Military vs Civilian Career Path, Part 1

I can’t imagine a better career than that of a professional pilot. I’ve been places and experienced things while flying that I have trouble even describing to most people. If you’ll forgive me for waxing poetic for a moment, I’ll quote High Flight by the great aviator poet, John Gillespie Magee Jr.,

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

Even with such flowery language, Magee does not exaggerate. I’ve had countless experiences that qualify for these descriptions.

As an airline pilot, I now get paid an insane amount of money for having experiences like that. I do less work than I’ve ever done in my life and far less work than any of my friends or family members who hold regular 9-5 jobs. When I do work, it’s very enjoyable flying in fast, comfortable, well-maintained jets.

I’ve reached a pretty high point in my aviation career, but it took a while to get there. I started flying 22 years ago in 1997. I worked very hard in high school to get into the Air Force Academy, and I worked very hard there to earn a pilot slot. I instructed in gliders at the Academy, and I flew as a pilot for the Air Force for 11 years after graduation. Those military years involved some fantastic flying, but they also required 8 deployments away from my family, and at least 6 hours of mind-numbing desk work for every hour I got to spend in the air. Would I do it again? Absolutely! In a heartbeat. However, I would approach it knowing it wouldn’t be a cakewalk.

The military is a great way to become a pilot, but it’s not for everyone. Thankfully, it’s not the only way. I’ve frequently wondered how I would have pursued a pilot career without the military, and I’m convinced that I could have made it work. Many people have written about how to do that. (BogiDope specializes in helping pilots get military flying jobs, but here’s a 5-part series about ways to get started in civilian aviation without going bankrupt.) For today, I want to present some thoughts I think you should consider when deciding which path to pursue.

This Week:

  1. Military – the Good
  2. Military – the Bad

Next Week:

  1. Civilian – the Good
  2. Civilian – the Bad
  3. The Best of Both Worlds

Military – the Good

There’s a lot to like about military aviation. For me, the most important thing is that you get to do flying you’ll never experience anywhere else.

I’ve flown a B-1 at 500 ft above the ground, doing 540 knots ground speed, at night, through clouds and heavy rain, wearing Night Vision Goggles, through a mountain range, kicking out strings of 500-pound bombs.

I’ve flown a 2-ship of T-38s at 500 ft through Big Bend National Park in Texas doing 360 knots ground speed. We cranked around corners and over ridgelines pulling 3-4 Gs at bank angles up to 120°. We dropped into canyons and raced along with the walls well above our canopies. It’s like every movie you’ve ever seen with pod racing, jets, or spaceships flying through canyons, except you’re fully in control of the aircraft with all the sounds, smells, and acceleration that you’ll never get sitting on a couch.

I’ve played you-can’t-catch-me with a pair of T-6s over, under, and around a sky full of billowing cumulus clouds. At speeds ranging from 80 to 300 knots while pulling as many as 6 Gs, I’ve watched my buddies’ aircraft do things that no Hollywood producer will ever have the vision to capture and outsmarted my “enemies” through my superior flying skill–forcing them to call uncle with the words “knock it off.”

I’ve flown hundreds of combat missions supporting the world’s most elite Special Operations Forces (SOF). I’ve flown in the right seat of a U-28 (Pilatus PC-12) running an MX-15 while talking directly to the people with boots on the ground, responsible for keeping them safe and tracking their targets while simultaneously giving flight instruction to an unqualified aircraft commander trainee flying in the left seat who was simultaneously responsible for controlling a stack of fighter, surveillance, attack, jamming, and other aircraft…while also simultaneously running a crew consisting of me, another sensor operator, and an enlisted troop doing spooky stuff in back. These 4-5 hour missions were the most demanding experiences of my life, and yet they passed in the blink of an eye. For me, these missions reached what Buddhists and high-performing individuals call a state of Flow.

The things I’ve seen and done come right out of the best books and movies you’ve consumed over the last 18 years. I almost can’t stand to play video games anymore because there is no way they’ll ever measure up to these experiences. As amazing as it was to fly these missions, the best part was when we would land and debrief with the SOF we supported. There is nothing as horrifying as having one of these American heroes poke a finger in your chest and tell you that you screwed up. Likewise, there is nothing as fulfilling as hearing one of them say, “Great work tonight. Our mission succeeded because of you.”

There are some cool experiences in civilian aviation, but I doubt many of them could measure up to any of these examples.

