If you aspire to a lifetime career as a professional pilot, you almost can’t beat getting your start in the military. Whether you fly tankers because size matters, you decide to fight both wars and forest fires in the C-130, or you give in to your inner Maverick and fly fighters, you can’t beat the experiences you’ll have as a military pilot.
If you’re smart, you’ll follow the Ultimate Military Pilot Career Path, earning free college and four years of credit toward retirement in the process. Then, when all’s said and done, you’ll be eligible to move on to the airlines where the pay is more than…well…just read this post and see.
The Federal Aviation Regulations have a section (14 CFR 61.73) that gives you credit (and a Commercial Pilot’s License) for your military pilot ratings, which is nice. For the most part, you don’t need to know or care about most of the rules for civilian pilot ratings. However, there are a couple of critical points in your career when you will need to obtain civilian ratings the hard way. We’ll discuss those situations here today, then take a look at some ways to get that done next week.
(For what it’s worth, if you do care about sounding intelligent when you talk to civilian pilots, I’ve written a handy translation guide for you here.)
Table of Contents
- Private Pilot for UPT Applicants
- Extra Credit for UPT Applicants
- Mil Comp – What is it Good For?
- Airline Transport Pilot (ATP)
- Restricted ATP (RATP)
- ATP for Helicopter Pilots
Private Pilot for UPT Applicants
Whether you’re following the Ultimate Military Pilot Career Path by applying for a UPT slot directly with a Guard or Reserve unit, or you’re just trying to get into the USAF Academy, you will increase your chances by showing up with a Private Pilot’s Certificate in hand.
While this might only score you a couple of points on your USAFA application, I personally wouldn’t dream of applying for a Guard/Reserve UPT slot without already having my license. I don’t care how good you do at rushing the unit, the hiring board ultimately needs some proof that you have some piloting ability in you.
You’ll need to fund this rating on your own. You must be 17 years old to officially earn a Private Pilot Certificate; however, you can start at any age and solo as early as 16.
You can do this with old fashioned hard work, through parents or other benefactors, with scholarships, or some combination of the three. I’ve written about ways to save money by just being smart about how you approach flight training. I’ve started putting together a website that lists flying scholarships here, and with a reasonable amount of pilot knowledge you’re fully capable of starting up a side-hustle that can more than pay for your flight training. (We’ll quantify those costs in a moment.)
For your flight training, you’ll have to choose between two types of schools: Part 61 and Part 141. A Part 141 school (governed by that section of the FAA regulations) is a large, structured operation. They should have several aircraft and permanent staff. Appendix B to Part 141 explains that a pilot in this type of program could theoretically earn a Private Pilot’s License with as few as 35 hours. This is potentially a good deal for you, although national averages show that most pilots need more hours than this to build the skills required to pass a check ride.
The structure and resources of a Part 141 program mean that you’re more likely to get your training done on schedule. They should have spare aircraft in case (or more likely when) the one you normally fly goes down for extended maintenance. The downside is that all their aircraft, staff, and other infrastructure cost a lot of money – meaning you’ll probably have to pay more to complete this program.
The other option covers any other flight training operation under Part 61. This could be a single instructor who owns a single aircraft, or an operation the size of a Part 141 school that just doesn’t want to deal with the extra certification headaches. You’ll need at least 40 flight hours to go to your check ride if you’re training under Part 61, though again, the national average is closer to 55 hours.
Part 61 training has several potential upsides. It’s usually cheaper than a Part 141 school, and the pace is more flexible for pilots who are busy with school or work. You may also have the option of doing ground school at your own pace, rather than in a structured classroom setting at a Part 141 school.
The biggest downfall of most Part 61 operations is that they tend to have a small number of aircraft. Frequently, they’ll only have one of each type of aircraft. If the one you’re flying breaks, you either have to do a lot of extra training to transition to another type, or sit and wait for it to get fixed. I’ve seen this take weeks or months.
I won’t say that either type of program is better than the other – they’re just different. If you live somewhere that gives you a choice of program type, interview both like you would someone applying to work for you. Ask to talk with references (current and past students) and look up articles and accident reports about them online. Visit the facilities and look at their aircraft. If you, as an untrained pilot, can tell that the aircraft look dingy, walk away because their maintenance is probably not up to par.
