How to Become a Thunderbird Pilot

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The United States Air Force Thunderbirds are one of the most famous aerial demonstration teams in the world and have been performing aerobatic stunts for crowds across the globe since 1953, according to the Thunderbirds website, Due to the nature of the team's flying and the skill required in performances, competition to become a Thunderbird pilot is fierce and is only open to the top aviators in the Air Force.

Excel in and graduate from high school. While the Air Force does not necessarily take into account high school performance when selecting candidates to commission and send to pilot training, high performance in secondary school is required to earn admission into a competitive college. Succeeding early on will only set future applicants on the path to success.

Explore the Air Force's commissioning opportunities. All Air Force pilots are commissioned officers and are selected from among the best of their peers. The Air Force commissions officers through three routes: the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program based out of most major universities and Officer Training School (OTS), according to

Graduate from college while performing at a high level academically and participating in outside groups and causes. If attending the Air Force Academy or enrolling in ROTC, pilot candidates are selected from the most qualified graduates. If applying to OTS as a pilot, selection is based in part on your achievements in college and in the workforce, according to, a website about military flight programs.

Commission into the Air Force and attend Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training (SUPT).

Finish near the top of your class at the end of primary flight training. SUPT is split up into three phases: academics, primary flight training and advanced flight training. At the conclusion of primary, students will select the type of aircraft they wish to fly in advanced flight training. Since Thunderbird pilots fly F-16 Fighting Falcons, all pilots applying to the team must fly fighter aircraft. Students can only fly fighters out of SUPT if they select the T-38 Talon for advanced flight training. Choices are based on class rank.

Continue to perform well in SUPT and graduate from advanced training near or at the top of your class. Select a fighter aircraft if one is available. Perform well in all training while learning to fly the airplane.

Work to become one of the best pilots in your airframe. This means getting on the flying schedule and logging as many flying hours as possible, while becoming extremely proficient in the cockpit.

Apply to the Thunderbirds demonstration team. Applicants must been qualified in a fighter aircraft and at least 750 hours of flight time under their belts. They must also have at least 12 years of commissioned service.


Military flying, especially in high-performance fighter jets, can be a dangerous and often life-threatening endeavor. A career in military aviation should only be undertaken once all of the risks have been considered.