Hands down, the quality of life in the AF vs. Army will be light-years better IMO. A lot of it will depend on your career field because there are a lot of career fields such as Finance, Contracting, Personnel, Services, etc. which will pretty much always work Monday through Friday, 0730 – 1630. Officers may put in a little more work hours in these career fields but a lot of that is under your control. For example, if you really want to get a something done or you suck at drawing the line or with time management, some officers may stay until 1730 or 1800 (or later). IMO, this is completely avoidable in most cases.
There are other career fields where you may be prone to shift work for the first few years, but as an officer you will typically advance to the support staff. Jobs like maintenance, Security Forces, perhaps Logistics, perhaps Comm, or other ops related (non-rated) positions which support a 24/7 mission will be shift work. In general the Air Force doesn’t like to work 12 hour shifts but there are often times when it is necessary. For any given four year tour in space, our shift work guys may be working 12’s for two years and 8’s for the other two. It really depends on the overall ops tempo, what is going on in the world, and what career field. My squadron has been working 12’s for the past 8 months but after that we are switching to 8’s. Like I said it is case-by-case.
In general the rated career fields such as pilots, navigators, ABMs, etc. are going to deploy the most and have the highest ops tempo. I’m not really sure how much these officers deploy though as far as length. I think it is closer to 4-6 months with a lot of time in between vs. 6 months on/6 months off. This would be a good question for the Facebook group.
I have been to four AF bases and at every base I have worked shifts for about one year then switched to some sort of M-F job. I am probably luckier than most though, but you have to remember I was there as an enlisted Airman, not an officer. At my first base I was on flight for about two years. I was Security Forces so we as a squadron worked 24/7. My schedule was three days on where we traveled out to the missile field, and we worked 12 hours shifts. This wasn’t bad because there was no extra BS before or after the shift. When you shift started you were wearing your uniform and you were the one that responded to alarms, but your shift was basically always over at 12 hours. On the third or fourth day we traveled back to base and we were off for 3-4 days, then we did it all over again. Sometimes while we were back on base we worked from 0800-1400 for training on one day but that wasn’t bad. After my first two years doing this, I was hired for a M-F and got all of the federal holidays and a few MAJCOM down days off as well. Christmas/Thanksgiving, Memorial, Independence were all four day weekends along with a few others, and the other holidays were three day weekends. My duty hours there were 0730-1630, later on same days, earlier on others. During this period we did not deploy at all at our squadron.
At my next base I was on shift work for another two years and our schedule sucked. I was still Security Forces and our routine schedule was six days on, three days off, eight hour shifts. We had to arm up and de-arm before/after shift so the 8 hour days were more like 10 hour days. What made it bad though was whenever we had an “op” going on we switched to 12’s (really 14) and many people lost their days off. This was probably the worst schedule of my career. After those first two years I was hired for another M-F 0730-1630 job like above, but sometimes we had to support the ops so we worked the 12’s during that week. We rarely lost our weekends though so that made it better, but it was still a lot of hours. At this base about half of the people did one short deployment in the 2-4 year tour (the length of tour overseas there depended on rank).
I retrained to comm after that so I spent about six months training to be in the new career field. After training I went to another job which worked 24/7 but we did eight hour shifts. Comm was different in that our eight hour shifts were actually eight hours, so it was awesome. We worked two day shifts, two swing shifts, two mid shifts, and four days off then it rotated back again. It sounds crazy but this was my favorite schedule of my career. I did that for another 18 months or so then I was hired for another M-F job (this was a trend for me).
Now that I am a space officer we are working 12 hour shifts in my squadron, but it isn’t too bad. We work three days on, three days off, 6-6. Our shifts are basically done after the 12 hours so it is not bad at all. My typical day was to get up at 0430-0500, be at work for shift change at 0530, and work all the way until 1730. While on shift I work in an air conditioned building and the only downside is that I can’t have my phone. I use computers to communicate with satellites, downloading data and making sure they aren’t broken. During my shift if I have nothing going on there are two of us, I am free to go to gym or get lunch as long as nothing is going on. I have random tasks I have to do but I have down time where I can surf the web, work on admin stuff, or just BS. At 1730 they arrive for shift change and I am usually walking out at 1745. I usually get home around 1830 or so because I have a 30 minute commute. I do this for three days, then my three days off are typically untouched.
