Real Answers from Real Pilots

Military as a Path to an Airline Flightdeck

(I used MSWord to type this - hopefully the hyperlinks and formatting will transfer over)

You’re likely surfing ATP forums to figure how a person becomes an airline pilot. Pass the medical standards, attain the progressive ratings and rack up certain types hours, that’s all there is to it. But what about the time and the cost? And what about those first three to five years not making much money? The reply I would give you is that every profession where six figure incomes are more-or-less commonplace has a price for entry and a certain period of “paying your dues” for the first few years. Nursing? Two to six years of schooling plus passing a licensure and certification exams, costs about $60K and the first few years are generally the worst shifts available at the hospital making about $50-$75K. Doctors require seven to nine years of school, costs of more than $250K, passing licensure and certification boards, and until you are residency (specialty) trained you can look at between $110-$130K. What is a little different between these three non-aviation examples and airline pilot as a career is that the education programs cannot be “condensed” by much. Also, each these four to eight years in school the most money you can make is likely by working part-time as a bartender or some other very flexible job (if you are even able to work at all). Certain phases of flight training are also not compatible with working another job concurrently, but once you are out hit the “hour building” phase when you are a flight instructor you’ll be both earning required flight-hours and getting paid a living wage.

Going through the training phases to land yourself in the right seat of a commercial airliner can be accomplished by following a few different paths. If you surf the ATP forums you’ll read about Part 61 (non-university) training, Part 141 (university, highly structured) training, different “academies” based on the 61 or 141 models, and you’ll also see the military also mentioned in various places. This brief article is a little about the military as a stepping stone to the commercial airline pilot profession .

Up front, I will say that each military service does things a little different, this post is a generic discussion about active duty service as a commissioned officer pilot in the military.

This article will not discuss:

  • Army Helicopter Pilots. The Army uses “Warrant Officers” to be helicopter pilots. The college education requirements are different, and moving from military rotor-wing (helos) to fixed wing commercial pilot ratings has its own set of requirements and challenges, so I won’t go into that pathway. If you want to look into an Army helo program – you’ll need to do some more research elsewhere.
  • Air National Guard. The Air National Guard is its own little military world. The Governor of your state is the Commander in Chief sometimes, the President of the US in other situations. It has its own recruiting process and types and lengths of service obligations – I won’t address Air National Guard.
  • Reserves. All the research I did for this article indicates that you cannot get flight training from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines or Coast Guard and go straight into the reserves (the so-called “weekend warriors”) of any military service. You must serve out your initial active duty service commitment to pay them back for the flight training, then you can ask to go into the reserves.
  • Enlisted service. There are two basic groupings of personnel in the military. Officers and enlisted. All pilots are officers. Some are “warrant officers” and most are “commissioned officers”. Military people love to discuss the difference between warrant and commissioned officers ad nauseum. I won’t. Warrant Officers, serve in restricted technical professions. There may be some who fly drones, and as noted above the Army uses Warrant Officers to fly helos. For the purposes of our discussion here, the military pilots we are discussing are Commissioned Officers. The other grouping of people aside from officers are “enlisted” members. Enlisted service is honorable, has many benefits, and you can even fly on aircraft for a career – but you cannot be a pilot (with the exception of being some sort of drone pilot…but that will not count toward a career in the airlines). So, for our purposes: enlisted service, while honorable, is not worth discussing as directly contributing to becoming a commercial airline pilot.

However, for active-duty, commissioned officer, military pilot discussion, read on.

The Basics – what you need to be successful as a military pilot :

Motivation . It’s a little much to say “everyone” would want to be a military pilot if they could…but let’s face it, when a person is introduced as a “Navy Pilot” or “Air Force Pilot” it’s impressive; no one turns their head and rolls their eyes. Service in the military, however, comes with absolutely real obligations that a very small portion of Americans ever take on. To be a little dramatic about it, you can be ordered to risk your life, or sacrifice yourself for a military objective.

