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What They Do

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Fighter pilots fly high-powered combat jets.

In combat, they protect friendly units from enemy air, ground and naval forces. They strike against enemy forces and targets. And they defend airspace against enemy planes.

Since they have so many roles, fighter pilots must know more than how to fly a plane. They must know how to operate the navigation, communication and weapon systems at the right moment. And often, they have to make those decisions on their own with no one to help them, says Capt. Frank Deker.

Fighter pilots usually work eight to 10 hours per day, training and learning new flight exercises. But they must spend a certain number of hours between flights on the ground.

They never know when they have to spring into action. They are on call 24 hours a day. But they do get some notice before they are sent into combat.

"If we're sitting at the breakfast table, we won't suddenly be asked to fly a mission," says Ron Milligan. He is a former fighter pilot. The warning period can be shorter if potential enemies are nearby.

"During the Cold War in Europe, the enemy was only 100 miles away. You were constantly on alert. The same thing happened when I served in Korea. We were stationed very close to North Korea and had to be ready."

Hours can be long during combat. "You just do the same thing every day," says Milligan. "Fly a mission, come back, eat, sleep, get up and fly another mission."

Combat duty may keep fighter pilots away from their families for months. And they risk serious injury or death every time they get in the air -- even during peacetime.

Fighter pilots must be in good shape. They must have good vision and the ability to remain alert. They must pass a medical examination and interview before they can serve.

While many more men than women are fighter pilots, more women are signing up.

At a Glance

Serve your country in an airplane

  • Most fighter pilots fly for the U.S. Air Force
  • You may work long and irregular hours
  • You'll need to become an officer