At my squadron we have other positions and officers, and some of them work a little more just because they like to, but most of the M-F officers still work from 0730-1630. Some of the alternative positions are 4 on three off around 0600-1530, it just depends.
I have had a lucky career so my story isn’t the best but also not the worst, so take that for what it is. We usually don’t have any trouble taking leave when we want and generally the work in the isn’t bad at all, especially if you aren’t on the flightline.
My overall long term goal for future posts is to 1) gather real inputs from Airmen (enlisted and officer) in ANY career field who can provide the no-BS what is it like to do this job. I would love to be able to post this information on my blog to give people a good starting point for choosing the path for their career.
Secondly, I would like to dive deep into how to become a successful officer once you completely make the switch from enlisted to officer, or civilian to officer. Things like second assignments, ADP, career vectoring, PME like SOS or ACSC, promotions, politics, etc., are all topics I plan to cover in depth. Please let me know if you support this plan and I will begin making posts once I actually figure this stuff out for my own.
When I was scouring the internet for information when I applied I discovered this was not a lot of information out there about OTS, and especially about the 13S career field. I somehow dug up this posting on reddit which provided me with an outstanding breakdown of what the 13S/1C6X1 career field is like (officer/enlisted AFSC, respectively). Now that I am fully immersed in the career field, fully certified, and intimately familiar with my mission, I can now personally vouch that this is good info.
Click here for the link. Post was created by SilentD
My own personal updates to this post:
Returning to School
The information posted about always returning to Vandenberg AFB, CA after every assignment is no longer current. Initial 13S and 1C6X1 tech school is indeed at Vandenberg, but after that you will start additional training at your first duty location. I am not 100% sure about what the current 1C6 timeline is, but for 13S tech school is still only a TDY meaning you will PCS to your first base then attend “Undergraduate Space Training” at Vandenberg for around three months.
Every time you arrive at a new base (including your first assignment) you will also need to do more specific system training there. Most bases are now calling this “Initial Qualification Training.” This training will be an additional 3-9 months depending on what unit you are at or what your system is. After you are fully certified you will begin working crew.
If you finish a tour at one base and PCS to another base, you will NOT be returning to Vandenberg for more system specific training (any variant of IQT/MQT). Because you have already completed tech school or UST you can jump right in to the IQT class specific to your new base. This will teach you how to operate your new system and you will again be good to go and return to crew.
Here is one of my older posts about the 13S tech school. I need to update this.
“This question is partially for Steve Rogers, but also for anyone who’s already in the USAF. Coming from the Army, I understand that junior officers in the Air Force typically don’t have as much direct leadership responsibility/opportunity as Army officers do (e.g., just about every lieutenant will be a platoon leader at some point — if I’m not mistaken, that’s very different from the Air Force model.)
It seems to me that certain AFSCs, like space, intel, and logistics, would lend themselves more easily to leadership opportunities I’m used to and that I seek. Space and intel platoons (flights?) must still need lieutenants, even if most of the AF is geared towards the flying side. Does anyone know if this is the case?”
31P Security Forces
In my opinion the closest the Air Force gets to the Army model is the Security Forces career field (3P0X1/31PX). In this career field newly commissioned officers are placed on flight almost immediately, so if you were to show up on Day 1 you may find yourself as the Flight Commander for one of the operational flights. This will of course depend on your base or your mission, but the operational flights are the Airmen who are actually doing the job of securing the base. At one of my last bases we had one flight which did law enforcement (patrols and gates) and other flights which did security. Flight sizes vary from 20-100 people so your scope/impact as a leader can vary greatly. The rank structure is also more traditional; we had 4-6 Airmen assigned to each SSgt (E-5), 4-5 SSgt’s assigned to each TSgt (E-6), and 2-3 TSgt’s supporting the MSgt (E-7). The MSgt is the “Flight Chief” and he is the top dog for all flight operations. A wise Lieutenant provides the Flight Chief with general direction and larger picture objectives and lets the Flight Chief run the flight as he sees fit.
