Military Leave on Probation

Feliz Cinco de Mayo, BogiDope readers! The following is reposted from the members-only TPN Community website with minor revisions. It addresses USERRA. If you have more questions about that law, be sure to read our original article on the subject.


“Would it be a problem for me to take long-term military leave during my probationary year at a major airline?”

I hear this question all the time. It’s common because a military pilot leaving active duty needs to consider both airline and guard/reserve (hereafter collectively ‘reserve’) jobs at the same time. Neither hiring process offers a fixed schedule for long-term life planning, and most of them show up as one-time offers.

This post is my attempt to tackle this question. My simplest reply is: “If you have to ask, don’t you already have your answer?” However, that’s far from the end of the issue.

(Side note: Aaron Hagan from Emerald Coast wrote a great post about Avoiding Square Corners. I present this as one specific square corner to avoid.)

An author named Simon Sinek wrote a pretty decent book called Start With Why. I like his premise, so before we go any further I want you to sit back and think about the ‘whys’ driving this transition in your life.

  1. Why are you leaving active duty military aviation?
  2. Why are you pursuing an airline career? (Why not a job as a real estate agent, project manager for a defense contractor, or a day trader instead?)
  3. Why are you planning to continue your service in the reserves?

The answer to #1 is pretty well-understood by those of us who don’t participate in the Pentagon’s daily blue Kool-Aid guzzling contests. (If anyone from the five-sided echo chamber wants to know the details of that answer, just let me know…I’ll be happy to explain it all to you and explain exactly how to fix all your problems.)

Money is an important factor in #2, but it’s about far more than that. It’s about having a lot more time with your family, giving your family some stability, and having more choice in life. It’s about being valued for doing what you love to do, being compensated realistically for your efforts, and not being coerced into giving extra time without requisite compensation. It’s also about being in control of how much stress is in your life…and being the person who gets to adjust that dial as your needs and capacity change over time.

I feel like #3 tends to vary more from person to person. Some are focused almost completely on retirement. They need the security of the government gravy train. For some, getting free health care for life is more important than joining the check-of-the-month club.

(I feel like I’ve thoroughly demonstrated how military retirement can’t compete with airline compensation. See: thisthisthisthis, and this. The taxpayer-funded military retirement represents less money for your family; however, I generally regard military retirement as carrying less risk than the airline industry. Your family’s risk tolerance is an important part of your career transition calculus.)

Others want to serve because they’re just patriotic Americans. Active duty has made everything so painful that even love of country isn’t enough to keep some people in, but they can give the service they want to give without the insanity of active duty by joining the reserves.

Some people just aren’t ready to stop being awesome. Military aviation offers unique opportunities to fly fighters, do NVG landings, rescue people in helos, bounce around the world in one of the largest aircraft ever built (because size really does matter, right?), etc.

I’m considering some reserve flying opportunities. I don’t need the money (though I won’t refuse it, or the cheap health care.) I have no illusions about it being particularly awesome, per se. However, I do love the flying. I also love instructing and feel like I could continue to make a difference in some young pilots’ lives and serve my country as a reserve pilot. As compelling as my personal reasons may be, I chose to establish my airline career and stabilize things for my family before giving serious thought to finding a reserve flying unit.

Now, having considered the ‘whys’ that prompted you to ask your original question, I want you to think seriously about which ones are the most important. The best part about our situation is that you aren’t limited to picking just one. You really can have it both ways. You can be and airline pilot and fly in the Reserves. However, you may need to prioritize one over the other in the short-term future…give up time in service or a few seniority numbers to make sure the most important part of your future career is taken care of first. This ranking can and should help drive your personal response to the question at hand.

Now that we have figured out our ‘why’ let’s use it to start framing our problem:

Unfortunately, both the airlines and the Reserves are governed by economics. If an organization is going to hire you to be a pilot, it needs you to start working for them as a pilot right away. Training you costs a lot of money and it does them no good if you ditch them for your “other” job the minute you get qualified. They aren’t trying to make life difficult for you here…this is simple economics at work.

Your potential future employers address this in different ways.

The military has you sign a contract that essentially gives up some of your freedom in exchange for their good deal. They can give you orders requiring you to serve on active duty for the duration of your training and possibly longer for “seasoning” or even deployment. You can’t usually just turn that down. If you insisted on trying, they could potentially just cut you from the team and move on.

The airlines have something called probation. Since the airline industry is heavily unionized, it’s extremely difficult to fire a pilot. To mitigate that, the airlines have insisted the unions give them one year at the start of each airline pilot’s career to identify and eliminate bad eggs. During this probationary year, your union-endorsed contract probably gives your company the power to fire you at any time for any reason. Talk about high threat!

