Being an Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) pilot requires confidence, flexibility, and resilience, combined with a high level of technical and aeronautical competence. Attention to detail is a must to operate a special mission aircraft. The job will likely take you overseas on rotations of 60 days on then 60 days off to fly in a spectrum of demanding environments.

Deployments can be challenging and usually take place in austere environments. However, ISR pilot jobs can also be extremely rewarding – both financially and through job satisfaction. If you always wondered what it takes to be an ISR pilot, we’ve laid out the essential elements here.

The average ISR pilot joins government contracted companies with a wide breadth of real-world experience. Because of job requirements and necessary experience, a majority of ISR pilots are retired or former military. At MAG, two-thirds of the pilots are former military, either retired or recently separated.

The Qualities of a Successful ISR Pilot

Several factors go into making a successful ISR pilot, and they include qualities that are both tangible and intangible.

Tangible requirements will vary from job to job, but in general, for ISR Pilot jobs:

  1. DoD Security Clearance. Due to the nature, location, and mission of the operations these pilots are involved in, a minimum of a SECRET clearance is required, but most jobs prefer TOP SECRET or higher. If you had a clearance in your previous job, the key is to make sure that clearance doesn’t get revoked or expire because it can take a year or more for a new clearance to be approved.
  2. Flying Skills. Specific numbers vary from job to job, but in addition to a minimum total number of Pilot in Command flight hours (usually 1,000+), many contracts require at least 300 (of the 1,000) Pilot in Command flight hours to be in specific types of aircraft. It’s easy to see why there are so many retired and former military aviators in these jobs, but civilians who earn their flight hours on their own time and have no military background can be just as qualified.
  3. Valid FAA License. Most contracts require a minimum of a commercial/instrument rating. In addition, a type rating may be required depending on the aircraft. Of course, an ATP is always the desired license.
  4.  FAA Class II Medical Certificate. Pilots must have a medical certificate to show that they meet the required medical standards for the type of flying duties they will be performing.

The intangible qualities listed here are subjective and “strongly desired qualifications” for an ISR pilot; but they play a large role in how well an ISR pilot does the job.

  1. Flexibility. As mentioned above, ISR pilots are deployed for 30-60 days at a time, with 30-60 days at home. From the work-life balance perspective, you need to be willing to accept this type of lifestyle and be flexible about being assigned to operate in a wide range of environments.
  2. Mental toughness and ability to work under pressure. ISR pilots find themselves operating in a range of environments and conditions, some of which are extremely demanding. You need to be able to think quickly and calmly under pressure and be prepared for anything that may get thrown your way.
  3. Organizational and leadership skills. Pilots are groomed ultimately for Pilot in Command positions on deployments, so they need to be able to lead. You need to be able to organize your team and lead them in conducting a mission safely and effectively.
  4. Communication skills. ISR pilots need to be able to communicate well with a team, certainly; but they also need to be able to communicate effectively with those they are working for (the customer), ATC and any others in the operational chain.

It goes without saying that basic employee competence also plays a role in landing a job as an ISR pilot as well. Demonstrating a true desire and motivation for being an ISR pilot is critical. You have to be willing and able to adopt the lifestyle and take on a very challenging job. Where additional training is required, employers will provide it, but the motivation needs to be there to begin with.

Ultimately, ISR pilot jobs can be exciting as much as it is sometimes difficult and demanding; but it is a critical piece in achieving the larger strategic objective of supporting our warfighters. That should help you stay motivated and drive you even when the going gets tough.

If this describes you and you are interested in a career as an ISR pilot, visit for more information.

For more information or additional questions, please reach out to Leonard Lollar, SEMA ISR Program Manager at Leonard.Lollar[at]magaero[dot]com or connect with Leonard on LinkedIn.