The military is a small group of Americans; as a military pilot, you are part of an even smaller group within the military (grouped with special ops, infantry, explosive ordnance etc.), that absolutely will risk their lives in tangible ways. A very large percentage of the military are support personnel, who do go into war zones, and are worthy of respect – but they don’t generally get fired upon as an expected part of their job description. Military pilots will generally move every three years or so, will be sent away on “det” for weeks or months (deployed), and will be at risk of death for the ideals of the United States. Motivation to serve one’s country is also important because we have customs and traditions that are tough to put up with if you don’t love the military. We do fun things like stand in neat little rows in the cold at 05:00 to be inspected, have exacting grooming standards, strict rules about who can be friends with whom, and there are a whole raft of rules guiding our interactions like saluting and being saluted etc. If any of that sounds like a bad deal to you, your consideration of the military should stop here. If you think the airlines’ rules about no tattoos being visible, number of rings per hand, and no beards etc are a bit extreme…the military will feel like a ten-year long torture session where individuality is not encouraged.

Age/Health/Physical & Mental Constitution . Each service has age restrictions for taking you on as a pilot candidate. Do you have a bona fide, nearly clear medical record devoid of mental health issues, cardiac, neuro, pulmonary issues? Also, you’ll need to meet anthropometric standards (certain leg length, arm length, height, weight, head size etc.).

As to mental standards, you’ll be strapped into a “dunker” and turned upside down in a mock aircraft and dunked in a pool to see if you can keep your wits about you and escape. You’ll go to survival training, including being “caught” by “bad guys” and subjected to mental stressors and some deprivation to prepare you for life as a prisoner if your aircraft goes down in unfriendly territory. By comparison, commercial pilots need to get a Class 1 medical certificate, which puts them easily among the healthier top tier of the US population, but the military takes things to the next level.

Education . You will need a four-year college degree; preferably in a hard science field (engineering of some type etc.) - not a hard-and-fast thing, but it can make you a more favorable candidate. I have known pilots who are military history or political science majors. To get your college degree (all or some of it) paid for by the military you can do ROTC, a Service Academy, or some other “commissioning programs” but, and this is important – anything the military “gives you” must be paid for…usually with a service obligation (your time). A general concept you will hear about in discussions about “payback” with regard to military-funded training is that they will want two years of service for every year of school/training the military gives you. Commitments vary from program to program, but 2 to 1 is something you’ll see a lot. More about service commitment in a moment.

Training . Before you get to do flight training, you’ll first be sent to some sort of officer training/candidate school. Believe it or not, people can, and do jump through all the hoops to get accepted to officer candidate school/training – only to wash out of that before they make it to flight training. If you make it through basic officer training, they’ll pin some pretty gold bars on your collar/shoulder. Then it’s on to flight training to try and get your wings pinned on. Generically, military flight training bears similarity in some ways to civilian Part 61 training offered by places like ATP, it is accelerated/compressed. You’ll do PPL training, get instrument rated, and specific additional training depending on the airframe you’re are selected for. It’s important to point out that in some cases (Navy, for sure, but possibly other services) your air frame is not guaranteed before you sign the dotted line to serve; you could be put in helicopters, a corporate jet, an F-35 (fighter jet), or a C-5 (cargo). The compressing/acceleration of the training is pretty easy to understand. First reason, if you aren’t smart enough to keep up, you aren’t what they are looking for to fly their very expensive aircraft. Second reason, you’re costing them officer pay and benefits the whole time you are in training. They aren’t getting anything productive out of you - you’re costing the military money. They will push you hard to finish safe but finish fast. There is a solid wash-out rate. I won’t link wash-out rate articles/blogs here because so much info is second-hand info and the military services are not too free with official numbers. Many jump through the many hoops up to this point only to wash-out.

In order to make an informed decision about whether military training is the right move, you need to know the total service obligation is for the military service you are looking into. The current commitment for military pilots is 8 to 10 years. Think carefully about that. You will read over, and over again in ATP’s forums that seniority in commercial aviation is everything. That 8-10 year military service commitment will see you leaving the military only to enter the bottom of the commercial aviation seniority ladder, probably as a First Officer at a regional making $50K. This is where you and you and you alone must evaluate your personal situation.

Some scenario/financial discussion:
(Represents one of many scenarios. Only presented here to jump start your brain.)
The ATP, non-military path :

Training at ATP costs about $95K at present. When you add the time spent in flight instructor service to build the necessary hours you’re looking at about 18-20 months (let’s not split hairs…let’s just use that as an approximate timeframe). You are jobless during the first nine months, so with living expenses let’s say you actually spend $115K. For the last nine months or so you’re making the equivalent of a $35K/yr salary ($3K or so per month) - again, this is an estimate that assumes you work hard as an ATP instructor and take advantage of loan repayment money with a regional airline during your hours-accumulation period. You exit the training/instruction period, start making $50K or so per year, make a little more each successive year, and if things go well, you are breaking $100K by five years or so and make the jump over to the Left Seat. At any point you can move where you want, bid schedules that work for you, maybe jump to a major/legacy airline and start climbing that ladder. If your wife/hubby has a career too, you can change homebases or airlines to fit your circumstances. Compare that to the military route.