In SF typically after you push a flight for about a year you will progress to other “back office” jobs. When I was SF our back office was also similar to the Army in that we maintained the “S” functions of 1-5 (Admin, Intel, Ops, Logistics, and Plans & Programs, respectively). A CGO would typically rotate to or through 2-3 of these jobs and the culmination of a CGO’s career would be the S-3, Ops Officer. We actually called these “Sections” so for example the S-1 would be the “Section Commander” but I suspect the names vary greatly from base-to-base. Sections 1, 2, 4 and 5 were a little different than S-3 in that they were much smaller than a flight. Typically these sections had a “Superintendent,” which at my last base was filled by a MSgt (E-7). Below the MSgt would be maybe one TSgt a few SSgt’s, and a few Airmen, again depending on the section. The S-3 was different in that our “Operations Superintendent” was a SMSgt (E-8) and all of the flights worked for the Ops Officer.
13S Space Operations
The farthest I have seen from the Army model would probably be my career field, and this has pros and cons. In my career field (13S) the enlisted to officer ratio is about 50/50 so there are many officers and enlisted sitting side by side on a computer/satellite console doing almost (if not exactly) the same job. A 13S officer’s career path would start by being “on console” which is a more which requires more technical knowledge. After an officer masters that they are given other opportunities such as mission planning, stan/eval, training, etc. Instead of a specific or more defined path, an officer will work through and master different positions until they are ready for higher leadership opportunities.
The operators which are doing the job work on “crews” instead of flights. As an officer you will start on console then may bounce around from one flight to another. The flights have similar functions as the “S” function system but they are designed by a letter while all sharing the prefix “DO.” For example our flights are aligned as follows: Operations (DOO) for all the operational crews, Training (DOT) for the flight which oversees training, and Evaluations (DOV) which oversees checklists. The Flight Commanders for these flights are typically filled by Captains, which means you will spend your first four years doing what I consider “mission” related positions before you may become a Flight Commander which oversee the completion of more support related functions (DOO, DOT, DOV). The other position which is generally filled by Captains is what many SOPS consider “Mission Commanders.” This person is ultimately in charge of all mission ops which can be super cool but may also be more technical or administrative. Sometimes “high speed” lieutenants can be Flight or Mission Commanders, but as a general rule they are typically Captains.
Other Non-Rated Career Fields
I would say the other career fields such as Intel or Logistics fall somewhere in between. In general I would classify the more administrative positions one way, and the more hands on jobs the other way. Intel or Personnel would be more administrative. A newly commissioned 2d Lt may be a Flight Commander but that flight may be in charge of producing administrative products or processing information. Leadership in these jobs would still involve inspiring, knowing, and guiding, but your office or Flight may only include a handful of NCOs or Airmen. Other hands on jobs like Maintenance or logistics are going to have a closer model to the Security Forces model I described above. Again you may be a Flight Commander right away but you probably won’t be “doing” things like your people will be. The structure may be more traditional though with more Airmen than NCOs and SNCOs.
In summary, it depends on what type of leadership you are looking for. It also depends on what type of promotion opportunities you are thinking about. As a prior cop NCO I really miss working with the diverse flight of Airmen. I also miss running exercises and having the on the ground combat mindset. The AF frames all of this stuff around the context of exercises, but SF exercises every day so it becomes a part of life. On any given day as a SSgt I would be responsible for creating an exercise scenario where bad guys were trying to steal nuclear weapons and I would watch my guys execute their combat duties, kill bad guys, and recapture the weapon. If my Flight Chief made the scenario that day I would be leading my fire-team across the field toward our objective, or directing my teams to tactically recapture the objective. I freaking miss this. It was all fake but I loved every second of it. Don’t get me wrong there is lots of bad to go with the good, but this is what I miss. The heart of true leadership is the connection I shared with my Airmen and seeing my Airmen do great things under my leadership.
In space it looks a little different. Right now my boss is a Capt and my troop is an A1C (E-3). Space tries to inject the combat mindset into our job and I personally know this is a real thing we need to do because of the space threats out there, but it is still different. If war happens in space I will not be getting in a rocket and blasting pieces of debris with lasers, I will still be on my console ensuring my satellite can still perform it’s mission. I have leadership opportunities with the people I work with but most are officers with a few NCOs or Airmen sprinkled in. We all have different jobs so instead of influencing 20-30 people to do the big mission of recapturing a weapon, my A1C partner and I influence our realm and everyone else is responsible for their own. I guess you could say it is more compartmentalized and being good at our job has a less tangible impact. My partner and I are the dudes who upload commands, the mission planners create the commands and decide when they are performed, the engineers make the commands more efficient and fix broken stuff, and my mission commander reports when it is all broken and when it will be fixed. We all have the opportunity to leverage our system to achieve a farther reaching objective, but it still feels different than entering a blacked out PAS with NVG’s or flashlights and harnessing the chaos with 5.56 rounds. I love being a 13S and I super excited about where this career field is going and how we are blazing the trail of strategy and policy in space, but as a Lieutenant it looks much different. Perhaps the biggest lesson from all of this is to love what you do no matter what your job is! That strategy has served me well.
