Ideal Military Pilot Career Path – Spelling it Out – Part 1

BogiDope readers, I continue to believe that a pilot can achieve the Ultimate Military Pilot Career Path by skipping Active Duty altogether and just joining the Guard or Reserves. However, for the thousands of military aviators who will join Active Duty every year anyway, the path I outline in this TPN Guest Post is their Ideal option. Enjoy!

You don’t see my name appear so frequently on TPN because I’m seeking fame or glory. Although I value the title of TPN Staff Writer, you won’t find it on my tombstone. I write what I do because I like helping people get the best possible flying careers. As such, I’m pleased to get frequent emails and DMs from you…asking for help or advice on your particular situation. Please continue to send me your questions!

One of the interesting things about fielding so many questions is that I see a lot of trend data. Many of my articles originate because I get repeat questions, and/or see the same questions in posts/comments on social media. That’s what prompted me to write this today.

I’ve posted extensively about considerations on whether to leave active duty as soon as possible, or stick it out until 20 years. My original post (http://www.aviationbull.com/2016/jun/23/military-pilot-should-i-give-retirement-join-airlines-now) said that the money is a wash, so you should consider other factors. After 2.5 years at Delta, with a cosy armchair-quarterback’s view, I now realize that my numbers in that post were way too conservative. If you compare those numbers to what I actually made during my first two years (http://www.aviationbull.com/2018/feb/26/airline-pilot-second-year-review) you’ll see that airline pay has the potential to drastically outpace military pay, even including retirement and heath care. In short: there is no financial justification for staying on active duty past your initial ADSC.

I feel like I’ve made this obvious, and that the resulting career path should be clear. However, based on several recent questions and discussions, I feel like I’m failing to communicate my intended message. What follows is my personal opinion of the ideal career path for any military pilot who wants a military pension. (If I had my way, this would be required reading for every pilot officer and warrant officer in the Air Force, Navy, Army, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. Please help me achieve that ideal by sharing this article with at least one of your fellow aviators.)

Military pilot training incurs an Active Duty Service Commitment/Obligation (ADSC/O) of 10 years, starting the day you get your wings. If you include time spent waiting to start, and then completing training, this means most pilots hit free agent status around 11 or 12 years of total active duty service.

Whether your primary concern is lifetime earnings, a secure retirement, or overall Quality of Life, I humbly assert that there is almost no reason to stay on active duty past that point. Separate…immediately. If possible, use Palace Chase or a similar program to get out early. Even if you choose to stay in, don’t take the bonus. Ask Admiral Akbar why not.

From here, you do two things more or less simultaneously. 1) you join a Guard or Reserve unit (hereafter just “Reserve,”) and 2) you start work at an airline. Ideally, you go directly to a major airline. If you can’t, there’s nothing wrong with doing a Regional Airline Touch & Go. (https://community.thepilotnetwork.org/posts/why-not-do-a-regional-airline-touch-go)

If you start at a regional, it’s critical that you focus as much as possible on flying there and doing whatever it takes to get hired by a major. The most critical point in this whole scenario is getting a seniority number at a major airline…because Seniority is Everything. (https://community.thepilotnetwork.org/posts/seniority-is-everything)

Once you’ve been hired by an airline, you continue serving part-time in the Reserves. Most units will want a minimum of one week per month from you (though there are exceptions we’ll discuss later.) If you want, you can do this week of military flying in addition to you airline flying, though I don’t recommend it. Sure, you’ll make a lot more money this way, but I feel like it’s just too much time away from home. You’ll burn out and it won’t be worth it in the long-run. Thankfully, though, there’s a good deal that protects every single one of us in this situation.

There’s a federal law call the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, or USERRA. (https://www.esgr.mil/USERRA/What-is-USERRA) This protects America’s reserve military capability by requiring all employers to give their employees up to five years of leave for military duty without any negative repercussions. At the airlines, this means that they have to let you keep your relative position on the seniority list while you’re out flying in the Reserves, among other things. This law is a great thing for us pilots!

You could take a full week of this Military Leave (or “Mil Leave”) every month for 9 years and only use up 756 days (2.07 years) of your 1825 day (5-year) USERRA limit…leaving you a full three years of slop. If nothing interesting happens in your career, you continue like this for 9 years and retire from the Reserves. This retirement isn’t as lucrative as the Active Duty pension, but it’s a whole lot better than nothing!

After retirement, you have a full week of your month back, every month, for the rest of your life. You can use it to increase your earnings significantly, or just keep your airline pay were it was and use that extra week for being with your family, pursuing a side-hustle, or relaxing.

