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Are pilots tough?

Why the Best Fighter Pilots are Often the Biggest Failures

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‘Fail the trip.’ I said to the flying instructor who’d just flown with one of our top students.

He gave me a confused look.

I was expecting it – my demand, to him, was entirely unreasonable. We knew the student well, I’d read her flying reports from her previous two flight schools and from our own Squadron where she was learning to be a fast jet pilot in the RAF. She was excellent; her flying was above average in all respects – she was hard working and well prepared for her flights.

But there was a problem.

I’d seen it before but it was obvious to me that her instructor had not.

‘Fail her trip.’ I repeated.

‘But she flew well, it was a good sortie, she’s a great student, you know this – why should I fail it?’ he asked.

‘Have a think, brother,’ I said, ‘she’s a ‘great student’ – where’s she going to be in six months time?’

I’ve always been interested in failure, probably due to my own history in flying training. I did well in the beginning, on the small piston-driven aircraft, and then a little better on the larger ones that were faster and had a more powerful turboprop engine. But, it was when I got onto advanced flying training on fast jets that I started to stumble. I put the work in, prepared well, hit the books in the evening but still failed sorties. Some trips seemed to go well, right until the debrief where the instructor would tell me I would need to fly it again; the verdict would come as a shock.

One particularly bad time was halfway into learning to fly the Hawk, the aircraft the Red Arrows aerobatic team use.

I’d just failed my Final Navigation Test for the second time – a key milestone in the course.

My instructor was apologetic, he was a good guy and was liked by the students.

Pilots don’t show emotions; it stops us concentrating on the job so we compartmentalise them and put it in a box on a shelf marked ‘for attention later’ which they rarely get. It’s a curse that will come to affect us in later life as marriages break down after years of neglect caused by a lack of demonstrable vulnerability but today, I couldn’t hide my upset.

‘It’s just a technical fail, Tim – don’t worry about it, you’ll get it next time!’, was all he could say as we walked back into the squadron, the persistent north Wales drizzle adding to my misery.

Failing a flight once is bad. It hits you hard no matter how well you’ve been doing on your course. Often, you can see it coming – you might miss a level-off and bust a height on an instrument departure, stray into an airway on a high level transit or forget to make the weapons switches safe on a range sortie. The flight back is usually silent, the instructor knows they’ll have to fail you for your inattention and you know it too. It’s true that, due to the complexities of the flights, an instructor can fail a student for pretty much anything and often overlooks a lot of small errors – but some they just can’t.

Sometimes, they’d offer to fly the jet home to give you a break and it was often safer that they did.

But, fail a trip twice and the pressure is truly on.

You can tell the students who have failed the same trip twice, they become insular and hide away from their course mates. In fact, their course mates distance themselves from the student, too. They might say that it’s to give their buddy some space, but that’s not true. They’re reluctant to associate with them in case they also start failing trips through some kind of strange ‘unconscious coupling’. ‘Like attracts like’ – pilots want to succeed in their training and falsely believe that failure is of no use to them.

Still, the truth is that, if you fail a trip three times then you’ll normally be removed from flying training. If you’re lucky and there’s capacity at another flight school, you might be offered helicopters or transport aircraft but there’s no guarantee and often it can be career ending.

Brutal but fair and understood by all – nobody said that flying military fighter jets was going to be easy which is why there are fewer fighter pilots in the UK than there are Premier League footballers.

The instructor I was flying with was a good guy and on previous sorties he would often make the ringing sound of a telephone that would continue in my flying helmet until I ‘answered’ it.

‘Yeah, hello Tim, it’s your instructor in the backseat, mate – the good looking one – you might remember me, we’ve spoken many times before. I’m just letting you know that there could be an airway on the nose that you might want to avoid.’

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‘Oh, hell!’ I’d reply as I’d throw the jet into a hard turn away!

All students know that the instructors are on their side, they want them to pass and the majority will go out of their way to help the baby pilots through their flights. After all, instructors were students too, once upon a time.

To a pilot in military flying training, success is obviously important and is the focal point for the majority of students. They will work late at night, come in at the weekends and watch flight tapes of the other pilots to get a nugget of information that might help them survive another day in flight school.

