How Hard is it to Become a Fighter Pilot?

No points for second place...

With the reboot of everyone's favorite fighter pilot epic hitting the big screen in a few weeks, many of us are throwing on our aviator shades and dreaming of hitting the Highway to the Danger Zone... But how hard is it really to become a fighter pilot?

For starters, you'll need a healthy dose of bravado, determination, intellect and skill if you want to get some air under your butt as a pilot in America's fighter jets. These multi-million dollar, air-superiority fighters can rain down a deadly vengeance the likes of which most of us can barely grasp - so it's understandable that pilots are expected to be hot sh*t before they're handed the keys.

There's good reason why fighter pilots are notorious for their hubris:  The road to becoming a fighter pilot in the USAF, USMC or Navy ain't easy by any stretch.

So, just how hard is it to become a fighter pilot? The short answer: Very.

Here's a glimpse of what it takes to make it through the competitive selection process and grueling training to earn their wings: 

Physical Requirements

First, there's some strict physical requirements that must be met if you want to fly America's most advanced aircraft. You must be under the age of 33 at the time of passing your selection board, with excellent physical health and no drug use or medical conditions such as asthma, allergies or ADHD.

Aside from the physical conditioning and fitness required, your body must be the right dimensions to fit inside the cockpit, and naturally be built for the job. That means you'll need a height of 34 to 40 inches when sitting, with adequate arm span to fluidly operate the controls, plus the correct sitting eye height. 

Color blindness is not an option, as you'll need the ability to distinguish between colored lights in the cockpit. Additionally, a minimum of 20/30 vision without corrective lenses is required by most branches, with good depth perception. Some programs may disqualify you for having corrective eye surgery too, so be sure to check this detail.

Next up, your weight and body fat percentage must be within a certain range based on your height, which is calculated to guarantee safe operation of an ejection seat. 

Furthermore, you can’t be too tall, and measuring over 6'5" is a disqualifier for medical safety reasons in most branches. If you're over that height, your heart will have to work too hard to pump blood to your brain when under the strain of high G forces.

In a nutshell, you must be physically fit without being too tall and have great eyesight to boot. It's little wonder there are so few people naturally suited to these exacting standards!

Education Standards

Next, there are pretty lofty education standards to reach. Every fighter pilot in the US military regardless of branch must first become an officer. That means achieving a bachelor's degree from a college institution, or a military academy like ROTC.

While the degree you study doesn't have to be in aeronautics or aircraft engineering, it can be a significant leg-up. Your BA is mainly a reflection on your ability to dedicate yourself to learning and absorbing new information, so it could be in any topic of your choosing. 

Once joining the military branch of your choice and completing a bachelor's degree, cadets must meet certain qualifications before attending Officer Training school. Next, there's the initial flight training and an undergraduate program before the stiff competition of fighter pilot selection begins.

Additionally, you'll need to pass exams regarding aircraft operating procedures, navigation, flight theory and mission tactics, plus meteorology to decode the weather conditions.

Specialized Endurance Training

Finally, intense training and endurance benchmarks must be met to prove a pilot's ability to execute their missions. During the 2-year pilot training, cadets are subjected to tough physical challenges to ensure they'll be able to perform under extreme conditions in the cockpit.

Among the physical requirements to be fighter-pilot-fit, a good G-Force tolerance is critical. Pilots undergo sessions in High-G simulators where they practice the "Hook Maneuver", a systematic breathing and muscle-flexing technique that helps shunt blood to the brain when the body is exposed to high G's. This allows pilots to maintain consciousness during dogfights with enemy aircraft - so they can pull tight turns during combat maneuvers, securing a tactical advantage behind their opponent.

Flight training is grueling, with a strong focus on combat readiness, plus the fitness, reflexes and instinct required to fly these incredible pieces of machinery. Qualified fighter pilots are masters of aerial physics, but even once passing this portion of the training, they must still compete against their classmates for a limited number of positions actually flying the fighters.

Who Can Become a Fighter Pilot?

It takes a special breed of badass to become a fighter pilot - you must be determined, persistent, and physically elite. Not only that, but you must also possess an aptitude for aviation, physics and flight discipline. Among men and women alike, only the most dedicated military officers will become fighter pilots.

Fighter pilots are an elite group, and it’s very tough to become one of them. In fact, the United States Naval Academy class of 2021 had nearly 16,300 applicants to become fighter pilots. Only 240 became Navy pilots and 102 became Marine pilots.

 If you want to make it as a fighter pilot in the future, start training and preparing now - preferably by applying to a military academy. The sooner you get on the path to flight school, the better.

As you can see, it's incredibly tough to reach the illustrious rank of fighter pilot. Combined with the long education process, the physical requirements, and the high performance expectations, there's little wonder fighter pilots have such swagger when they smash all the criteria without washing out!

Thanks for reading, stay strong warrior.

Justin | MME Wellness Contributor

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