What It Takes to Become a Marine Corps Pilot

All branches of the military service have aviation units. The Marine Corps has a variety of air assets it uses to help their fellow Marines on the ground. Helicopters for medical evacuation and troop deployment as well as attack helicopters for close air support for Marines on the ground are valuable Marine Corps assets. But Marines also have fighter and attack jet pilots deployed from carriers and large amphibious ships. The Marine pilot is also trained in being a Marine first and will gain valuable combat leadership experience on the ground through Officer Candidate School and The Basic School. 

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Becoming a Marine Corps Pilot

fighter pilot
Graham Monro/gm photographics/Photolibrary/Getty Images

The process of becoming a Marine pilot is arduous and competitive.

The following planes, helicopters, and hybrid machines are the aircraft of the Marine Corps.  Marine pilots are capable of flying supersonic jets, hover in VSTOL aircraft, fly propeller transport planes, and a variety of helicopters.

USMC Fixed Wing Aircraft

F/A 18 – Hornet: The dual mission of the Fighter/Attack mode the F/A-18 offers is of paramount importance to the missions of the Marine Corps:  fighter escort, enemy defenses suppression, air control, reconnaissance, and close air support of Marines on the ground.

F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (Lightning II): The future of Marine Corps fighter/attack missions and will replace the F/A 18 Hornet in the near future.

AV-8B Harrier: The Harrier is the Marines first Vertical / Short Takeoff and Landing aircraft (VSTOL).  Using adjustable jets, the plane can hover, take off, and land with little to no runway and attack anywhere. 

EA-6B Prowler: Electronic warfare of this jet enables Marines and Navy planes and helicopters to have air superiority.  The EA-6B Prowler detects, jams, and/or destroys enemy air defenses.

KC-130 Super Hercules: The multi-versatile propeller transport and refueling plane operate in all environments with the mission capabilities that include:  Delivery of Marines, fuel, and cargo, medevac, humanitarian assistance, battlefield illumination and more.

Helicopters of the Marine Corps

CH-53E Super Stallion: Is the heavy lift helicopter of the Marine Corps and capable of lifting or carrying 16 tons of cargo (vehicles, supplies, personnel).  With its speed and agility and armament, the CH-53E is much more than just a heavy lifter.

AH-1Z Super Cobra: The Cobra/Viper is the Marine Corps close air support helicopter.  Armed with rockets and guns, the AH-1 provided cover to advancing ground troops as well as escort of transport helicopters.

UH-1Y Huey: The versatile fighting Huey helicopter provides combat support as well as medevac capabilities.  Some of the other missions are Close Air Support, Assault Support, Command and Control, and Aerial Reconnaissance.

MV-22 Osprey: Is a hybrid transport plane and helicopter.  It has the range and speed of a turboprop plane and the maneuverability of a helicopter.  The unique tilt-rotor systems allow for vertical/short take-off and landing of up to 24 troops and gear.

Though the Marines flying the drones are not pilots, they are skilled in operating the drones, communications, and target recognition.  They are still part of Marine Corps Aviation. Marine Aviators will be communicating with these in-flight systems. 

RA-7B Shadow – Drone: Recent development of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).  The Shadow is used to help Marines on the ground with reconnaissance, target acquisition, and relay of communications.

Read on for some of the hurdles prospective pilots have to clear.

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Noon formation outside Bancroft Hall at US Naval Academy.
Navy / Marine Officer Training. Richard I'Anson/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

Pilots need at least a bachelor’s degree, earned either at a civilian college or university or through the U.S. Naval Academy, ROTC, or OCS. The Naval Academy graduates on average 20% of the class into the Marine Corps.

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Marine Pilots

Pilots must be officers commissioned at the rank of second lieutenant. Prospective pilots should contact a local selection officer to inquire about the steps for becoming an officer in the Marine Corps and let the officer know they are interested in pursuing the Marine aviator track.

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Age Requirements

US Navy midshipman in dress uniform
Navy Graduation. Stocktrek Images / Getty Images

Aviator candidates must be at least 18 years old when enlisting, at least 20 years old when entering an officer candidate program and no older than 27 years old when receiving their commissions.

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Fresh Recruits Take Oath Of Enlistment At NYC's Only Military Base
Chris Hondros / Getty Images

Marines must be citizens of the United States. If a prospective Marine is not a citizen, he or she may apply to become one upon enlistment — regardless of time lived in the U.S. — due to an executive order signed by President Bush in 2002 expediting the naturalization process for members of the military.

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Marine Corps Crew Chiefs
Cpl. John D. Henderson, crew chief, Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 465, Marine Aircraft Group 16, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, cleans off the rear rotor head of a CH-53E Super Stallion Sept. 15 at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. Official USMC Photo

Any Marine seeking entry into officer training programs must have a combined Math and English SAT score of at least 1,000, a composite ACT score of 22 or an Armed Forces Qualification Test score of at least 74 on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. He or she also must pass the Navy/Marine Corps Aviation Selection Test Battery to become a Marine pilot.

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Physical Condition

US Marine Corps CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter in flight
Ross Harrison Koty / Getty Images

Prospective pilots must be in good physical and psychological health and must pass an aviation physical, physical fitness test, and other medical screenings. 

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Flight School

pilot training
Navy Pilot School.

After completing Officer Training School or Platoon Leaders Class, an aviator candidate will have a guaranteed spot in flight school in Florida, where his or her training will proceed in stages:

  • The Basic School: All Marine Officers attend The Basic School (TBS) in Quantico, Va, before moving onto pilot training.  
  • Pre-indoctrination: This six-week phase includes an introduction to aerodynamics, aviation physiology, engines, navigation and land and sea survival in classrooms at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla.
  • Primary flight training: A candidate’s first in-air experience is at Whiting Field in Milton, Fla., in a T-34C. Prospective pilots each spend 67 hours in the air, including four solo flights, as well as 27 hours on a flight simulator. Another 166 hours of classroom work attending flight support lectures round out the instruction. At the close of this training, candidates are picked, partly based on grades and aptitude, for flight training on one of three aircraft: jets, helicopters or turbo-props.
  • Intermediate Training: Those selected to fly helicopters or turbo-props will receive an additional 26 hours of instruction on the T-34, with emphasis on radio and navigation training. Those selected to fly jets will proceed to the Naval Air Station in either Kingsville, Texas, or Meridian, Miss. There, they will take five weeks of ground school, including instruction in meteorology, visual flight rules, and safety. From there, trainees will progress to the T-2C or T-45 for hands-on training in aerobatics, gunnery, radio communication, and catapult take-offs.
    Advanced Training: Jet pilots will then spend 92 hours in the TA-4 or T-45, focusing on performing combat maneuvers and night flights. Those with a concentration in turbo-props will head to Corpus Christi, Texas, for a 20-week course that requires 88 hours of flight time on the multi-engine T-44 Beech Queen Air. Another 20 hours of instruction using flight simulators and 182 hours of classroom time are also required. Those bound for helicopters will report to South Whiting Field to do their flight training on the TH-57B/C Bell Jet Ranger, where they’ll log another 116 hours in the air. After this phase, candidates finally earn their wings.