But for an instructor, success isn’t all that important, there’s something that we are far more interested in.

When I was 10 years old, my dad took me on a tour of Normandy with a military vehicle restoration group that he was a member of. He had a motorcycle from the Second World War that he’d restored and, whist he rode his bike alongside the convoy, I’d be travelling in tanks or jeeps and having a great time.

For a small kid it was a lot of fun and I would chat excitedly with anyone who would listen to me, as we made our way across the various battle sites and spent the evenings camping out in the sun-bleached fields of northern France.

It was a magical holiday that was to be brutally disrupted by my father’s inability to control a gas stove in the dark.

One morning, I was brutally awoken to shouts of ‘GET OUT, GET OUT!’ and dragged violently from the tent.

Our gas stove had ruptured, igniting the tent door which had set light to the roof and collapsed it all onto the floor below. My father, who was outside of the tent at the time, dived through the burning material, grabbed hold of me and pulled me out by my feet.

We learn from our parents the most, men from their dads and women, their mums. My father wasn’t big on emotions and to this day I also find them hard to display.

He just wasn’t that kind of guy.

But in dragging me from that burning tent, he demonstrated the processing of failure in a way that has never left me.

I remember us sitting on the bank of the river that he’d just thrown our burning tent into. All of our kit was gone and, in effect, we were now destitute. I could hear some people nearby, laughing to themselves about the fact that our home had been destroyed.

He was embarrassed.

‘I lit the stove inside the tent. That was the wrong thing to do.’ he said, ’Don’t worry, we’ll be OK.’

He never looked at me but just stared into the distance and I knew, in that moment, that we would be OK, because he said that we would.

And I was only ten, and he was my dad.

And I believed him because, in his voice, there was nothing but humility, authenticity and strength and I knew that in that moment, even though we didn’t have a tent anymore, it didn’t matter.

‘That was my fault, I’m sorry that I set fire to the tent – I’ll do better next time.’ he said, in a rare display of emotion.

And as the tent slowly floated away, we sat by the river and laughed.

My father knew that failure didn’t oppose success, it was an essential part of it. He’d made a mistake and was using it to demonstrate what failure does for someone – it allows them to take ownership of the issue and gives them permission to make improvements.

It helps us learn what works and what doesn’t work.

And, that’s what I told the flying instructor of the student who was about to finish at our flight school.

If she failed on the front-line then she might never recover from it.

The higher you go, the further you have to fall and it hurts a lot more, too. I was interested as to why it hadn’t been done at an earlier stage of training but it’s easily missed.

‘Move Fast, Break Things.’ – previous Facebook mission statement

Our over-achieving student didn’t understand failure; she’d done well educationally and in her Initial Officer Training and had won awards and praise along the way. She was a good student but, whether she believed it or not, her internal narrative was one of continued success and that can be abruptly changed by the reality of front-line operations.

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‘Fail her trip because, in all of her flying training, she’s never failed a trip.’ I said.

Immediately, he understood.

‘I get it,’ he said, ‘she’s never had to pick herself up. If she fails at something, at night and whilst all alone over northern Syria, she might struggle to recover. At least we can fail her in controlled conditions and help her to return from it.’

That’s why a good school will teach its students to embrace failure and learn to value it more than success. Success is comforting as you don’t have to look deep into yourself – you can pretend you are learning and, in a way you are.

Success is important as it tells you that, what you have done has worked. But, failure builds the foundation that leads to continued growth which can only come from an honest evaluation of your own performance. You don’t need to fail in order to be successful, but you mustn’t believe that failure opposes success and that it needs to be avoided at all costs.

‘A good pilot is compelled to evaluate what’s happened, so he can apply what he’s learned. Up there, we gotta push it. That’s our job.’ – Viper, Top Gun

Failure teaches a person what my father had taught me, before I went onto become the most senior flying instructor of the flight school that I’d struggled through, all those years before.

Humility, authenticity and strength.

That’s why military flying instructors know that success alone is fragile and that, only through failure, can the real learning take place.

How Are Pilots Trained?

Joe Haygood

Joe Haygood

Becoming a pilot could be one of the best decisions that you ever make, but it’s not something you can do overnight. So how are pilots trained?

