Posted: Apr 13, 2023
What is the Difference between Navy Pilots and Air Force Pilots
3 seconds to touchdown.

Of the twenty years I was in the Navy, I was flying in one way or another for over fourteen years.  Of those fourteen years, for almost ten years I was flying on, off, in and around US aircraft carriers. From these carriers I flew in the Mediterranean Sea, Pacific and Indian Oceans, North Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf. Many flights I remember to this day. The ocean. The sky. Day or night. Rain, clear, sleet or snow. Occasionally, I had the chance to meet and fly with US Air Force pilots. There was a lot of ground time with these pilots too - formally in a briefing room and informally over a beer and a pool table. Is there a difference? You bet.


You are in your Senior Year of High School. Above average grades. No genius. Good athlete. Not a jock. Mow lawns and wash cars on weekends. Regular High School guy or gal. Your worldly ex-Navy jet jock, Uncle Waldo, replies to a letter you wrote to him ...


Dear My Favorite Nephew,


Congratulations on your selection to both the Naval and Air Force Academies. Your goal of becoming a fighter pilot is impressive and a fine way to serve your country. As you requested, I'd be happy to share some insight into which service would be the best choice. For sure, each service has a distinctly different culture. So ask yourself "In which service am I more likely to enjoy, learn and thrive?"

First, you do not have to attend either academy to become a pilot.  There are multiple programs whereby you can become a pilot in either service.  Both services have college ROTC programs.  Both services have programs where you can graduate from college (without ROTC) and then enter into flight training programs.  Some would argue that an education not from an academy provides a more well rounded education and broader set of experiences.


Anyway, lets take a big picture look at what it is like to fly in either the Air Force and the Navy..

US Air Force

SR-71 Blackbird


The Air Force is exceptionally well organized and very well run. Think of the Air Force like an A-list Fortune 500 company with top notch CEO's, CFO's and the like. Their training programs are terrific. Everything is produced with skillful precision. All pilots are groomed to meet the highest standards for knowledge and professionalism with nary a hair out of place. Their aircraft are top-notch and extremely well maintained. The Air Force employs a very business-like and centralized maintenance, logistics and quaity control system. The aviation maintenance officers  who run the maintenance programs are totally dedicated to this task. 


Air Force bases, offices and lodging facilities are excellent. Imagine the best Hiltons and Four Season hotels, golf or country clubs you have ever been too. A place for everything and everything in its place.


Air Force enlisted personnel are the brightest and the best trained. Their training too is top notch and very subject matter specific. 

F-16 Falcon


The USAF is homogenous and macro. No matter where you go, you'll know what to expect, what is expected of you, and you'll be given the training & tools you need to meet those expectations. Think Ruth Chris Steakhouse or the PGA. Standardization at the highest level of quality.


You will fly and only fly, leaving management, administration and maintenance to those who do not fly. People problem solving will be there, but not your primary focus.  You are a pilot. You will rarely be put in a situation over your head. Know the rules, follow the rules and you will live to see another day.


Over a 20-year career, you will be home for most important family events. Your Mom would want you to be an Air Force would your wife. Your Dad would want your sister to marry one.

US Navy

Night flight makes the man


Aviators are part of the Navy, but so are Black Shoes (ships) and Bubble Heads (submarines). Furthermore, the Navy is split into two distinctly different Fleets (West Coast and East Coast). The mere composition and widely dispersed nature (geographically) of any Navy requires a tremendous degree of autonomy and decision making authority to be delegated to the localist level - all the way to the cockpit. You and only you are the Pilot in Command of your airplane.


The Navy is heterogeneous and micro. Your squadron is your home; it may be great, average, or awful. At every stage of your career you will be looked upon to be a leader; of an 8 person branch, of a 40 person division, of a 150 person department of a 325 person squadron.  A squadron can go from one extreme to the other before you know it. Setting goals and achieving them will consume you body and soul. You will make many mistakes, be way humbled, learn, get your hands dirty, listen to many stories of gut wrenching personal difficulty and prevail. Headwork trumps Standardization.

F/A-18 Super Hornet


The quality of the aircraft varies directly with the availability of parts and the logistics pipeline to get them to you.  Remember, you are at sea and that "last 1 mile" can easily be 1000 miles.  Senior Navy enlisted are the salt of the earth.  They have quite literally "seen it all" and solve many a problem or embarrassement before you wake up in the morning. You earn their respect and you can be proud.


Junior enlisted vary from terrific to the troubled kid the judge made join the service.  The average age of the young men and women who man the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, one of the most perilous and exhausting jobs in the world, is 19! They sweat and swear and dive in front of death to save your college grad rear end.



F-35 Lightning


You will fly in very bad weather and on many hellish nights with no horizon.  You will be scared many times. You will be low on gas, over endless ocean, with absolutely no place to go but to the carrier’s 4’ by 60’ landing area. (The landing area is more than 4' wide but you MUST land within 2' of centerline; hence, a 4' wide landing area).




And then there are the days when you launch into cloudless azure skies or diamond speckled nights and you will be drop-jawed that someone would actually pay you to have so much fun flying through God's great sky The air rushes past you and takes you in her arms.  You will feel the breath of every Navy pilot before you and pray they guide you Home.


Best Air Force movie - Gathering of Eagles with Rock Hudson or Strategic Air Command with Jimmy Stewart.  Neither of these movies cover the later added Tactical Air Command (TAC) but the few TAC movies out there are so lame as to not be mentionable.


Best Navy pilot movie - Bridges at Toko-Ri with William Holden and Grace Kelly.


Tobesure, Air Force pilots and Navy pilots do definitely have one thing in common - fabulous wives and sweethearts; intelligent, beautiful and full of adventure - but -  I must confess the warmest, coolest, kindest hearted girl in the bar is going to want to meet you Tailhooker, and that bar is in Singapore, Perth, Athens, Barcelona ... and in your own home town.


Congrats again,


Uncle Waldo


(1) I would be remiss if I did not state that the impetus for this article comes from another source, from a letter written I believe in January 2006 by a former Navy pilot and author Bob Norris.  The original article is shown below under Additional Resources. 


If you have any comments or questions, please contact me here.


Good luck!


Additional Resources: