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Top Gun: Jobs in the Air Force

Even before Tom Cruise and Top Gun, the air force has always had allure. While the word "army" may conjure images of dirty fatigues and slogging though mud, "air force" conjures images of sleek silvery planes soaring through the air at dizzying speeds.

And while neither of these pictures is entirely accurate, there are opportunities to be had in the air force.

The basic requirements: In the U.S., a high school diploma is expected. Applicants need to be 17 or older -- and at 17 need parental consent to join. They need to be citizens of the U.S. and free of any legal obligations. Don't pretend, since the military does criminal and credit checks.

Then everyone takes physical and aptitude tests. The aptitude test is the key to your future. It judges your aptitude in various areas, like electronics, mechanics, languages, or math.

Many highly skilled jobs require that applicants make specific scores. Someone who wants expensive training in electronics will be expected to score very highly on math aptitude.

This is an important step when considering a career in the armed forces: finding out what your aptitude is, and what scores are needed for the particular job path you're interested in. The military matches your scores and the skills you want to learn against what openings they have.

"We're always looking for pilots," says Captain James Beavis, a recruiter for the armed forces. Though the air force has trained many pilots over the years, the attrition rate is very high.

The Air Force spends $5.9 million training its pilots during their first nine years. After the pilots finish their active-duty commitment, they may be transferred to other duties to make way for newer, younger pilots.

"And they say, 'But I don't want to fly a desk when I can go work for [a commercial airline] and fly a really big plane for twice the salary'," notes Beavis.

Retention is such a problem that the Air Force requires its pilots to fulfill a service commitment. "This key long-term retention initiative will ensure we meet our Air Force pilot needs in the future, and more importantly, protect our go-to-war capability," said Gen. Michael E. Ryan, Air Force chief of staff, in a news release.

Regular recruitment for pilot candidates is good news for up-and-coming pilots. The bad news is that pilots are freaks of nature, and very few actually make it into training, especially into fighter training. Pilots are held to higher educational standards than others -- candidates need a four-year degree.

U.S. pilots have to meet officer requirements. That means a four-year degree, or a stint at one of the service academies. Getting into the pilot program may be among the most difficult in all the armed services.

"It's very competitive," says staff sergeant Deborah Collins, a recruiter for the USAF. "Of all my years recruiting, I only know of one person who made it into the pilot training program."

Pilots are expected to have 20/20 vision and great reflexes. They also need to fit well into an aircraft -- too tall and you may not have enough legroom; too small and you may not be able to see over the dashboard. These physical requirements are essential and strictly enforced.

"We measure the length of their tibias and femur," says Beavis. "Maybe they're okay, but the length of their spine is wrong and they won't fit in the seat."

It's also important to remember that there are all kinds of aircraft, and future pilots may have aptitudes that favor one over another.

"We don't say you'll be a top gun pilot," says Beavis. "Your performance will determine where you'll go. Some have an aptitude for flying big planes with heavy loads so they'll be good at transport, while others may have an aptitude for flying helicopters. So not everybody ends up a fighter."

Candidates with good aptitude, great health, perfect vision, lightning reflexes and acceptable tibias are sent to a pre-selection center where they are put through more physical, psychological and aptitude testing.

Even after all this pre-screening, about 40 percent wash out, says Beavis. Anyone who makes it through all this is then cleared to go on to flight training to become a pilot. But even this isn't a guarantee. About 40 percent wash out there.

The training is rigorous. Pilots get two full years of training, covering aerodynamics, navigation and federal regulations governing aircraft. If you do make it through all these levels of selection, you'll be expected to sign up for at least seven years so the government can recoup some of the money they've spent training you.

Though everyone might want to fly, what's really needed are people with the savvy to keep the planes in the air. "We need mechanics and people who are good in electronics," says Collins. "Someone has to fix them and make sure they're okay to fly."

It takes a team of technical and mechanical specialists to keep the air force flying: computer programmers, aircraft mechanics, flight controllers, aircraft electricians, communications equipment repairers, and radio technicians, to name a few.

Considering the advanced high-tech equipment used, it's no surprise that Collins says, "Someone with a liberal arts background may not be as interesting to us as someone with a good math or science background."

Lori Manning, a retired veteran and head of the Women in the Military project, says the air force is a particularly good area of service for women. "The air force has the highest percentage of women -- I think it's close to 20 percent. The army and navy are about 13 percent and the Marines are about six percent. It's a matter of what jobs there are, and women can do 99 percent of the jobs offered by the air force."

Although it's tough to become a pilot, the air force does provide lots of job opportunities and training, especially for anyone who can prove they have a real flair for math, mechanics or technology. The more you know before you enter, the better opportunities you'll be offered once you get in. Beavis urges applicants to get as much education as they can before applying.

"We're really looking for anyone with a superior education above our minimum requirements. We want kids to stay in school because it's better for them, it's better for us, and it's better for any future employers."


Military Career Guide Online
An excellent resource if you're considering a military career

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point
Check out one of the top military schools in the country

U.S. Air Force Recruiting
Learn more about getting involved

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