I'm a Top Gun-Trained Fighter Pilot. I'd Make More Money as an Airline Pilot, But It Wouldn't Be as Fulfilling.

F/A-18C Hornet on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower
An F/A-18C Hornet assigned to the Wildcats of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 131 taxis onto the catapult on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) (Ike), July 31, 2016. (Alexander Delgado/U.S. Navy)

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This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Lt. Cmdr. John Tortorich, a pilot in the US Navy. It has been edited for length and clarity.

The Naval Academy wasn't on my radar in high school, but being a successful swimmer got me noticed by their college recruiters.

My grandfather and uncle were also Navy reservists in the 1950s. The application process was pretty arduous: There's a fitness test and medical screening, and, generally, military academies have pretty low acceptance rates. I also had to get nominated by a member of Congress from Louisiana — my home state — to even be considered.

I was a strong swimmer, so naturally I thought I'd become a Navy SEAL. During the first two years in college, that was my goal.

It all changed the first time I flew in a T-34 aircraft. It was 2010, the summer between my sophomore and junior years.

We had to do a monthlong program where you're introduced for one week to each of the Navy's four "communities": Marine Corps, surface warfare, submarines, and aviation.

At the time, I was nervous about flying and told the pilot as much when I got into the single-engine propeller plane. He was supportive, and by the time we'd landed I was set on becoming an aviator.

It was a turning point for my career in the Navy

During senior year, I put "Navy Pilot" as my first preference for a postgraduation assignment, and, thankfully, I got it. It wasn't a problem that I hadn't flown before, because the Navy is geared towards people who haven't.

I went to flight school near Pensacola, Florida, then on to Mississippi, and finally settled in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where I've been since 2015.

Initially, you do all kinds of different trainings that we call "workups." Some are just the aviators, and other, larger sessions will bring the whole force together: aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and submarines.

This phase adds up to about a year of training in different places — from Key West to Nevada to somewhere off the east coast in the Atlantic Ocean. We had to travel often and stay in each place for three to six weeks.

The day-to-day of a Navy pilot

Our schedule varies a lot depending on the type of aircraft you fly and the squadron you're in.

In general, your day is determined by the daily flight schedule — which isn't written until the previous afternoon — so your entire life has to be flexible. It's frustrating at first, but I adapted pretty quickly.

My wife also used to be in the Navy. We used to plan our lives around both of our schedules.

Pilots are constantly training. Every flight we do has a purpose. Luckily we end our days in the same airport unless there's an emergency.

I've flown 20 combat flights on deployment in Iraq and Syria

Deployments usually last six months but can get extended to 10 months. My wife and I didn't see each other from June 2016 until August 2017 because we had back-to-back deployments.

You can't choose your deployment, but you're usually told well in advance of where and when you're going to deploy. I've deployed once, in 2016, aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.

We executed combat missions in the skies over Iraq and Syria supporting the ground troops there. During those six months, I went on 20 combat flights.

On the morning of a flight, they brief us on what kind of developments have taken since our last time out. As a professional fighter pilot, you should keep up with what's going on every day, even when you're not flying.

An F/A-18C Hornet prepares to launch off of the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower
An F/A-18C Hornet prepares to launch off of the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69), Oct. 5, 2016. (Christopher A. Michaels/U.S. Navy)

Combat flights are draining, but they're also my most memorable moments

You usually don't know your target before you get into the cockpit, and a lot can change during the 7 ½ hours you're in the air. Being in the plane alone can be draining, but you're also in constant communication with ground forces.

Sometimes they need to know what resistance to expect as they move forward, and other times they'll call for fire or assistance.

The first time I went into combat it was nerve-racking. Over time I got more comfortable, but I had to fight off complacency because that also can get you into trouble.

Flying all over the different kinds of aircraft and seeing new places — including those combat flights over Iraq and Syria — are my most memorable moments.

One time, my squadron played an important role in stopping a group of ISIS fighters on the ground.

Graduating from Topgun flight school was strenuous and a blast

In 2019, I was eventually selected to enter Topgun, which, if you graduate, makes you a Navy Strike Fighter Tactics instructor.

It's three months of the most intense tactical flying lectures, simulators, and training. Even if you get in, that doesn't mean that you'll finish. It's strenuous, but I also had an absolute blast.

When you graduate, you get to wear a special patch on your right shoulder.

After graduation, I started teaching existing fighter pilots all of the latest tactics, techniques, and procedures in aerial combat. I did that for two years.

In the Navy, you're usually in a specific job for only two to three years. So if I stayed on as a training officer for more than that, I'd age out of the tactics.

More recent Topgun grads would be more up-to-date, so it makes sense that they would replace me after a few years and I'd move on to a higher position.

I'd make more money as an airline pilot, but it wouldn't be as rewarding

These days, I work as a fleet training officer, where I work specifically with the "Gunslingers" of Strike Fighter Squadron 105. I'm in charge of training the entire squadron, and especially the junior officers in it.

As an F-18 pilot, I could have been placed in California or Japan — the only other F-18 bases — but luckily I was placed in Virginia Beach.

I spend a lot of time at work, and it takes a toll on the family. There's the possibility of leaving the military and becoming a pilot with an airline, which pays much more. But right now, that doesn't interest me as I don't think it'd be nearly as fulfilling as this job.

Overall, being a fighter pilot and then a trainer of fighter pilots has been a tough but extremely worthwhile career. It's been an honor to wear the uniform.

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