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Become an Air Force Pilot: Step-by-Step Career Guide

The United States Air Force is a branch in the armed forces responsible for aerial warfare. Air Force pilots fly a variety of aircraft, including bombers, transport planes, fighters and tankers. Individuals become pilots in the Air Force by receiving an officer rank and completing extensive flight training.

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Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

The U.S. Air Force does not require pilots to have specific majors (www.airforce.com). However, degrees in aviation allow students to complete flight training and courses in aerodynamics, aviation laws, aviation meteorology and aircraft systems. Students who enroll in Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) in college or attend the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) can become officers after graduating.

In the AFROTC, students complete field training and take extra classes in aerospace, leadership, Air Force organizations, military laws and military customs. Students who attend the USAFA can take airmanship courses that allow them to practice free fall parachuting and possibly make solo flights.

Step 2: Meet Officer Qualifications

Individuals must be 18-34 years old and U.S. citizens in order to pursue Air Force officer training. Aspiring officers take the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test (AFOQT), and must receive at least a ten for the quantitative and 15 for the verbal composite scores.

The AFOQT consists of 12 subtests, including general science, arithmetic reasoning, verbal analogies, instrument comprehension and math. Officer applicants must also pass physicals and background checks at a Military Entrance Processing Station.

Step 3: Attend Officer Training School

Officer applicants who did not participate in AFROTC or graduate from the Air Force Academy must attend the Officer Training School. To guarantee trainees are capable of daily physical conditioning, instructors administer the Air Force Physical Fitness Test the first week of training.

The 2-month training program includes classroom lessons in a variety of topics, such as problem-solving, team-building, military customs and courtesies, Air Force standards, terrorism and military history. Trainees also complete field exercises in land navigation, first aid, self-defense, tactical marches and base defense.

Step 4: Pass Initial Flight Screening

Air Force officers begin flight training by passing Initial Flight Screening (IFT), which is a process that allows instructors to assess a candidate's ability and desire to learn aviation skills. Instructors use the Diamond DA20-C1 aircraft to introduce pilot candidates to aviation basics prior to entering advanced training. Candidates must have a flight physical and Student Pilot Certificate before attending IFT.

Step 5: Complete Undergraduate Pilot Training

Officers become Air Force pilots after finishing Undergraduate Flight Training (UPT). The first phase of UPT is known as T-37 Training because officers make over 60 flights in the Cessna T-37 jet. While flying the T-37, officers learn navigation, aerobatics, formation and how to rely on aircraft instruments, according to the U.S. Army Recruiting Command (www.usarec.army.mil).

After T-37 training, officers are placed on the airlift/tanker or bomber/fighter tracks. Assignments are determined by officers' preferences, aircraft availability and training evaluations. Upon receiving track assignments, officers receive specialized training where they develop the skills needed to operate the specific type of aircraft.

The lowest rank for an Air Force officer is second lieutenant, and the U.S. Department of Defense indicated in 2013 that the base pay rate for O-1 officers with less than two years' experience is $2,876.40. The U.S. Air Force increases an officer's pay as she or he gains experience and rank, and some bonuses are available for those with special skills and training.

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