Fighter pilots Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The pilots of tactical jet aircraft used for defensive posturing and offensive attacks. The men and women who fly tactical aircraft are usually the best pilots available in terms of both talent and training.

The Beginning of Aerial Combat

At the beginning of World War I, airplanes were very scarce and primarily used for surveillance. Both the English and the Germans had aircraft designed to be observation platforms, and that was the extent of their use. Few people seriously regarded airplanes as practical war machines; early military officers, like much of the public, thought of airplanes as expensive toys, frivolous and of little practical use. They were noisy, breezy, hard to communicate within, and dangerous. Typically, their engines would quit at any time without notice, and flight crews would be lucky to survive.

In the early days of the war, it was very rare for a pilot to come across another aircraft in flight. It was even more unusual to come across an enemy aircraft. Eventually, however, that is exactly what happened. When the two pilots realized that they were flying alongside one another, after the cursory waves to each other, they proceeded to fly along a little further. Then one of them realized that the other truly was the enemy and decided that action was required. Reaching into his tunic, he pulled out his revolver, carefully aimed it at the other aircraft, and squeezed the trigger. The other pilot decided to turn and run. Thus, aerial warfare was born.

From those very humble beginnings in World War I, the job and title of fighter pilot has become synonymous with heroism. From airplanes that flew no faster than 80 miles per hour to jets capable of more than 1,800 miles per hour, the duty and challenge of guiding these machines has been one sought after by many.


The fighter pilot must be capable of multitasking, maintaining extreme situational awareness, and working in a very demanding and hostile environment, all the while being capable of using his airplane and its weapon systems to their limits. Fighter pilots are typically young men or women in their late twenties or early thirties. They are college graduates, and some possess graduate degrees.

Typically, they have wanted to be fighter pilots all their lives. They maintain a driving desire to attain any goal they set their minds to achieving. They have probably the most refined single-minded focus of any group of modern professionals.

Fighter pilots begin their careers with maintaining good grades throughout high school and college. The choice of the major course of study in college is not as important as aptitude and attitude. Of course, a technical degree will serve an aspiring career military aviator better than a nontechnical degree.

Fighter pilots must be commissioned as officers in the military services. To obtain a commission, a candidate will take part in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) while in college or Officer Candidate School (OCS) after graduating from school. Another route to a commission is through appointment and graduation from one of the nation’s military academies.

After graduation and commissioning, the newly appointed second lieutenant or naval ensign passes through flight training, a process that takes from two to three years. During the time spent in flight training, new pilots learn all the basics of flying, including formation flying, instrument flying, and finally, aerial warfare.

Fighter Aircraft of the U.S. Navy and Air Force

In 2001, U.S. Air Force pilots could expect to fly the F-16 Fighting Falcon or the F-15 Strike Eagle. Another attack airplane in the Air Force inventory is the A-10 Warthog, the tank killer of the Gulf War. The F-16 and F-15 are true fighters, while the A-10 is an attack aircraft.

The pilots flying the F-15 and F-16 can reach speeds well in excess of 1,000 miles per hour, while the mission of the A-10 does not require such speeds. The A-10’s strength is in “tank-busting” and ordnance delivery. The A-10’s straight-wing design gives it the advantage of more wing area, so it can carry a bigger bomb load than the F-15 or F-16. The integrated gun is also larger, with 30 millimeters on the A-10 versus 20 millimeters on the other aircraft.

While the mission of the A-10 is ground attack, the F-15 and F-16 can perform both missions of ground attack and aerial warfare. They have the capability of attacking ground targets, but they excel in the air-to-air arena.

Navy fighter pilots fly the F-14 Tomcat and the F/A-18 Hornet. Each airplane, carrier-based and used for air-to-air fighting and ground attack, can fly faster than 1,000 miles per hour. While the F-14 came off Grumman’s design table as a fighter aircraft, the F/A-18 was a multimission aircraft from the start. The F/A-18 is intended eventually to take on all roles of fleet defense and ground attack, with the F-14 being phased out.

Unlike Air Force aircraft, there are special considerations for naval aircraft. They have to be able to take the abuse of being aboard ships and dealing with the very harsh saltwater environment. While all tactical jets are built to survive extreme wear, the navy aircraft are constructed a little more sturdily to survive the catapult shots for takeoff and the hard landings required to land aboard a floating runway.

From their floating airfields, F-14 pilots and their counterparts in the backseat, the radio intercept officers, defend the fleet against aerial assault. Depending on the location of the fleet, the threat environment, and the rules of engagement, the F-14’s may or may not become involved in traditional dogfights. Once Navy fighter pilots complete their missions, they must return to the ship. While the Air Force pilots have the luxury of landing on long runways, the naval aviator is faced with the daunting task of landing a multiton fighter on a pitching carrier deck.

Air Combat Maneuvering

Dogfighting, the term applied to airplanes engaged in aerial combat against one another, has come a very long way from the time the first British and German pilots shot at each other from their observation aircraft. From World War I to World War II, aerial combat was refined into a lethal art. Pilots learned maneuvers that would best allow them to get behind their enemies and bring their weapons to bear. In World War I, a dogfight lasted minutes. By contrast, a modern dogfight may take less than one turn to complete and is over in seconds.

If the fight degenerates into a turning fight, fighter pilots put their aircraft through basic air combat maneuvering, which includes maneuvers such as the rolling scissors, flat scissors, the high yo-yo and low yo-yo, and the Lufberry circle, to name a few. These are the maneuvers a pilot would use to gain an advantage over an enemy for a close-in gun shot or an intermediate missile shot.

In contrast to the fighters of the earlier days, today’s fighter pilots have the capability for what is known as beyond visual range (BVR) shots. Depending on the theater, the threat environment, and the rules of engagement, fighter pilots may have the option of shooting down enemy aircraft without ever seeing them. This is dependent on the certainty that any aircraft coming from a certain sector is the enemy.

It is a risky endeavor and has resulted at times in Allied losses due to friendly fire. Everyone operating in the particular area has to be operating by the same rules. If not, there is the possibility of mistakes with terrible results. As a result, fighter pilots tend to be absolutely sure of themselves. There is always a chance that the consequence of any mistake may be fatal to themselves or someone else. Consequently, fighter pilots tend to be on the cautious side, only acting when certain that their knowledge and their actions are positively, literally, and completely correct.

  • Gandt, Robert L. Bogeys and Bandits: The Making of a Fighter Pilot. New York: Viking, 1997. A well-written narrative account of Hornet pilot training at NAS Cecil Field, Florida.
  • Rosenkranz, Keith. Vipers in the Storm: Diary of a Gulf War Fighter Pilot. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999. A personal account of the author’s participation in the Gulf War as an F-16 fighter pilot.
  • Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979. Excellent account of test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base and the first Mercury pilots.
  • Yeager, Chuck, and Leo Janos. Yeager: An Autobiography. New York: Bantam Books, 1985. An excellent read on the life and times of Chuck Yeager, fighter pilot, ace, and test pilot who broke the sound barrier. Illustrates through the accounts of Yeager and others involved in tactical aviation and test flight what it is like in the cockpits of fighters.

Air Force, U.S.

Aircraft carriers




Gulf War


Kamikaze missions

Korean War


Marine pilots, U.S.

Navy pilots, U.S.

Pilots and copilots

Manfred von Richthofen

Eddie Rickenbacker

Royal Air Force



Training and education

Vietnam War

World War I

World War II

Categories: History