcat (though that is being phased out), the F/A-18 E/F Superhornet, the F/A-18 C/D (to be replaced by the JSF), and a bunch of other craft I forget the names to. They have a naval version of the Blackhawk, I believe called the Sea Hawk.

CHAIR (oops, I mean AIR) FORCE
Well, to become a U.S. Air Force pilot, again, there's the routes of the academy---the United States Air Force Academy, Air Force ROTC, and Air Force OCS if you have graduated already. I am not totally sure of the Air Force's age limit to become a pilot.

I also am not quite sure if the Air Force has any special programs for becoming a pilot besides the Academy, ROTC, and OCS. They DO have Air Force ROTC scholarships with (I believe; I could be wrong here) guaranteed flight school, that will pay your way right through college to become a pilot. Regardless of whether these offer guaranteed flight school or not, they are incredibly competitive. If you want to be an Air Force pilot though, they are the second-best thing to a slot at the Air Force Academy.

The Air Force is the opposite of the Marine Corps. You can get away with average academics and a high PFT with the Marines, whereas with the Air Force, they are huge on academic brain power and not too much on PT (though being a PT stud is great for getting acceptance into the academy or one of these scholarships). But the Air Force's PT requirements are the easiest of all the services. It is like 25 pushups, a 1.5 mile run, and I forget how many situps (or is it crunches?). It isn't nicknamed the "Chair Force" by the other services for nothing.

The Air Force is also opposite the Army with regards to aircraft. They are mainly jets, with some helos. The Air Force, despite its "Chair Force" reputation, does have the Air Force Special Ops pilots (the Air Force equivalent to the Army's 160th SOAR), and the Air Force Special Ops operators and Air Force Pararescue. The Air Force Special Ops pilots also fly in Rangers, Delta, SEALS, Air Force operators, etc....they are elite chopper pilots. They too utilize high tech and are amongst the best helo pilots in the world.

Aside from any special programs guaranteeing flight school the Air Force may have, it is up to you to get a good degree (recommend a technical degree for the Air Force), do very well in it (get great grades), get good recommendation letters, be a PT stud regardless, then, whether at the Academy, ROTC, or OCS, do the absolute best you can in everything. This goes for all the branches of the service, but especially if you want to fly jets for the Air Force (OR NAVY), you really want to try and be as perfect as possible with everything, because the Air Force is very selective of their jet pilots, even though they are having a shortage of them. And the Navy is highly slective since they are downsizing.



Sure you can, but if multiple branches accept you, don't join multiple branches as well!!


Nope, you need vision CORRECTABLE to 20/20 as it stands currently for most branches (all last I checked).


THINK ABOUT THIS A LOT before applying. There are a LOT of folks out there who really want to be military pilots, so if you are given the opportunity to become one, it is a huge gift in the eyes of many. And the military DOES NOT appreciate it if they take the time to train you and then halfway through, you call it quits. You will most likely get a bottom-of-the-barrel job for quitting, as the military wasted their time and money on you, plus you took away the chance for flight school from someone below you. So think about this a lot.

DO NOT think you could just go into flight school and figure if you don't like it, you'll drop out and apply for Navy SEAL training (if a Navy pilot) or something like that, because you won't get it.

Well, if you really try hard and just can't hack it, then usually you won't end up with a bottom of the barrel job because your instructors will see you made a huge effort, but just you suck at flying. So technically, you didn't waste the Navy's money in the same way as someone calling it quits, as you really did try, but you just aren't pilot material. In this case, they'll usually let you select a job of your choice and then of course it is still needs of the service, but in general they'll try to give you what you want.

In this case, if you were a flailing Student Naval Aviator and you asked for say SEAL training, if you really wanted that and the Navy saw you really had tried hard but just couldn't hack flight school, they'd make an attempt to give it to you (remember, needs of the service are always first).

If I can't hack flight school, will I suck at everything else?

Definitely not. "Chesty Puller," one of the most legendary Marine infantry soldiers in the history of the United States, failed out of flight school TWICE!!

I just cannot decide if I wanna fly or not. Should I take a complimentary ride in a Cessna or something?

If you want to try for jet pilot, don't compare a single-engine cessna ride to flying a jet. It's like trying to decide if you want to race Formula 1 race cars, and thus taking a ride in a 4-cylinder Honda Accord. BIG difference.

As for a helo ride, I am not sure. I suppose so, as military helos, while a lot different from civilian ones, don't have such a thrust difference and so forth as a jet to a Cessna.

Would getting my pilot's license help me out at flight school??

