Military vs Civilian Career Path, Part 2

Welcome back, fellow aviators! This is the second part of a series about choosing between military and civilian career options. If you haven’t already read Part 1, please do that first.

We saw last week that there isn’t a cut and dried answer to say whether the military career path is right for you. Like it or not, we’ll see that the same is true of the civilian career path. My aim is to present some of the good and the bad to let you make your own decisions.

Last Week:

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

This Week:

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

Civilian – the Good

Having taken a look at the good and bad of the military path, let’s consider the more common alternative. You could just do everything as a civilian.

The most fundamental benefit to this path is looking at all the negatives of military service in realizing that you get to avoid almost all of them. There’s something to be said for that!

I can’t tell you how many families I know wish their pilot could have spent more time at home. I have more than one friend who absolutely loved his or her military flying job, yet begged the Air Force for an assignment flying drones just to spend more time at home. As a civilian pilot, you will spend more nights in your own bed under your own roof, especially if you choose flight instruction as your main path for building hours.

We also need to note that civilian flight training is significantly less stressful than the military. I say this from experience…I’ve earned several of my ratings under Part 61. Civilian flight training is relaxed and frequently downright collegial. Nobody’s going to yell at you or imply that you’re a terrible American because you screwed up your last traffic pattern stall at a civilian flight school.

Nobody is going to expect you to spend endless hours studying dry technical manuals in a windowless classified vault, or vacuum the squadron before you leave for the day. There usually isn’t any extra office work to deal with either. As a student, instructor, or other professional pilot you usually just show up, fly, and go home. It’s nice. (Okay, in a corporate or charter flight department you may have to do a little more care and feeding for your aircraft. It’s sort of grunt work, but I promise it’s less obnoxious than the endless stream of administrivia you spend your time on as a military pilot.)

Sure, you don’t get paid for the time you’re not flying, but these jobs leave plenty of room for side-hustles. I’ve written about many pilot side-hustle possibilities. I think anyone could make a boatload of money teaching Part 107 drone pilots during time periods when you wouldn’t be flying anyway. I thoroughly enjoy a flying side-hustle as an Icon A5 pilot when I’m not writing for BogiDope. A side-hustle could also be volunteering at your kid’s school or coaching his or her little league team…things you may not even have the option of considering as a military pilot.

This also highlights the fact that, unlike military pilots, putting in extra work means extra pay. If you want to hustle to find opportunities, you can rapidly accrue extra money and flight hours as a civilian pilot. In the military, you get paid the same whether you spend 14 hours a day at work, or 4.

Civilian aviation offers a wide variety of jobs and you have a lot of flexibility in deciding which type you want to pursue. Flight instructing is the most common way to earn money as a pilot, but you can also fly: pipeline patrol, tow banners or gliders, medevac, charter, corporate, sightseeing, agriculture, and much more.

In the military, you get assigned to an aircraft based on your class rank at the end of pilot training. Although there’s some opportunity to change aircraft during your career, you’re generally stuck for a period of several years. Don’t like what you got? Tough! As a civilian, you’re free to pursue any of these types of flying no matter how well you did in flight training. If you don’t like one, you’re usually never more than two weeks’ notice from leaving a bad job. For many pilots that freedom and flexibility is critical. (Some jobs come with what are called “training contracts.” Your employer invests tens of thousands of dollars sending you to get a type rating, so they expect you to stick around for a year or two. I would avoid jobs like this, but I wouldn’t avoid one if it’s with a good employer.)

As a civilian, you’re also free to move to any part of the country (or world) to chase jobs that you want. In the military, you don’t move until they tell you when and where to go. You can request places you like, but The System is under no obligation to honor your wishes. As a civilian, if you find a good job in a good location, you and your family get to stay there for as long as you want. Your kids don’t have to deal with the stress of moving. Your spouse can be free to pursue a meaningful, long-term career in his or her chosen profession. (If you’re really smart, you’ll do what I did. Marry a dentist who can support your addiction to aviation.)

Speaking of location, civilian pilots who carry passengers fly to places that business people or tourists want to go. Many of these locations are amazing, and few of them are terrible. I’ve flown the MD88, B717, and A220 all over the smaller-tier cities of the US and I almost can’t find a place I don’t enjoy. It seems like every medium-sized city in America now has at least a couple breweries serving great food and drinks, a great place to run or work out, and at least one feature or tourist spot worthy of spending a few hours at. If nothing else, it’s tough to beat writing from a cozy room at a layover hotel. You simply can’t beat the travel that you get to do as a civilian pilot. It couldn’t be more opposite to deployed living conditions for a military pilot.

