A fighter pilot or combat pilot is a military aviator trained to engage in air-to-air combat, air-to-ground combat and sometimes electronic warfare while in the cockpit of a fighter aircraft. Fighter pilots undergo specialized training in aerial warfare and dogfighting (close range aerial combat). A fighter pilot with at least five air-to-air kills becomes known as an ace.

Ilmari Juutilainen, a Finnish WWII fighter pilot with Brewster BW-364 "Orange 4" on 26 June 1942 during the Continuation War.[1]



Fighter pilots are one of the most highly regarded and desirable positions of any air force. Selection processes only accept the elite out of all the potential candidates. An individual who possesses an exceptional academic record, physical fitness, healthy well-being, and a strong mental drive will have a higher chance of being selected for pilot training. Candidates are also expected to exhibit strong leadership and teamwork abilities. As such, in nearly all air forces, fighter pilots are commissioned officers. This is also true for pilots of most other aircraft.


USAF fighter pilots heading to their jets before takeoff (2006)

Fighter pilots must be in optimal health to handle the physical demands of modern aerial warfare. Excellent heart condition is required, as the increased "G's" a pilot experiences in a turn can cause stress on the cardiovascular system. One "G" is equal to the force of gravity experienced under normal conditions, two "G"s would be twice the force of normal gravity. Some fighter aircraft can accelerate to up to 9 G's. Fighter pilots also require strong muscle tissue along the extremities and abdomen, for performing an anti-G straining maneuver (AGSM, see below) when performing tight turns and other highly accelerated maneuvers. Better-than-average visual acuity is also a highly desirable and valuable trait.





Modern medium and long range active radar homing and semi-active radar homing missiles can be fired at targets outside or beyond visual range. However, when a pilot is dogfighting at short-range, his position relative to the opponent is decidedly important. Outperformance of another pilot and that pilot's aircraft is critical to maintain the upper-hand. A common saying for dogfighting is "lose sight, lose fight".

If one pilot had a greater missile range than the other, he would choose to fire his missile first, before being in range of the enemy's missile. Normally, the facts of an enemy's weapon payload is unknown, and are revealed as the fight progresses.

Some air combat maneuvers form the basis for the sport of aerobatics:



Pilots are trained to employ specific tactics and maneuvers when they are under attack. Attacks from missiles are usually countered with electronic countermeasures, Flares and chaff. Missiles like the AIM-120 AMRAAM, however, can actively home in on jamming signals.[citation needed]

Dogfighting at 1 to 4 miles (1,600 to 6,400 m) is considered "close". Pilots perform stressful maneuvers to gain advantage in the dogfight. Pilots need to be in good shape in order to handle the high G-forces caused by aerial combat. Pilots flex their legs and torso to keep blood from draining out of the head. This is known as the AGSM or the M1 or, sometimes, as the "grunt".[citation needed]

Defense against missiles


Many early air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles had very simple infrared homing ("heat seeking") guidance systems with a narrow field of view. These missiles could be avoided by simply turning sharply, which essentially caused the missile to lose sight of the target aircraft. Another tactic was to exploit a missile's limited range by performing evasive maneuvers until the missiles had run out of fuel.

Modern infrared missiles, like the AIM-9 Sidewinder, have a more advanced guidance system. Supercooled infrared detectors help the missile find a possible exhaust source, and software assists the missile in flying towards its target. Pilots normally drop flares to confuse or decoy these missiles by creating more multiple heat signatures hotter than that of the aircraft for the missile to lock onto and guide away from the defending aircraft.[2]

Radar homing missiles could sometimes be confused by surface objects or geographical features causing clutter for the guidance system of either the missile or ground station guiding it. Chaff is another option in the case that the aircraft is too high up to use geographical obstructions. Pilots have to be aware of the potential threats and learn to distinguish between the two where possible. They use the radar warning receiver (RWR) to discern the types of signals hitting their aircraft.



When maneuvering fiercely during engagements, pilots are subjected to high G-force. G-forces express the magnitude of gravity, with 1G being equivalent to Earth's normal pull of gravity. Because modern jet aircraft are highly agile and have the capacity to make very sharp turns, the pilot's body is often pushed to the limit.

