So You Want My Job: Air Force Pilot

by Brett & Kate McKay on December 3, 2008 · 25 comments

in Money & Career, So You Want My Job

Today we return to our “So You Want My Job” Series, in which we interview men who are employed in the kind of jobs men dream about having, and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can finally become what they always wanted to be when they grew up.

For this second installment, we interviewed Cameron Schaefer, regular AoM contributor, author of Schaefer’s Blog, and high-flying Air Force pilot. Many thanks to Cameron for participating.

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? Where did you go to school? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it).

I am 24 years old and currently live in Tacoma, WA with my wife and 9-month old daughter. I was born and raised in Laramie, WY. I grew up playing lots of sports and enjoyed all things outdoors. I attended the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO graduating in 2006. Upon graduation, I attended Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) at Vance AFB in Enid, OK. After logging over 200 hours in the T-6 Texan and T-1 Jayhawk I earned my wings and moved with my family to McChord AFB last June to begin my career as a C-17 pilot. When I’m not blogging or exploring the local area with the family, I’m usually flying missions overseas, transporting troops and equipment wherever and whenever the US forces need us.

2. Why did you want to become an Air Force pilot? When did you know that it was what you wanted to do?

When I was young I remember watching movies like “Top Gun” and “Iron Eagle” and being fascinated with flying and the idea of being a pilot. Since the Air Force Academy was in the same athletic conference as Wyoming, I got to see the Academy cadets when they would come up to play us in football. There was no doubt that their lives were much different than the average college student, and I was intrigued. I ended up going to the Air Force Academy, but still wasn’t 100% sure if I wanted to be a pilot. During the summers we would get to visit Air Force bases around the world and often got rides in various jets. After getting rides in both the C-5 and F-16, I decided flying would be a much better job than sitting behind a desk all day. I was right.

3. If man wants to become an Air Force pilot, how should he best prepare? What’s the best route into the job?

There are really two large hurdles to becoming a pilot: 1) Only officers are allowed to fly, so first you have to be commissioned as an Air Force Officer. There are 3 avenues to officership: the Air Force Academy, ROTC, and Officer Training School (OTS). 2) One has to compete and be selected to attend pilot training. Oh yeah, and then you actually have to get through pilot training which isn’t a given.

For preparation I would say do well in school and be a well-balanced person. Air Force pilots are known for being able think well under stress and multi-task. Playing sports is one of the best ways to develop these attributes. Some might say get your Private Pilot’s License. While it certainly won’t hurt you, it is not necessary in my opinion. Out of my UPT class only a handful of guys had a PPL before they arrived and I saw no correlation between that and their performance relative to the rest of us. Military flying is much different than civilian flying.

As far as the best route, I admit that I’m biased, but going to the Academy gives you the best chance of becoming a pilot. Every year there are around 1,000 pilot slots available Air Force wide for pilot training, and half of those are given to the Academy and the other half are split among all the ROTC programs across the country as well as OTS. So, using my Academy class as an example, we had approximately 900 cadets in the class of 2006 and there were around 500 pilot training slots available. Many cadets either didn’t want to fly or were medically disqualified, so by the end there ended up being more pilot training slots available for our class than people that wanted them. At the Academy, if you want to fly and are medically qualified, chances are extremely high you will get a slot.

4. How competitive is it to land a job as an Air Force pilot?

Extremely. You’re going up against a lot of guys who are used to succeeding in life, lots of type-A personalities. In the end though, there are a limited number of pilot slots and so you’re graded on everything you do then racked and stacked at the end. And when you get to Pilot Training it doesn’t let up. Now everyone is competing for specific airframes, and that can get pretty intense at times.

5. You graduated from the Air Force Academy. What’s the application process like there? What sets applicants apart? Any tips?

Last year 9,163 men and women applied and only 1,287 were admitted…so it’s a bit selective. In order to even apply you have to be an American citizen between the ages of 17-23 and unmarried with no dependents. Additionally, you must obtain a nomination by a member of Congress from your home state. Each congressman/woman generally sets up an interview board to interview potential candidates between the summer of the junior and senior year of high school and into the fall. There are almost always several more people competing for an appointment than slots available, so this is really the first big hurdle.

On top of all this is the academic, physical and leadership requirements. The average Academy cadet comes from the top 3% of his/her high school class, averages around a 1300 on the SAT’s and 30 on the ACT’s and has a 3.85 GPA. On top of this you have to be involved in extracurricular activities, pass a physical fitness test, and a rigorous medical exam. All this to say, it’s a bit more extensive than the average college admissions process. This became pretty clear to me when I asked the kid next to me at freshman orientation what he got on the SAT’s and he responded, “1600,” without blinking.