Even Long Island City, NY, isn’t the worst layover location. For me, this beats a tent in Kandahar…by a little bit.

If your goal is to become an airline pilot, civilian aviation has the potential to get you there more quickly than the military. All it takes to get hired by a regional airline these days is an ATP certificate. You can get one of those as soon as you accrue 1,500 total flight hours (or fewer if you attend the right type of collegiate or flight training institution). As a civilian, you have significant control over how quickly you get those hours.

If you work 20 days a month, or 240 days per year, you could accrue nearly 500 hours per year flying an average of 2 hours per day. This puts you at full ATP minimums in just 3 years. If you double this to an average of four hours per day you could be ATP eligible in under 2 years. While not all flying jobs have that many hours available, you can absolutely find a flight school capable of keeping you this busy.

Once you get to a regional airline, you should plan to fly at least 500 hours per year. If you want to accelerate your career progression, you could easily get closer to 800. (The official FAA limit is 1000 hours per year, but I feel like you’d risk burn-out at that pace.) This will make you eligible for an upgrade to Captain at no later than 2 years at your company and 2,500 hours total time. I assert that, for the foreseeable future, major airlines will be willing to hire most regional airline Captains with at least 500-1000 hours of Part 121 PIC time. This means you could theoretically go from zero hours to major airline First Officer in as few as 5-6 years. If you’re willing to work hard, some of those years could include time while you’re finishing college.

For the active duty military alternative, you owe 10 years of full-time service, starting the day you earn your wings. Most military pilots won’t even start pilot training until a year after graduating from college. This means that the civilian path could get you to a seat at a major airline as much as 6 years before a military peer. That may not seem like a lot now, but that’s 6 more years that you’ll have to earn $350,000+ as a senior Captain at a major airline…at least $2,000,000 over your career. (Granted, the Ultimate Military Pilot Career Path can get you the best of all these worlds, but we’ve already covered that topic.)

Although civilian pilots miss out on some fun and exciting military flying, this accelerated career path and earnings schedule could allow the time and resources to do some fun flying anyway. A civilian pilot who gets to the major airlines 6 years ahead of his or her peers will be able to afford to do aerobatic, seaplane, backcountry, or other flying just for fun. He or she will be able to afford to buy an airplane to do these things if desired.

Although we mostly think of “time building” jobs as low-paying flying involving a lot of hard work, there are also a lot of amazing opportunities in civilian aviation. One of my Icon A5 students has a private jet on order. At lunch one day he asked me how to find professional pilots to help him fly that jet. He’s done a little looking and is dismayed that he can’t seem to find any helpful resources. He would like nothing more than to hire a professional, hardworking young pilot to manage his aircraft and act as his FO when he flies it. He has the means and attitude to treat a young pilot very well. He wants to do a fair amount of flying, but this job would leave plenty of time for flight instructing or other side-hustles to accrue even more dollars and hours on the side.

I explained that one of the reasons it’s so tough to find young pilots is that they all run to the airlines as soon as they can. He said, “That’s fine, but what about their first 1500-2500 hours? Why can’t I find someone who wants to do that flying with me?” After some thought, I decided that the other problem is that we just don’t run in the same circles. How is a successful doctor/businessman going to meet a starving 20-something pilot who is happy to get a job that pays $30 per hour…or visa-versa?

Having worked through that exercise, I realized that for a pilot with an entrepreneur’s mindset, this represents an entire galaxy of possibilities. If I were starting all over, I’d find places where wealthy jet owners hang out. Clubs, restaurants, bars…even trade shows for doctors, dentists, and lawyers. I’d also consider getting a job at the FBOs that these jets frequent. I’d dress nicely and just mingle. I feel like I couldn’t help but come across someone looking for a pilot. I’d politely butt in on the conversation and hand over a professional-looking business card that points to a website, or at least a really nice LinkedIn profile. In today’s pilot job market, I feel like this could quickly lead to a job paying a daily rate or salary that most flight instructors could only dream of.

The last point to address here is that although civilian flying isn’t generally as exciting as military aviation, it still leads to almost indescribable experiences. The words from High Flight at the start of this post can and do apply to the entire variety of civilian aviation jobs. The pilots of Instagram actually do a pretty decent job of illustrating this.