When executing a "positive G" maneuver like turning upwards the force pushes the pilot down. The most serious consequence of this is that the blood in the pilot's body is also pulled down and into their extremities. If the forces are great enough and over a sufficient period of time this can lead to blackouts (called G-induced loss of consciousness or G-LOC), because not enough blood is reaching the pilot's brain. To counteract this effect pilots are trained to tense their legs and abdominal muscles to restrict the "downward" flow of blood. This is known as the "grunt" or the "Hick maneuver". Both names allude to the sounds the pilot makes, and is the primary method of resisting G-LOCs. Modern flight suits, called G-suits, are worn by pilots to contract around the extremities exerting pressure, providing about 1G of extra tolerance.

Notable fighter pilots


Some notable fighter pilots, including some for being flying aces and others who went on to non-fighter pilot notability (record-breaking test pilots, astronauts and cosmonauts, politicians, business leaders, etc.):

Female fighter pilots

Sabiha Gökçen in front of a Breguet 19. circa 1937.

Until the early 1990s, women were disqualified from becoming fighter pilots in most of the air forces throughout the world. The exceptions being Turkey where Sabiha Gökçen became the first female fighter pilot in history in 1936 and went on to fly fast jets well into the 1950s,[3] and the USSR during the Second World War 1942–1945 where many women were trained as fighter pilots in the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment including Lilya Litvyak who became the top scoring woman ace of all time with 12 kills and Katya Budanova a close second with 11 kills, although both were killed in combat.[4] During the 1990s, a number of air forces removed the bar on women becoming fighter pilots:

  •   Bulgaria – On 30 October 1912 Rayna Kasabova has become the world's first woman in the world who participated in a military flight on a Voisin aircraft above Edirne during the First Balkan War.[5]
  •   France – Marie Marvingt was a record-breaking balloonist, an aviator, and during World War I she became the first female combat pilot. Marie Marvingt received a pilot's license from the Aéro-Club de France (Aero Club of France) on 8 November 1910.[6] Licensed No. 281, she was the third Frenchwoman to be registered after Raymonde de Laroche (No. 36) and Marthe Niel (No. 226). In her first 900 flights she never "broke wood" in a crash, a record unequaled at that time. Marie flew in a number of air meets, bombed a German airbase twice as an unofficial pilot in World War I, flew on reconnaissance missions in the "pacification" of North Africa, and was the only woman to hold four pilot's licenses simultaneously: balloon, airplane, hydroplane and helicopter. In 1915 Marvingt became the first woman in the world to fly combat missions when she became a volunteer pilot flying bombing missions over German-held territory and she received the Croix de guerre (Military Cross) for her aerial bombing of a German military base in Metz.[7]
  •   Turkey – In 1936 Sabiha Gökçen became world's first female combat pilot while in 1958 Leman Altınçekiç was first female accredited jet pilot in NATO.[3][8]
  •   Soviet Union - Lydia Vladimirovna Litvyak was a fighter pilot in the Soviet Air Force during World War II.[9] She was the first female fighter pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft, the first of two female fighter pilots who have earned the title of fighter ace and the holder of the record for the greatest number of kills by a female fighter pilot. She was shot down near Orel during the Battle of Kursk as she attacked a formation of German aircraft. She was nicknamed the "White Lily of Stalingrad".
  •   Soviet Union - Yekaterina "Katya" Budanova was another fighter pilot in the Soviet Air Force during World War II and along with Lydia Litvyak, she is often considered one of the world's two female fighter aces credited with five or more aerial victories,[10] She was shot down by either Luftwaffe ace Georg Schwientek of JG 52 or ace Emil Bitsch, of JG 3.
  •   Soviet Union - Mariya Kuznetsova was a Soviet fighter pilot who originally flew with the women's 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment but was later transferred to the 437th Fighter Aviation Regiment with Yekaterina Budanova, Lydia Litvyak, and several other members of the unit in September 1942. She flew over 100 sorties.
  •   Soviet Union - Raisa Belyaeva was one of the first Russian female fighter pilots. She fought alongside Lydia Litvyak and was credited with up to three aerial victories. She died in combat in a crash on 19 July 1943.[11]
  •   Soviet Union - Mariya Tolstova a Soviet flight commander in the 175th Guards Attack Aviation Regiment, and one of the few women to fly the Il-2.
  •   Soviet Union - Tamara Kazarinova was a Soviet pilot and the commander of the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment during the Second World War.
  •   Soviet Union - Olga Yamshchikova was Soviet fighter pilot squadron commander, credited with three shootdowns during World War II who became a test pilot after the war.[12][13] During her postwar aviation career she became the first woman to fly the MiG-19.[14]
  •   Soviet Union - Tamara Konstantinova was Ilyushin Il-2 pilot and deputy squadron commander in the Soviet Air Force during the Second World War.
  •   Soviet Union - Lidiya Shulaykina was one of the few women Ilyushin Il-2 pilots and the only female ground-attack pilot in naval aviation during the Second World War.
Cochran in her record-setting F-86, talking with Charles E. Yeager[15]
Maj. General (then-1st Lt.) Jeannie Leavitt
Lt. Col. Shawna Kimbrell, US Air Force's first African American female fighter pilot