(Don’t worry, I believe that you pretty much have to try to get fired while you’re on probation. The only stories I’ve heard about probies getting the boot involved pilots who just couldn’t figure out the flying despite receiving tons of extra help, had severe attitude issues, or engaged in grossly dishonest/immoral behavior.)

The other thing to consider is that we intend to spend a long time on these career paths. The reserves have to hire with the expectation that a pilot could be with them for 10-15 years, at least. Most airline careers will be longer than a pilot’s previous military career, even if he or she retired. If the pilot separated from the military at the 11-12 year point, this airline career could be 2-3 times as long as he or she spent in the military. This is longer than some marriages last. The organization needs to make sure that it hires the right people. The pilot also needs to start that relationship off properly. The last thing any of us wants to do is make our new ultra-long-term employer angry by ditching it for a few months, right after training, to pursue our “other” job.

The US government has an ace in the hole here. The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA) mandates that employers let reservists take military leave from their primary jobs for military duty. Most airlines seem more than happy to support their reservists; they publicly voice their pride in employing us. (Not that they have much of a choice…USERRA is Federal law, after all.)

Technically, there is nothing your airline can do to prevent you from getting hired, going through training, and then taking long-term military leave (for up to five years!) What’s more, USERRA even says they aren’t allowed to punish you for doing this…and in most cases they don’t.

Almost every important aspect of your airline career is governed by one thing: your seniority number. The processes of bidding for your monthly schedule, aircraft and base assignment, and captain upgrade are all conducted in the open. Everyone can see exactly how and why things are awarded. It’s all straightforward and all governed by the cold hard math of seniority numbers. It’s awesome!

Based on this, you can rest easy knowing that most of what’s important in your airline career can’t possibly be impacted by taking long-term military leave…even during your probationary year. Federal law protects you and union-protected contracts ensure that it would be blatantly obvious if your company tried to get back at you. (And the union would cease to exist if it wasn’t an effective watchdog, so it’ll back you up) It’s truly that simple.

However, that’s not the end of the story either.

Before we go on, let’s run a hypothetical scenario:

You’re a senior captain in an active duty military flying squadron. (That’s O-3 for you Navy types, but you’ll see why this example sadly lends itself to the USAF in particular.) You’ve been assigned as the Project Officer for the squadron Christmas party. Since you know how the USAF works, you realize that the success of this party will have far more impact on your career than anything you could do in the aircraft this year, even if you spent the year deployed fighting the war. (Cue Metallica’s Sad but true…)

Your buddy, Badger, also realizes the impact that a Christmas party can have on a career. He wants to get in on the career-enhancing good deal, so he convinces you to let him be in charge of the food. You like Badger, and you need to delegate anyway, so you give him the assignment.

Over the next few months, every time you try to pin Badger down to talk about the catering he seems to be busy. He’s always mission planning, flying, or debriefing. You start to worry that the food won’t be taken care of on time. Finally, a week before the party, you corner your buddy only to find out that he hasn’t finalized the details. You’re pissed, right? This guy asked for this job, he realized how important it is for his career, and yet he prioritized flying over it. What a jerk! You’re forced to deal with the catering yourself. Everything turns out okay, but it resulted in some stressful, last-minute panic for you.

You forgive Badger. He’s still your buddy. You still enjoy flying and working together. You move on with your life and forget about this one, little Christmas party.

Years later you find yourself in a leadership position at great staff assignment. You have a great location, the work you do is fulfilling and important. You get to fly on the side and you’ll either be a squadron commander or an airline pilot in the next two years.

One day your old buddy Badger calls and asks if you have any job openings. He’s really excited about the possibility of a staff job that also lets him fly. You actually do need to hire some people and you have several applicants. Of course, you’ll take his application. Let’s be honest though, how will things work out for Badger?

Whether you try to or not, you’ll remember that this was the guy who couldn’t get a job done for you because he prioritized his personal needs over those of your organization. You’ll tell him over a beer to soften the blow, but you won’t lose sleep by deciding that you’re better off with some of the other applicants. You like the guy a lot and you wish you could help him out, but it just isn’t the best choice for your organization.

(For the record, the Badger in this story bears no resemblance to the real-life pilot known by this name. The real Badger would have handled this menial task in roughly 6.9 seconds, with aplomb, while still flying more than anyone else in his squadron.)

Great story Emet…so what?