Ultimately, you need to go with the school that fits your scheduling availability, mentality, and finances. Whatever you choose, I cannot emphasize enough that you should have at least some flight training logged before you apply for a UPT applicant slot at a Guard or Reserve hiring board. If you want to be a professional pilot, you need to show them that you’ve taken the first step.
Extra Credit for UPT Applicants
Although I feel like earning your Private Pilot License (PPL) is the minimum acceptable standard for a Guard or Reserve hiring board, it technically isn’t. Many pilots have landed UPT slots with nothing more than a few flight hours. Frequently, having soloed in a powered aircraft is a more realistic minimum. However, why would you ever leave a career opportunity like this to chance?
If you’re serious about your bid to join a military flying unit, why not do as much flying preparation as your budget allows? (If you’re funding your training with scholarships, you may find yourself with a lot of options here.)
If you already have your PPL, the next logical step is to work toward your instrument rating. This could be beneficial in a couple of ways. First, it shows that you’ve pursued and succeeded in some advanced flying training. Skill and dedication? Check. Second, you will do better on your instrument flights in UPT if you already have an instrument rating. The requirements for this rating are listed in 14 CFR 61.65, and really the biggest limitation is that you need 50 hours of cross country time. It’s possible to obtain this rating with relatively few hours after earning your PPL.
A few years ago, the FAA even decided to allow a new type of training that combines the Private Pilot and Instrument Ratings into one course. It allows you to complete both with 70 total flight hours. While this probably won’t save you too many hours, it could be useful if you can do the whole course as a package deal. Shop around before you commit to something like this, and be sure to talk to both flight instructors who teach it, and students who have gone through it to find out what they think.
You could also potentially impress a UPT hiring board by obtaining ratings for other categories and classes of aircraft. You could earn a PPL for gliders, seaplanes, airships, or helicopters. The glider rating is relatively inexpensive while a helicopter rating necessitates a high-paying job or some serious scholarships. (I did my seaplane add-on rating at Jack Brown’s in Florida. A proficient pilot can complete the course in two days for a total of $1,600.)
You could also do some aerobatic or mountain flying course, or pursue endorsements for tailwheel, high performance, complex, or high-altitude aircraft. Most of these could be accomplished in as few as about five flight hours. If you’re interested in logging a few extra hours anyway, this flying is more valuable than just taking your friends up to see their house in a C-172.
While any of this extra flying will look great on a Guard or Reserve hiring board application, remember that it’s not necessary. If it will hurt your ability to get good grades, a good PCSM score, or it will break the bank, then don’t do it! In that case, focus on those other things and stop once you earn your Private Pilot License.
This covers all of the pilot ratings that a Guard or Reserve UPT applicant should be worried about. The goal here is to earn some military pilot wings and do some amazing flying. However, in order to move on to the most lucrative civilian aviation jobs (primarily the airlines), your military pilot wings aren’t good enough. We’ll look at what a more experienced military aviator needs next.
Mil Comp – What is it Good For?
As we mentioned, there are some rules that award extra civilian pilot ratings to military aviators based on our experience. These are a good deal, and 14 CFR 61.73 explains the details. Basically, you can receive a Commercial Pilot Certificate with an Instrument Rating for any category and class of aircraft that you’re qualified to fly in the military. In this case, category/class combos are:
- Airplane – Single Engine Land (ASEL)
- Airplane – Multi-Engine Land (AMEL)
- Rotorcraft – Helicopter
- Powered Lift (Tiltrotor)
If the FAA recognizes a type rating for your aircraft, then you also get that as well. (B707 for C-135 series and B200/350 for C-12 series aircraft are common.)
This rule also allows you to obtain or renew a Flight Instructor Certificate (CFI) for your category and class. (Sorry, but unless you have an official check ride form in a particular category or class you don’t get the equivalent FAA rating. You may have flown the T-6 in UPT, but unless you were officially qualified in it as an instructor, the FAA probably won’t give you a single-engine Commercial or CFI. If you don’t like that, go talk to your Senator.)
In order to cash in on this good deal, you take a written exam (use Sheppard Air to study), then just walk into a Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) with the test results and your Form 8 (or NATOPS or other-service equivalent) and complete a paperwork drill. Easy peasy.