Nicole Malachowski, The First Lady Pilot of Thunderbirds Airshow Team
  •   USA
    USAF Thunderbirds portrait
    – From November 2005 till November 2007 (now retired) Colonel Nicole "Fifi" Malachowski was the first female pilot selected to fly as part of the USAF Air Demonstration Squadron, better known as the Thunderbirds in their F-16 Fighting Falcons. Prior to that she was an F-15E Pilot, Instructor Pilot, Chief of Life Support, Assistant Chief of Scheduling, Weapons Flight Electronic Combat Pilot, Functional Check Flight Pilot, Supervisor of Flying at the 336th Fighter Squadron. On 18 November 2011, she took command of the 333d Fighter Squadron at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina.[56] After successfully completing her tour with the USAF Thunderbirds in November 2007, including approximately 140 performances, Malachowski served on staff of the Commander, United States Air Force Warfare Center, at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, to June 2008.
  •   Pakistan - In March 2006, the Pakistan Air Force officially inducted a batch of 34 fighter pilots which included the organization's first four female fighter pilots. Three years of fighter pilot training had been completed by the pilots at PAF Academy - Risalpur flying amongst other the Cessna T-37 Tweet basic jet trainer and K-8 intermediate jet trainer, before they graduated and were awarded their Flying Badges during the ceremony. Certificates of honour were handed to the successful cadets by General Ahsan Saleem Hayat, then the vice-chief of the Pakistan Army, who acknowledged that the PAF was the first branch of the Pakistani military to introduce women to its combat units. One of the women, Flying Officer Nadia Gul, was awarded a trophy for best academic achievement. The other female graduates were Mariam Khalil, Saira Batool and Cadet Saba Khan. A second batch of pilots, including three female pilots, graduated from the 117th Pilot course at PAF Academy - Risalpur in September 2006. The Sword of Honour for best all-round performance was awarded to Aviation Cadet Saira Amin, the first female pilot to win the award. Aviation Cadet Saira Amin also had won the Asghar Hussain Trophy for best performance in academics.[57]
  •   Spain - Rosa García-Malea López became the first female fighter pilot in the Spanish Air Force after qualifying to fly F/A-18 Hornet jet fighter aircraft in 2006. With more than 1,250 flight hours and after participating in the Libyan war in 2011, after 15 years service in Spanish air force, she joined Patrulla Águila the aerobatic demonstration team as a Casa C-101 pilot.[58]
  •   Chile – In 2006 Karina Miranda started her flight training on Northrop F-5[59] and made her solo flight with F-5 Tiger III on April 29, 2010, became first female fighter pilot in Chilean Air Force.[60][61]
  •   Malaysia – In 2007 Patricia Yapp Syau Yin from Royal Malaysian Air Force became the first Asian female fighter Pilot for Mikoyan MiG-29 after four years for flying an Aermacchi MB-339CM. She also performed inside RMAF aerobatics team, Smokey Bandits inside the squadrons.[62][63]
  •   Germany – In 2007 Ulrike Flender graduated from Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program to become Germany's first female fighter pilot.[64]
  •   Germany
    Nicola Baumann, 2nd female fighter pilot of Luftwaffe (GAF) with her ECR Tornado aircraft
    – In 2007 then Oberleutnant Nicola "Niki Bam Bam" Winter – Baumann became the second female fighter pilot in the history of the German Air Force flying both Tornado and Eurofighter Typhoon in the German Air Force. As a fighter pilot, now Major, Nicola Baumann applied to be Germany's first female astronaut among 86 candidates on the list as of September 2016[65] and was one of 30 women taking part in the final selection process as of December 2016.[66] She was selected as one of two winners,[67] but later withdrew from the programme.[68]
  •   Morocco - In 2007 Sub-Lieutenant Hanae Zarouali became the first Moroccan female jet pilot in service of the Royal Moroccan Air Force.
  •   South Korea – In 2008 Ha Jeong-mi became the first South Korean female fighter pilot, flying the KF-16 fighter.[69]
  •   UK - On 13 May 2009, the Red Arrows announced including their first female display pilot. Flt. Lt. Kirsty Moore (née Stewart) joined for the 2010 season. [70] She joined the Royal Air Force in 1998 and was a qualified flying instructor on the Hawk aircraft at RAF Valley. Prior to joining the team, she flew the Tornado GR4 at RAF Marham.[71]
  •   Ukraine – Nadiya Savchenko is a former Army aviation pilot in the Ukrainian Ground Forces, one of Ukraine's first women to train as a military aeroplane pilot in 2009, and is the only female aviator to pilot the Sukhoi Su-24 bomber and the Mil Mi-24 helicopter.
Virginie Guyot leader Patrouille de France
2nd Lt. Ajeng Tresna Dwi Wijayanti, Indonesia's first female fighter pilot – 2020

