Believe it or not, getting your wings as a military pilot is a lot more complicated than passing a driving test. Being a flight instructor and having raised four of his kids as aviators, Leland Shanle knows all the ins-and-outs of military pilot training. In this exclusive interview with AeroTime, he goes into detail about the challenges that await young men and women reaching for the skies.

Every pilot (military and civil) has a story of why they came to aviation. What would be yours?

I come from an aviation family. My children are fourth generation now. All four of them have flown in some way, both as civil and military pilots. I have two uncles that flew, and my grandfather managed an airline in the 1920s. So, it’s been in my family for as long as I remember. One uncle was in the Air Force. He flew for 35 years, retired a colonel. My other uncle was in the Navy, that’s how I got interested. He flew A-1 Skyraiders in Vietnam.

Aviation has been a part of my life forever. It’s all I ever wanted to do.

Are aviation families common or is your story unique?

It seems to be hit or miss. I know quite a few multi-generation families. I think there’s a propensity for it, because you know how to do it. For many people, especially youngsters, it seems like a mystery how to become a pilot. If you grow up in a military aviation family, you know how to do it. It’s not that hard. You grow up around it.

You either like it or you don’t. It’s kind of a way of life. It’s not a job or even a profession.

In aviation, any kind of aviation, you are going to be gone a lot from your family. It requires constant studying and it’s not just an easy job in any sense. A lot of people are put off by that.

How many people applying to become pilots actually get to the cockpit?

There’s no definitive answer. Oftentimes it depends on how many people they need. You know, we have a saying in the military side, which goes for being hired by the airlines as well. Timing is everything. I’ll give you an example. My youngest son is a Marine. And this week he was asked to graduate Rifle School early. They asked his class who wants to graduate a week early to go to flight school right away. My son jumped up: “I’ll go”. Right now, there’s a big push for pilots in the Marines, but the Navy doesn’t need anybody. So, when they don’t need people, they can really tighten the standards. It doesn’t seem fair all the time.

When I was an instructor, we got orders from the command to figure out everybody’s grades and below a certain academic line we had to kick out everyone out of the program. Standards do fluctuate but you’re going lose guys at every stage. The big one is just getting the application complete. A lot of the guys just don’t get it done. Next, which is a big hit for a lot of guys is the physical. They have loosened the standards a bit on eyesight, depending on branch. The army will give you LASEK and continue you in flight training, but this is branch-specific. A lot of guys end up in the backseat because of eyesight. Another group of people just physically don’t qualify for many reasons.

The United States Air Force plans an expansion on all fronts, including jet fighters, bombers and UAVs, however, it might face a shortage of 700 jet pilots and 200 drone operators by the end of 2016. There are many reasons for the shortage, including low pay, long deployments and plentiful job opportunities in the civil sector.

What happens once you get through the physical?

Once you get through that, you go to officer candidate school, for which which you have to be a college grad. The only exception is the Army. In the Army they have what they call a "high school to flight school" program. This is what my daughter is doing. She has already got her college degree, but she’s going straight to flight school with the Army. A lot of guys fall out during that. When I went through, they didn’t need aviators anywhere. It was the 80s, so the Vietnam era was kind of there. We probably lost half the guys that started in aviation indoctrination along the way. Now, I think, it’s more stable. They seem to do a lot of checking prior.

Now they also have a pre-flight program, where before actually starting flight school you fly around in Cessnas or whatever with a civilian instructor just to make sure you can do it. At every step is the saying “finishing one stage is just an invitation to the next stage”. Any time you can wash out. I would say, once you make it through the door, it’s no more than 20%. But the statistics vary.

What actually happens in flight school?

First of all you go to primary flight school. All branches fly the Beechcraft T-6 Texan II, except for the Army, where they fly a training helicopter. Everybody starts in primary, flying the Texan. You learn how to perform basic maneuvers, how to fly, how to land. Then you’ll go to aerobatics and instruments. Then generally finish up with formation training in primary.

Then, if you are in the Air Force, you get assigned your aircraft during what is called a “drop night”. In the Navy you select the aircraft yourself, but again, it depends on the needs of the military. For Naval aviation you have these options: jet, multi-engine, tiltrotor or helicopter. Once you make your selection or you are assigned a jet, you go to the T-45 and you kind of repeat the process. Familiarization, instruments and then (for the Navy and the Marines) you go to the tactical side of aviation. You learn to fly tactical formation, how to drop bombs and shoot guns. You learn basic dogfighting, both one vs. one and two vs. one. You wrap it all up by going to the ship and getting 10 carrier landings and takeoffs done. Then you get whatever fleet aircraft you’re going to fly.

For multi-engine you go to training squadron with Beechcraft King Air or Queen Air turboprop planes. Then you get your wings after you learn how to fly multi-engine. You go through the same syllabus without, obviously, all the tactical stuff.

The helicopter guys go to Bell Jet Ranger TH-57 both in the Army and Navy. After that you get advanced helicopter training. The only multi-engine the marines have is the C-130. The Navy has the patrol planes – P-3 and P-40, which is basically like a 747.

It doesn't end there, right?

Once you pick your fleet airplane, you start over again. You go to the fleet replacement squadron, where you learn how to fly that specific aircraft and you start learning all the tactics and the weapon systems, various big and small picture tactics on how to employ the aircraft. That’s the Navy/Marines side, the Air Force does it differently. They now divide between multi-engine and tactical. One of my sons is in primary right now. He’s in the Air Guards, so his advance training aircraft will be the T-1 Jayhawk. It’s like a business jet. That will be their advanced trainer. In the Air Force they will have primary and advanced multi-engine and tactical training. In advanced, it’s tactical in a T-38. Then they get their wings. If they get a fighter they go to fighter leading school in the F-5, where they learn the same tactical stuff as the Navy and the Marines.

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In the Navy it takes you 1.5-2 years to get your wings, the Air Force is around 1 year, so is the Army.

Coming from a multi-generation aviation family, can you point out the ways in which younger and older pilots differ?

There are goods and bads, it’s a mix. My generation was pretty wild, for a lack of a better word. We were a lot less disciplined at times. This generation is more disciplined. It’s just the military in general. We had a lot more fun, I think. They still do, it’s just not that crazy, I think. I mean, some of the antics we did back in the Cold War and immediately after would not be acceptable today. As far as skills, I think what is different is the incorporation of technology. When I flew, we only had radio for navigation. Now, with the GPS and all the CRTs and glass cockpits, it’s quite different. The airplanes are much better. The old F-4 would not even pass certification nowadays because of all of the quirks it had. Now it’s all computers and fly-by-wire and everything. Planes really fly great and they’re a lot safer. They perform a lot better too. We could only dream about such planes 20 years ago.

The F-22 and F-35 technology looks like something out of Star Wars.

In my day, you had to actually get behind a guy to shoot him. The biggest differences are technology and the amount of fun we were having. While I’m sure they’re also having a lot of fun. We were just more open about it, I guess.

Leland Shanle is a pilot, award winning author, and military/aviation technical adviser for the movie industry. His consulting projects include Pearl Harbor, Behind Enemy Lines, xXx, The Day After Tomorrow and Stealth. His production company—Broken Wing Productions—has worked on several aviation-based movies and series including the Discovery Curiosity Series; Plane Crash.