Navy Pilot vs. Air Force Pilot
General Military Questions

Navy Pilot vs. Air Force Pilot

What’s the difference between Navy pilots vs. Air Force pilots?

Is one better than the other?

While there are overall some subtle differences, the truth is that both Navy pilots and Air Force pilots are highly respected and equally skilled.

With that said, of course, there are differences…

Read the full article below to learn more about the requirements, training, duty stations, aircraft, and more about each military flight program.

Fast Facts

air force fighter pilot
Surprisingly, both the Air Force and Navy currently have shortages in the number of pilots in their respective branches, making it a prime time to consider joining. Image: Pixabay

Here are a few fast facts about Air Force pilots:

  • Pilots Currently on Active Duty: 12,243
  • Minimum Education: bachelor’s degree
  • Ages: 18-33 (for pilot training)
  • Requirements: Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI)
  • Training: Completion of Officer Training School (OTS), Air Force Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training, and other requirements.

And a few fast facts about Navy pilots:

  • Pilots Currently on Active Duty: 7,000
  • Minimum Education: bachelor’s degree
  • Ages: 19-32 (for pilot training)
  • Requirements: Vary depending if you are currently serving in the Navy, served before, or never served in the military.
  • Training: Completion of Officer Candidate School (OCS), Naval Flight Training, and other requirements.

Navy Flight School Locations

  • Naval Air Station Whiting Field, Florida
  • Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas

Air Force Flight School Locations

  • Sheppard AFB, Texas
  • Columbus AFB, Mississippi
  • Laughlin AFB, Texas
  • Vance AFB, Oklahoma

Related ArticleHow To Get Into The Air Force Academy

Navy Aircraft in Service

Though the list does not include every single piece of aircraft still active in the Navy, here are some of the most popular examples:

  • F/A-18 Hornet
  • F-35 Lightning II
  • E-2 Hawkeye
  • E-6 Mercury
  • EA-18G Growler
  • P-3 Orion / EP-3 Orion
  • P-8 Poseidon

Air Force Aircraft in Service

Though the list does not include every single piece of aircraft still active in the Air Force, here are some of the most popular examples:

  • A-10 Thunderbolt II
  • B-52 Stratofortress
  • F-15C Eagle
  • F-16C Fighting Falcon
  • F-22 Raptor
  • F-35A Lightning II
  • C-130H Hercules
  • KC-135R Stratotanker
  • E-8 Joint STARS
  • U-2 Dragon Lady
  • C-5 Galaxy
  • C-17 Globemaster III

Difference #1 – Requirements

navy vs. air force
The requirements for becoming a pilot in the Navy or Air Force are demanding. It takes aspiring pilots several years to earn their wings. Image: Flickr

Even though you might assume that Navy pilots and Air Force pilots are in high demand, the reality is that both military branches are currently facing shortages.

In fact, both military branches report they are about short of pilots needed in critical areas.

While there’s certainly no shortage of potential pilot candidates, the biggest issue plaguing both branches comes down to one thing: retention.

It’s just very difficult to compete with the airlines, which offer competitive pay, benefits, and a relaxed flying schedule.

With all of this said, here are the requirements for both Air Force and Navy pilots:

Air Force Pilot Requirements

You do not become a pilot overnight in the U.S. Armed Forces, regardless of the branch.

First, you need at least a bachelor’s degree from a university or the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

The college degree is typically related to the sciences such as aerospace engineering or physics.

Related Article: How To Join The Space Force

Secondly, you need to meet physical requirements like:

  • Between the ages of 18-33
  • A citizen of the United States
  • Pass a Flying Class I physical
  • Between the heights of 5’4″ and 6’5″
  • Vision at least 20/30 in each eye for near vision
  • Vision at least 20/70 for distant vision (correctable to 20/20)

The Air Force also disqualifies candidates who are color blind, have poor depth perception. Thankfully, the USAF now allows pilot candidates who have had Lasik or PRK eye surgery.

There are other unique disqualifiers like a history of asthma or hay fever.

Air Force pilots are officers with at least a rank of Second Lieutenant (O-1).

You can attain officer rank through a few different avenues including attending Officer Training School or the Air Force Academy.

Candidates must also earn a passing score on the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test.

Priority is presented to candidates with civilian flight training though it is not required to have a private pilot’s license before attending pilot training in the Air Force.

Related ArticleAir Force Aerospace & Operational Physiology (4M0X1): Career Details

Navy Pilot Requirements

Aspiring Navy pilots are between the ages of 19 and 31.

Candidates also need to have a bachelor’s degree in science from an accredited college or university.

Prospective pilots are tested on the Aviation Selection Test Battery (ASTB) and must pass with a qualifying score.

Other requirements include:

  • United States citizen
  • Pass an Aviation Physical Exam
  • Between the heights of 5’2″-6’5″ 
  • Uncorrected distance visual acuity of 20/100 – 20 / 400 or better in each eye, depending on the service class.
  • Corrected distance visual acuity of 20/20 or better in each eye.
  • Corrected near visual acuity of 20/20 or better in each eye.