To become a commercial airline pilot, candidates have to go through ground school, pass written and flying exams, earn various ratings (including multi-engine planes and instrument ratings), have a minimum of 250 hours of actual flight time, and have an in-depth understanding of flight theory.

Choosing to become a pilot can be an exciting decision. Whether you want to have a prestigious career as a commercial pilot, defend your country as a fighter pilot, or just be able to relax and fly your own airplane on the weekends, you’ll need training to become a pilot. In this article, we’ll take a look at how these various types of pilots are trained so you have an idea of what you’ll need to do to take the next step in your dream to become a pilot.

Our biggest priority here at SkyTough is to provide you (and all of our readers) with the best, most helpful, and most accurate content that we can. We want you to come to our site with the confidence that you’ll leave with the answers you’re looking for. To ensure this, we thoroughly research all aspects of our articles and vett everything for accuracy. So when you read about how pilots are trained, you’ll know exactly what to expect if you’re thinking about becoming one.

Table of contents

‍ How Are Commercial Airline Pilots Trained?

If you want to make a career out of being a pilot, then chances are high that you’re considering becoming an airline pilot. Not only is being a pilot a prestigious and well respected career, you’ll also receive great compensation and all sorts of other perks. Plus it’s just an exciting job all around! It’s no surprise that if you ask a classroom of kids what they want to be when they grow up, you’ll get a handful of them saying pilot.

After all, what other job out there do you get to fly a giant hunk of metal through the sky, tens of thousands of feet above ground, at hundreds of miles per hour? The answer is, well, none. Only as a pilot. So let’s take a look at how commercial pilots are trained and what you can expect if you want to become one yourself.

Something that many people don’t know, even prospective pilots, is that the vast majority of commercial airline pilots already have experience as either regional airline pilots or military pilots. This is why airline pilots are actually some of the best pilots in the world, and also one of the reasons that the salaries are so good and there are so many great perks of being an airline pilot !

That said, let’s start from the beginning. Since I’ll go into more detail in the next section about becoming a military pilot, for this part of the article I’ll assume you want to become a commercial pilot as a civilian, not after serving your time as a military pilot.

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The first thing you’ll need to do before becoming a commercial pilot is to obtain your private pilot’s license. This requires you to pass a medical exam, take ground school (flight training classes), pass a written exam, have a minimum of 40 hours of flight time (usually closer to 50 to 75 hours), and pass a check ride with a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) examiner.

After earning your private pilot’s license and learning the basics of flying single-engine aircraft, it’s time to step it up a notch. Next, you’ll spend time earning an instrument rating. This will enable you to fly using Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) so that you can fly even in poor visibility conditions since you’ll be able to rely on your instruments alone. You’ll also need to earn a multi-engine rating so that you can fly larger types of planes , such as commercial airplanes.

Lastly, you need to obtain a minimum of 250 hours of flight time before you will finally earn your commercial private license. After that, you can then become certified on various airplanes depending on which airline(s) you decide to work for. You’ll likely need to also complete training annually to stay up to date on the various planes and systems. Again, that would be at your particular airline’s discretion and direction.

How Long Does It Take To Become A Commercial Pilot?

As you can imagine from everything you just read about, becoming a commercial pilot is not something that will happen overnight. It requires you to commit some serious time into the process before you even have the chance of landing your dream job as an airline pilot. One thing I didn’t even mention above is getting a four-year college degree.

I left that out since it’s not exactly necessary to get a degree to become a pilot , but the truth is that many airlines do require one on their own. So if you include getting a degree as part of your journey to becoming a pilot, it will take even longer. If you do choose to get a degree first, try to get one in a field related to aviation, mathematics, or science as those are typically the ones that airlines will look for most.

Outside of pursuing a degree, becoming a pilot will typically take around 2 years or so. This includes the training and requirements necessary to earn your private pilot license (typically about 3 months). Then it also includes everything else needed to go from a private license to a commercial pilot license, including earning your ratings, becoming proficient with aircraft, and completing the necessary 250+ hours of flight time.

How Are Fighter Pilots Trained?

