Few careers in the military compare to the mystique of being a fighter pilot. Whether in the Air Force, Navy or Marine Corps, fighter pilots are among the sharpest and most well-trained personnel in the armed forces. Though historically a male-dominated field, women today occupy more pilot seats than ever. And with a shortage of qualified pilots, opportunity awaits in the skies for those with the right stuff.
In the Air
Fighter pilots inhabit the skies at tremendous speeds. When flying, pilots must cope with long hours of standard flight en route to missions. But they also must contend with the sometimes crushing weight of gravity during turns or maneuvers. In combat, they may face other top-notch pilots or ground fire from guns or missiles. Some missions, such as in the U.S. Navy, require fighter pilots to stalk enemy submarines from only a few hundred feet up, in all weather conditions.
On the Ground
Even fighter pilots spend more time on the ground than in the air. A typical day involves briefings and meetings on missions. It also may involve time in the "ready room," where pilots wait for their call to duty. The environment here is relaxed -- some may say boring -- as there is a lot of waiting. Outside of flight and waiting, much of a fighter pilot's time involves maintenance and check-ups to make sure the plane is in top shape and ready for any mission.
Not an Easy Life
Some may associate flying jet fighters with a certain swagger, but beyond the pilots' legendary confidence is a career rife with abrupt reassignments and sudden deployments. Pilots must often fly long missions to and from troubled zones at a moment's notice. And as technology advances, remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, replace manned fighter missions to combat zones. Consequently, military commanders are reassigning more trained fighter pilots as drone pilots. And their work environment typically involves small rooms and hours spent monitoring large computer screens.
Women in the Air
Jeannie Flynn Leavitt broke the gender barrier as the first female fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force in the 1990s. By 2012 the Air Force had 60 women fighter pilots. But while more women take to the skies, female fighter pilots must sometimes contend with an entrenched, systemic attitude that flying fighters is a man's job. That attitude may shift, however, now that Col. Leavitt commands 5,000 airmen at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina -- the first woman to hold such a post.