The Life of a Fighter Pilot

An Australian F-18A Hornet launches a Sparrow missile

If you’ve watched the original “Top Gun” movie starring Tom Cruise, you might share the common public perception that the life of a fighter pilot is an exciting series of high speed thrills and nighttime partying by handsome, brave individuals who are not overly averse to risk taking.  While this fictional movie is fun to watch and contains some modicum of truth, it does not represent reality.  Let’s delve into the details and explore the true reality of the life of a fighter pilot.

Getting There

The selection process for fighter pilots usually comes at the end of a pilot training course where the instructional staff of the training Squadron discusses each individual candidate’s suitability to continue down the path toward a career as a fighter pilot.  Firstly, only the top echelon, some 10% of pilot training graduates will be considered. The attributes that a candidate needs are an above average flying ability and a good academic record, however, other considerations are also taken into account.  The most important abilities required are outstanding instrument (blind) flying skills, excellent formation flying skills, and an exceptional ability to handle emergencies quickly and accurately along with fast risk assessment and mitigation.

Strong formation flying indicates the student has the capability to think in three dimensions, which is a critical skill necessary to cope with dog fighting with other aircraft.  A study conducted by the Royal Australian Air Force in the 1980s found that some humans have the ability to think in three dimensions and some do not.  According to the study, this is related to the number of interconnections between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The more interconnections, the more likely an individual will be able to process large amounts of information in a three dimensional environment. It is interesting to note that scientists believe females generally have more of these interconnections than males which is why females are more capable of multi-tasking. One could postulate that fighter pilots need to be more in touch with their feminine side, which would dispel the myth that fighter pilots are macho men. An interesting piece of trivia with which to arm yourself in case you find yourself socialising with a fighter pilot in the future. If you’re on a date, you might want to skip the trivia.

While on the subject of socialising, let’s consider the typical personality traits of a fighter pilot.  Fighter pilots fit into a very narrow field of the human demographic and they tend to be:

* egotistical (no surprises there),
* ultra-competitive,
* aggressive,
* very proficient at some sort of eye/hand coordination sport,
* likely to play a musical instrument,
* fiercely loyal to their peers.

Most fighter pilots have very active social lives and generally form strong bonds with each other since they share similar interests and personality traits.  While family life is normally a priority, the high pressure environment, extreme discipline, and intense competitive mindset often leads pilots to release the day to day pressures of the job with a few drinks at the bar. Excessive drinking often leads to alcohol exploitation and can be detrimental to their family environment, however, this diminishes with maturity. The ‘work hard, play hard’ ethos is deeply ingrained into the fighter pilot psyche, that’s for certain.

Lead in Fighter Training

Most Air Forces understand that not every candidate is going to successfully complete a fighter training course. Conducting these courses on a front line fighter aircraft is very expensive and not in the best interests of all concerned.  To reduce this expense, Air Forces worldwide conduct what is known as a ‘Lead in Fighter’ course. This is an interim training course that uses a ‘cheaper to operate’ aircraft such as the BAE Systems Hawk, the Aerovodochody L-39 Albatros, or the  Macchi MB326 to name just a few.

Typically a lead in fighter course will be somewhere around nine months long. These courses teach the basics of combat missions in air-to-air and air-to-ground techniques. The aim of the course is to further test the ability and suitability of students to progress to the operational conversion courses which are very difficult to pass.  As lead in fighter aircraft develop their capabilities and improve to more accurately represent the front line aircraft, their complexity increases and so the courses get even more difficult.  If a student passes the lead in fighter stage of their training he/she is more likely to be successful with the operational conversion.

76SQN 127 Hawk Aircraft flying in formation over Far North QLD

Operational Fighter Training

The operational fighter course is, of course, extremely difficult.  The capabilities of modern fighter aircraft are simply incredible and their combat systems are complex, requiring total dedication to mastering the intricacies of the systems and then using those systems to tactical advantage.  A typical conversion course will take anywhere from six to twelve months of the most intensive human experience yet faced by students.

Instructional staff conducting training are, out of necessity, very strict with students. There is no room for complacency, hesitation, or disregard for operational doctrine or rules and regulations.  While every effort is made to mitigate risks and put safety first in the day to day training activities there is an ever present life threatening danger to all involved. The training is no joke.

On graduation, a student will have been in the pipeline for four to five years and in some cases even longer, a real test of an individual’s dedication and motivation to succeed.  Graduation from an operational fighter course is a huge achievement but it does not end the learning and honing of skills.  A rookie entering a fighter squadron still has a long way to go.