We also field frequent questions about centerline thrust restrictions for fighter and jet trainer pilots. If an aircraft manufacturer doesn’t publish a Vmc, there’s a chance that taking a check ride in that aircraft will result in a “limited to center thrust” restriction on your pilot certificate. (See the last page of this FAA Advisory Circular (PDF) for more details. Yes. The list is out-of-date.)
In the past, you’d have to take a check ride with an FAA examiner to get this restriction removed. (See Section 5-90 of FAA Order 8900.1 for more details on that process if you’re having trouble sleeping.)
Thankfully, a fairly recent change brings good news for military pilots. Basically, the FAA has declared that there is no more centerline thrust restriction for military aircraft or pilots. If you use the military competency rules in 14 CFR 61.73 to get any type of pilot certificate, you will not see this restriction. If you have an old pilot certificate still showing this limitation, just take a Form 8 (NATOPS, etc.) into your local FSDO and they’ll remove the restriction. (See this memo, and Section 5-619.H. in the 8900.1 for the official FAA guidance on the matter.)
Although granting military competency is a nice thing for the FAA to do, it isn’t really that useful for a professional pilot. You’ll be able to fly corporate or charter aircraft with this rating, but you can’t be an airline pilot even though you hold a Commercial Pilot Certificate. If you want to be an airline pilot, then you need an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) Rating.
Airline Transport Pilot (ATP)
The ATP is the highest-level civilian pilot rating offered by the FAA. The requirements are outlined in Subpart G of Part 61.) The biggest hurdles for most pilots are that you need 1500 total flight hours of which 500 must be cross country, 100 must be at night, and 50 must be in the category and class for the certificate you’re seeking (usually Airplane Multi-Engine Land.)
It used to be that, although the FAA wouldn’t just hand this rating to a military pilot, he or she could do a quick weekend course and get the rating for just a couple thousand dollars. Sadly, the rules have changed and the FAA added a huge stumbling block called the Airline Transport Pilot Certification Training Program, or ATP CTP.
Outlined in 14 CFR 61.156, this program must include at least 30 hours of classroom instruction and 10 hours in very expensive simulators. It takes a solid week to complete this course, and you should expect to pay no less than $5,000 out of pocket for it. Sadly, there’s no way to get out of or validate this course right now.
Once you complete the ATP CTP, you still have to study for and go take a written exam. (Sadly, the CTP course does little to prepare you for this test. Again, use Sheppard Air to study.) Only then can you go take a 2-3 day course that trains you in the required maneuvers before sending you on to a check ride in an actual aircraft. This course will cost you at least $2,500 most places. We’ll take a look at some of the places you can get these courses done next week.
Most actively flying military pilots are highly qualified for a major airline job. The majors generally expect you to have your ATP before they’ll hire you. However, there’s nothing wrong with doing a Regional Airline Touch & Go before the majors. (Read this issue of TPNQ for a description of this T&G.) The regionals realize that they’re hiring less-experienced pilots and either their programs qualify as an ATP CTP course, or they pay for you to attend one. Your initial check ride in their aircraft qualifies as an ATP practical exam, so the only thing you really have to worry about is studying for and taking the written. If you don’t want to pay out-of-pocket for your ATP, this is potentially a great way to go.
No matter what your long-term goals are, getting your ATP is not something you can or should leave to the last minute. It’s not something you can wait to start thinking about until terminal leave. The training programs we’ll look at next week tend to fill up in advance. It’s okay to plan to get your training done during terminal leave, but you should plan to schedule it months before you need it.
Even better, why not just get it done as soon as you meet the requirements? Even if you passionately love the military, they’ll kick you out after 20-30 years. Sure, you can go get a job as a middle manager at some government contractor, but the fact that you’re reading BogiDope right now suggests that you may prefer flying jets over sitting in a cubicle. Get your ATP done and let it sit. It never expires, so it’ll be ready when you need it.
Speaking of requirements, the military gets a good deal there too. It turns out you don’t even need a full 1,500 hours to get your ATP. Let’s take a look.
