The career path I’m recommending is leaving active duty as soon as possible, getting a job at a major airline, and then continuing military service in the (Guard or) Reserves to reach retirement. This career path gives you almost all the benefits of active duty military service, without having to sacrifice your all-important seniority number at an airline.
In my mind, one question will help most most military pilots realize why this career path is ideal: What do you love about the military that you can’t also get serving in the Reserves?
In Part 2 of this discussion, we covered some of the kinds of jobs you can do as a Reservist. There are a variety of flying jobs, and plenty of non-flying staff work to support those who are interested. However, being a flying Reservist isn’t always easy. First off, you’re there to take part in your unit’s flying mission. That requires you spending time in the air. They need each and every one of us badly enough that they can give you as much of this flying as you can handle. Probably more.
However, the Air Force (and I assume the other branches) have to add requirements on top of that to make it more of a slog. You’ll also have a load of flight and ground training that has to be completed on a regular basis. Who cares if you fly 10 instrument approaches a week or do plenty of ocean crossings in the airlines…you’ll have to log your instrument approach and other beans for your military flying as well. (For the record: top airline leaders have met with top generals at the Pentagon and recommended letting Reservist pilots get at least some dual credit for these types of things. This would have been a win-win…saving both organizations money and other resources while making the pilots more available and effective in both jobs. The military was the one who refused this idea, and many others that the airlines presented to try and help. But I digress….)
Anyway, there’s a lot to get done just to stay current and legal to fly as a Reservist. Your unit might only require you to fly with them for one week a month, but sometimes that week is barely enough to meet your currency requirements. If you’re going to actually contribute to the unit’s mission, you’ll have to put in even more time. In some cases, the mission set is involved enough that one week a month just isn’t enough to stay effective. You risk feeling unprepared for the mission every time you go fly. If you live near your Reserve unit you might be able to squeeze in enough extra days to make things work. If you commute though, this could mean a lot of extra days away from home.
What this boils down to is: Reserve flying can be a lot of work. I don’t know about you, but one of the reasons I’m a pilot is that I’m just a little bit lazy.
I’m writing this on a layover in beautiful Charlottesville, VA. As I was pulling out of my driveway to start this trip, I noticed a Lawn Care Specialist working at my neighbor’s house. He was getting out of his nasty old truck with fast food wrappers and other random garbage covering the floor boards, drenched in sweat, and was visibly exhausted. He probably makes $15/hr to work all day in the sun, 5-6 days a week. I’ve flown a grand total of 4 legs over the last 2 days, and I’m getting paid to relax at the Omni for 30 hours right now. On 3rd year FO pay, my hourly rate is 10 times that of my neighbor’s LCS…before you consider 401K contributions, per diem, or profit sharing. I work about 12 days a month.
I could make more money. I could rake in millions working somewhere like Axe Capital…but I’d never see my family. I could be like my wife’s cousin, running his own landscaping firm. I’d make lots of money and get to own a bunch of cool trucks and power tools…but I’d also spend a lot of time doing backbreaking work in the summer heat. While I enjoy some hard work from time to time. Sorry, just not my thing I guess. I like air conditioning and comfy seats in my jet, and swanky hotels located near great burger joints or craft breweries for my layovers.
In a way, flying for the Reserves is like being a lawn care specialist. It’s a whole lot of work. It might be very fulfilling, but it’s not for everyone. Thankfully, there’s a lower-demand option for continuing your military service and earning a retirement. It’s called being a Category E Reservist. To be clear, this isn’t for everyone. But it just might fit the bill for some of you, and at least knowing it exists can’t hurt.
This is the way I’m continuing my Reserve service. I still get one point for every four hours of work I do, but I don’t get paid any money for that work. I can collect a retirement just like any other Reservist at age 60, but I don’t get a penny until then. I also don’t have access to Tricare in this job.
So why do it? Because it’s really easy, and somewhat fulfilling. I’m a USAF Academy Admissions Liaison Officer (ALO.) My fundamental job is to mentor and interview candidates for the Zoo. (Squids and Grunts have similar opportunities for their own Institutions for Fostering Social Ineptitude.) I’m actually the only human being from Air Force who speaks directly to most candidates before they show up at basic training. I feel like I make valuable contributions by identifying stand-out candidates at the good and bad ends of the spectrum. It’s fulfilling, even inspiring, to work with some of the sharpest young people in our country. The best part of the job is that it’s all on my own schedule. (More on that in a moment.)
There are a few other Cat E jobs out there. One is the Civil Air Patrol Reserve Assistance Program (CAPRAP.) Basically: you get a gorgeous C-182 as your private ride. Then, you fly around your state glad-handing, telling war stories, conducting inspections, and giving check rides…still on your own time. It’s an even better deal than what I have because you’re getting free flying out of it. If you get offered this job, you should take it! (More info here: https://www.afrc.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/1125084/flexible-reserve-opportunities-supporting-air-force-auxiliary/)
The one catch for Traditional Reservists is that most units have what’s called Drill Weekend. It’s a designated weekend, every month, when everybody is required to show up and accomplish mindless tasks like fire extinguisher training, the PT test, OPR writing workshops, etc. (It’s also a lot of fun hanging out with your Reserve buddies. Most units do a good job of maximizing the benefits of being the federally-funded equivalent of a motorcycle gang while minimizing the pain of military queep ;). The problem is that Drill Weekend tends to rule your life. Some units will let you skip a few throughout the year, but in most cases you’re useless to your family for a specific 12 weekends per year. No birthdays, no trips, no soccer games…no soup for you!
