The Ultimate Military Pilot Career Path (Part 2)

Welcome back, future aviators! In Part 1 of this series we saw how getting hired by a Guard or Reserve unit right out of college is the Ultimate Military Pilot Career Path. The military pays for your flight training, you get to enjoy operating amazing military aircraft, and you can start your parallel career as an airline pilot (or anything else) years sooner than an Active Duty military pilot. I hope this sounds like a great deal to you because it is. Can you believe that there’s a way to make this deal even better?

Table of Contents

  1. What Guard Units Want
  2. Free College Done Right
  3. Choosing the Right Enlisted Specialty
  4. Enlisted Here, Officer There
  5. Financial Advantages
  6. Game-Changing Retirement Advantages

What Guard Units Want

It turns out that getting hired by a Guard or Reserve unit is neither easy nor guaranteed. There are only so many slots, and even though this is a pretty well-kept secret, there are plenty of qualified applicants for each job. Your advantage comes from understanding something fundamental about the nature of these military units.

Unlike Active Duty flying squadrons where 1/3 of the members leave every year, most people stay in a Guard or Reserve squadron for their entire career. This means that when a squadron hires a prospective pilot right out of college, they’re committing to a 10-30 year relationship with that person. That’s a big deal!

Put yourself in their shoes for a moment. Would you feel comfortable committing yourself to a multi-decade relationship with someone you don’t know? I sure wouldn’t! Ideally, you’d spend some time getting to know the other person first. That’s why we date, sometimes for years, before we get married. I guarantee that a Guard or Reserve unit would rather have some time to get to know you before they commit to footing the $1,000,000 bill for your pilot training and then working with you for the rest of your career.

Thankfully, they can get exactly what they want. Every flying unit needs support personnel. From maintainers, to records keepers, to flight equipment specialists and more, there are dozens of support personnel for every pilot in a flying squadron. Most of these people are enlisted troops, rather than officers. A person can enlist right after (or sometimes even just before finishing) high school and only owe a few years of service.

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Free College Done Right

If you want to be a military pilot in the Air Force, you’re going to need a 4-year college degree. If you want to truly optimize the Ultimate Military Pilot Career Path, you can enlist with the Guard or Reserve unit where you want to fly, and work part-time for them while you’re in college. I cannot overstate the benefits of this choice.

First off, this gives your unit full four years to get to know you. (And vice-versa.) They can find out whether you’re a hard worker or the kind of person who just makes more work for everyone else. They can find out if you’re interesting and funny (the kind of person they’ll want to deploy with for the next 20+ years) or if you don’t quite have the right kind of chemistry. They can see how quickly you learn new things, how hard you study, and gauge how serious you are about becoming a pilot.

Every single unit would rather send their own people to pilot training for all these reasons. They’ll give a fair shot to everyone who applies, but all else being equal, they’d always rather give a slot to one of their own before they hire a stranger. You can drastically improve your chances of getting a pilot slot with your desired unit by spending your college years working with them as an enlisted Airman.

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Choosing the Right Enlisted Specialty

Personally, I’d choose a job that has the most positive impact on and exposure to the pilots in the unit. My first choice would be Crew Chief. This person is responsible for getting aircraft ready to fly. He or she meets the pilot or crew when they show up at the aircraft, helps get them settled in, takes part in the startup process, and deals with any issues that arise. After the jet lands, the Crew Chief is responsible for keeping the aircraft clean, serviced, and ensuring maintenance gets done on time. It’s very hard work, but there is no better way to earn your future pilot job than to be the best Crew Chief your unit has ever seen.

If I knew that I definitely wanted to fly a tanker, I’d enlist as a boom operator. If my dream aircraft has flight engineers or loadmasters, then I’d go for one of those jobs. These give you the absolute best opportunity to get to know the people in your unit. You’ll fly with them every day. You’ll spend time on the road together. You’ll fly combat missions together. If the pilots in your unit like flying with you as an enlisted aircrew member, it will be a no-brainer for them to send you to UPT.

There are plenty of other great, high-exposure jobs out there. As long as you do great work in them, it will help you when you’re ready to submit your application for a pilot slot. To me, this is enough of a benefit to justify this career move.

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Enlisted Here, Officer There

Although this is an ideal setup, there is a chance that your unit won’t want or be able to hire you when you finish college. There’s also a chance that you’ll want to apply to a different unit that flies a different type of aircraft. While you’ll always maximize the benefits of this path by enlisting with the unit where you’ll eventually become a pilot, it’s not mandatory. If you give your unit lots of reasons to like you, they’ll go out of their way to help you achieve your dreams. They’ll help find other units that are hiring pilots and they’ll be proud to recommend you. The Guard and Reserve are tight-knit communities, and your unit’s recommendation may be nearly as good as if you’d enlisted in that other unit in the first place. As long as you focus on being outstanding in your job, your unit will take care of you.