U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Michael Lippert, test pilot with the F-35 Pax River Integrated Test Force, takes off from HMS Queen Elizabeth with the first Paveway II payload Oct. 9, 2018. The first bombs to be dropped from F-35B Lightning II fighter jets conducting trials onboard HMS Queen Elizabeth of the U.S. eastern seaboard occurred that day, with inert GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided precision bombs, marking another significant milestone in the carrier’s trials.
Royal Navy photo

Let’s also take a few moments to realize the enormous value of the flight training that the military gives all its pilots for zero monetary cost. The average Air Force pilot training student completes 20-40 hours in introductory or flight screening programs before flying about 100 hours in the T-6, and another 100-120 in the T-1 or T-38 before earning his or her wings. Let’s look at the cost for 250 hours of flight training for a civilian.

In a sleepy place like LaGrange, GA, you can get access to a 45-year-old Piper Warrior for as little as $125 per hour. If you’re unlucky enough to live somewhere like Long Island, you’re looking at $220 per hour for the cheapest aircraft in the area. It’s tough to even find a flight school with airworthy multi-engine aircraft. If you do, you probably won’t be able to touch it for under $300 per hour. I’ve recently seen flight instructor rates in the $30-60 range. We’ll assume “average” values of $40 and $50 for our two locations. Let’s not forget that you’ll have to do some sort of ground school, and buy at least some pilot gear (headset, charts or ForeFlight subscription, etc.) Here’s what these numbers look like:

ItemGeorgiaNew York
Ground School$250$250
Headset, iPad, ForeFlight, extra study materials, and other pilot gear$1000$1000
125 hours single-engine aircraft rental$15,625$27,500
125 hours multi-engine aircraft rental$37,50$37,500
240 hours of flight instruction$9,600$12,000
Total$63,975$78,250

It’s not unfair to add these totals to the value of your overall compensation when considering what you make your first year as an Air Force pilot. However, that’s not the whole story. It’s worth noting that no civilian pilot would willingly pay for 240 hours of flight instruction like this. He or she would build a lot of flight time solo, or splitting the cost with a safety pilot while practicing IFR maneuvers. Your calculations could potentially reduce the value of the Air Force’s training by a corresponding amount. However, the aviation industry realizes that this training is both detailed and demanding. A pilot learns far more in 250 hours of military flight training than he or she ever could droning around the skies “building time” in a Cessna.

It’s also worth noting that these military flight hours are conducted in a pressurized, complex, high-performance turboprop (the T-6) or in a multi-engine turbojet (T-38, T-1 or T-45 for Navy pilots.) The average 250-hour civilian pilot will have zero hours of turbine time at an equivalent point in his or her career. He or she will have to pay a lot extra to get some turbine experience, along with complex and high performance time, and a high-altitude endorsement.

Military pilot training includes upset recovery, aerobatic, formation, and low-level training that most civilians will never get. This experience is also highly valuable. In truth, even the $78,250 figure is way too low. The Air Force values pilot training at roughly $1,000,000, and I’d say that’s a pretty fair figure. When you figure that into your total compensation, being a student in military flight training is definitely the highest paying entry-level job in all aviation.

As great as military flying can be, and despite the high dollar value of flight training, being part of a flying squadron is almost reason enough to pursue a career as a military pilot. Most jobs are just jobs. You have coworkers. You may be united by some sort of mission, but you’re primarily all there to get paid. A flying squadron is nothing like that. It’s closer to a family, or a Federally-funded and sanctioned motorcycle gang.

The men and women of the 85th Flying Training Squadron at Laughlin AFB, TX. Taken during Mustache March in 2014.

Do you remember the scene from Top Gun when they’re at the bar with Goose playing Great Balls of Fire on the piano? That comes close to showing the fun and camaraderie that go with being part of a flying squadron. From planning and flying missions together, to traveling and deploying around the world as a group, to hanging out in the squadron bar, to just sweeping and mopping the floors, being part of a flying squadron is a very special thing.

In a flying squadron, the mission comes first, but that means you all take care of each other. Are you deployed with a hurricane, snowstorm, or other natural disaster on the way? You don’t even need to give a moment’s thought to your family’s well-being. It is 100% guaranteed that your squadron commander knows how they’re doing. If they need anything, a team of your squadron mates will immediately head over and take care of everything. Do you have a sick kid? Just call your flight commander and your work will be covered for the day without question. Need longer? Just say. Need extra help…financial, emotional, logistical? Again, all you have to do is ask. While there are plenty of squadron gatherings that you wouldn’t want your spouse or kids to witness, flying squadrons are also family places. There will be gatherings and events for your family.

