What is a Fighter Pilot?

What’s the difference between God and a fighter pilot?  God doesn’t think he’s a fighter pilot. – Unknown

Some people have compared fighter pilots with the knights of old; selected because of their superior skills and courage, they charge off into battle with little or no support to further the greater good.  Though modern training and equipment have taken many of the uncertainties away, flying can still be dangerous, and flying in combat is more dangerous still.  Being a fighter pilot, then, does have the qualities of a noble profession.  Men and women sometimes become fighter pilots because of the impact they as an individual know they can make for the good of their country.  While some want to be nobly fly and fight for their country, many want to be fighter pilots just because it looks fun.  Who isn’t impressed by the amazing acts they see at airshows, from the performance demonstrations of an F-15 climbing straight up into the sky or a formation of F-16s with their wingtips within inches of each other?  Like race car drivers or fire fighters, fighter pilots are a group who live their lives on the edge, are the best at what they do, and do what few other people in the world can.

Flying is undoubtedly fun, and flying a fighter puts a pilot on top of the world.  Fighters are the sports cars of the aircraft world.  Most civil and heavy pilots concentrate on quality takeoffs and landings; in between, the autopilot flies.  Fighter pilots fly; takeoffs and landings are just a means to that end.  They can fly higher than 40,000 feet or down on the deck at 500.  They may slow to less than 100 knots as they fight an adversary or fly more than twice the speed of sound in an intercept.  They roll upside down, zoom, bank, and pull Gs.  A fighter pilot is trusted with the keys to a multi-million dollar aircraft with unbelievable performance and combat capabilities; they take advantage of that opportunity.  Getting that chance requires skill and hard work; those who ultimately are allowed to fly fighters are the “best of the best.”  Fighter pilots do nobly fight for their country; they are the best at what they do; and it is fun.

The stereotypical and popular fighter pilot is the lethal extension of the US military’s weapons systems.  Enduring unceasing and arduous training, they rise when ordered by their country to fly into enemy territory to execute with lethal force the directives of the government.  They most often fly alone, with a single wingman in another aircraft.  They can use their skills to down enemy fighters beyond visual range, destroy a single building on a single block in a densely populated city, lay waste to massed enemy troops, and provide vital air support within yards of army troops on the ground—all on the same mission.  They must combine their expert knowledge of their aircraft systems and capabilities with the dynamics of the changing battle scenario to defend themselves and their fellow servicemen, take the battle to the enemy, and win in accordance with the stated objectives.  One fighter pilot can cause an international incident—or end one.  With a single button, a pilot can take countless lives of those he will never see.  A fighter pilot is trained to kill people and break things; violence is his profession.  A fighter pilot does not hope for war, but if one comes he wants desperately to be there to use his training and bring the combat to a victorious end.  Until that time comes, he will train to fight the enemy and be ready to fight when called upon.  In the words of the military cliché, his job is to fly, fight, and win.

Fighter pilots tend to be “Type A” personalities: intensely controlling, organized, and compartmentalized.  They demand perfection from themselves and from those around them.  Their relationships are often based on criticism, cynicism, sarcasm, and mutual degradation.  Because they are often successful in driving toward perfection they are extremely proud, which is often perceived as arrogance.  They compartmentalize extraordinarily well:  there is no need for them to “talk it out” prior to a complex mission or a dangerous combat sortie.  They can leave the emotions and conflict on the ground while they concentrate fully on their mission in the air.  What fighter pilots do is fly, and that they love; they have little time or tolerance for “queep,” a term for all paperwork and related jobs that keep a pilot out of the cockpit.  They train hard; planning, briefing, flying, and debriefing a single sortie may take as long as 16 hours, and they may do that anywhere from 2 to 10 times a week.

Missions, even training ones, are intense.  A pilot must at all times know his position in a four-dimensional world of latitude, longitude, altitude, and time.  He must fly his own aircraft, monitor those of his flight, and scan for those of the enemy.  The hundreds of switches in his cockpit must be in the correct position at every moment for every phase of flight; a single switch error can result in mission failure.  Fighter pilots train hard because the risk is high; they play just as hard.  The same pilot who used his skills and training to execute a difficult mission flawlessly on Tuesday may wake up hung over on Saturday afternoon and not even remember the previous night.  Self-confidence, intensity, and aggression run through all aspects of their lives.  A fighter pilot’s favorite vocabulary words are profanities; “God” is just another expletive, and sex is their favorite subject.

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