Scobee enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1957, where he served as a reciprocating engine mechanic. He received a B.S. in aerospace engineering from the University of Arizona in 1965 and was awarded a commission the same year. Afterward he attended flight school and served as a combat pilot in the Vietnam War, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and other decorations. He later became a test pilot for the Air Force, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel.
Selected for the astronaut program in January 1978, he served as pilot for a previous Challenger mission in April 1984. He had also been an instructor pilot for the shuttle's 747 carrier airplane.