I said that causing your company pain by taking mil leave during probation wouldn’t impact most of what’s important in your airline career. You’d probably be able to progress with scheduling, assignments, and upgrades as a line pilot. However, those aren’t the only opportunities at an airline.

For pilots who live in base, working as a simulator instructor can be amazing. You get paid far more than equivalent line pilots, but you’re home 75% more nights than those peers. Airlines also need Line Check Airmen (LCAs) to train new pilots in line operations. LCAs at my airline get paid about $50 more per hour than their peers. (That’s worth at least $50K-$75K per year.) There are also opportunities to serve in the technical/testing side of operations, in corporate management, in the safety department, and elsewhere. These jobs aren’t for everyone, but they can be rewarding for the right pilot.

While the life of a regular line pilot is governed by coldly objective seniority numbers, these other job opportunities require the company to hire with some subjectivity. Sim instructors and LCAs have to be good at giving flight instruction. They need to have attitudes/mindsets that will help indoctrinate new pilots to be good employees in the future. These are generally full time jobs that require people to dedicate time and attention to the company. Everything these pilots do exposes the company to potential legal issues, so the pilots need to focus on the company’s interests at all times.

It would not be a problem to continue serving as a reservist in most of these jobs. I don’t think the average reservist would have trouble getting hired in these jobs. However, let’s remember how human nature works.

If you’ve been flying long enough to be competitive for a major airline career, you know how small a community aviation can be. Someone in the corporate structure hiring people for these jobs knows about your past…or knows someone who does. They’re going to do their homework on you.

I honestly believe that a person doing this hiring won’t hold any military service against you. He or she probably appreciates and respects your service, and certainly has no desire to violate Federal law. If you’re lucky and/or good at networking, you may even be friends with the person doing the hiring. Like it or not though, human nature is going to influence how this person thinks about your fit for this job…just like Badger in our Christmas party story.

If you’re the person who knowingly inconvenienced the company by taking military leave instead of flying out your probationary year, it will influence their perception of how your attitudes/mindsets fit the requirements for these jobs. The person hiring for this job doesn’t think that way on purpose. He or she probably doesn’t even realize it’s happening. However, he or she is subject to human nature.

Ouch.

Is this the end of the world? If your personal career goals require you to end up in one of these specialized jobs within your company, then I guess so. If that’s the case then you’d be a fool to take long-term military leave during your probationary year. Find a part-time TR or IMA job in the Reserves until you have a year or two at your airline, then go back and join a Reserve unit. (Don’t worry, The reserves are as desperate for pilots as the active duty military. You’ll be able to find a job.)

If you’d be content to fly the line for your career, then you don’t really have a problem. If you’re lucky, 10-15 years of building a good reputation at your airline might erase a first-year party foul and you could still have a shot at one of those jobs later if you change your mind. It all goes back to starting with ‘why.’

“But Emet,”” you say,” I shouldn’t just turn around and screw my Reserve unit instead, should I?”

Good point! You definitely should not do that.

It’s possible to get into a Reserve unit by playing “I have a secret.” You can get hired and maybe even trained up without any firm commitment and then reveal the fact that you’ll be starting at an airline in a week and can’t do much for them for the next year-ish. You might be able to work this in a way that prevents the unit from firing you on the spot (even though I feel like they’d be within their rights to do so.) However, there are quality of life considerations in a Reserve unit as well. Do you want a good job within your squadron? Do you hope to upgrade to AC, FL, IP, etc.? Do you want to go on the good-deal TDY to Hawaii for 2 weeks or the bad-deal deployment to the Deid for 6 months? Your conduct will have a direct impact on how much you enjoy your years with that unit.

So how do we solve these problems?

First and foremost, you need to be open and honest with everyone involved.

I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a post along the lines of:

“So, I just got a CJO from the only airline I want to work for. Unfortunately, I appear to have been overly optimistic with the availability date I gave them and I can’t get out of my military obligations in time. What should I do?”

If you are or were in this situation, I’m sorry. It must have sucked. I have one friend who fessed up with his airline and was able to get his training date pushed back. However, I think he was pretty lucky. I don’t think it’s worth risking your shot at your dream airline to gamble like this. Putting a realistic (and verified) availability date on your application may be one of the most important things you can do for your future careers.

If you need to get things started with the reserves sooner than later, your airline availability date may need to be after you fulfill your initial obligations to join, get mission qualified with, and possibly deploy with your reserve unit. It’s a lot easier to move your availability date to the left if your deployment gets cancelled, than to ask to push your airline training date to the right.