As you can imagine, the Navy takes your vision and physical health very seriously for pilot school training.

There are several disqualifying factors including colorblindness and issues with depth perception.

Navy pilots are also officers who attain the rank through different methods depending on whether they are already on active duty, previously served in the military, or never served in the military.

Related Article: Coast Guard Pilot Requirements

Difference #2 – Pilot Training

air force pilot
Air Force and Navy pilot school takes some time and effort yet the eventual reward is unrivaled. Image;

It takes years to even get considered for pilot training, which indicates how difficult it is to become a pilot.

However, given that there is a current shortage of pilots in both the Navy and Air Force, there has never been a better time to consider joining up.

Here is the training you can expect in both the Air Force and Navy:

Air Force Pilot Training

Candidates who make it to pilot training are among the select few to even reach that level.

Pilot training takes place in two stages at the Air Education and Training Command at Randolph Air Force Base (San Antonio).

The training includes Initial Flight Training (IFT), as well as specialized undergraduate pilot training.

It generally takes less than two years to go from indoc to winging in the Air Force.

Initial Flight Training is conducted at Pueblo, Colorado, and is intended for candidates without a civilian pilot’s license.

Students also spend just as much time in the classroom during Initial Flight Training learning concepts and flight techniques.

Specialized undergraduate pilot training takes a year and is a combination of classroom learning, simulator training, and actual flying.

Students advance to one of four training tracks based on class standing.

For example, becoming a fighter pilot is earned by being one of the top performers in the classroom where you get the rare opportunity of specializing in aircraft like the T-38. 

Related Article: Marine Corps Pilot Requirements

Navy Pilot Training

Navy pilots take about the same amount of time as Air Force pilots to go from indoc to winging.

Pilots are officers, so you need to attain that rank before advancing to pilot school.

There is a six-week introductory course conducted at the Naval Aviation Schools Command in Florida.

Navy pilot training continues with Training Air Wing Five at NAS Whiting Field (Florida) or Training Air Wing Four at NAS Corpus Christi (Texas).

Students get their first hands-on experience piloting a Beechcraft T-6B Texan II or T-34C Turbomentor.

Initial pilot training in the Navy lasts approximately six months.

Secondly, Naval pilots progress to one of four advanced flight training paths:

  • E-6B Mercury
  • Multi-Engine Propeller (Maritime Patrol) Aircraft
  • Helicopters
  • Tailhook Aircraft

Your placement is determined by the needs of the U.S. Navy as well as your performance during training.

The biggest difference between the Air Force and Navy pilot training is that Navy pilots also need to learn the extra skill of landing on aircraft carriers.

Learning how to land on aircraft carriers is a challenging, time-consuming, and dangerous type of training that some SNAs are unable to master.

Upon graduation from Navy flight school, pilots receive gold wings.

Then they are assigned to a new military base where they will learn to master the aircraft they are assigned.

Related ArticleHow To Get Into The US Naval Academy: 5 Challenging Steps

Difference #3 – Duty Stations

navy vs. air force pilot
Navy pilots get the thrilling yet risky opportunity to take off and land on aircraft carriers. Image: Flickr

Duty stations are places that service members report to during service.

When deciding between the Air Force or Navy for pilot school, you also want to consider the different duty stations.

Primarily, AF pilots serve on bases throughout the United States as well as around the world.

Navy pilots traditionally serve on aircraft carriers at sea or military bases on shores like the East and West Coasts.

Sometimes, the final decision as to what military branch you join comes down to nothing more than the different duty stations:

Air Force Duty Stations

The Air Force is a well-oiled machine that many people agree is one of the finest military branches to join.

The Air Force takes very good care of its airmen, including its pristine and luxurious duty stations.

For example, did you know that many AF bases throughout the world have added luxuries like swimming pools and golf courses?

The Air Force also has state-of-the-art international bases in places such as Incirlik, Turkey, and Bagram, Afghanistan.

Here are some of the most prominent Air Force bases in the world:

  • Scott AFB, Illinois
  • Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio
  • Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas
  • Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska
  • Luke AFB, Arizona
  • MacDill AFB, Florida
  • Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia

Some of the finest international AF bases include:

  • Andersen AFB, Guam
  • Kadena Air Base, Japan
  • RAF Lakenheath, UK
  • Ramstein Air Base, Germany

Related Article: Army Helicopter Pilot Requirements

Navy Duty Stations

Navy duty stations for pilots are unique because most of them are mobile.

Pilots traditionally serve on aircraft carriers yet plenty of stationary Naval bases also exist.

You need to master the additional training of landing on aircraft carriers but serving on one is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Navy pilots get to see the world by sea and the experience is difficult to match elsewhere.