F-16 Fighting Falcons in formation

The Rookie

Becoming a member of a fighter Squadron is a wonderful, exciting time for a budding fighter pilot but the need to keep improving places a lot of pressure on new pilots to a Squadron.  The routine in a fighter Squadron is aimed at maintaining a high level of operational readiness and this means practicing and (hopefully) perfecting all of the skills required to remain operationally effective.  A rookie starts off as a wingman and he/she will be placed as a number 2 or number 4 in fighter formations where they will be required to provide support to their leads.  Every flight is assessed and critiqued in every detail and rookies are expected to make the necessary improvements to prevent repeating mistakes.  Peer pressure and competition are the order of business in every day life of a fighter pilot and rookies are subjected to it heavily until they prove themselves.

Fighter Squadrons typically have a set program that takes the crews through a progressive step up routine to ensure skill sets are kept to a high standard.  In the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) this is referred to as the ‘Categorisation Scheme’. For example, an air-to-air combat program will start off with a simple exercise of 1 versus 1 dogfighting and work up to multi versus multi exercises.  In a multi-role Squadron, the program will move on to air-to-ground missions again working from relatively easy weapon exercises right up to multi-aircraft opposed strike missions where they have to fight their way into a weapon release on a practice target and then fight their way out again.  Opposition in these exercises may be provided by aggressor Squadrons or just another fighter Squadron, the competition is always intense.  These workup programs take around six months to complete.  A rookie will usually go through two of these programs before making the next step in his/her career of becoming a two ship lead if they are assessed as suitable.  From here progression will take another couple of programs to become a four ship leader and Squadron acceptance as a fully trained and qualified operational fighter pilot.

In the RAAF the Categorisation Scheme is divided into levels of progress through the system, a Rookie graduates as a Category ‘D’ fighter pilot and after progression, through the scheme, he/she will become a Category ‘C’ which is basically a two ship lead and competent fighter pilot  (fully fledged).  Sometimes a Cat ‘C’ pilot may also be given four ship lead missions of less complexity. After a number of iterations of the ‘Categorisation Scheme,’ the Cat ‘C’ pilot will be recommended for an upgrade to Cat ‘B’ and he/she will undergo a testing regime to ensure suitability.  Cat ‘B’ is normally the highest attainable category as Cat ‘A’ is only achieved after thousands of hours on an aircraft type and is reserved for the very few in the RAAF.

RAAF McDonnell-Douglas F/A-18A Hornets flying formation during the RAAF Pearce Air Show 2012. Photo: © Keith Anderson.

Fully Fledged

Once a fighter pilot becomes ‘fully fledged’ their responsibility takes on a new aspect as he/she is now expected to become something of a mentor to the newly arriving rookies in the Squadron.  The experienced pilots are responsible for getting the Squadron through the programs and ensuring all pilots are progressing satisfactorily.  Mission planning is a complex undertaking that increases in that complexity as the Squadron progresses through the work-up routines.  Each pilot is required to tick each box of the skill set requirements to show that they have fulfilled the necessary missions to retain their operational status.  Mission planning and briefings take up a large portion of a fighter pilot’s day and when there is spare time they need to be ready for annual testing of necessary items of capability.

Annual testing of instrument proficiency, emergency handling proficiency, and basic flying skills is conducted either in the aircraft or a flight simulator.  While instrument proficiency is expected and can be planned for it is not so for emergency proficiency which, in some cases is conducted every 90 days and are no notice.  This means a pilot will be suddenly taken off the program and sent to the simulator for a test.  Additionally, there are a number of ground exams that are required to be passed including an emergency exam and that can also be no notice.  Morning briefings are also, at times, used as a way of delivering oral quizzes on any number of subjects.  Part of the required knowledge base for a fighter pilot is the ongoing updating of knowledge of potential threats from ground forces as well as, naturally, air threats that are supplied by the intelligence community.

Deployments and Exercises

Deployments and exercises provide fighter Squadrons with a measure of their proficiency as a fighting unit and are a regular occurrence on the fighter Squadron’s calendar.  Workup and planning for these events are usually done in parallel with the categorisation scheme mentioned above.  These events are a highlight of a fighter pilot’s career as they, where possible, will involve one or more foreign ally participation.  The benefit from these exercises is enormous as all participants learn from each other and become adept at integrating their forces with each other.  The social aspect of these meets is also of great benefit as friendships and networking have a lasting result for all involved.

