Is there any difference in pay or lifestyle if one chooses to fly fighters or something big like transports or tankers? Do you get to fly about the same number of hours? Fighters look exciting but physically are they really demanding?
I will give you two answers. The first is flippant, but accurate (as far as fighter pilots are concerned, anyway...)
There are two types of aircraft. Fighters and targets. Ah-hem, now that the testosterone is flowing freely, here is the other, more reflective answer.
As far as pay is concerned, both fighters and heavies pay exactly the same. The only thing that affects pay is rank and number of years in service. Generally, one will make rank as quickly in one type of aircraft as the other, so that is not a factor.
Fighters are more physically demanding due to the Gz pulled and, in many cases, the heat associated with poor airconditioning systems (especially down low in an Eagle!) and/or wear of anti-exposure suits, such as what many overwater fighter pilots must wear. Heavies must deal with other, not insignificant physical issues, such as circadian rythym disturbances and no-kidding LONG sorties that wear on you despite the ability to get up and stretch or visit the loo.
Are fighters more fun? Dunno. Never flew a heavy, so I can't compare the two. I know for sure that flying a fighter is like nothing you've ever done, and it is simply astounding to be in charge of such a fine piece of machinery tooling around at 500 feet doing 600 knots. "Wow" is an understatement. I have even used the term "1.2 hours of pure orgasm" to describe a typical fighter sortie, but that may be just a tad extreme.
I'll let the heavy drivers talk about their own satisfaction, but I can only imagine that the guys dropping food to the starving Afgans feel pretty good about their operational mission impact. In short, they have their moments in the sun as well.
Modern fighters such as the Eagle are very easy to fly difficult to master, and demand a tremendous amount of study, aggressiveness and determination to succeed. The good news is that if you make it to pilot training, you will quickly know if the rigors of formation flying and contact are what you want to do.
I forgot to add a bit about hours. Heavies typically fly many more hours per year than your average fighter pilot, but the type and effort per sortie make an interesting comparison.
Fighter pilots, depending on equipment, will fly on average around 12 sorties per month, with each sortie lasting around 1.3 hours for an F-15C driver and maybe 1.9 per sortie for an F-15E pilot.
Most fighter pilots these days will retire at twenty years with around 2600-3400 hours in the jet, which are far fewer hours than their heavy counterparts. As for follow-on jobs, however, most if not all airlines use some sort of "equalizer" to make the comparison of fighter and heavy hours work out in their hiring decisions. Given the complexity of their mission, and the fact that many fighters fly single seat, many hiring departments figure that the hours flown are of high quality and give the fighter pilots credit.
Eagleflip gave you some good insight into fighters and touched on Heavies some. There is fun to be had in each community. There is no doubt in my mind that some people are better off in one community that the other due to their personal needs and one's own personality.
If you like all that upside down, G pulling stuff than fighters is where you want to be. Yes, you may pull a few G's in a Heavy but it will pale in comparison to a more nimble ride. Your chances of becoming an "Ace" as a heavy driver are close to zero.
If you want to travel around the world, stay in nice hotels, and get paid perdiem to enjoy your down time... go heavies. Yes, I like to fly but I prefer to travel. Yes, jet guys do go on the road but you don't see many of them crossing the pond that often. They don't "travel" as much as they are too busy dogfighting in the MOA's to get somewhere... unless there is free beer of course.
Also, in a heavy/tanker, during your long flights you can get up, stretch, use the head, put your steak in the oven, and then eat it as you watch the jet guys try to plug. Sure, they may make it to the O'club before you but you'll have already eaten and be ready for some brew.
Oh yea, couple of other things. Heavies don't usually wear helmets. Helmets have been known to lead to premature hair loss <grin>. Jet guys also have to wear G suits, although maybe that is cool.
I'm sure flying a jet is a lot of fun but don't let the jet guys fool ya, the best thing about being a jet pilot is telling everyone your a jet pilot.
While both have their plusses and minuses, consider this...
I believe I had (now out of mil) the best of both worlds as far as military flying. I flew an MC-130H Combat Talon II for Air Force Special Operations. It is a heavy - a highly modified glass cockpit version of the C-130, but we flew it tactically. The best part of flying a heavy is going places and having a good time. We did that - flew all over the world. On the other hand, the best part of flying a fighter is the tactical flying. We did that too. Although we were not G-dawgs, a vast majority of our flying would be considered crazy by most. Imagine flying a 5 hour sortie at night, lights-out at altitudes ranging from 100 feet all the way up to 250 feet. All while using night vision, infrared equipment, terrain following radars and a ton of other gee whiz techno stuff. Also, the takeoff and landing were on some little piece of dirt again without lights using the above mentioned equipment. You do this to drop off interesting people and strange stuff to unique places. This really only touches what we did and what the current crews train for.
There are quite a few options within Air Force Special operations of which include: MC-130H (described above). MC-130E Combat Talon I (an older version of the MC-130H). MC-130P Combat Shadow (refuels helos inflight). AC-130H/U Gunships (death from above in a circle). MH-53J Pave-Low (armed helo). There are other options too.
I hate this to sound like a recruiting tidbit, but I am just trying to pass on some info. If you want to inquire more about Air Force Special Operations. Check out the home page: http://www.hurlburt.af.mil/index2.shtml
The short answer is that if you want to have fun WHILE you're flying, fighters are probably your best bet. You'll be doing things pretty much every pilot wishes they could've done at one time or another.
But, if you want to have fun the REST of the time, i.e. when you AIN'T flying, then the heavies have it all over the fighters. For the most part, you'll be at better locations, either for permanent station or temporary duty, in heavies.
Heavies get more hours overall as well, and more instrument time, but the major airlines take this into account and some of them either prefer fighter pilots or use a modifier to make the fighter time more comparable. All fighter time is PIC after all.
The only other serious consideration is that fighter guys are more likely to get tagged to do a non-flying tour, due to the number of staff/ground jobs requiring fighter expertise vs. the available number of bodies and cockpits. A heavy driver who "just wants to fly" will probably be able to do it, the fighter guy will have a tougher time avoiding that desk/ground job.
Personally, I think there are NO "bad" Air Force flying jobs. Every plane has a good mission, with fun to be had both in and out of the cockpit.
Great input from all of the posts. Just to add a little more from the heavy perspective. I flew heavies (C-141s) for almost 20 years in the USAF. It allowed me to land and takeoff in 69 different countries and be involved in the Grenada, Panama, Desert Shield, Somalia, and Bosnia. I wouldn't change a day of that experience even if I am kicking myself, just a little bit, about not taking that fighter out of UPT 20 years ago. You can't go wrong either way. The lifestyle is great and will be challenging, no matter what you fly. Good luck and fly safe.