The military path :

You finish your four-year degree. If you used any military assistance you already owe some kind of service commitment. You likely still came out with a little loan debt anyway from funding living expenses/housing during college. If you went ROTC or a service college, no additional application process or “officer school” for you! You are inducted as an officer! If you did not use ROTC/service academy you need to go through officer training. This starts with a months-long application process, get all your physical evaluation items completed and then wait for a month or a few months to go to officer school. Assuming you pass through that, you then hopefully class-up to aviation training. Hopefully everything goes well, and you graduate pilot training, you actually got paid a salary and medical the whole time and if luck is on your side you are selected to fly multi-engine jet aircraft. For the eight years of your commitment you get paid an average of about $65-85K/yr. You move every three years and will get sent away for about two or three total years from family to fly from an aircraft carrier or in other “cool” but dangerous settings (the cool place depends on which service you are in and what badness is happening in the world while you serve). At the end of your commitment, if you decide to jump out of the military life over to commercial aviation you’ll be eligible for reduced hour requirements. Despite making your minimum hours and your service to your country, the major airlines likely won’t be hungry enough to hire you without more hours and actual airline experience. You’ll need to take a job with a regional starting at $55K and start climbing your way up a new company’s ladder.

Is your head spinning yet? The variables are complex and interdependent. You really do need to pick apart each one, consider your own personal temperament, financial situation, family situation, and long-term goals and desires.

Picture of a person that the military flight training path might make sense for :

  1. Service to your country – This person has a burning passion to sacrifice their time (or life if necessary) for their nation. The finances should take a second place in the discussion; but I would not ignore the financial aspect of this decision…go into it eyes wide open.

  2. Young and healthy, but perhaps facing some economic challenges. This person already has a young family to support, or they are carrying debt, or are averse to accumulating debt. For this person, it just might make sense to trade their time for 8 to 10 years of economic security while still moving toward a long-term commercial aviation career. The military’s health benefits and housing allowance are awesome (i.e. included in your salary) giving you or your family security, and a chance to spend some years digging out from debt; there’s even a chance to put away some money toward retirement using the military’s 401K (called TSP). Of course, while serving in the military one doesn’t build seniority at an airline. You’d never really “catch up” so there’s an absolute sacrifice of six to eight really high earning years in one’s fifties and sixties (maybe a million dollars!), but for some folks it just makes sense to make that trade.

  3. Okay with frequent moves, and months (as much as a year) away from home – and doing this for at least 10 years in a row. This cannot be understated. If a person is from a family for whom roots and hometown are very important, or who has a spouse who is trying to also build a high-earning career, the military can be very taxing. Quick word about “seeing the world”: As to living in romantic foreign locales?.. …those might be in Spain, Italy, or Japan…or they might be in Ohio, Nebraska, or Florida so be careful about romanticizing the whole “see the world” aspect of the military.

In Closing. I wanted to write a short article about this subject, but as it developed, I realized I could not boil it down into two or three paragraphs. I have spent 24 years in the military. It’s been great for me and opened many doors; but it is absolutely not for everyone. I hope this discussion piece has been helpful. If you are interested in actual payscales, service commitments, entry requirements etc. contact a local Officer Recruiter.

Lastly, for any of my fellow military veterans who might be reading this little discussion piece: The everyday experience of being a military member is hard to explain to anyone without a frame of reference. I’ve made some generalizations and assumptions here. I have sought to simplify what military service means and how it works. Also, there are dozens of non-monetary reasons to join the military I didn’t mention. My dad was Navy, my grandfather was Navy – I felt drawn to the military. Because I’ve served, I have memories that money cannot buy – and I know you do too. The leadership training and self-confidence instilled in us by being forced to manage a team and get a job done are invaluable. In this little article I’m not trying to paint military service in a bad light, but I’ve had to process more than one young person out of the service because they joined for money and benefits…not to serve their country; if I can save anyone the pain of joining and then finding out they made a mistake – I want to do that, for their good and for our military. If anyone with military flight experience has additional points to add, they should absolutely feel free to do so.