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Financial Advantages

The next most obvious benefit is that you get paid for your work. Whether you need to pay for college, or you’re just earning beer money, you’ll be glad that you’re able to earn some extra cash from this job.

As great as cash can be, you may get an even better benefit. Many Guard and Reserve units have programs where they pay your college tuition. So many young people burn themselves out chasing college scholarships, but if you find the right unit to enlist with, you could get the same benefits. (I recommend going for scholarships anyway… it doesn’t hurt to have both.) Not only is free college an outstanding benefit, but your unit will also feel that they’ve invested in you. What better way for them to ensure a return on their investment than “trapping” you with a 10-year commitment in exchange for sending you to pilot training? Please sir, lock me up… right?

Educational benefits vary by branch of service and even state. The Air National Guard website lets you search benefits by state. Military.com maintains a list of these benefits for all branches of service by state. When I started looking, I was shocked to see how many states offer 100% free tuition at state schools. Combine that with a few smaller scholarships, some smart house hacking, and the benefits you earn as an enlisted troop in the Guard or Reserve, and you could absolutely set yourself up to graduate from college debt-free (and even net-worth positive) as you head to pilot training. This is a pretty fantastic situation in a world where we use the term “crisis” in conjunction with student debt. Can you see why this topic excites me?

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Game-Changing Retirement Advantages

Again, I could stop here and conclude that these are overwhelming reasons to pursue this career path. However, there’s one last point to consider:

In order to earn a military retirement and receive a pension, you must serve for a specific amount of time. In most cases, this is 20 years. They don’t differentiate those years based on what you did though. As long as you work at least the minimum number of days, you get credit for a “good year.” It doesn’t matter whether you worked full-time on active duty orders, or you were a traditional part-timer in the Guard or Reserve. Once you hit 20 good years, you’re eligible for a pension.

Pilots on Active Duty, or even Guard and Reserve pilots without any prior military service, start on this 20-year path after they graduate from college. This means most of them won’t be eligible to retire until at least age 42. However, if you enlist with your Guard or Reserve unit right after high school, you can start that 20-year clock ticking four years earlier. Those four years you spend as an enlisted Crew Chief while you’re in college count toward retirement, meaning you could potentially earn your pension by age 38.

Unfortunately, Reservists have to wait until roughly age 60 to start collecting their pension. However, it’s still extremely valuable to know it’s locked in so early in your life. Once you’re eligible for retirement, you have total control over your military life. I recommend you keep doing it as long as you’re having fun, but the moment you aren’t you can just walk away.

Under the new Blended Retirement System, the pension is only part of the benefit. The government will now contribute up to an extra 5% (above regular pay) to your Thrift Savings Plan (the TSP, or 401(k)-equivalent for you civilian types). This money is vested immediately, meaning that you get to keep all of it, even if you leave military service before completing 20 good years.

You also gain incredible benefits by contributing to your TSP early in life. By enlisting right after high school, you’ll give your money up to four extra years to grow before you withdraw it. For comparison, if you invested $1,000 in your TSP at age 18 and it earned an average of 8% interest until age 60, you’d end up with more than $25,000. If you chose not to enlist and didn’t start contributing to a TSP until four years later after graduating from college, the same $1,000 would be less than $19,000. That difference of more than $6,000 is a nice bonus. If I were in your shoes, I’d do everything in my power to put far more than $1,000 per year into my TSP.

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Summary

If you’re an airline pilot, this career path will allow you to end your military service and go full-time airline four years sooner than your peers. Those four years could easily be worth a couple million dollars in total compensation. I’m pretty sure you can think of some ways to put that kind of money to good use.

Enlisting with a Guard or Reserve unit while you’re in college has all kinds of benefits:

  • It lets your unit get to know you. As long as you’re a hard-worker and a good person, this will significantly increase your chances of getting one of their coveted pilot slots.
  • It lets you earn money while you’re in college and may pay your tuition as well.
  • It gives you four years of TSP investing advantage.
  • It also gives you the option to retire four years sooner than your peers, an option that is potentially worth millions.

In my opinion, this is absolutely the best way to become a military pilot. If time is on your side, I highly recommend considering the benefits of enlisting in a Guard or Reserve unit. It’s an extremely wise way to begin your journey towards becoming a military pilot.

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<- Back to Part 1 | Part 2

Image Credit: Staff Sgt. Amanda Walls refuels a C-17. Photo by A1C Nathan Clar for What it takes to be a boom operator on Air Force News.