Air Force vs Naval Academy: Best for Becoming a Fighter Pilot

One question asked repeatedly is whether it’s better to go Air Force or Navy if one wants to fly or be a fighter pilot.  The FAQ of this site answers this question (as well as many others), but there’s interesting and relevant information from the graduation of the class of 2011 that just occurred.

Class Size:  1035
Pilot Training (incl. “Marine Air”): 305 (30%)
Naval Flight Officer: 75 (7%)

Class Size:  1021 
Pilot training:  495 (49%)
Combat Sys Officer: 25 (2%)

So if you attend USAFA, you basically have a 50/50 chance of going to pilot training, as opposed to 1 out of 3 at Annapolis (to be a “naval aviator,” since pilots drive the boat).  By contrast, if you want to (or are medically only able to) fly in the back seat as a systems operator, you’re three times better off going to Annapolis.

It’s also worth noting that the Navy/Marines fly a far lower percentage of fighters (and a high percentage of helicopters) than the Air Force.  For example, the only F/A designated aircraft in the Navy right now are the variants of the F/A-18 Hornet, which number around 700 or so.  By contrast, just the F-16 accounts for nearly 1,200 aircraft in the Air Force (then add F-15s, F-22s, A-10s…).  So if you want to fly a “fast mover,” you’re statistically better off in the Air Force — which kind of makes sense even without the numbers to prove it.

That said, past performance does not guarantee future results.  The Air Force is currently in a draw down of some officers, and the RPA/UAV field is growing faster than manned aircraft.  The USAFA Class of 2011 sent 32 directly to RPA training; there was no equivalent Navy assignment.  The Navy UAV program is still developing, though it is doing so rapidly.


  • oh come on now

    Wow, that is just lazy. A better stat would be percentage of people who put pilot as their first choice. You don’t have a 50/50 chance of going pilot training at USNA because not all 1000 people want to be pilots. Lots of grads want to be SWOs, submariners, marines, etc.

  • @oh come on now

    A better stat would be percentage of people who put pilot as their first choice…

    Valid, to a point. Feel free to provide those numbers, and they’ll be published here. But you might want to add the percentage of people who were medically qualified, since whether they put it as their first choice or not is irrelevant otherwise.

    Most upcoming Academy cadets/midshipmen are looking at opportunity, to which the numbers above speak. The fact remains if you were cadet #400, at USAFA you were assured a pilot training slot. At Annapolis, you were banking on 95 people in front of you not being qualified or not choosing aviation.

    That’s all this shows. If you’re thinking about using these “stats” in your thesis, you might reconsider.

  • oh come on now

    Clearly your goal is not helping people to make an informed decision. The vast, vast majority of midshipman receive their first choice of service selection, and the odds of getting a pilot slot simply are not 1 in 3. You’re weaseling around the realities of service selection to present a biased comparison, and any prospective cadet or midshipman reading your post would leave very misinformed.

    For the record, you can’t put as a choice something for which you’re not medically qualified.

  • Perhaps we need to define “informed decision.” While you may disagree with the analysis above, the bare numbers are provided for anyone to view. By contrast, you have provided nothing more than anecdote to support your position, and you have not refuted the validity of the example above.

    As was said, if you would like to provide stats about first choices, you can do so, and they will be here for all to see.

    As to medical qualification, your statement is generally true. However, the “stats” on medical qualification are as important as “service selection” for those who want to make an “informed decision,” presuming they may end up in a position where they aren’t guaranteed a slot regardless.

    You seem to have a significant emotional investment in what is a fairly benign issue.

  • I appreciate JD’s analysis and the open grace with which he shares. My son just went into the USAFA with fighter pilot hopes and it’s nice to know he made the best choice:).

  • JJKfan,

    Best of luck to your son. The AF is teaching more ISR (between manned and RPA) pilots than all other mission sets combined. On the other hand, the F-35 might be here by the time your son is ready for it.