Yes, this will cost you seniority numbers and money. This specific situation applies to people with ‘whys’ like:

  • Military retirement is a top priority for me. I can’t afford a break in service or a bad year.
  • I’m qualified in the aircraft now and my unit won’t hire me if I have to stop flying for a year.
  • I’ll have to qualify in a new military aircraft and will need a year to train. I’m a heavy pilot now, but could get my dream job of fighter pilot in the reserves. That’s worth at least 1000 seniority numbers to me. I’m only going to get hired by a fighter unit if I do it this year while I’m still current and qualified and have buddies to put in good words for me.

For some people, these will be good reasons to give up some seniority and money and put a later availability date on your airline application. Don’t jeopardize your most important ‘why’ or your airline career by playing games.

Some people get really nervous about getting hired as soon as possible at an airline because they need a way to make ends meet. I feel bad if you’re in this situation, but with a little planning each of us has the power to eliminate this threat ahead of time. You should be saving a lot of your military pay, whether you’re getting out or not. If you know you’ll be leaving, you should start building up some savings at least a year or two ahead of time to live on while you wait for jobs. The longer you can afford to go without work, the less pressured you’ll feel to try to play games with things like availability dates. Don’t let a failure of long-term planning become a short-term problem that can’t be ignored.

If you feel like you’re in a tight spot for one reason or another, falling back on upfront and honest communication can make a lot of difference. What if you didn’t find out that a reserve unit had hired you until you started training at your airline? We’ll talk about addressing that with your reserve unit in a moment, but one of the first things you need to do is address the issue with your Chief Pilot.

Go to his or her office and lay it all out on the table. Tell them that you had applied, but hadn’t heard back when you got hired at the airline. Explain what you’ve done to try to delay training with your reserve unit. Worst case, explain that you (honestly) feel bad about having to take mil leave and tell them you’ll do what you can to minimize impact to the company. Your attitude at this meeting can go a long way for you.

You can also help yourself by being honest with your reserve unit, especially if your driving ‘why’ gives priority to the airline side of your job. You may need to give them a more realistic availability date for training. If the unit really wants you, they may be able to shift people around to make that work. Chances are that someone else would prefer going to training now rather than waiting.

One of the important things to realize about the reserves is that there are two kinds of reservists:

Type 1 reservists realize that this is a part-time job. You’re doing it out of at least some patriotism or dedication. Every day you spend as a reservist costs you a lot of money, even after you factor in retirement. Type 1s are frequently more understanding because they’re in the same boat. They understand game theory and they’re willing to work with you to maximize both your family’s welfare and the unit’s needs.

Type 2 reservists don’t get any of this. They mistakenly believe that reservists should spend as much time and energy on military service as people on active duty. They look down on anyone who fails to meet this standard as lazy or unpatriotic. They believe that, as officers, reserve pilots should spend just much time on queep like PME, OPRs, and science projects as active duty officers because that’s the true mission of the US Air Force. They believe that reserve pilots (who are only hired and can only get paid to fly) should put in extra (unpaid) time at work to do all that extra stuff. Sometimes, Type 2s think this way because they’re full-time reservists. They may be on AGR orders, or they may be technicians who get paid less than their peers to do the exact same job. (A terribly obsolete idea at this point.) Sometimes, Type 2s are disgruntled because they haven’t gotten the call from an airline yet and they see no reason to help out the people who have. Type 2 reservists suffer from the same tragic disease as many active duty commanders who have interpreted the Core Value of “Service Before Self” to mean “my unit’s mission no matter what the cost to my people and our families.” They’re not going to help you find a balance between your airline and military careers.

(I almost feel bad for calling out the Type 2 reservists in our military. Almost. In writing these examples, I don’t mean to single out any specific individuals. However, it’s critical that we admit Type 2s exist so that we can try to eradicate them. Simply put: their mindset is wrong. The reserves are not meant to work this way.)

So, how does identifying the two types of reservists apply to our discussion? When you plan your transition from active duty, it’s important for you to figure out what type of reservists run the units that you consider pursuing.

You could end up flying your dream aircraft in your dream location, but if your unit is run by a bunch of entrenched Type 2s it’s going to be a terrible experience. You can figure out a lot of this by talking to people in the squadron. However, it’s also important to get a feeling for the type of leadership you’ll be dealing with while you’re applying to and interviewing with a squadron. Tell them upfront where you are with the airline side of your career and see how they react. You’ll be glad you did.

