Overview of Air Force Aircrew Careers

In today’s gigantic, technically sophisticated military, not all soldiers are guaranteed the chance to fire a shot in anger (especially if they’ve got a desk job.) Likewise, not all airmen will necessarily set foot on an airplane as anything other than a passenger. If you’re seeking career skills as part of an in-flight crew, or just looking for adventure in the “wild blue yonder,” you’ll need to guarantee yourself an Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC) in the Aircrew Operations Field. This article is the first of two highlighting careers in that field.

Education

Unless otherwise stated, all careers below require at least a high school diploma. Aerial Gunner is the only occupation here that may also be open to recruits with a GED, according to Air Force regulations. But if you don't have a diploma, play it safe and check with an Air Force recruiter, since acceptance of GEDs can change depending on the Air Force's current personnel needs.

Military Requirements

All aircrew jobs require specific medical clearances for aviation duty, and all except Flight Attendant require normal depth perception. All aircrew also require background checks for various levels of security clearance, due to their access to sensitive materials, so keep an eye on your credit report. (See the last of these Three Slip-ups That Are Crimes in the Military so you can't say I didn't warn you.)

Flight Engineer

Two pilots working controls in a KC-135.
Tyler Stableford/Iconica/Getty Images

Today’s large aircraft are too complicated for just one or two pilots to keep their eyes on everything. A dizzying variety of aircraft systems need to be monitored and maintained, and it isn't practical to bring along all the mechanics for the ride. That’s why enlisted flight engineers have to hop aboard. According to the Air Force’s Enlisted Classification Manual, they oversee the safe functioning of “electric, communication, navigation, hydraulic, pneudraulic, fuel, air conditioning and pressurization; ventilation; auxiliary power unit; and lubrication systems.” Got all that? There will be a quiz later.

Education: The Air Force recommends those with a background in high school mechanics and mathematics courses. The two month Basic Flight Engineer Course is given at Kirtland Air Force Base (AFB) New Mexico, Lackland AFB Texas, or Fairchild AFB in Washington State.

Military Requirements: Secret Security Clearance. More

Aircraft Loadmaster

Photo by Staff Sgt Greg Biondo, USAF, courtesy of the Department of Defense.

Here’s a member of the crew whose job is much more exciting than it sounds. The loadmaster makes sure cargo loads on planes like the C-17 Globemaster are within weight limits ​and distributed properly (since tipping the plane on its side should be the pilot’s job, not the cargo’s.) Loadmasters also operate forklifts and other loading equipment and perform pre- and post-flight checks. But what sounds the most fun to me is the loadmaster’s role in airdrops.

When it comes time to deliver supplies to the troops -- without ever touching the ground -- loadmasters are in charge of strapping parachutes to giant pallets of materiel and sliding them out the back of the plane on a carefully rigged rail system. It’s like being the guy that pushes paratroopers out the door, except the paratroopers are giant crates of food and ammunition. Heads up!

For a brief visual primer of the job, here's a handy-dandy video at Military.com (and if you just want to see them drop big stuff out the back of a plane, skip to the 3:00 mark.)

Education: Mathematics and general science backgrounds are recommended. A three-month Aircraft Loadmaster Course is provided either at Lackland AFB or Fairchild AFB.

Military Requirements: Secret Clearance. More

Flight Attendant

Photo courtesy of US Air Force.

Be the only flight attendant on your block to have a friendly smile and a combat aircrew badge. The Air Force operates several military adaptations of commercial passenger planes, such as the C-20 Gulfstream, where flight attendants provide for passenger safety, comfort, and meals. They often cater to military passengers, as well as military retirees and family members on "Space Available" flights. These folks are also the crew on VIP flights like Air Force One -- a coveted duty assignment reserved only for the cream of the crop in the field.

Education: Recommended background courses are home economics, customer service, and speech. Military training starts with about a month and a half at Lackland for Aircrew Undergraduate Course and Basic Flight Attendant Course, followed by Combat Survival Training and Water Survival, 19 days total, at Fairchild AFB.

Military Requirements: This job is only open to those already serving in the Air Force who are at least 21 years old. A Top Secret Clearance, good speaking abilities, and a government vehicle operator license (obtained in the service, not at the dreaded DMV) are all prerequisites. More

Aerial Gunner

Photo by Airman 1st Class Brett Clashman, USAF, courtesy of USAF Air Combat Command.

Ah, the riflemen of the sky. Aerial Gunners bring the fire from above in some impressive flying machines, such as the AC-130 Gunship and the MH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter. The handiwork of AC-130 gunners in the War on Terror became pretty popular in YouTube videos like this one. (Warning: Though not terribly graphic from such a height, keep in mind the video does show an actual combat mission.) Gunners also maintain the weapons in case of malfunction in-flight and assist with other flight crew functions and safety briefs as needed.