Becoming a fighter pilot is the dream of many people across the country — and even the world. The ability to fly the world’s most advanced aircraft, travel at speeds and heights impossible in any other career, and defend one’s country makes becoming a fighter pilot one of the most respected careers in the world. But it’s not easy, nor is it a short process.

Before you can even begin pilot training, you’ll need to have a four-year degree from an accredited school. For the best chance of being selected for pilot training, you’ll want to get a degree in a field related to flight . Whether that’s aerospace engineering or any sort of math or engineering field that looks into fluids, physics, and other similar fields, a STEM-related degree will increase your chances of becoming a fighter pilot.

Once you get selected for pilot training, the fun will really begin. I could go on for days (and multiple articles) about all the different aspects of becoming a fighter pilot, but I’ll keep it a bit short and hit the high points in this article. These are the main aspects of fighter pilot training:

  • Initial Flight Screening is done in Colorado to check a potential pilot’s aptitude for flight and to introduce candidates to what’s required and expected of them during military aviation training.
  • If selected for pilot training (such as Undergraduate Pilot Training at Columbus, AFB), students will begin flying the T-6 Texan II propeller plane to learn instruments, contact, low-level, and formation flying in a relatively easy to fly aircraft.
  • After mastering the T-6, students move on to the T-38 Talon to begin learning how to fly a fighter jet. From there, you can continue training and once complete, you have the potential to be a fighter or bomber pilot.

Keep in mind that only some students will be selected to this program based on current military needs. So it’s not exactly a guarantee that you’ll become a fighter pilot even if you join the military to become a pilot! Including the 4-year degree program, you can also expect it to take anywhere from 6-7 years to complete, so it’s a bit of a commitment just to have the chance at becoming a fighter pilot.

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How Long Of A Commitment Do Fighter Pilots Have To Make To The Military?

As you can probably guess just from the fact that becoming a fighter pilot requires being a member of the military, you’ll need to make a service commitment to remain as a fighter pilot. As a pilot for the Air Force, you’ll be required to commit to 10 years of service, beginning on the day you finish pilot training.

So all of the training time that it takes to become a fighter pilot that we went over above is not included in your 10-year service commitment. This long of a commitment might be off-putting to some, but when you think about the time and money that the government invests in training fighter pilots, it starts to make a bit more sense.

It is estimated that the cost to train a single fighter pilot ranges from $5.6 million for a F-16 pilot up to $10.9 million for an F-22 pilot. Yes, you read that right. It costs the government up to nearly $11 million to train a single fighter pilot. That monetary cost, plus the time cost, and the cost of entrusting aircraft worth hundreds of millions of dollars, a 10-year commitment suddenly doesn’t seem so out of line!

The military and the government as a whole demands a return on their investment. For you, you get world class fighter pilot training and the opportunity to fly the most advanced aircraft in the world. In return, the military expects you to serve for 10 years and to be the best fighter pilot you can be while serving.

How Do You Become A Private Pilot To Fly Your Own Plane?

Since becoming a private pilot is a prerequisite of becoming a commercial airline pilot, some of this was briefly touched on above. But I’ll go into a little more detail in this section for the sake of completeness, just in case you’re like me and you’ve skipped to this section since it’s all you’re really interested in! Becoming a private pilot is the easiest of all three types of pilots listed here, and also takes by far the shortest amount of time.

To start, you’ll need to obtain a medical certificate (minimum of third class) indicating that you are medically capable of flying an aircraft. Next, you’ll need to attend ground school to learn the basics of aircraft and flying. Ground school typically takes around 4 weeks or so, and can sometimes even be done virtually rather than in person. After finishing the classes, you’ll need to complete the FAA written exam before moving onto actual flight.

After passing your written exam, you’ll need to complete at least 40 hours of actual flying. This flying must include daytime and nighttime flights, cross-country flights, solo flights, and flying with an instructor. Although the 40 hours required is a minimum, students often take 50 — 75 hours or more of flight training before they feel proficient and confident enough.

The final step is passing your check ride with an FAA examiner. During the flight, the examiner will monitor how well you plan the flight, handle maneuvers, communicate with ATC, and respond to all directions from them. Once you pass the check ride, you will officially earn your private pilot’s license and be able to fly on your own. Expect the entire process to take around 3 to 4 months on average.