Many of these exercises bring together not just fighter Squadrons but also all of the support elements that make up a successful campaign should it be needed.  These support elements include air transport, airborne early warning and surveillance, air-to-air refueling, satellite assets, communications, suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD) assets as well as ground and sea forces.  Coordination of all of these elements is complex and very time-consuming.  For the fighter pilot daily involvement in an exercise starts very early, sometimes 4:30 am, where a mission coordination briefing is conducted followed by a Squadron briefing, and finally by a flight lead briefing.  Take off happens at around 9:00 am following a precise plan for rendezvous with various other elements including air-to-air refueling and then into the area of operations for the battle.  After landing a mission lead debrief is conducted followed by an exercise debriefing.  Once these briefings are completed the next day’s tasking is issued and planning for that then takes place well into the night.

All involved with these exercises will come away with a higher knowledge and capability giving them confidence in the war fighting prowess of their units.  Of course, there are always lessons learned as it doesn’t always go smoothly so a Squadron will embed these lessons in future programs to address any shortcomings that surfaced during the exercise.

US Air Force F/A-18 mid-air refueling.

Where Now for the Cat ‘B’ Fighter Pilot?

The next step in a fighter pilot’s career is to move on to an instructional tour of duty to pass on that wealth of knowledge and expertise accrued over some five to eight years of flying. In the RAAF this can be a ‘Qualified Flying Instructor’ (QFI) course or a ‘Fighter Combat Instructor’ (FCI) course (USAF equivalent is the famed ‘Top Gun’ course).  The QFI course focuses on the elementary skills of flying and for the graduate, a posting to a training school where flying is in non-fighter type aircraft.  Following a stint in a training Squadron, a QFI can reasonably expect to be posted back into the fighter world to instruct either on a lead in fighter aircraft or even on an operational conversion unit flying and teaching on a front line aircraft.  The QFI course is difficult but, perhaps not as difficult as the FCI course.

The FCI course is exceptionally difficult and students are put through a rigorous regime of missions to test their tactical abilities in all aspects of fighter operations.  Graduates of the FCI course will, normally remain in the operational training unit to train the next set of fighter pilots.  FCIs are experts in tactical planning and conduct of all manner of fighter missions.  Once they have completed a tour of duty in the operational training Squadron they can expect to be posted back to a fighter squadron to manage the categorisation scheme and ensure the proficiency of all squadron pilots.  Naturally, an FCI will be the foremost person used in the planning of the Squadron’s participation in deployments and exercises.

Pilatus PC-9/A of RAAF 2 FTS performing the solo PC-9 display during the RAAF Pearce Air Show 2012. Photo: Keith Anderson.


The fighter pilot, in most cases, will develop as a good man manager and have above average leadership skills sought after in the higher echelons of an Air Force’s command structure and although they might wish to remain flying as long as possible their competitive nature will ultimately lead them to reasonably quick progression into the upper ranks.  Because of a fighter pilot’s ability to think and act quickly, they are also sought after by airlines and many fighter pilots will opt for this avenue to remain flying as long as possible.  In years past fighter pilots entering the airlines had difficulty working with a crew and some were found to be unpopular in that regard however, these days, due to training imperatives, crew resource management courses have [largely] addressed this problem.

Health Problems

The multiple high ‘G’ excursions experienced by fighter pilots throughout their career ultimately takes a toll on the health and well being of many individuals and later life can be problematic for them, myself included.  When the human spine is compressed and extended over a long period of time (think of a piano accordion being stretched and compressed) there are bound to be consequences and lumbar and cervical spondylosis are a common complaint in retiring fighter pilots requiring ongoing medical treatment for the rest of their life.

Defensive lookout in a Hornet

Looking Back

It can now be seen that the life of a fighter pilot is one of continual hard work, competition, and high risk but I think you would find that almost every one of them would do it all again in a heartbeat.  My career started out flying C-130 transport aircraft and I loved that role too but for me having achieved my lifetime goal of becoming a fighter pilot has been a source of great pride.  I was never the best pilot in a Squadron but I would like to think I made a significant contribution to my country.  Sadly, along the way I have lost very good friends who paid the ultimate price in serving their nation, may they rest in peace. LEST WE FORGET.

A Great Career


Posted on October 11, 2021 in Phil's Blog Posts

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