I thought I would take some time to provide a little update on how things are going as a space officer. It has been more than six months since I commissioned and as I have been staying in touch with my OTS classmates, I have realized we are all on very different paths. I graduated with people who have been at the base for months, who just finished tech school and are working at a desk, or who are at a console underground with their hands hovering over the big red button. I even have friends who have completed initial pilot training or are training in other rated positions. It is amazing how diverse the Air Force is and how far we scatter once we graduate from initial training.
Because of the 24/7 nature of our missions, most space officers can plan on going to crew. In another post I talked about how we have to go through tech school the local training at our first base. To recap, the first training is at Vandenberg and covers the basics of the entire career field. It teaches fundamental information from the electromagnetic spectrum, characteristics of space, or orbital mechanic to general knowledge about our career field as a whole. The second version of training is conducted at your first base. Some units have more formalized training programs while others will do their training “on-the-job” while on crew.
Satellite Vehicle Operator – Since I am at a satellite command and control base around 80% of the new officers here will learn how to become vehicle operators. Every unit has a different name for the job, but we are the ones who talk to the satellite, keep it in orbit, and make sure it is operating ‘nominally.’ Since each mission has different constellations the vehicle operator job can vary greatly, but the bread and butter of the job is the same. If your constellation is in LEO and you don’t have very many satellites, you will have short but more frequent contacts. If your satellites are in GEO and you have lots of satellites, you may have longer but fewer contacts.
Ground System Operator – It is important to note that every unit has different positions and the positions themselves change often. Some units combine all positions into one while others have had only one for the entire life of the system. In order for an operator to communicate with a satellite you will have to establish a ground link from your console or mission processors to the antenna which communicates with the satellites. This position would require familiarization with the infrastructure of your comm equipment and the procedures needed to operate it.
Payload System Operator – One of the other jobs some missions have is a payload specialist. If your mission is GPS, the payload guy would be in charge of making sure the GPS payload is fine tuned and communicating properly. Some missions have Air Force payload operators while others are contracted out or carried out by other organizations. The payload specialist will of course be different depending on the mission. One payload guy might know everything there is to know about communications while another may know everything about GPS.
Crew/Mission Commander – The mission commander is the one on the ops floor who is overall in charge of all operations on the floor. If a squadron has three vehicle operators, one ground operator, and one payload operator for a shift the mission commander would make sure they all are doing their job correctly. They can also be responsible for the contractors, mission planners, or literally anything else needed to accomplish the mission.
Mission Planners – These individuals are responsible for ensuring the overall mission is planned so the people on the floor can execute. It involves an overall understanding of the entire mission process and attention to detail to ensure all of the blocks are checked for mission accomplishment.
This is just a general idea of how a crew can be composed at any given squadron. In general crews work either 8’s or 12’s with the shift schedule being anything from 3 on/3 off, panamas (3 on, 2 off, 2 on, 3 off aka every other weekend off), to something crazy like 6 (2 days, 2 swings, 2 mids) on four off. They say that we are all going to do crew for a few months then switch to M-F for a training period for the rest of our lives due to something called “SMF” but I am sure it will blow over in a few years. In the past you would do a few years on crew then switch to M-F as you became more senior. Maybe someday I will attempt to explain the mindset behind SMF because it makes a lot of sense if it is explained properly.
I can’t speak for all squadrons, but the job itself will be a matter of learning technical information about your system and executing procedures with TO’s or checklists. While we are on shift we are expected to do the things and follow your training. There will be times when you may have to deviate from the checklists or TOs to more effectively accomplish the mission. While this may seem crazy in other career fields, it makes sense in space because of how dynamic our responses may need to be with getting highly complex systems to work properly.
Being on crew can be nice because you can really get to know your crew. Usually the size is anywhere from 2-12 people depending on the mission.