What would I have needed to do to be a fighter pilot?

I was a little boy when Top Gun came out and thought it was impossibly cool. However, I never seriously considered trying to be a fighter pilot because I was wearing eyeglasses by the second grade and heard I would need perfect vision to even be in the discussion. So, what would it have taken to get me in the U.S. Air Force as a fighter pilot circa the late 1990s?

Are you sure you want Air Force? Top Gun is Navy/Marine Corps.

Very good physical health, a height under 6 feet typically, very good grades, possibly an engineering degree or other science degree, excellent marks on the officer candidacy test, excellent marks in flight school…

You didn’t have to have perfect vision - I believe 3 diopters uncorrected was the cutoff.

Basically, because you are competing with many, many people for relatively few positions, you could get cut for lots of reasons if other candidates were better.

Perfect color vision, I’m guessing.

Don’t fight the hypothetical! I’m just asking big picture here, all the services would have generic qualifications.

Stay away from those Puget Sound Debs.


That was my dream too and I took it as far as joining Air Force ROTC in college as a walk-on to pursue it. I dropped the ROTC less than two years later when it became clear that I had virtually no shot of becoming a fighter pilot and only a little of flying a plane of any other type except as a Private Pilot. It looks like we are roughly the same age and the mid to late 90’s were a very bad time to aspire to that type of thing. The U.S. wasn’t participating in any large-scale wars and there was no indication that we would be a few years later so the candidate slots were very limited even on top of the already rigorous standards.

My ROTC Colonel was very blunt with me and I thank him for that. I had the grades and academic ability to do it but I was a little too tall and my eyesight wasn’t quite perfect and my athletic abilities and soldiering attitude were average at best. He said that I could have a perfectly respectable career as an Air Force officer of some sort but it would most likely not involve flying anything myself. The people that got selected for the few available slots back then fit the profile they were looking for almost perfectly and they generally came from the Air Force Academy or were unusually stellar superstars in one of the hard-core ROTC programs.

I take some comfort in the fact that I would not have made it no matter how hard I tried. I take flying lessons and go to aviation museums to scratch that itch and it works almost as well. You have to evaluate yourself to see how much of that applies to you but the chances are very high that any given person, no matter how badly they wanted it, would not have been selected during the period you refer to.

My friend wanted to be a fighter pilot but had blue green color blindness. He ordered every color blindness test he could find and practiced until he could correctly answer, and he got in without them knowing.

He flew fighters for a while and then due to bulging disk issues he switched to something like the EA-6B. Towards the end of his career in the military his CO found out about the color blindness but ignored it due to his years of flying with no issues.

I was a USAF fighter pilot. I started active duty in 1981 & got out in 1989. So a little earlier than you’re interested in.

Here is a thread from back in 2007 asking substantially the same question you’re asking here. Wherein I gave a pretty comprehensive answer. Which was then followed up by another USAF pilot, a USN pilot, and also recruiter to provide a then-current perspective.

I suggest you read that whole thread and then come back here with further questions. Some of the folks in that thread are no longer around, so asking them directly in that thread will not be effective.

Wow, this brings back memories for me…Top Gun came out just about 30 years ago right as I was graduating from high school.

By the time I saw the movie when it came out in the summer of 1986, my childhood dream of being a fighter pilot had been crushed just a few months earlier. To a certain extent, the movie proceeded to rub salt in my wounds.

To back up a bit, I had always wanted to be a pilot. I had it all mapped out…a few years in the USAF or USN flying fighter jets, followed by a career flying for the airlines.

So in high school, I applied to the Air Force Academy, the Naval Academy, Air Force ROTC, Navy ROTC, (and Army ROTC for the hell of it).

At some point in the application process, you go through the DODMERB entrance physical, which takes an entire day. All day long, the first thing the various examiners asked you was, “So, what do you want to do in the military?” I replied that I wanted to fly. At one point in the morning, one of the examiners circled my sitting height. I asked what the significance of that was. I was told that my sitting height was the minimum allowable for an ejection seat.

So things continued until the vision test in the afternoon. For some reason, the Navy optometrist didn’t ask what I wanted to do in the military. Instead, about halfway through the exam, he simply said, “So, I hope you weren’t planning to be a pilot, because you need glasses.” :smack: This was absolutely disqualifying in the mid '80s. (Years later they did allow vision correction, first via radial keratotomy and later via LASIK.)

So I promptly withdrew my Air Force Academy application and ultimately decided on the the Navy (via NROTC) instead. I figure if my vision magically improved or they changed the rules, I could fly…otherwise I would try for submarines (because I had just finished reading The Hunt for Red October).

While I later did indeed become a submarine officer, I never got a chance to even get a ride in a fighter jet (much less launch off a CVN catapult like in the opening scene of Top Gun). The only military aircraft I ever rode in was a helicopter trainer and a P-3 Orion (though I did get a chance to take the controls of both of these for a short time).

I heard that many current non-rated AF officers gripe that if they knew before they joined how unlikely it was that the AF would let them become pilots, they’d have joined the Army where the chances were better.

Engineering or science degree? That would have ruled out one of the pilots in the F-14 squadron I served in. Said pilot had his degree in English literature.

Agreed. Degree area has almost nothing to do with it.

The USAF Academy is mostly an engineering school. It grants other degrees, but the bulk are engineering / scientific. And historically the bulk of pilots come from the Academy.

As a consequence, engineers are over-represented in the ranks of the pilots. But that’s a consequence, not a cause. To think otherwise is the fallacy of post hoc ergo prompter hoc.

"I may be blind,but there’s nothing wrong with my memory!"

A recruiter told my friend’s son that his best chance for becoming a pilot was as an Army helicopter pilot. It turned out his eyesight wasn’t even good enough for that, so another dream was crushed.

I was informed by a friend who had a friend in the RAF, that in one exercise, budding pilots are placed in a simulator and at random moments, the controls are reversed, or mixed around and the pilots are judged on how quickly they cope with, and learn to handle the new directions.

I have no idea if this is true, but it sounds horrific. This is the sort of test I would cry over.

Sounds like a FOAF exaggerated story to me. But you never know.

I wonder if the OP will ever stop back by the thread?

Sure, I’m here. The old thread was full of good info. It confirms that I have too poor of eyesight and am probably too tall to have done it. I sat in an F-16 at a museum and it was TIGHT!

I’ve done a test similar to that. You basically had a hand/eye coordination exercise to do using a couple of joysticks and the rules would change as to what the joysticks did.