U.S. Air Force pilots may get all the glamour, but the service’s navigators make missions happen. The navigator plots a plane’s course and manages its weapons systems, ensuring a crew returns safely from its mission. Navigators serve as Air Force officers and earn the same pay and benefits as pilots. In 2010, the Air Force changed the navigator title to combat systems officer, with training that combines navigation, electronic warfare and weapons systems. To qualify for training, navigator candidates must meet strict physical and academic criteria.
Pay for Air Force navigators varies by years of service and rank. Entry-level Air Force officers, including navigators or combat systems officers, start as second lieutenants making about $33,000 a year. At the 10-year mark of their 20-year required commitment, navigators and other officers take home as little as $42,000 or as much as $131,000, depending on rank. Navigators must stay in the Air Force for more than 20 years to win promotion to the highest ranks. Pay in those upper-level positions can surpass $200,000 a year.
Air Force combat systems officers enjoy numerous benefits. The service arranges financial assistance for officers obtaining advanced degrees or continuing education. The Air Force also provides comprehensive health and dental insurance as well as full pay and allowances for sick days and affordable life insurance coverage of up to $400,000. Family members receive medical care at military or civilian hospitals for little or no cost. Airmen are eligible to retire after 20 years with full pension benefits, no matter their age. Most Air Force bases also have golf courses, bowling allies, tennis courts and swimming pools. Airmen receive 30 days of vacation with pay annually and can travel on Air Force aircraft when space is available. They also receive a monthly, tax-free housing allowance based on rank, family status and location.
To become an Air Force navigator or combat systems officer, a candidate must have a bachelor’s degree, with a minimum undergraduate grade point average of 3.2 on a 4.0 scale. Candidates must be commissioned by age 29 1/2 and must enter undergraduate flight training before 30. They must also pass a physical. Navigator candidates must have uncorrected vision of 20/200 or better, corrected to 20/20. Navigators can have no history of allergies or asthma after age 12 and must be between 5’4” and 6’5”. Hopefuls must also be U.S. citizens capable of obtaining security clearance. Candidates need to pass the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test.
To become a navigator, candidates must become an officer and earn a commission, either through the Air Force Academy or through any university’s Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) cadet training program. Navigator candidates get 20 hours of flying instruction covering basic navigation skills. They move on to specialized undergraduate combat systems officer training once they complete flying instruction. Specialized training for navigators consists of around 40 flights on training jets where they learn electronic warfare skills and advanced navigation. The Air Force commissions navigators and assigns them based on the service’s needs as well as navigators’ specific qualifications and desires.