As a Cat E Reservist, there is no Drill Weekend. I have one day of training per year, but since I don’t even get paid for being there, my boss realizes that he’s more asking than ordering me to attend. Everything I do is on my own time. Have a few free hours on a layover with the airline? Knock out some emails or do an interview via Skype. (We’re not allowed to do them in person anyway. We’re not allowed to wear uniforms either…it scares the kids. AF polo shirt and khakis for the win!) Anything other than an interview could even be accomplished while multitasking with a football game and a cold beer. This job requires almost zero sacrifice of time away from your family for an airline pilot.
Cat E Reserve jobs aren’t for everyone. The lack of pay is annoying, while the lack of Tricare could be a deal-breaker. The flexibility is awesome though! One of the great things about the Reserves is that they’re like the airlines: the system works because everyone wants something different. Whether you want to pursue a few years of full-time orders, be a Traditional Reservist, an IMA, or a Cat E, there are all kinds of options. What I’ve covered in this series hasn’t even scratched the surface of what’s available in the Reserves, and the Guard has its own options too.
You don’t need to be an Air Force Academy graduate to be an ALO. I’d estimate that about half of the force came from ROTC or OTS. If you’re interested in this type of Reserve service, the way to start is to contact the Liaison Officer Director (LOD…sort of a squadron commander-equivalent) for your state. Each LOD gets to manage his or her own hiring. You probably don’t know who your LOD is. You can send a request to find out through the USAFA website, but the response times vary wildly. A better option is probably to find any ALO and ask them to look up your state’s LOD online. (We’re all capable of doing that in our system.)
Most states need ALOs right now, and it’s not like over-staffing will bust their budget because the job pays nothing. Unless we saturate them with new requests, they should be able to accommodate you. I will warn you though that the hiring process for USAFA ALOs is atrocious right now. Seriously, the Academy should be ashamed at how badly their process is broken. I’ve seen it take upwards of 2 years to get a person fully hired and gained in all the appropriate systems. (They’re trying to improve things. Hopefully their efforts will bear fruit, but I’m not holding my breath.) If you’re thinking about this as a reserve job, you should start the process right away! You may need to find some other kind of Reserve job to keep you accruing points while USAFA works on gaining you. However, once things finally get worked-out it really is a great deal.
You do most of your work on your own time. Your primary job is mentoring and interviewing candidates. There are some opportunities to attend Academy Day events put on by members of Congress (think college fair for service academies.) These are an easy way to log 2 points for standing around answering stupid questions and telling war stories. Plus, it’s a great opportunity to get to know your Congressional Reps if you have any reason to put that sort of networking to good use. If one of your candidates gets in to the Academy, you’ll get to attend his or her senior awards night to officially present the Appointment. It’s a very rewarding experience, and another easy 1-2 points, depending on how far you have to drive to get there and how much of the ceremony you have to sit through before your presentation. (It’s boring if you have to sit through the whole program, but it beats working as an LCS…(don’t get me wrong, I admire the hard working men and women who allow me to be lazy, thank you)
There is a 1-week training course that they want all new ALOs to attend once. It’s a week at the Academy with hotel and airfare paid by the government. (I got one of the Hilton Amex cards before I went and used this stay to help me travel hack my way to 180,000 Hilton Honors points.) You’ll get the most in-depth tour of the Academy possible, short of working there full-time. You get to meet with the higher-ups like the Commandant and ask questions like, “so what’s the deal with tours?”. It also ends up being an Air Force reunion and a great time overall. (Don’t forget that since it’s 5 long days, you get to log 10 of the 35 points you need for that year.)
If you’re interested in making O-5 there are plenty of leadership opportunities in the program, and promotion rates are surprisingly good. You can even make O-6 if you’re willing to spend some time working as a Regional Director full-time at the Academy for a couple years. (Retired colonels don’t get different Tricare than Lt Cols though. The retirement pay difference isn’t enough to motivate me to work that hard, but maybe you’ve always wanted to let a silver chicken stand on your shoulder….)
If it weren’t for the lack of Tricare, I feel like this would almost be a perfect Reserve job. The work is easy and rewarding. You do it on your own schedule with no Drill Weekend to worry about. You can fit it in around your airline flying to the point that it has almost no impact whatsoever on your time with your family. If you want to get promoted, there are lots of opportunities. It won’t be a fit for everyone, but it might be a great deal for you.
This concludes this particular series, but in future articles, we are going to discuss how a reservists gets paid. It’s a little insane, but something most reservists don’t know about until they are in the mix.
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