There are a lot of good things to be said for the civilian pilot career path. It’s less stressful and potentially much quicker than the military alternative. It doesn’t pay as well in the short-term, but you do get paid according to the amount of work you do. This principle applies to side-hustles, and you’ll have a lot more time to pursue them as a civilian. Over a long-term career, an all-civilian career path could represent significantly more earnings than a military one.

There is a wide variety of flying to be done as a civilian and you get far more control over which opportunities you pursue. If you find something good in a place you like, you have the option of staying there. This gives your kids some much-wanted stability and allows the possibility of your spouse pursuing some meaningful career development of his or her own. We mentioned that most things in aviation are tradeoffs, and this principle applies to civilian aviation too. Let’s look at the other side of choosing this career path.

Back to Contents

Civilian – the Bad

Rather than write this entire section from scratch, I’m going to refer you to the most exhaustive (and exhausting) post I’ve ever read on this subject.

I hesitated to include that link here because I don’t love this article, but it does describe a negative perspective for comparison. It’s written by someone who gave up a professional pilot career to pursue other employment. In a way, I can’t fault him because he seems much happier where he is. At the same time, his tone and perspective feel more than a little whiny to me.

His blog is pretty sparse so far, but it appears that they’re trying to style themselves as a resource for the FIRE community. I like that community, and I respect him for at least having the courage to admit he wasn’t happy and find something else. I ended up including his link here because I don’t want to over-focus on his aeronautical aversions if his goal is to focus on FIRE.

So…I want you to read his post and then go back and look at the nice things I have to say about both military and civilian flying. If you complete this exercise and you still can’t shake the overwhelming sense of despair in Josh’s post, then aviation may not be the right job for you in the first place.

I believe there are two types of pilots in the world:

  1. Pilots who will never be satisfied or happy no matter what they get
  2. Pilots capable of sniffing out a good time no matter where they go

For the Type 1 pilots, every complaint that Josh (aka Mr. GGG) made will be true. Life is going to suck for many years until you get to a major airline, and then it’ll still suck for a few years until you get senior enough to get a decent schedule. Sorry.

For Type 2 pilots, some of what GGG had to say will be true no matter what. However, some of his complaints are presented as catastrophically worst-case scenarios with zero context and very little support. For the rest of this section, we’re going to step through some of his major points and address each one.

1. It takes a “gut-wrenching” amount of debt to fund flight training – FALSE!

If done incorrectly, an uneducated young person can be suckered into paying way too much for flight training. That’s why we’re here today.

GGG is correct that a degree in “Aviation Science” is worthless. I wouldn’t pay a penny for that degree. You should get your degree in math, science, engineering, business, or some other marketable skill. There are lots of scholarships for this.

Many schools will try to sell you on the power of their alumni network. They’re essentially trying to tell you that it doesn’t matter what you get your degree in, a fellow Alum will give you a job with zero experience just because you went to the same school. This is meaningless in aviation. As GGG correctly asserts, nobody in aviation cares about your school or your degree. If you have the right number of flight hours with the right mix of experience, you aren’t a criminal, and you aren’t so weird that you bomb an in-person interview, you will get a job.

This means that you should never, ever, consider an expensive aviation school unless they or other sources are offering you enough scholarship money to pay for it. There are plenty of smaller schools with aviation programs where you can get a college degree. There are also plenty of affordable colleges near small-time flight schools where you could start working on your flight hours and pilot ratings while in college.

I wrote a 5-part series about ways to start funding a professional pilot career without breaking the bank. (Click here to start.) Some of these ideas require an aspiring pilot to work extra hard, relocate, or flight instruct. I’m not saying it’ll be an easy path; however, you are a fool if you accrue $96,000+ in debt to become a pilot in this day and age.

2. Civilian pilot pay is terrible: Partially False

From what I could gather, GGG started at a time when regional airline pay was abysmal. We’re talking $18,000 per year starting, and not climbing much above $24,000 per year for a long time. Yes, that is absolutely horrific…especially for the amount of responsibility that a Part 121 airline pilot has.

Thankfully, those days are long gone!