See also


Flights from a fighter pilot


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Works cited


Further reading



  • Amir, Amos. Brig Gen.Fire in the Sky : Flying in Defence of Israel. Pen & Sword Aviation (2005). ISBN 1-84415-156-5
  • Franks, Norman, Bailey, Frank, and Guest, Russell. Above the Lines : A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces of the German Air Service, Naval Air Service and Flanders Marine Corps 1914–1918. Grub Street (1994). ISBN 0-948817-73-9
  • Bell, Ken. 100 Missions North : A Fighter Pilots Story of the Vietnam War. Brassey's, Inc (1993). ISBN 1-57488-639-8
  • Lewis, Cecil Sagittarius Rising. Warner Books (1936). ISBN 0-7515-0931-0
  • O'Grady, Scott with Coplan, Jeff. Return with Honour. Harper (1995). ISBN 0-06-101147-9
  • Olynk, Frank.Stars & Bars : A Tribute to the American Fighter Ace 1920–1973. Grub Street (1995). ISBN 1-898697-17-5
  • Romm, Giora. Major Gen. Solitary: The Crash, Captivity and Comeback of an Ace Fighter Pilot. Black Irish (2014). ISBN 978-1-936891-28-3
  • Shores, Christopher and Williams, Clive. Aces High : A Tribute to the Most Notable Fighter Pilots of the British and Commonwealth Forces in WWII. Grub Street (1994). ISBN 1-898697-00-0
  • Shores, Christopher, Franks, Norman, and Guest, Russell. Above the Trenches : A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the British Empire Air Forces 1915–1920. Grub Street (1990). ISBN 0-948817-19-4
  • Spector, Iftach. Brig Gen. Loud and Clear : The Memoir of an Israeli Fighter Pilot. Zenith Press (2009). ISBN 978-07603-3630-4
  • Toliver, Raymond F and Constable, Trevor J. Horrido : Fighter Aces of the Luftwaffe. Arthur Barker Ltd (1968). ISBN 0-213-76381-8
  • Toliver, Raymond F and Constable, Trevor J. The Blonde Knight of Germany : A Biography of Erich Hartmann. TAB Aero (1970). ISBN 0-8306-8189-2
  • Jackson, Robert. Fighter : The Story of Air Combat 1936–1945. Arthur Baker Ltd (1979). ISBN 0-213-16717-4
  • Olds, Robin with Olds, Christina, and Rasimus, Ed. Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds. St Martins Press (2010). ISBN 978-0-312-56023-2
  • Rosenkranz, Keith.Diary of a Gulf War Fighter Pilot. McGraw Hill (2002). ISBN 0-07-140040-0
  • Polak, Tomas with Shores, Christopher.Stalins Falcons : The Aces of the Red Star. Grub Street (1999). ISBN 1-902304-01-2
  • Ward, Nigel 'Sharkey'.Sea Harrier Over the Falklands. Orion (1992). ISBN 1-85797-102-7
  • Yeager, Chuck with Janos, Leo.Yeager : An Autobiography. Century Huitchinson (1985). ISBN 0-7126-9493-5
  • Chesire, John Flitetime: A U.S. Navy Fighter Pilot Autobiography, by John Chesire