Some of the most prominent stationary Naval bases for pilots include:

  • Naval Base San Diego, California
  • Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida
  • Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii
  • Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia
  • Naval Base Kitsap, Washington
  • Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia
  • Naval Air Station Lemoore, California
  • Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas

Difference #4 – Aircraft

fighter jet pilot
AF pilots fly sophisticated jets like the F-22 Raptor. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Air Force pilots and Navy pilots both operate some incredible aircraft.

While the two branches generally operate different aircraft, in the future both the Navy and Air Force will utilize F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.

Deciding which branch to join based on aircraft is extremely difficult given the impressive arsenals:

Air Force Aircraft

Air Force fighter pilots are assigned the F-15EX Eagle II, F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-22 Raptor, or F-35 Lightning II.

The F-15 Strike Eagle and F-15EX Eagle II are twin-engine jets that originated in the early 1970s and are still used heavily in the Air Force.

It is among the most successful modern fighters with over 100 victories and no losses in aerial combat.

Meanwhile, the F-22 Raptor looks as cool as its name.

The fifth-generation single-seat jet is much more modern as it made its debut in 2005.

The F-22 Raptor is primarily used for air attacks as well as ground attacks, electronic warfare, and signal intelligence.

Its combination of aerodynamic performance, situational awareness, and stealth is unprecedented.

The Air Force also has an esteemed flight demonstration team known as the Thunderbirds.

The Thunderbirds fly F-16 Fighting Falcons, and many pilots aspire to one day become a member of this incredible team.

Navy Aircraft

Navy fighter pilots generally get assigned a one or two-seat version of the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet.

The F/A-18E is the single-seat version while the F/A-18F is tandem.

The Super Hornet has tremendous capabilities as it can carry air-to-air missiles and air-to-surface weapons.

It also has an internal 20mm M61A2 rotary cannon.

The Super Hornet made its debut in the mid-90s and has been utilized by the U.S. Navy since 2001.

It replaced the Grumman F-14 Tomcat which was officially retired in 2006.

The Navy Blue Angels are a sight to behold.

I had the special opportunity of watching a demonstration last summer with their F/A-18s.

It was one of the most impressive things I have ever witnessed and can see why countless Navy pilots strive to become Blue Angels one day.

Difference #5 – Missions

navy pilots
Air Force pilots receive specialized missions in air-to-air, while Navy pilots receive broader types of missions. Image: Wikipedia

Related Article:  41 Questions To Ask A Military Recruiter

The missions of Air Force pilots and Navy pilots vary based on the overall objectives of both military branches.

Air Force pilots are considered more specialized because of their air-to-air role.

An air-to-air role is defined as military combat where there is a battle between aircraft where bullets or rockets are fired.

USAF pilots also specialize in radar and intercept work as part of their air-to-air duties.

Air Force pilots also assume the offensive role by manning combat air patrol stations and conducting fighter sweeps through hostile airspace in the event of an adversary that poses a serious threat in the air.

On the other hand, Navy pilots focus on multi-mission aircraft so they tend to have a more versatile list of duties.

While it is important that Navy pilots remain skilled at dog-fighting and other air-to-air roles, the list of possibilities is nearly endless.

Navy pilots do possess the amazing skill of being able to land and take off from tricky aircraft carriers.

The stick and rudder skills, along with the intense focus and training make landing on an aircraft carrier an impressive feat to watch.


So in the end, which one is better?

What a difficult question to answer for aspiring pilots considering both military branches!

While the training and requirements are comparable, some fighter pilots prefer the added challenge of joining the Navy because of the need to land on aircraft carriers.

Regardless, both military branches are currently facing a shortage of qualified pilots, which means now has never been a better time to consider becoming one.

The Air Force or Navy – Which military branch will you join?

Related Article: Which Branch Of The Military Should I Join? 7 Things To Consider

Rob V.

General FAQ

What's the difference between a Navy pilot and an Air Force pilot?

The main difference between USAF and Navy pilots is the aircraft type and size. While both fly fighters, Navy pilots use smaller aircraft for use on aircraft carriers. USAF pilots also fly cargo and test aircraft.

Does Navy have more pilots than the Air Force?

Currently, the Air Force has 12,243 pilots on active duty, while the Navy maintains a force of 7,000 active duty pilots. There is currently a shortage of qualified pilots in both branches.

Which military branch is the easiest to become a pilot?

Requirements to become a pilot in the USAF and Navy are similar, and training takes a little less than two years to complete in both branches.

How often do USAF pilots fly?

Actual flight hours vary by rank, resources, and additional duties, but current numbers state that USAF pilots average 17.8 hours a month, with 20 hours considered optimal.

What is a fighter pilot salary?

Fighter pilots in the Navy and USAF are paid according to rank and time in service. A 10-year captain makes $7,340 base pay a month. They also receive monthly aviation pay and other allowances as well as retention bonuses.

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