We’re living in a worldwide pilot shortage and the regional airlines have finally responded to it by offering much better pay. GGG worked for Chautauqua Airlines, a now defunct subsidiary of Republic Airways. Republic’s starting FO pay is just over $45 per hour. Multiply that by 75 hours per month and 12 months per year and you get $40,500. Next, add 6% for the company’s 401k match and we get to $42,930 in total compensation.

Next, we need to consider $17,500 worth of “signing” bonuses, awarded at key checkpoints over the first 24 months of employment at the airline. A pilot who received all of these bonuses over his or her first two years would receive $109,084 in total compensation, or almost $55K per year. We should note that Republic also gives free (though probably not amazing) health, dental, and vision coverage. They also pay for luggage and uniforms at a value of probably about $1000 for a new-hire and $100-200 per year thereafter.

While this compensation doesn’t seem stellar at first glance, it’s 3-4 times what regional airline pilots were making just a few years ago. It’s also roughly equivalent to what a Second Lieutenant earns as a military pilot. It won’t allow for a lot of luxury, but it’s more than enough to enjoy a comfortable life and make payments toward whatever debt you did accrue to fund your flight training.

Pay rates nearly double as a Captain at Republic, and the most junior captain right now upgraded at exactly 2 years with the company.

Look for a future BogiDope post about major airline pilot pay. For now, I’ll just say that the low-end for a Year 1 major airline FO is in excess of $100,000. A somewhat lazy senior widebody Captain at Delta can expect to bring home at least $400,000 per year.

GGG’s most optimistic projection of airline pay topped-out at $250,000 per year. I know FOs making close to this in Year 4 at a major airline. GGG was either grossly uninformed, or working with very out-dated information.

3. Only a tiny percentage of professional pilots make it to the majors: FALSE!

I don’t know what the deal was with GGG’s college buddies, but I simply cannot believe that their figure of 1 in 20 aspiring pilots reaching a major airline pilot job is accurate. Roughly 50% of American Airlines’ new-hires come from their regional partners. Alaska Airlines has a similar target for Horizon Air pilots. The numbers I get from Delta show that more than half of our pilots come from civilian backgrounds.

Yes, it’s likely that many pilots give up on this career field before reaching major airline status, hurting the stats. However, trying to use that as a basis to assert an industry-wide trend is disingenuous.

I do know some long-time regional pilots who can’t seem to get a call from the majors. Some have difficult obstacles in their pasts to overcome. Some are getting old enough that it makes less sense for a major airline to invest in them. However, even a senior regional Captain should be able to make $100,000-125,000 per year. These income figures put a pilot anywhere from the 86th to 91st percentile of all Americans. That’s nothing to sneeze at. There are tens of millions of people living wonderful, happy, fulfilling lives on much smaller incomes. If a regional airline pilot can’t live a great life while earning even more, then I assert he or she needs to reevaluate his or her priorities and perspectives on life.

4. Airline pilot schedules suck: Partially False

This varies widely, depending on the airline. The Federal Aviation Regulations limit the number of hours you can spend on duty, and your company loses money for every minute during that period that you aren’t flying. The company will prioritize efficiency over your comfort or nourishment.

Thankfully, as you get more senior, you’ll be able to bid for better trips. You can also maximize Quality of Life (QOL) by bidding to fly aircraft with the longest possible range. I can say from experience that it’s a lot easier to fly a pair of 3.5 hour legs in one day than to fly four or five hour-long legs, even though your total flight time for the day is about the same.

GGG complains a lot that he had to give up QOL and relative seniority by becoming a Captain as soon as possible because he needed the money. This is not mandatory. It’s important to consider both QOL and money before making a move like that, and in some cases the answer may be to wait another year or two to allow your eventual Captain seniority to be better when you get there. A senior FO can make some extra money by picking up extra trips, or through a side-hustle if necessary.

Another key to this is that major airline QOL is incomparably better than that at the regionals. Turn times are longer because the jets are bigger. Even if we’re only scheduled for 20 or 30 minutes of turn time between flights, I know that I have time to get food at any stop because it takes longer than 30 minutes to deplane, clean/fuel/cater the aircraft, and board a new set of passengers.

