Air Force Careers
Life gets pretty exciting for helicopter crews flying for the U.S. Air Force. “Flying at 50 to 100 feet above the trees is exciting enough, but doing it using night vision goggles is a rush that’s difficult to describe,” says Capt. Chris Elam, is a combat search and rescue pilot.
Elam is a “jolly green giant,” the nickname given to Air Force search and rescue pilots (jollygreen.org). His mission is to rescue pilots shot down behind enemy lines during wartime. He also performs civilian search and rescue missions during times of peace.
Careers in the Air Force
Air Force careers require a lot of training and education. Although there is currently a severe shortage of Air Force pilots, the selection process for military pilot training is still very competitive. All pilots begin their Air Force careers by becoming Air Force officers. There are three ways to become an officer: through a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program, the United States Air Force Academy (usafa.af.mil) or officer training school.
Elam attended the Air Force Academy’s preparatory school. After a year at the school, he entered the Air Force Academy as a freshman. “The work from day one was very difficult,” Elam says. “However, I firmly believe that anyone who can get into the Academy can graduate. It’s not about smarts. It’s about endurance and commitment.”
Elam began preparing for the Academy at a young age. When he was 11 years old, a friend talked him into enrolling in Civil Air Patrol, an aviation group that worked closely with the Air Force. By the time he was 14, Elam was hooked on flying. He earned a student glider license, which he says is one of his best flying experiences so far.
Elam chose the Academy because he knew he wanted to fly planes. The Academy offered the most number of pilot-training opportunities to its graduating officers. After he earned a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering, Elam learned that his admission into the pilot training program would be delayed for three years, due to military cutbacks. “Being delayed was actually a very good experience,” Elam says. “I received two years of engineering experience and went to Korea for one year, where I met my closest friends.”
Elam completed an airplane flight program and was then selected for helicopter training. He resisted the switch to helicopters at first, but the needs of the Air Force came first and he departed for helicopter training. “I wanted to be a fighter pilot, so it seemed I was going in the wrong direction when the Air Force said they wanted me to fly helicopters,” Elam says.
After taking a rigorous course flying the “Huey” helicopter, Elam knew he had found something special. Upon completion of the helicopter program, he earned his “wings” and became an Air Force pilot. It was then time to select which helicopter he would fly on a permanent basis. Elam selected the HH-60G Pave Hawk from three helicopter choices, to ensure that he would become a combat search and rescue pilot. Air Force careers are not all as exciting as being a Huey pilot, but the opportunities are diverse and deep.
Elam then attended a 4-month qualification course to learn advanced combat tactics before he was sent to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan. Now, Elam provides rescues on Okinawa for both the military and for the local Japanese population, though his primary job is to help with wartime rescues.
Elam’s unit is in constant training. They prepare themselves to handle any possible conflicts in the Pacific Rim area. They also prepare themselves to successfully complete night helicopter missions in hostile environments. “That’s one thing that makes us different from other Air Force careers.” Elam says. “Another thing is that we save lives, unlike our fighter pilot counterparts.
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Are Air Force careers for you? The Jolly Green motto is, ‘that others may live.’ We take that seriously.” There are many opportunities for advancement in the Air Force, but some promotions can take time to achieve. It takes about three years for a basic co-pilot to become an aircraft commander. Aircraft commanders can then become instructor pilots. Instructor pilots can later become evaluators. Each pilot has added duties outside of their flying missions.
There’s a lot of administrative work that needs to be done for an Air Force unit. That means a pilot can find herself working as a flight scheduler or safety officer when she’s not flying planes. “That’s probably one area pilots dislike the most, but it offers a lot of opportunity to excel,” Elam says. “Doing a good job at additional duties is an excellent way to get highlighted for advancement.”
Military salaries for careers in the Air Force are based mostly on officer rank and how long the officer has served the military. The lowest ranking military officers start off earning $1,838 a month. That salary increases to $3,210 for captains who have four years of service. Four-star generals can earn up to $10,800 each month. In addition to a monthly salary, officers receive special entitlements.
Pilots can receive an extra $125 to $650 a month for their time in the air. Officers who don’t live on the military air base are given an allowance to cover rent. With these extras, Air Force captains can make a total of $45,000 a year. Officers receive full medical and dental benefits, as well.
An Air Force pilot’s lifestyle is demanding. Pilots have to get used to flying at night. It is also normal for pilots to be away from home for much of the year. Temporary assignments can have a pilot traveling to Kuwait or Kosovo, Turkey or Korea. And while it’s exciting to see far away places, a pilot’s family life can suffer from these frequent trips.
Elam says those interested in becoming an Air Force pilot should begin preparing as early as possible. “Develop good study habits and work hard at academics,” he says. “Earning your private pilot license with as many flying hours as possible helps, too. Learn to be a leader and people will notice.” Elam has enjoyed his life in the Air Force. “My job is stable, my pay is good and military benefits are among the best around,” he says. “I’ve seen much of the world before turning 30, and I fly an exciting mission. What more could you ask for?”
To discover more about Air Force careers, visit NextStepU.com/Careers.