When you hear the words “fighter pilot,” what image comes to mind? Is it the Thunderbirds or Blue Angels and their machine-like precision, or is it Tom Cruise living the rock star life in Top Gun; flying high performance jets, drinking beer, chasing women into bathrooms, singing in piano bars, playing volleyball and riding his crotch rocket?
The truth is while the life of a fighter pilot might seem very adventurous and full of fun, a lot of planning and preparation goes into being a fighter pilot. As the old saying goes, not everything is as it seems and Hollywood has certainly not helped. Sure, Top Gun helped military aviation recruitment, but there is a lot more to being a fighter pilot than just rocking cool sunglasses and a patch-covered jacket.
What is a fighter pilot?
By definition, a fighter pilot is a military aviator who flies tactical aircraft, normally jets, in order to engage in air-to-air or air-to-ground combat. A fighter pilot can also fly electronic warfare fighter aircraft.
The U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps all have fighter pilots that fly a variety of aircraft. Naval and Marine Corps aviators are trained to land on an aircraft carrier. A fighter pilot from those three branches of service receives training in dogfighting and in ground attack. Any fighter pilot, regardless of service, who kills five aircraft in aerial combat is considered an ace.
A routine fighter pilot mission
There is a certain amount of rest a fighter pilot must get before they fly because most duty days for fighter pilots are at least 12 hours long when they are scheduled to fly. Much of the mission isn’t spent in the air, but on the ground.
According to Air Force fighter pilots, 90 percent of the job is preparation. They show up at their units and prepare for the flight by studying or examining mission boards so every fighter pilot is on the same sheet of music.
The mission will get briefed about two-and-a-half hours prior to takeoff. Mission briefs can take about an hour to complete depending on the complexity of the mission. Coordinates, weather and other particulars are covered.
A fighter pilot then will go to the aircrew flight equipment room to put on their gear. From there, they head out to the aircraft where they conduct preflight checks and talk with support staff about the aircraft. This can take about an hour or so.
Finally, they get in, fire up their aircraft and take off. Most flight missions are normally conducted to keep the fighter pilot proficient and to improve the skill of the fighter pilot.
A fighter pilot does not just go to flight school, learn to fly and then just fly when needed. In order to maintain his or her flight status, a fighter pilot must log requisite hours in the cockpit. Like most professions in the military, once earned, a fighter pilot must actively perform to keep his or her rating.
Upon returning from a mission, there is a mission debrief that can last for a couple of hours. By now, the fighter pilot has spent nearly half, if not more, of his or her time on the ground in pre- and post-mission meetings concerning the mission.
Non-flying stuff a fighter pilot does
When they aren’t flying, a fighter pilot will have additional or ancillary duties. A unit doesn’t just have air and maintenance crews. In order to function, there are many other functions and operations that need to be tended to by unit members.
For example, members of a flying unit will need to be evaluated on their performance. They will need orders to travel to training schools and they will be decorated for their service. Personnel functions are required of a fighter pilot. While a unit may have a human resources specialist, as an officer, a fighter pilot might have to evaluate and rate other junior members of the unit.
Public affairs officer (PAO) might also be an additional duty that a fighter pilot might fill. Maybe they won’t serve as the unit PAO, but they serve as a liaison for outreach and communications.
In addition, as an officer, there will be required training that a fighter pilot must attend in order to satisfy requirements from his or her service and the U.S. Department of Defense. A fighter pilot is trained not just on how to fly, but how to lead, manage resources and behave while in and out of uniform. Every branch of service has monthly, quarterly and yearly requirements for its personnel and a fighter pilot is not immune to this.
There are many roles in a flying unit that a fighter pilot can fill that are not related to flying, but in addition to being a fighter pilot, there are also aviation related roles that a fighter pilot can fill depending on the fighter pilot’s rank and tenure.
Other stuff a fighter pilot does
There are a lot of shoes to fill in a military unit and a fighter pilot has to carry the load just like everyone else. Professionally, as a military aviator, there are other aviation related roles that a fighter pilot must fill. Below are a few of them.
As a standardization/evaluation officer, a fighter pilot gives check rides to ensure pilots can fly their aircraft. After the flights, there is a lot of documentation to complete to stipulate if a pilot has passed or failed their check ride.
Most units have a safety officer and flying units are no different. A fighter pilot can be a safety officer which requires a lot of proactive defensive posturing to stay ahead of accidents.
A fighter pilot performing duties as a safety officer will keep tabs on what is going on force-wide with his or her aircraft and ensure other aviators are informed about any trends or issues impacting safe flight and operation. Corrective actions are taken to ensure a safe environment, conducting risk assessments and mitigating risk.
By nature, the job of a fighter pilot means mobility or the ability to get up and go somewhere else. A fighter pilot can also perform duties as a mobility/plans officer to ensure the readiness of the unit at all times.
This means a lot of planning. When the fighter pilot is done planning, they plan some more. Most plans officers are experts in overkill, planning for just about any outcome or eventuality to ensure a mission is successful if it is requested.
A life support officer is a fighter pilot responsible for equipment. This job is a critical role for a fighter pilot and it is usually an additional duty for a fighter pilot since most units have specialized officers or non-commissioned officers who manage a unit’s life support gear. This fighter pilot is responsible for gear that can save a pilot’s life; things like oxygen masks, helmets, parachutes, headsets, survival kits, and G-suits.
Imagine getting to an altitude where you need oxygen and your mask doesn’t work. That’s why a life support officer ensures that regular service and inspections are conducted and documented. All equipment must be in good, operational, working order.
A scheduling/training officer is a fighter pilot with an additional duty. This officer ensures that pilots are completing their required training, whether in the air or on the ground, as required by branch and military requirements. For a fighter pilot, this can be a robust duty requiring a lot of agility since many requirements might require the involvement of other moving parts. For example, a fighter pilot might be required to train in aerial refueling. This task not only involves the fighter pilot and his or her unit, but also pilots and tankers from another unit. Coordination can be complicated.
Lastly, a fighter pilot might also perform duties as a weapons or tactics officer. Weapons and tactics officers train pilots to execute in combat, whether in an aerial setting or air to ground.
A fighter pilot has an important role in the U.S. military. They kill aerial targets and destroy enemy targets on the ground using tactical aircraft. Just remember, they are U.S. military officers and therefore have a wide array of responsibilities not just as pilots, but as officers in their respective military branch and in the Department of Defense.
A fighter pilot does a lot more than just fly the world’s most advanced jets.