The regionals also experience a lot of micromanagement. This represents a failure of both culture and leadership. Sadly, those aren’t likely to improve at the regionals in the near future, but they’re already great at the majors. Every Captain I’ve ever flown with has been willing to delay the entire operation, if necessary, for us to take care of physiological needs. If getting food delays the flight for a few minutes, that’s on him (or her, though unfortunately, I haven’t flown with a “her” captain yet). Every one of these Captains would have gladly fielded a call from a Chief Pilot about the delay and defended his actions. Even better, my company has the good sense to realize that its pilots are human beings. In most cases, that phone call would have never happened because our Chief Pilots have enough perspective to understand exactly why we delayed the flight. In the cases where they would call, the Captain could give a brief explanation and the Chief Pilot would support him or her 100% of the time.

If all else failed and the Chief Pilot disagreed with the Captain, we could also get help from our union. Airline unions have become immensely wealthy and powerful beasts. They have a vested interest in protecting their pilots’ jobs and will go out of their way to provide resources to protect a pilot who believed he or she was acting in the best interests of safety. It doesn’t matter how bent-out-of-shape a Chief Pilot gets, there’s no way an airline crew could suffer any long-term consequences for taking the time to get proper nourishment or rest between flights.

I fully believe that GGG had some terrible experiences in this area at his company. However, he never worked at a major airline. He did his family and the rest of us a disservice by painting our entire industry in the light of a poorly led regional airline that no longer even exists.

GGG also complained that he had to spend a lot of time at work. He estimated that he only got 10 days a month free from work. First, let’s put this in perspective by realizing that most people only get 8 weekend days per month, so he was still better off than them from one point of view. Second, let’s again remember that he was at a regional airline.

Airlines pay a strange sort of hourly wage. If the pay rates are low (currently in the $40-60 per hour range for starting regional airline pay) then you have to fly a lot of hours to make a lot of money. If you’re chasing money, then yes you’ll be gone for a long time. Honestly, I believe that a regional airline pilot should be flying as many hours/days as possible to become competitive for the majors ASAP. However, if money is truly an issue, then it’s probably worth looking for a higher-paying side-hustle. I truly believe that a regional airline pilot could double his or her monthly income by spending a weekend or two a month teaching Part 107 drone pilot ground school classes.

Starting pay at the major airlines is double that of many regionals. In my first year at a major airline, I made as much as I did as an 11-year Major in the US Air Force. Our pay rates have increased significantly since then, and they’re due to increase again when we conclude our current contract negotiations. I’m a somewhat lazy airline pilot who prioritizes family over money. I made $149,000 while only working an average of 12.1 days per month in my second year at my major airline. I made the same amount of money while averaging a mere 9.8 days per month in Year 3. I hope to continue that trend by working fewer days for the same money, or making a lot more money for about the same number of workdays in the future!

I feel bad for GGG when it comes to this point. I believe that between his abysmal pay rates and his company’s scheduling practices, his schedule wasn’t great. However, he was working at a regional airline that doesn’t even exist anymore. That should tell us a lot. I feel like if he’d been able to stick it out just a few more years, he would have finally been able to find the QOL he was looking for. I make better money than I ever have, yet I’ve never worked less in my entire life. My airline schedule definitely does not suck.

5. It’s very easy to lose your license: BEYOND FALSE!

When you read GGG’s post, it’s easy to think that there are thousands of career-ending screw-ups just waiting to bite you every flight. This is simply ridiculous.

The FAA and the airlines are interested in safety above all else. They have put all kinds of systems and procedures in place to back pilots up and ensure smooth sailing for all parties. The training standards specified by the FAA require pilots to be good enough to comply with those procedures. Airline hiring and training standards reinforce that. It would take a very long chain of organizational failures to put an airline pilot on the line without the skills necessary to safely and successfully operate without getting his or her pilot’s license yanked.

The FAA even throws us one more bone here. The Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP) allows pilots who make honest mistakes to submit a report about the incident to the FAA. All pilot identifying information is removed from the report, and as long as the pilots didn’t intentionally cause the error, they’re legally protected from prosecution or job action as a result.

It would take some willful disobedience for a Chicken Little like GGG to be punished for an honest mistake while flying the line.

6. The seniority system is terrible: False?

I feel like this point is a matter of opinion. When I joined the Air Force, I expected it to be the ultimate meritocracy. Sadly, it was nothing of the sort. Sure, doing well could get you a long way. In some cases, the top Generals got to their positions by just being great at their jobs. However, I could tell you about an overwhelming number of cases where people got ahead by schmoozing the right person, taking credit for things they didn’t do, or doing a great job at non-flying duties even though they were terrible in the aircraft. As a guy who tried to focus on just doing well at my job, the Air Force was maddening.