You’d think that this only happens after you’ve spent several years building a relationship in a squadron, but that’s not true. As a military pilot, you’ll be assigned to several different squadrons throughout your career. No matter where you go, when you walk in on your first day, you’re automatically part of the team. You have built-in friends, and a built-in support network, even if you have done nothing to prove yourself. I was pleasantly shocked to experience this welcome every time I moved.

I could spend a long time describing all the great things about military service, but it might take all day. Let’s mention that the pay is very good, especially for a young pilot. Total annual compensation starts above $50,000 per year and tops-out just under $200,000 per year with bonuses. Being in the military also comes with free healthcare for your entire family. I hope your family is healthy enough that this doesn’t seem like a huge benefit. However, if you plan on having any kids, this benefit is worth tens of thousands of dollars. If someone in your family has long-term chronic health issues, this benefit is worth a fortune.

It’s also worth noting that its extremely difficult to get fired from the military. As long as you do the minimum and avoid criminal actions, you’re virtually guaranteed the opportunity to serve to 20+ years and earn an enviable pension. (For more details on specifics here, check out our articles on pay & benefits [AD and Guard/Reserve] and retirement [AD and Guard/Reserve.]) Of course, you have the option of just fulfilling your 10-year payback commitment for going to UPT and then jumping to an airline job. You can continue your military service in the Guard or Reserve for fun if you like. I call this the Ideal Military Pilot Career Path.

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Military – the Bad

As wonderful as the flying, camaraderie, pay, and other benefits can be, the military has plenty of drawbacks.

The biggest one for me is that you spend most of your time actively working on stuff that is not flying. I counted up all my military flight time and realized that for every hour I spent in a cockpit, I had to put in more than 6 hours of non-flying work…mostly in a lowest-bidder-quality cubicle hell.

The work there wasn’t always terrible. Much of it contributed, at least tangentially, to my squadron’s mission or making life better for my friends. However, a staggering amount of the non-flying work you do as a military pilot falls into the category of “self-licking ice cream cone.” It’s work that doesn’t actually need to exist. It was extremely frustrating to spend so much of my life on that junk.

There’s also a frustrating conflict between wanting to have a good family life and wanting to do your job. Aviation, by its nature, requires pilots to spend time away from home. In the United States, we’re incredibly blessed that our warfighting all happens thousands of miles away. Unfortunately, those distances mean that any time an individual pilot goes to war, he or she will be spending weeks or even months away from his or her family. I don’t care who you are, being away like that sucks. No matter how hard you try, you can never be good enough as a spouse or parent from those distances. Being deployed means failing your family.

And yet, as military aviators, we spend our whole lives preparing to go to war. That’s the whole purpose of our jobs and the only way to fulfill our purpose. Not only that, deployed flying is awesome! It’s the only time in most pilot’s careers where you finally get to use all of your aircraft’s systems to their full potential. It’s fun, exciting, and fulfilling.

So, every time you deploy, you face this irresolvable conflict. You really want to go because it’s what you love to do. However, you also don’t want to go because you feel like you’re betraying your family. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to justify it to yourself in the short-term because someone has to protect your family from the bad guys. However, you’ll eventually start to realize that the United States military probably isn’t the best tool for most of what we’re trying to use it for. It’ll get increasingly difficult for you to convince yourself that you’re deploying for a noble cause, and not just for a personally fulfilling job.

As great as deployed flying may be, the overall experience isn’t all wonderful. At best, you can hope to live in a converted shipping container with a mostly-functional air conditioning unit. At worst, you’ll live in a tent. You’ll be assigned at a base in one of the worst places on the planet. The chow halls are decent, but not great. All toilet and shower facilities are located in centralized latrines. Despite hiring local nationals to clean these facilities, they’re disgusting.

Life-Support Areas, or LSAs, house thousands of personnel on Camp Leatherneck. The “cans” as they are commonly referred to are a new addition to base and an upgrade from the standard 20 man tent.

It took the military about a decade to join the 21st century, but there’s usually WiFi available in your room/tent. You’ll have a frustratingly slow internet connection just good enough for some choppy Facetime calls back home and streaming Netflix.