Although Type 2 reservists sadly do exist, I believe they’re still a minority. Chances are your perspective unit is full of Type 1s because they’re typically the kinds of people drawn to reserve service. Chances are that they’ll understand where you’re coming from because they’ve been there. If you approach them honestly interested in doing what you can to help them, while also taking care of your family by securing the right airline job, I believe that they’ll help you find a way to succeed at both.

Before we conclude, I want to look at one more important consideration that I hadn’t even considered until recently. I had the opportunity to attend presentations and Q&A from some high-up people at my airline. They mentioned a situation that can get you into trouble if you take long-term mil leave during your first year at your airline, and I want to make sure you’re aware of this consideration.

During your probationary year, the FAA requires your airline to assess your progress at various stages. At my airline, this means you do a few meetings with a chief pilot, you get a mini check ride at 200 hours, and you get a full-up line check somewhere around 300-400 hours. I was an FO on the busiest plane in the fleet, so I’d done a lot of flying and completed all of this within about 5 months. I didn’t sweat the line checks because they were normal, everyday ops and I’d had plenty of flying.

It’s different if you’ve been on long-term mil leave though. At my airline, mil leave extends your probation. This year normally ends at 12 months, but any mil leave over a certain threshold extends your probationary period. Your airline may have a similar policy. Either way, if you’ve been away for a while you’re expected to be ready to go when you come back. You may get a day at the sim to get current on landings, but after that you’re right back out on the line. If you get back near the threshold for your mid-phase progress check or line check, you have to do it whether you’re ready or not. The airline won’t penalize you for being on mil leave, but they can’t afford to give you a bunch of time in the sim to prepare for a check ride like many of us did in the military. If it’s time for a line check and they schedule you for it, it’s going to happen.

I recently checked out on the B717. It’s similar to the MD88 that I had been flying and I felt pretty good with it by the time I finished OE. I did one trip after OE and then spent about two weeks not working at all. (I bid that way on purpose.) When I came back after that time off, my first flight was a little rough. It wasn’t heinous, but I wouldn’t have wanted to do a line check in that state. That’s after just two weeks and being on a new aircraft. If I’d been away for several months, or even a couple years on mil leave I would have really been in bad shape. It would be extremely difficult to come back from long-term mil leave and perform well on a line check.

It’s one thing to take a couple months or years of mil leave and return to your aircraft feeling rusty after you’re off probation. It’s something else entirely when you’re still vulnerable to being ‘let go’ at any time, for any reason, without recourse, as allowed by your union-backed contract.

If you’re going to take long-term mil leave while you’re on probation, realize that you’re responsible for performing when you get back. If you’re due for an evaluation, you won’t get any warm-up. You’d better do what it takes to prepare for that event or else you could be putting your career in jeopardy. Or, you could just wait until that probationary year is up, get a few hundred hours of flying under you belt, and take your mil leave after your less vulnerable. My company’s managers were very clear that they wholeheartedly support reserve military service and will honor the requirements of USERRA, but they can’t afford to baby a pilot when he or she gets back.

So, does taking long-term military leave during your probationary year at an airline hurt you? It depends on your priorities, your ‘whys.’

If you’re happy to just fly as a line pilot, then there isn’t really much they can do to you. If you aspire to more than that, then I’d prioritize that from the start and delay your commitments to the reserves. Even if you’re not sure, I’m a big fan on not closing doors unless it’s absolutely necessary.

If your family’s risk tolerance requires you to secure a military retirement, then that probably needs to happen even if it means giving up money and seniority.

If the reserves are the only place you can achieve some lifetime-scale ambitions, then pursue them and do the airlines when you have time.

No matter how you end up prioritizing your ‘whys,’ upfront communication will make your life better.

If you choose to prioritize your airline career, then either delay your reserve application, or find a unit of Type 1 people who are willing to work with you. Again, upfront communication with that unit will help you know if you want to serve with them in the first place.

If you start with ‘why’ you’ll be happy with your choice either way. You’re not necessarily choosing one career path at the ultimate expense of the other. You’re just choosing to prioritize one for now before you go all-in on the second one. If you end up as both a reservist and a military pilot, some prudent money habits will allow you to accumulate enough wealth in your lifetime to set your family up for generations. (Here’s how to make that happen.) No matter which side gets first priority, you’ll have made the right choice.


BogiDope is a proud sponsor of The Pilot Network, and this post is republished from their site with permission. You can read the original post on the members-only TPN website. You can also get more great TPN content on the TPN Community Website, on their free TPN-Go app (iPhone or Android), in their quarterly TPNQ magazine, and on their Podcast.


Thanks to Sebastian Grochowicz on Unsplash for this post’s feature image.

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