Education: A mechanical and electrical course background in high school is recommended. Airmen attend the two and a half month Basic Aerial Gunner Course at Lackland, Fairchild, Pensacola FL, or Kirtland.

Military Requirements: Gunners must have normal color vision and be eligible for a Secret Clearance. More

Airborne Operations (Battle Management Systems)

n flying battle fortresses like the AC-130 gunship, Airborne Operations technicians use radar, communications, and other systems to coordinate the fight. Remember that YouTube video from Part One? You’re most likely hearing the Airborne Operations tech over the radio, telling the gunners which targets are friend and foe, which are off-limits due to the  rules of engagement (like the mosque), and coordinating with mission control for to-the-minute updates of the tactical situation on the ground.

Education: Diploma or GED with 15 college credits. After basic training, the Airborne Battle Management Systems Course at Lackland lasts 28 days.

Military Requirements: Secret Security Clearance. More

Airborne Mission Systems (Communications and Electronics)

 ​​These C-130 crewmembers are responsible for keeping up electronic communication networks and equipment, including “radio, audio, distribution, data, cryptologic, satellite communications, multiplex, electronic warfare (EW), intercept, analysis, recording, broadcasting, imaging, and computer equipment,” according to the Air Force Enlisted Classification Manual. In short, they’re the IT department of the sky. That’s not just a clever turn of phrase: The Community College of the Air Force offers a degree program in Information Systems Technology that they recommend to airmen in this specialty.

Education: High school diploma or GED with 15 college credits. Physics, math, and computer science backgrounds in high school are helpful. Entry-level technical training is delivered in a seven-month course at Lackland Air Force Base (AFB) TX, Fairchild AFB WA, or Tinker AFB OK.

Military Requirements: Secret Security Clearance. Normal color vision. More

In-Flight Refueling

  Sadly, I don’t have a solution for you if you’re running on fumes during a cross-country drive, can’t get a GPS signal, and there’s no gas station in sight. But if you’re flying a combat mission, may I recommend in-flight refueling?

In-Flight Refueling technicians are the gas attendants of the sky. They man KC-135 Stratotankers -- maintaining the onboard equipment, keeping track of the refueling craft’s weight and load, and even coordinating with the pilot who’s getting gassed up to make sure he or she stays in position. (On that note, ever seen someone leave the pump in their car and drive off? I imagine the consequences are a lot more dire for all parties when an F-18 flies off with your pump.)

Education: Here, again, the Air Force likes to see students of physics and math coming out of high school. (Couldn’t hurt if you’re operating a gas station miles above the ground, right?) 28 days of initial job training are provided at Lackland.

Military Requirements: Top Secret Security Clearance and normal depth perception. More

Airborne Cryptologic Linguist

Not all military aircraft are for fighting or transport. Surveillance craft also cruise the skies and listen in on enemy communications. Problem is, we’re not likely to go to war with someone who speaks English unless we time-travel back to 1776. And despite how fun Maverick and Goose made it look to “keep up international relations” with a tactically deployed middle finger in Top Gun, that just doesn’t cut it when you need to gather actionable intelligence. Hence, the Air Force has crew aboard its surveillance craft that monitors enemy frequencies and keeps their trained ears peeled for clues in the bad guys’ native tongue.

Interestingly, this job – unlike earthbound Army Interpreter/Translators – doesn’t require fluency in a particular language to start with. As the Air Force’s recruiting website states, “Persian Farsi, Chinese, Russian, Pashtu, Japanese and Korean are just some of the languages you can learn as an Airborne Cryptologic specialist” (emphasis mine).

Education: Diploma or a GED with 15 college credits. The Air Force prefers students with coursework in foreign languages, math, keyboarding, and computers. Military training at Lackland, ​Goodfellow AFB TX, or in Monterey CA can last anywhere from eight to 23 weeks. “Why so long,” you ask? Well, how fast can you learn a new language?

Military Requirements: This is an intelligence job, so you’ll also need to qualify for a Top Secret Security Clearance. Last but not least, you must be able to type at least 25 words per minute.

Medically speaking, airborne linguists must have “[n]o record or history of temporomandibular joint pain or disorder,” per the Enlisted Classification Manual. (In layman’s terms, you need to be able to talk a lot).

Even though fluency isn’t required, new applicants must take the Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB) in addition to the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) and show sufficient language-learning potential. If you’re already fluent in a language the Air Force desires, of course, you get a pass on that. More