America wages its wars on a 24/7 schedule and does its best work at night. This means it’s not unlikely you’ll spend a significant portion of your deployment trying to sleep during the daytime so you can fly at night. Unfortunately, most bases also host (or worse, are run by) non-aviators. The grunts and shoe clerks will be very loud, right outside the thin, uninsulated steel walls of your shipping container, all day long. They’ll choose to run their exercises in the evening, right after dinner, just a couple hours before the end of your sleep cycle. Need to use the restroom during your “night”? Sucks to be you! The nearest latrine is several hundred feet away. You have to get fully dressed and trudge through the blinding sunlight to get to there. (Yes, someone will check to make sure you’re dressed. The American taxpayers pay a lot of money for 40-something-year-old men and women to stand around these bases and send you back to your tent if you’re not wearing approved attire.) Good luck getting back to sleep after exposure to that much heat and sunlight in the middle of your sleep cycle.

You’ll be chronically fatigued for almost every night mission you ever fly. If it’s too bad you could always ask not to fly for the night, but then you’re letting your buddies down and you’ve abandoned your family for nothing. I tried to bring some of these concerns up one deployment. I got ignored, ridiculed, and blacklisted by my boss. You cannot win here. Congratulations.

Days at home aren’t always a whole lot better for military pilots. Between pointless busywork, and meaningful study, training, and mission prep, there is always more work to be done in a flying squadron. Most pilots don’t even realize how trapped they are by their work. A diligent fighter pilot is expected to spend at least 12-14 hours per day at work. Other communities don’t expect quite as much, but it’s not unrealistic to show up at work by 8 and not leave until 5 or 6. For some reason, I noticed that more senior officers (especially commanders) tended to stay even later. Some wouldn’t leave for home until 8 or 9 pm. At that point, you might as well be deployed because you’re useless to your family.

Most people don’t fall victim to this schedule because they’re evil or stupid. The problem is that the military is very good at inspiring people to complete a mission but very bad at prioritizing balance in life. It takes a boss with an uncommonly mature perspective and significant courage to really help people achieve that balance while serving in the military.

Another frustration with military service is that you’ll be required to move a lot during your career. Best case, you’ll get to stay at one or two assignments for as long as 4 years. Many of your assignments will only be 1-2 years long. Moving wreaks havoc on your family. It’s stressful to pack up everything, it’s stressful to leave friends behind, it’s stressful fitting in and making new friends. Your kids may try to tell you that they don’t mind it so much because they believe in what you do. These are white lies, at best. They hate moving…they just don’t want to hurt your feelings.

As tough as moving can be for kids, it’s worse for your spouse. He or she has all the same issues with stress, leaving friends, and meeting new people. However, if he or she aspires to any type of meaningful work, marrying someone in the military can be catastrophic. A school teacher or nurse can probably find work at most assignments. However, if your spouse has any sort of advanced degree or specialized career there may not be any jobs at your new assignment. Even if there are, it’s nearly impossible to progress within a company or maintain continuity of employment in an industry if you’re moving every couple of years. If you choose military service, I hope it’s as fulfilling for you as it was for me. However, you must realize that this choice likely dooms your spouse to a lack of career fulfillment equal and opposite to yours.

It turns out that I could go on all day with little gripes and complaints about military service, just like I could go on all day telling you all the wonderful things about it. As with all things in aviation, military service is a series of trade-offs. We’ll talk about how to choose your poison later on. For now, just realize that there is a price to pay for the amazing flying you get as a military pilot.

Next, we’re going to take a look at the good and bad of the all-civilian career track. Stay tuned for Part 2 next week!

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< Part 1: Military Path | Part 2: Civilian Path >

Photo Credits:

The picture of the F-16 popping flares was taken by Senior Master Sgt. Andrew Moseley, and is available here: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/5704408/nj-air-national-guard-fighter-and-refueling-units-perform-flyovers-2019-atlantic-city-airshow.

One of the few selfies I’ve ever taken, the T-6 cockpit pano is yours truly, flying solo, high in the sunlit silence.

The squadron photo is the 85 FTS at Laughlin AFB, TX. 

The wonderful deployed living facility is located at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan. The picture was taken by Cpl. Meredith Brown and this image is available at: https://www.dvidshub.net/search/?q=tent+city+afghanistan&view=grid&sort=publishdate.

The F-35 vertical takeoff trial is a Royal Navy aircraft flown by a US Marine Corps test pilot at Pax River NAS. https://www.dvidshub.net/image/4836872/first-test-bombs-dropped-hms-queen-elizabeths-f-35-lightning-fighter-jets

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