As far as what sets applicants apart and how to prepare, my advice would be to focus on getting great academic scores and be as well-rounded as possible. Participate in athletics, school clubs, community service, etc. The admissions people are looking for the whole person, not just a brainiac that can do complex math proofs.

6. What sets a candidate apart from others when he’s seeking a pilot position?

The ability to quickly process large amounts of data under stress.

7. What the average starting salary for an Air Force pilot?

They say it’s impolite to share your salary, but when you work for the military and your pay chart is available for anyone to see on the internet I don’t mind answering. It’s hard to say the average simply because your pay is based on your rank in the military as well as your duty location, not your job (although pilot’s do receive a small amount of extra pay each month for flying duties). But, since most starting pilot’s are 1st Lieutenants (O-2) when the arrive at their first duty station, we’ll use them as an example. Base pay is around $3,300 a month with an additional $1000 or so for housing (determined by location). This brings the annual salary to just over $51,000. And of course, every few years as you get promoted and you gain years in service your pay increases.

8. What is the best part of the job?

For me it is two things: 1) Knowing that you’ve made a valuable contribution every time you fly, whether it’s transporting troops or dropping off supplies in support of natural disaster relief. 2) Traveling all over the world and experiencing so many different cultures. So far, I’ve only been operational for a few months and I’ve already gotten to go to 10 different countries!

9. What is the worst part of the job?

Being away from family so often.

10. Are there any misconceptions that people have about the job?

I think a lot of people think we just hop in the jet and go joyriding, not realizing how scripted each mission is and how much planning is involved. Not to say that it isn’t fun, but there is always a mission whether it’s operational or simply training. Also, I don’t think people realize how young most of us are. The reality is many of our jets are filled with crews where the oldest person on board is 26 or 27. The fact that a 26-year old can be in charge of a $200 million aircraft is pretty amazing.

11. What is the work/family balance like?

It’s a bit rough, mainly because even when we’re not deployed we’re gone on 10-14 day missions overseas quite frequently. It’s a big adjustment seeing your family in spurts rather than on a day-by-day basis. It makes it even more important to be intentional about the time you do have together.

12. What’s the hierarchy like in the Air Force? How does one “move up” in the job?

The first few years as long as you don’t get in major trouble you’ll get promoted. As you hit the mid-level ranks like Major (O-4) things start getting more competitive, and you actually have to separate yourself from the pack in some way to rise to the next rank. Every few years you go up before a promotion board and they look at your records and decide if you should be promoted or remain in your current rank. Like many career fields it can get a bit more political the higher up you go, but for the most part your promotion is dependent on how much you stand out from the rest of your peers.

13. Any other advice, tips, or anecdotes you’d like to share?

Being a pilot is one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling jobs I can think of. Whether one becomes an Air Force pilot or simply takes a few lessons and gets their Private Pilot’s License, flying is something that has and always will fascinate us all. And whenever you hear a pilot telling war stories, take it in about the same way you would when you hear someone describing the size of the fish they just caught…it’s probably about 25% true and always gets better with age.

Do you have a cool man job? Are you willing to submit to some interview questions and share your wisdom and advice with other men? Would you like a FREE AoM t-shirt? Contact me.

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Bob Iger December 4, 2008 at 1:07 am

C-17 pilot… Now there’s a cool man-job! :-) Great article, Brett! And it’s nice to see Cameron’s other side of life as well.

2 Tony December 4, 2008 at 9:59 am

Cameron – Thanks for your service, and congrats on getting your wings. A quick question. As a former aviator, I remember a lot of people leaving the service for jobs at the airlines. With hiring freezes and lower pay, do you see the Air Force doing a better job at retaining people or are you still seeing shortages in personnel?

3 Man Overboard December 4, 2008 at 10:30 am

Thanks for sharing Cameron. I love to read about your travels and missions on your site. This interview definitely brings it all together in one place.

Be safe and keep up the good work.

4 Adam December 4, 2008 at 4:50 pm

The Air Force was actually over manned for a while, but they force shaped a little much and now they need more people. They’re giving out a lot of pilot slots (i know a total tool who managed to still get one. if he makes it out of UPT is another story) but they also really need UAV guys. I think UAV pilots are still under a stop-loss since they need people so bad. That’s French for “keeping your ass in regardless of if you want to or not” even if your contract is up.

5 Cameron Schaefer December 4, 2008 at 7:38 pm

@ Tony,

First, I have to admit that my knowledge is based on hearsay from others who have left for the airlines or people that know people who left – that kind of thing.