For you Army types, like my buddy J-Lo, here’s the visual depiction of this career path:

That, to me, is the ultimate career path for a military pilot. You get to enjoy exciting, fulfilling flying in the military. You get health care and a military retirement. Yet, you don’t have to sacrifice your seniority position (and the associated Quality of Life) with your airline job. Not bad, eh?

But wait, there’s more!

Say something interesting comes up in your military job. Chances are you’ll have to deploy. Once you’ve done this a few times, the excitement largely wears off. However, after a few years as a glorified bus driver, you won’t mind as much heading out to kill the Commies. A deployment will eat up a lot more Mil Leave than usual, but remember you have a full three years of wiggle room available to you there. Using our assumptions above, you could spend 4 months per year deployed, for 9 years, and not expend your full 5-year USERRA allowance.

You might also get the opportunity to do something special. Maybe the U-2s get desperate and offer to hire reservists. (I’m not holding my breath, but I kind of am. How would you folks at Beale like to drink for free for the rest of your lives? 😉 Maybe you get offered a command position. Even in the reserves, that’s a full-time job for 2-3 years. I’ve flown with current or past Reserve squadron commanders. I’ve even flown with a graduated ANG Wing commander. This guy had command of all the Air Power for an entire state…and he flew F-16s for 27 years…all without having to sacrifice anything at Delta. Maybe you’re a sick, demented soul and you just decide that you really miss doing staff work in a cubicle. There are Reserve jobs in places as high-up as the 5-sided wind tunnel, just waiting for you. USERRA gives you enough flexibility to take one of those jobs and do something truly unique for a few years, without giving up your airline seniority.

There are so many different kinds of opportunities available in the Reserves that I assert there’s almost nothing you could want out of a military career that you can’t get in the Reserves.

Don’t take my word for it, though. Let’s do a little exercise so you can prove that to yourself. Go grab a pen and paper, or power up a notepad on your smartphone.

I’m serious.

Go do it…I can wait.

Good. Now, I want you to write down the parts of military service that you truly love. I don’t mean the things you tell your Mom or your church friends when they ask you about your service. I mean the stuff that propels you out of bed with a smile on your face when you have to wake up at 0400 to go to work…the stuff that makes you secretly excited when you have to put on a pretend frowny-face and tell your spouse that you’re headed out on yet another deployment.

Here are some of the things that I wrote down:

  • Flying the Bone

  • Red Flag

  • Deployed U-28 flying supporting friendly boots on the ground

  • NVG ops

  • Hanging out with great people

  • All T-6 flying

  • Giving flight instruction (all aircraft)

  • Flying solo vs a solo formation student in the T-6

  • IP vs IP formation cloud chasing in the T-6

  • Flying upside down

  • Leading people – maximizing effectiveness while minimizing stupidity

  • Mentoring others

  • Roll Call

Here are some things that aren’t on my list, yet might have appeared on yours:

  • Managing large programs to benefit the taxpayers

  • Elegantly solving big problems

  • Science projects for my commander

  • Educational opportunities

  • Paperwork

  • Attending staff meetings

These are only partial lists. You could potentially have a lot more, or less. Here’s the next part of our exercise: Cross off everything that you can get just as much of in the Reserves as you can on active duty. Go ahead.

Now, be honest: what’s left?

I expect that for most of us, the answer is nothing (proving my point.) Almost everything you love about the military can be had in the Reserves.

I’ll admit there are a few good reasons. I frequently hear healthcare quoted as one reason for staying on active duty. It’s true, you can’t beat that flavor of Tricare. However, you can still get Tricare in the Reserves in most cases. It’s still a great deal compared to anything on the outside. I feel like most families can get what they need on the Reserve flavor of Tricare.

Beyond health issues, the most valid reservations I hear seem to be aspirational. Go back to your list for a moment and add anything that you aspire to do in the military that you can only do on active duty.

Again, I’ll wait.

I mentioned that I’d love to fly the U-2, but you can’t do that unless you stay on active duty. Maybe you want to be a Thunderbird or Blue Angel, fly for the 89th AW or the 160th SOAR, or fly and teach at one of the military academies. You have to stay in to do those types of things. If something like this is now on your list, then staying in might be the right answer. However, we all need to remember that these opportunities aren’t guaranteed. In fact, most of these are so selective that, even if you can get your assignments division to release you from a normal, approved career path, you may not get selected for this special duty. I cannot recommend strongly enough that if you plan to stay on active duty to pursue these opportunities, you should not take the pilot bonus. Give yourself the flexibility to take the shot, and then move on if things don’t work out. Don’t lock yourself in to 9 years of doing things you won’t love just for a slim chance at something you would.