From that perspective, I love working in the airlines’ seniority system. I know exactly who is ahead of me and exactly when each of them is required to retire. I know exactly what I can expect every bid period and anomalies in the system usually end up with me getting something better than I thought I would. I know exactly how many years it will take to reach each of my desired career checkpoints, and that allows me to relax and just enjoy my life in the meantime.

Yes, upgrading to Captain makes you relatively junior all over again and that sucks. However, that’s a choice. At a major airline, new First Officers make as much as a senior regional Captain, if not much more. I know very senior major airline pilots who have been career FOs. The pay is still outstanding and they love having ultimate control over their lives. Many of them bid reserve on widebody aircraft and average less than one week per month of work for more than $250,000 of income. No, I’m not exaggerating.

As I read GGG’s criticisms of a seniority-based system (and the rest of his post) I got the feeling that he felt entitled to…something. I don’t know what he expected, but the seniority list, progression, and associated rules are all outlined before agreeing to work for a company. As long as you know them and plan accordingly, I don’t see much point in having angst or stress over them.

I will say that GGG seems to have worked for his airline at a time when hiring and seniority progression were very slow. In that environment, QOL suffers and it’d be easy to get frustrated. However, that is not the case anymore! You can go to https://www.airlinepilotcentral.com right now and see the annual retirement numbers for most major airlines for the next 15-30 years. This gives you a very good picture of seniority progression over that time period, except that the industry has seen higher-than-predicted retirement numbers for the last few years…meaning seniority is progressing faster than anyone thought.

Retirement numbers at American Airlines for the next few years. These numbers are unprecedented. They’re also great news for young pilots who want jobs.

I believe that GGG’s perspective on seniority is so negative for two reasons. 1) he was in the industry at a particularly difficult time. 2) he never worked for a major airline where a career lasts much longer and baseline QOL is much better. Again, don’t let his limited perspective scare you away.

7. Layover hotels all suck and airlines don’t give you enough time for rest: FALSE!

I was a little worried when I started working as an airline pilot. I half expected to stay in roach coach motels along the lines of what GGG described. At my major airline, this could not be further from reality. I stay in very nice hotels everywhere we go. I aspire to bring my wife back to visit some of them because she would be impressed at how baller my job is.

I think the difference here is regional vs major airlines, yet again. Regionals operate on much tighter margins and won’t spring for the fanciest hotels. You’re probably looking more at Best Westerns and Comfort Inns than names like Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt, etc. It’s important to realize that regional airlines are not supposed to be forever jobs. If you want to be a career airline pilot, you’re trying to get to the majors. If you’re at a regional, you should fly as much as you can stand to get as many hours as possible as quickly as possible. There is no reason it should take longer than 2-3 years to accrue enough hours to be competitive at a major airline in today’s hiring environment. Yes, you’ll have to endure these 2nd tier hotels in the meantime, but you’re trying to earn 2-3 decades worth of staying at the nicer places. It’s worth the short-term discomfort to reach the long-term goal.

The other part of this is that GGG frequently felt pressured to fly without being sufficiently rested. I don’t know if 14 CFR Part 117 existed when GGG was flying. It’s the FAA regulation about rest and fatigue for aircrews. Part 117.5(b) states very specifically that, “No certificate holder may assign and no flightcrew member may accept assignment to a flight duty period if the flightcrew member has reported for a flight duty period too fatigued to safely perform his or her assigned duties.” If GGG was flying with as little rest as he says he was while operating under Part 117, then he violated the regulation every time. (Maybe that’s why he was always so worried about getting his ticket pulled.)

The bottom line in Part 117 is that your company must give you 10 hours of rest between Flight Duty Periods (FDPs.) Within those 10 hours, you must get “8 uninterrupted hours of sleep opportunity.” I sometimes see my major airline pushing the definitions to the limits; however, we pilots have final authority here. If the weather, maintenance, ATC, or other delays compress our layover schedule and threaten our rest, we simply call Crew Scheduling and tell them what time we’ll be available for duty the next day. This isn’t a discussion or a fight, it’s us informing them. They don’t have to be happy about it, but they do have to accept it. I’ve never flown with a Captain who would have given me an ounce of shit for delaying our showtime because I needed to get the required amount of rest.