From what I’ve heard the airlines are not as great of a job as they used to be when it comes to salary. 9/11 took a huge cut out of most airlines and it has been reflected in slashing the pay of their starting pilots. UPS and FedEx seem to be the hot-ticket jobs right now when it comes to the best pay for guys leaving the military to fly commercially, but they’re quite competitive.

The Air Force on the other hand has played the pendulum game with personnel numbers as Adam alluded to in his comment. A few years ago they were paying pilots to leave, now they’re paying them to stay. The current offer is a bonus of $125,000 ($25K per year) for pilot’s to sign up for another 5 years when they come to the end of their active duty service commitment (currently 10 years).

Naturally, a lot goes into the decision for most pilot’s on whether they’ll stay in after 10 or leave, but these are the major factors to be weighed at the moment. So does the Air Force have enough pilots? I don’t have enough rank to really know the answer to that question, but what I do know is the C-17 community is incredibly busy right now.

6 E.Serrano December 4, 2008 at 8:58 pm

awesome post!

7 Bryan Branby December 5, 2008 at 9:38 am

Great post, Cameron. As an Academy grad and Navigator who’s still flying after 25+ years, you pretty much nailed the aircrew life. It’s not easy to get into and very demanding once you’re there, but extremely rewarding when it’s all said and done.

For those who want to fly and don’t meet all the physical pilot qualifications, or are just into something different, the Air Force still has a small cadre of Navigators in bombers, cargo, and special operations aircraft, and will for years to come. Active Duty, National Guard and Air Force Reserve units all over the country are looking for the best of the best. Same age requirements, and definitely the same academic standards. it’s a great job with lots of neat “toys.”

8 Josh December 6, 2008 at 12:37 pm

Great job dude, exactly the way it is.

- Josh (04′)

9 Julian December 6, 2008 at 2:51 pm

Good post. You gotta love the Air Force.

USAFA ’12

10 kepler December 16, 2008 at 4:39 pm

i would like to be an airforce pilot, but i need to know the maximum and milimum they pay an airforce pilot.

11 Cameron Schaefer December 20, 2008 at 10:56 am

@ Kepler,

It’s all based on your rank and time in service. Here’s a link to the 2009 military pay chart – http://www.navycs.com/09militarypaychart.html

Go down to the O’s (officer) and O-1 is 2nd Lt, O-2 is 1st Lt, O-3 is Captain, etc. Keep in mind that is only your base pay which does not include your BAH (housing allowance) as well as Flight Pay.

12 therapydoc January 6, 2009 at 3:53 am

It’s nice to know that there are people like you out there.

13 Spencer Blake January 13, 2009 at 5:31 am

I’m only 16 in the 10th grade and we are doing an i-search. I am following up on being an U.S. Air Force pilot. After reading this it really makes me want to follow up on the career. Nice article!

14 kathy quann February 11, 2009 at 2:36 pm

His mother must be very proud!

15 GoalieLax February 14, 2009 at 1:45 pm

If you want to fly a real plane, go to the US Naval Academy. You have a much better chance at getting fighters and won’t be a bus driver for 30 years.

16 Sir Pouralot July 8, 2009 at 10:44 pm

u should do ‘Bartenders’ next

17 Sam November 5, 2009 at 8:45 am

Great article! I’m a civilian employee of the AF, and it heartens me to see fellow Airmen writing about their jobs. If I didn’t have poor vision from childhood, I would have aimed high to become a pilot myself.

18 Darrell December 25, 2009 at 11:37 am

I live in Charleston, SC.. where there are many of the Airfoce stationed here. I know many of the pilots. They fly the huge air carriers and also those that fly the jets. Jets come out of Charleston to go to Arlington to do fly overs. These men have standards in their lives whether concerning their families, their focus in the community, that are an example of strength and courage that gives back to others. There gift of serving at this time in America and the wars, are much appreciated. The times I have seen them walk into a restuarant and the roar of applause. The emotions that it brings to these guys. The simple but yet powerful gift of thank you.
I have always wanted to be an jet pilot. From the time I was a kid…I would stop and look up and dream of one day. To be able to sit and watch the jets practice for a air show. Mezmerizes me. I would love to one day fly in the jets. Its a dream. An adventure of my life in this journey. Thanks guys for all you do.
Darrell Weaver

19 Ben Chapman February 22, 2010 at 5:05 am

As another C-17 pilot at McChord, I would like to add that in addition to your base pay, BAH, BAS and flight pay. You retain a substantial amount of money from landing in Tax free locations. Last year, I got ALL of my taxes back because I had made 8 of 12 months tax free for the year. That coupled with deductions from house payements etc made the government OWE me money. So don’t just go by the pay charts, tax free, hostile fire pay and per diem also factor in. I averaged about an extra $1000 per month just from per diem and hostile fire pay in 2009. As a seasoned copilot, many guys’ take home pay is on par with a 6 figure income.

