How the U.S. Air Force Works

Joining the Air Force

The first thing everyone wants to know about joining the Air Force is, "How do I become a pilot?" Only officers in the Air Force become fighter pilots, and they are rare even among the officer corps. The overwhelming majority of Air Force personnel stay on the ground to do their jobs. In facto, only four percent of all Air Force personnel are pilots.

All enlisted personnel go through a six-week basic training program at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Like all military basic training programs, this one teaches the enlistees the military's way of doing things, puts them through grueling physical challenges and gives them the core skills they will need to function in the Air Force. From basic training, Airmen move on to Tech Training, conducted at several Air Force Bases around the United States. The Tech Training programs start the Airmen down their career path, teaching them the technical skills necessary to work in medical services, air traffic control, aircraft repair, computers and networking, or many other possible career tracks. It is possible to receive additional technical training later in one’s Air Force career.

Medics working on wounded.
Photo courtesy of the United States Air Force/Staff Sgt. Thomas J. Doscher
Doctors and nurses at Task Force Medical struggle to save the life of an Afghan civilian caught in the blast of a suicide bomber's attack.

Those who want to join the Air Force as an officer (and possibly some day fly a fighter jet) have several choices. Officer Training School (OTS) is a longer, tougher version of basic training -- graduates are commissioned at the rank of Second Lieutenant. Enlisted personnel may be eligible for OTS. The Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program gives potential officers the chance to train while attending college, receiving their commission when they graduate. The Air Force Academy is the most prestigious avenue to becoming an Air Force officer. Application requires a Congressional nomination. Cadets endure four years of extremely rigorous physical and academic training before graduating and becoming commissioned officers.

Air Force fighter jet.
Photo courtesy of the United States Air Force
United States Army Corps plane.

Back to the question of becoming a pilot -- all officers attend a technical training school, just like enlisted personnel. Officers who want to become pilots will put in a request to attend pilot training. However, a lot of people want to be pilots, and not everyone gets that opportunity. Competition is fierce, and only the top candidates will ever make it through flight school.