Restricted ATP (RATP)
The FAA realized that it’s a big ask to expect pilots to accrue a full 1,500 hours before they can earn an ATP. To mitigate this burden, they added a new rule (in 14 CFR 61.160) allowing a pilot to earn a Restricted ATP (RATP) with fewer hours. This rating lets a pilot serve as a First Officer (FO) at an airline and subsequently upgrade to a full ATP once the pilot hits a full 1,500 hours.
The RATP has most of the same requirements as the full rating, except that military pilots can earn it with only 750 total flight hours. The other break on hours is that you only need 200 hours of cross country flying, instead of the full 500.
The RATP is important for many different pilots. Right now, F-22 pilots are only getting about 100 hours per year. They could fulfill their initial UPT commitment and still not have 1,500 hours. Thankfully, they should be able to qualify for an RATP before they’re eligible to move on to the airlines.
The RATP is also extremely useful for a Guard- or Reserve-only pilot who got sent to UPT by his or her unit. By the time a pilot completes UPT, IFF, FTU, MQT, and some seasoning, he or she should be at or near that 750-hour mark. It should be possible for a pilot in this situation to earn a RATP right about the time his or her seasoning orders run out and get to a regional airline to continue progressing as a professional aviator.
Until recently a major airline wouldn’t even look at a pilot unless he or she held a full ATP; however, times are changing. We know of at least one Air Force pilot who has been hired by a major airline without an ATP certificate. He completed a special version of the ATP CTP course that we’ll discuss next week, and earned his ATP by completing his initial aircraft qualification at his company.
This is almost unprecedented, but I believe we’ll similar situations with increasing frequency. The airlines need pilots badly enough that they’ll have to start trusting military pilots to be able to keep up. I wouldn’t be surprised to also see major airlines hiring military plots who only have enough hours for a Restricted ATP in the near future.
Personally, I recommend earning the rating on your own by stopping by a regional airline or paying for it out of pocket. However, that may not be necessary in a few years.
ATP for Helicopter Pilots
When I wrote about deciding whether to track helicopters at UPT last week, I noted that there are few if any barriers to a helicopter pilot obtaining an ATP and getting an airline job right now. That wasn’t always the case, but thankfully times have changed.
All airlines are hurting for pilots, but the regionals are having an especially tough time attracting and retaining pilots. This should be music to any helicopter pilot’s ears. Any regional airline worth working for these days has a rotary-wing to airline transition program. They’ll hire you with the minimum amount of multi-engine time required for an ATP or RATP (50 hours). Some of the programs will either pay for you to get those hours, or offer some sort of financial assistance.
The instructors in these programs are accustomed to teaching low-time jet pilots. They’ll respect and appreciate your air sense, decision making, and general pilot knowledge, and be able to focus on the multi-engine airplane skills that you haven’t had the opportunity to develop yet. Even relatively young Guard/Reserve helicopter pilots, or Army officers who don’t get much flying should be able to qualify for a RATP under these programs. A regional airline is the perfect place to develop your jet pilot skills and build your hours as you work toward a major airline job.
Both The Pilot Network (TPN) and the Rotary To Airline Group (RTAG) are great resources to helicopter pilots interested in this career path.
Although military pilots get a lot of credit for their experience, they still need to know a little about civilian pilot ratings. If you’re applying for a UPT slot with a Guard or Reserve hiring board, you really need to try and find a way to earn your Private Pilot License before you submit your application.
If you’re a more experienced military pilot looking at a move to the airlines, you’re going to need an ATP. There are a couple ways to make that happen, but you definitely need to plan ahead.
Now that we know what ratings you need to be targeting, we can look at some specific places where you can get your training. Be sure to stop by next week when we’ll talk about a few specific flight schools, and ways to evaluate them.
The feature image is Delta Captain Stephanie Johnson speaking about civilian aviation to a group at Selfridge ANGB, from: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/5166401/first-african-american-pilot-delta-airlines-speaks-selfridge.
The CAP C-172 photo is from: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/3815574/hurricane-maria.
Mil2ATP’s promo photo is from the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce website: http://members.waynecountychamber.com/list/member/mil2atp-6863.
The seaplane photo is yours truly at Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base.
The Piper Seminole photo is from the Pilot Jobs page at ATP Flight School. (More about that company next week.) https://pilotjobs.atpflightschool.com/2014/04/24/atp-article-in-plane-and-pilot-magazine/