I’d like to also add, a big downside I’ve noticed flying in this job is that people tend to get really fat. It’s preventable, but damn I sure see it a lot.

Respect,

Ben Chapman, 8th Airlift Squadron

20 Jeremy March 23, 2010 at 1:16 pm

Cameron,

My dream is to be an airlift or tanker pilot. Particularly the C-17 or C-5. I have been in the AFROTC, I have 3 years left if I decide to continue. I have a very good GPA, and I have checked and double checked that I am medically qualified. I think I have a pretty good shot at it. So I have two questions..
1) At what point do you become Contracted, what point do you find out whether you have a pilot slot, and how much choice do you have for competing for specific airframes? And do you have a side AF job when youre not deployed? Or what is it that you do when you arent deployed?
2) I am a newly wed. So I have some concerns about how often I would be gone, and so does she. I think we are both ok with 120 day deployments, BUT I am concerned and wondering how often those deployments occur. I wouldnt like being home for only 2 months every year for example. So the question is.. what is the average or standard, and what is the possible exception?

Well, I think there are more than two questions in there haha.
Thank you so much for your time, your service, inspiration and sacrifice for your country Sir.

21 Chris April 6, 2010 at 5:00 pm

Jeremy,

I was a cadet in AFROTC just like you, and I am currently about half way done with UPT. You are contracted when you return from Field Training, which usually happens between your sophomore and junior year. Then, you submit your packet for a pilot slot, and you are notified if you got it towards the end of your junior year. So the point is that you contract before you know whether or not your even going to get to be a pilot. Getting a pilot slot out of UPT is competive, but by all means, very doable. Get good grades, do well at Field Training, score well on the AFOQT, and show that you want it, and you should have no problem. After getting your pilot slot, and commissioning, your next step will be making it throught IFS (Initial Flight Screening). It’s a screening program run by civilian instructor pilots (many of them prior military) in Pueblo, CO. The Air Force figures they can save money by weeding people out early who don’t have a strong apptitude for becoming and AF pilot. Wash out rate is about 10 or 15 percent. You don’t have to get your private pilot’s license (I never got one), but I would recommend at least getting some experience in an airplane before going through that program. IFS is pass/fail and has no bearing whatsoever on the airframe you will end up flying. UPT is where it is all decided. If your goal is to become an airlift or tanker pilot, I would say you have excellent odds of getting what you want. But it all depends on your ranking. The higher you are ranked against your peers, the more likely you will get what you want.

Most AF pilots, from what I understand do have secondary jobs. But since I’m still in UPT, I can’t really speak to that. Anway, I hope I was able to shead some light on your first question at least.

22 Pilot Schools May 25, 2010 at 6:14 am

These questions and answers are fine and helpful to know about aviation industry. There are various private pilot training schools which provide certified and experienced instructors for their candidates, instructors give all practical and theoretical knowledge to their students, how to learn fly a plane and many more useful information. This information is helpful to make them perfect and successful in aviation industry.

23 Ángela January 26, 2013 at 11:47 pm

Jeremy,
I’m an AF wife and my husband flies the kc-10. No matter what airplane you end up flying, you’ll be gone a lot! There is a lot of support for wives but be aware that you’ll sacrifice a lot of family time. Great career, great pay, but that’s the biggest downside.
Angela

24 SierraMotel August 6, 2013 at 11:23 am

There are two other routes to becoming an air force pilot. Those are the Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard. You go through the exact same training as active duty and have mostly the same options as far as airframes go. I went to a state school and got hired to fly after I graduated. Every state has at least one Air National Guard unit that has airplanes. One advantage for me is that I am able to fly planes part time and have a civilian job full time. It’s a great option for those who don’t want a full time military life style. You’re home a lot more too. A lot of guys in my pilot training class didn’t know about that route until they met me. Choose what avenue you think is best for you. It all depends on the person! Two good websites to start the search are baseops.net and wantscheck.com. Don’t be afraid to give your local ANG or AFRes recruiter a call.

25 Mike August 27, 2013 at 5:05 pm

Hello, I am currently 20at years old looking to join the AF and start the long trail that will lead me to becoming am AF pilot. Am I too old, have I waited to long to meet the age requirements?

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