Joe Haygood

After spending years watching every video I could find about flying, I finally scratched the itch and got my pilots license. Now I fly every chance I get, and share the information I learn, here.

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Do pilots listen to music in the cockpit?

No points for second place.

With the reboot of everyone’s favorite fighter pilot epic hitting the big screen in a few weeks, many of us are throwing on our aviator shades and dreaming of hitting the Highway to the Danger Zone. But how hard is it really to become a fighter pilot? For starters, you’ll need a healthy dose of bravado, determination, intellect and skill if you want to get some air under your butt as a pilot in America’s fighter jets. These multi-million dollar, air-superiority fighters can rain down a deadly vengeance the likes of which most of us can barely grasp — so it’s understandable that pilots are expected to be hot sh*t before they’re handed the keys. There’s good reason why fighter pilots are notorious for their hubris: The road to becoming a fighter pilot in the USAF, USMC or Navy ain’t easy by any stretch. So, just how hard is it to become a fighter pilot? The short answer: Very. Here’s a glimpse of what it takes to make it through the competitive selection process and grueling training to earn their wings:

Physical Requirements

First, there’s some strict physical requirements that must be met if you want to fly America’s most advanced aircraft. You must be under the age of 33 at the time of passing your selection board, with excellent physical health and no drug use or medical conditions such as asthma, allergies or ADHD. Aside from the physical conditioning and fitness required, your body must be the right dimensions to fit inside the cockpit, and naturally be built for the job. That means you’ll need a height of 34 to 40 inches when sitting, with adequate arm span to fluidly operate the controls, plus the correct sitting eye height. Color blindness is not an option, as you’ll need the ability to distinguish between colored lights in the cockpit. Additionally, a minimum of 20/30 vision without corrective lenses is required by most branches, with good depth perception. Some programs may disqualify you for having corrective eye surgery too, so be sure to check this detail.

Next up, your weight and body fat percentage must be within a certain range based on your height, which is calculated to guarantee safe operation of an ejection seat. Furthermore, you can’t be too tall, and measuring over 6’5″ is a disqualifier for medical safety reasons in most branches. If you’re over that height, your heart will have to work too hard to pump blood to your brain when under the strain of high G forces. In a nutshell, you must be physically fit without being too tall and have great eyesight to boot. It’s little wonder there are so few people naturally suited to these exacting standards!

Education Standards

Next, there are pretty lofty education standards to reach. Every fighter pilot in the US military regardless of branch must first become an officer. That means achieving a bachelor’s degree from a college institution, or a military academy like ROTC. While the degree you study doesn’t have to be in aeronautics or aircraft engineering, it can be a significant leg-up. Your BA is mainly a reflection on your ability to dedicate yourself to learning and absorbing new information, so it could be in any topic of your choosing. Once joining the military branch of your choice and completing a bachelor’s degree, cadets must meet certain qualifications before attending Officer Training school. Next, there’s the initial flight training and an undergraduate program before the stiff competition of fighter pilot selection begins. Additionally, you’ll need to pass exams regarding aircraft operating procedures, navigation, flight theory and mission tactics, plus meteorology to decode the weather conditions.

Specialized Endurance Training

Finally, intense training and endurance benchmarks must be met to prove a pilot’s ability to execute their missions. During the 2-year pilot training, cadets are subjected to tough physical challenges to ensure they’ll be able to perform under extreme conditions in the cockpit. Among the physical requirements to be fighter-pilot-fit, a good G-Force tolerance is critical. Pilots undergo sessions in High-G simulators where they practice the «Hook Maneuver», a systematic breathing and muscle-flexing technique that helps shunt blood to the brain when the body is exposed to high G’s. This allows pilots to maintain consciousness during dogfights with enemy aircraft — so they can pull tight turns during combat maneuvers, securing a tactical advantage behind their opponent. Flight training is grueling, with a strong focus on combat readiness, plus the fitness, reflexes and instinct required to fly these incredible pieces of machinery. Qualified fighter pilots are masters of aerial physics, but even once passing this portion of the training, they must still compete against their classmates for a limited number of positions actually flying the fighters.

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