Our company asks us to write a report for some fatigue-related calls. It’s stupid, but the committee that evaluates our reports includes representatives from our union. My company trusts us and has never challenged what I would consider an obviously good call with respect to fatigue. If they were to try penalizing a crew for making a good fatigue decision, our union would be all over them in a heartbeat.

If I ever felt I was victim to reprisal for a fatigue-related call, and my union failed to give me the support I needed, my last resort would be to file one of those handy ASAP reports. It would go something like, “I was too fatigued to fly. I told the company as much and they pressured me to fly anyway. When I said, ‘unable’ I feel that they punished me in this way (blah, blah.)” Those reports get reviewed one-by-one at a weekly meeting attended by reps from 1) the FAA, 2) the company, 3) the union. I have no doubt as to the outcome of a meeting where my company had to explain to the FAA why it punished one of its pilots for a fatigue-related decision.

Thankfully, I work for a great company and I don’t think it’d ever get that far.

8. Commuting sucks: TRUE, but…

GGG was correct when he complained about how much commuting sucks. However, he failed to address the most important fact related to commuting: it’s not mandatory. A pilot absolutely has the option of moving to his or her assigned airline base and never having to deal with a commute. Although some bases are less desirable than others, I believe it’s possible to find a decent living situation almost anywhere.

Not only does living in base drastically improve QOL, but I also estimate that it equates to at least $50,000 higher pay per year at a major airline for the same amount of work as a commuter.

I wrote a 3-part series about commuting on The Pilot Network. I address the pitfalls, the reasons it may be worth doing anyway, and some strategies to mitigate the pain. I don’t know if it would have made much difference for GGG, but I hope it will help you.

Commuting isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. I recommend avoiding it if possible.

Once again, it’s also important to keep perspective on the temporary nature of a regional airline job here. If regional airline QOL is too bad as a commuter, it might be necessary to move a couple of times to live in-base while working at that company. This will be rough on your family, but it won’t be anywhere near as bad as what you’d experience serving in the military. You’ll be able to choose the major airlines you apply to based on places you might want to stay long-term. Once you get that job, you can execute the last move of your life and finally settle down. It’s counter-productive (if not downright harmful) for your family to get worked-up over short-term commuting issues when you’ll be happily homesteaded for 2-3 decades at your major airline job.

9. The airline industry is very vulnerable: TRUE!

I can’t deny the truth on this one. I believe that the airline industry is never more than one really bad day from disaster. I’ve watched as a spectator as everything from SARS, to economic downturns, to 9/11 changed Airline Pilot from being a dream job to a nightmare. When the industry suffers setbacks companies slash pay rates and obtain QOL concessions from their pilots. They furlough pilots or go bankrupt altogether. Seniority lists stagnate. In these cases, everything GGG complained about becomes truer than it is today. There have been times where it took upwards of a decade for things to get noticeably better. I freely admit that if you pursue this job, you’re exposing yourself to this risk.

Knowing all this, the question becomes: how do you mitigate the effects of that disaster?

For me, the first part of the answer is to get onto a seniority list at a major airline ASAP! Even in the worst downturns, it’s only the most junior pilots on that list who get furloughed. The more padding below you, the softer your fall.

The next part of the answer for me is to be a camel and fill up my hump while I can. The airline industry is booming right now. Companies are making unheard of profits, and pay rates are at the highest they’ve been in years. One of the reasons to get onto an airline seniority list ASAP is to earn a share of these profits while times are good. A family that can simultaneously reduce expenses and maximize savings should be able to reach a level of basic financial independence in record time. (If this concept sounds new to you, then please go read everything ever written by Mr. Money Mustache. The math that proves all this is as undeniable as it is Shockingly Simple! I’m not (necessarily) advocating that airline pilots save up to a certain number and then “retire” early. However, if you happen to hit that number before the next economic downturn, then you truly have nothing to fear.)

For the sake of brevity, I’ll just offer one other thought on mitigating industry risk: always be developing your skills and/or at least one side hustle. When I talk to Captains who have been through downturns, the ones who are in the worst shape now had nothing to fall back on during the tough times. They scrounged for regional airline flying, or worse. They had huge expenses and refused to downsize. The ones who are in great shape already had side-hustles going when the downturn happened. They suddenly found themselves with time on their hands and poured it into those ventures. They ended up doing very well throughout the tough times. Now, they’re back in their cushy airline jobs with things better than ever. In many cases, they’ve continued to develop those side hustles and are making more money than ever there as well.