This can be a double-edged sword, as the military pilot training programs are designed to take folks who know nothing about flying and turn them into military pilots. How civilians are taught to fly is a lot different than how military pilots are taught to fly, and thus, if you have a license already, you may instictively start trying to fly the civilian way, only to learn you must re-learn everything.

On the other hand, sometimes it can be a big help. But it is definitely not needed. If you already have it, great, but remember to keep a very open mind in flight school. If not, do not worry, just study hard at flight school.

Does civilian flying compare to military flying??

Probably not, as you have to learn many, many advanced skills in military flying that you would never ever learn as a civilian. American military pilots are amongst the best in the world.

Do pilots have to study a lot??

YES!! You have to study the enemy's tactics, your own tactics, learn new tactics, know the enemy's weapons systems, know your own weapons systems, know your own aircraft, know the enemy's aircraft, you always have to learn new skills, etc.....studying is a big feature as a military pilot, so if you don't know how to study, LEARN TO!!


The U.S. Coast Guard only acceptes former military pilots, so if you wanna fly for the Coast Guard, first become a pilot in one of the other branches first.

What about the Air National Guard or Marine Guard and Reserves?

These are very difficult to become a pilot in straight through; they more or less prefer pilots who are former active-duty. I believe one can become a pilot in the Army Guard or Reserves, or the Marine Reserves, or the Air Force Air National Guard or Reserves without being prior active duty though. If you only want to fly on the weekends, or if you are a former active-duty pilot, these can be a sweet deal. You could fly on the weekends and pursue a civilian career. Not too many folk have a job and get to say, "Well, I can't party this weekend because I have to go up in an F-16 for training exercises this Saturday..."

What are "billets?"

I am not sure if the Army and Air Force use the same term, but in the Marine Corps and Navy, billets are what you do during the non-flying portions of your flying career. Not your other job I do not mean (flying won't be your ONLY job unless maybe you're an Army WO pilot), but, for example, you may fly for 3 years as a Marine pilot, then go on a billet. You could go to the Naval Postgraduate School to pursue a graduate degree, or you could work with a ground unit, you could be an instructor pilot, depends.

One of the Navy's most sought-after billets is the testing of the Superhornets. This is very great because a Superhornet pilot can go from flying in combat conditions, to flying the Superhornet TWICE a day on testing grounds to test it out and such, AND be close to their family (hence why it is so competitive). After another 2 or 3 years (or something like that; depends), you'd go back to being an active-duty combat pilot. So you might fly for 3-4 years, then instruct for a certain length of time, then back to flying missions again.

If I am a helicopter pilot, could I change to jets later on??

I am not sure on this; it HAS been done, but it is difficult, and it depends on the needs of the military and on the needs of your own squadron and such. This is just a fudgy example, but if you are a good helo pilot and your commander is willing to let you go, and you say want jets, then for your billet time, you'd go to flight school to learn how to fly jets, then by the time your billet time is up, you'd be a jet pilot. If your commander is willing to let you go and the service needed a jet pilot and liked you, you could do this, as it is cheaper to train you, since you have already been through the early stages of flight school.

But then again, being a good pilot could be a double-edged sword as it could keep your commander from releasing you.

I only want to fly jets; helos suck, so what if I get stuck with helos??

Don't join. It is okay to want jets, but if you are a "jets-or-nothing" type, you'll get marked as "That guy" real fast and folks won't like you. Remember, the military is mainly to DEFEND YOUR COUNTRY, not a free ride for pilot training. It is fine to want jets or it is fine to want helicopters only even (the Marines have sometimes pulled guys out of helos to be trained in jets---this is rare, but is has happened), but just make sure that overall, you'll be happy as long as you can fly period. That is the important thing. Be a good person and don't be a jerk, and if you really desire jets and you are a helo pilot (or vice-versa), check into it, but remember, it's needs of the service first.

It can be understandable if you want jets from helos if you say want to be an shuttle pilot, as all shuttle pilots must be jet pilots first, but I mean, remember, just overall be glad you are flying. Loads of folks who otherwise can't because of some physical ailment would kill to have the opportunity be a military aviator.

And NEVER, EVER ask the question to a military pilot that has the words, "What if I get stuck with helos...." because you are offending some 65%-70% of military aviation and those guys won't like you for it.

Hope this helped, sorry for the size

[edit on 1-3-2005 by Broadsword20068]

posted on Mar, 1 2005 @ 01:09 AM
Wooohooo! Fantastic post. I am sure alot of the young folks on the forum will appreciate your thorough article.
When I was in high school (70's) helicopter pilots were much needed in the Army, but everybody wants to be a jet jockey.

posted on Mar, 1 2005 @ 01:10 AM
I am giving you my "way above" vote for this post. Carry on.

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