There are a couple other aspirational items that may have appeared on your list:

  • Squadron or higher-level command

  • Becoming a general officer or admiral

I understand if you wrote them down. They were on my list for many years. However, you need to acknowledge that you can achieve these things in the Reserves as well. Sure, the competition may be a little tougher, but how realistic are your chances anyway? The truth is that your chain of command decided who its future Squadron/Wing commanders and Flag Officers would be years ago. If it isn’t blatantly obvious to you that you’re one of those chosen few, then NEWS FLASH: it’s probably not you.

I hate to burst your bubble. One of my biggest complaints with the military is that it plays this game with most of its people. Your commanders can clearly see your realistic career potential, but if the answer is “not what you want” they probably won’t tell you that directly. Instead of giving you frank, realistic feedback, they’ll tell you what you need to do to set yourself up for a chance…that will most likely never materialize. I know many people who have ended military careers in cynical frustration because they allowed themselves to be strung along by this system and never got what they hoped for, never realizing that it wasn’t a realistic hope in the first place. If you’re dead-set on trying for these things, why do it on active duty when you could do it in the Reserves instead? If you haven’t already been anointed on active duty, you won’t be any worse off elsewhere.

Hopefully this exercise was useful. It should show you that there are very few compelling reasons to stay on active duty. If you’re committed to continuing your military service and possibly achieving a retirement, you can probably get everything you want in the Reserves.

For pilots anywhere near 15+ years of active duty service, USERRA is even better news. You can leave active duty at or after 15 years (yes, I know it hurts, but you’ll be okay,) and get established at your airline. They probably want you to give them a full 1-2 years before taking any long-term Mil Leave…please consider honoring that request. Once you’ve done this, you can find somewhere willing to give you full-time orders to finish out your remaining 5 years of service. You’ll have accrued 20 years of full time service and get to start collecting a full active duty pension immediately. There is truly no reason to stay on active duty if you have at least 15 years of service. Here’s that chart for the crayon eaters:

In the past it might have been tough to find a job where you could get 3-5 years of full time orders as an old pilot. That shouldn’t be the case anymore. The Reserves are hurting for pilots just as badly as active duty. If nothing else, pilot training bases are desperate for help. (I know…I spent 3 years instructing at one.) They can give you 3 years of orders as an AGR, then enough “part-time” orders for you to work essentially full-time for as long as you want. You can loaf in the T-1, enjoy the T-6, or really enjoy the new T-X for 5 years. You can definitely find a job.

It’s also worth noting that my company chooses not to count Mil Leave periods of less than 30 days against your 5-year limit. Other airlines may, or may not do the same. This means it’s theoretically possible to do years of part-time service without burning a single day of your USERRA-mandated 5-year limit. You could save that golden ticket for the day when something special comes up. Even if you’re short of 15 years when you separate, a few years of part-time service with several 29-day stints could put you within striking distance of an active duty retirement. You could accrue enough points to put you within 5 years of your goal and then drop that long-term Mil Leave to finish out. You should be very pleased to see the number of options available to you.

So there it is: the ideal career path for any active duty pilot who wants a military retirement. Your specific situation might require a small amount of tweaking, but I truly believe you can make it work.

Please don’t just decide to stay on active duty for 20 years because you want to be fed by the Federal Gravy Train for the rest of your life. You can hitch a ride on that same train with different flavors of Reserve retirement.

Don’t be seduced by the bonus just because you’re risk-averse or because it seems like a lot of money. If I’d worked as much during my second year at my airline as you do on active duty, I would have made $220,000. That dwarfs any direct economic benefit from the pilot bonus. That number also reflects the fact that I didn’t get a single hour of premium pay last year. Year 2 pay at my airline’s lowest-paying jet is so good that one day of premium pay is worth roughly $2000 in compensation. You could make up for a $35K/yr pilot bonus by averaging just over 1 day per month of premium pay. If you account for inflation, the bonus is worth less than when it was introduced in the 90s at $25K. The military tries to sell you by quoting a total dollar value, but you need to pay attention to the dollars per year figure. If you do, you’ll realize that it has zero reflection of your actual value.

Thanks to the Reserves, you can truly get the best of both worlds. Fulfillment, service, health care, camaraderie, fun flying, and money…all without sacrificing your seniority number.

This article is long enough already. I’m going to wait until Part 2 to discuss some considerations on specific reserve options, how to secure yourself a spot at a good unit, and some other less-frequently considered costs of staying on active duty. In Part 3, we will discuss the mythical CAT E reservists… Stay tuned.

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