Flying the Flag

Some advice for prospective military pilots

Typhoon fighter cockpit
‘The Office’ of a Royal Air Force Typhoon fighter – Crown copyright 2011

In researching existing material for this article I was staggered at the amount of advice and guidance being offered around the internet on the topic of what the military looks for in future aviators and what to do to improve your chances of being selected. The majority is good, if sometimes outdated, information regarding the actual recruiting process, but this article will assume that you are motivated enough to find out about the selection process yourself and offer you advice about what you can do, before you even get into a recruiting office, to improve your chances of success.

I should say right away that this is going to help you the most if you read it early enough. A fortnight before your filter interview is not going to be enough time for you to make maximum use of this advice; it might give you an idea of how to talk about yourself at the interviews, but mostly it’s pitched at youngsters studying for their GCSEs who already know that they want an office with roundels painted on it and have a few years ahead of them to commit to developing themselves.

Bear in mind that this is one person’s advice, reflecting my experiences; I am not a recruiting officer or selection board member for the armed forces. I do, however have 15 years’ experience in the military, having flown for both the RAF and the Royal Navy and having shared crewrooms, mess bars and cockpits with pilots and other officers from across all three services. With this in mind, I’ll start by laying out the qualities that I think the military looks for, and then offer some advice on how you can develop these qualities for yourself. They are; Leadership, Rapid learning and Self-Motivation.


Don’t take their word for it

One of the top pieces of advice regarding the selection interview is ‘read up on current affairs.’ That’s great, but the board aren’t interested in your media consumption, they want to know if you have a well-developed sense of what’s going on in the world so don’t just take the mainstream media’s view, get to the source document where possible and check it out for yourself. The internet is a great place to get fact, but you’ll have to dig through a lot of bullish*t to get there. Make the effort, and then form your own opinion with facts that you have independently verified. Finally, don’t waste all that effort; in the interview, steer the conversation to your research where you can and be prepared to stand up for your opinion using your basis of facts.

Become expert

Get good at something, and it really doesn’t matter what, provided that it’s something that has technical or academic merit and preferably that you’ve had to demonstrate determination to succeed in. It could be anything; from playing the trumpet to card tricks to computer programming, but it shows that you can stick to something and you’re not going to give up at the first hurdle. In addition it gives you character, sets you apart from other candidates, and gives you something that you can talk confidently about as an authority figure. Even better if it is related to the military or aerospace.

I don’t like heights — what will you challenge yourself with?


Know what you’re good at, and be confident (not arrogant) at doing it. More importantly though, recognise where your weaknesses are and work to turn them into strengths. I was recently asked by a prospective aircrew candidate whether his perceived lack of verbal communication skills might hold him back. My response was that it was a great opportunity to overcome a self-identified weakness. Yours will be something else, but you will have one whether it’s physical fitness, mathematics or public speaking. Identify something that you know you’re not very good at and improve it. Which leads me nicely into…

Challenge yourself

Put yourself into situations where you are likely to be under pressure, even stressed. There are lots of ‘challenges’ that look great on paper, like expeditions or DofE awards, but how much will they personally challenge you? A physically fit person might feel under more pressure organising a large event than running a marathon, so think of something different that will put you well outside of your comfort zone. Remember that the military want leaders, so don’t follow the crowd as a ‘badge collector’. There’s nothing wrong with recognised awards, but setting your own challenges will give you much more to talk about.

The author, aged 17 as an Air Experience Flight Staff Cadet — these opportunities still exist


This is a contentious one, as flying experience isn’t mandatory to join the military as a pilot, and a PPL will probably do you more harm than good in elementary flying training. However, I would highly recommend that you get at least a little flying experience. It might just be a few hours in very light aircraft, but get up in the air and learn about how aircraft work. It demonstrates passion for aviation, but more than that it will help you understand some of the principles of the aptitude tests and it will increase your mental capacity. On a related note, I would also highly recommend that you join the Air Cadets. There will be plenty of flying available and you will learn about life in the RAF, as well as have more opportunities to fulfil other elements that this article covers. You’ll also get valuable exposure to service people and military establishments, as well as opportunities that you just will not get outside of the cadet organisation.

Getting through these gates is only the first step — but it’s one of the biggest

There’s no question; becoming a military aviator is not easy. There’s no formula for a successful application and it certainly isn’t just a ‘learn to fly for free’ program as some internet ‘experts’ would glibly suggest.

The military can give you the opportunity to do flying that would have you imprisoned for recklessness as a civilian, and they will train you to an incredibly high standard to do so; those high standards start at selection. Few will meet them, but it’s by no means impossible. Somebody has to fill those cockpits and if you’re determined enough, I hope that you’re inspired to do something that makes a future military recruitment officer think “this is the right person for us.”

Jon first flew in a glider aged seven, and after that he never wanted to do anything else. He has flown both helicopters and aeroplanes professionally, and in his spare time is a contributor to various aviation publications. He started Get Into Flying as a way to tell people what he's been saying for years. "If I can do it, you can too."

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