I’m afraid that GGG was overwhelmed with his debt and his lack of perspective. His fear and frustration with the industry lacked the context of knowing what lay ahead for him as a major airline pilot. Once you get here, you absolutely have the means to build a financial suit of armor around your family, capable of withstanding the worst recession, in record time. You also have the free-time and QOL to enjoy your family and pursue other income opportunities without having to sacrifice nearly as much.

There are certainly challenges to an all-civilian aviation career, but I don’t believe that any of them is a deal-breaker. I would gladly pursue that path if I was starting all over again and the military wasn’t an option for me.

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The Best of Both Worlds

We’ve looked at the good and bad of both the military and civilian paths to becoming a professional pilot. Before we wrap things up, I can’t help but mention the path that I believe to be the best of both worlds. I call it the Ultimate Military Pilot Career Path and you should read my articles about it. (Click here to read Part 1 and Part 2.)

In short, you can apply directly for a pilot job at a specific Guard or Reserve unit. That unit will send you to (and pay for) military pilot training. Then, they’ll give you full-time orders to get qualified in your aircraft and get anywhere from a few months to a couple of years of “seasoning.” When that is all over, you should have at least enough hours for a Restricted ATP and you’ll be competitive for a job at any regional airline in the country.

You can start flying for the regional and rapidly accruing Part 121 hours. You should be able to upgrade to Captain at your regional in as little as a year or two. In the meantime, you’ll continue flying for your Guard or Reserve unit part time. Depending on how you structure things, this will increase your annual earnings by quite a bit, and it’ll provide you with some of the cheapest health care on the planet.

You’ll be progressing rapidly along the airline pilot career path while also enjoying some of the fun, exciting flying that I discussed in Part 1. It shouldn’t be long after that before you’re competitive for the major airlines.

While it’s a good idea to pay to earn some of your own pilot ratings to compete for these Guard or Reserve jobs in the first place, this is absolutely the fastest and least expensive way to become a major airline pilot. BogiDope specializes in helping people get started on this path. It’s truly the best of both worlds.

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Conclusion

Unfortunately, there’s no way to pursue a career as a professional pilot without some sacrifice. The all-military and all-civilian paths both have enough positives to make either one worth pursuing. However, you’re also going to have to make sacrifices in either case.

I assert that you’re going to have to “pay your dues” for upwards of a decade, no matter what path you pursue. I don’t say this to be a jerk or because I think you should have it tough because I did. I believe that it takes about that long for a pilot to gain the real-world experience necessary to do his or her job. Don’t look down on that time as a trial. Instead, revel in the opportunity and squeeze every ounce of valuable experience that you can from it!

Remember not to focus on the short-term, no matter what path you’re leaning toward. Don’t be afraid of hardships that will only last a couple of years. You can do anything for a year or two. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed by negativity either. If you’re the type of pilot who’s never satisfied with anything, you will never find a flying job you enjoy. You might as well go get a job filing TPS Reports at Innitech because you’ll hate flying just as much as you would hate working there.

You’ll enjoy this process a lot more if you focus on your end-goal and view everything with that goal in mind.

For the military aviators in the audience, please remember that no matter how great an officer you end up being, you will have to turn back into a civilian some day. A few officers reach ranks high enough that they completely lose touch with aviation. They end up retiring and taking jobs as government contractors, working 9-5 for someone else for the rest of their days. I hope they’re happy, but I could never be in those circumstances.

I feel like most military pilots will at least consider the airlines at some point in their future. Remember that seniority is everything, and the sooner you can hack the seniority clock, the better your family’s life will be in the long-run. If you’re currently on Active Duty or full-time orders in the Guard or Reserve, do the short term benefits you enjoy outweigh the long-term QOL you’d get from being that many years/numbers more senior for the rest of your career? If not, then I urge you to move to part-time ASAP and get on a major airline’s seniority list as soon as you can.

No matter which path you choose, aviation is a fantastic profession right now. It’s fun and engaging, the pay is unbelievable, and it offers unparalleled flexibility and Quality of Life. As long as you can keep your end-goals in mind, I believe that you can’t go wrong with either path. Good luck, and let us know how it goes!

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

 

Photo Credits:

Unless otherwise noted, I took the photos you see in this post.

The American Airlines retirement numbers come from AirlinePilotCentral.com, one of the best pilot resources for counting unhatched chickens.

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