BogiDope, F-35 takeoff at Nellis AFB, Red Flag 17-01, fighter aircraft

Transition to Civilian Flying

What’s the process like in becoming a civilian aviator? Will I be able to assimilate into my new civilian job without looking like I don’t have a clue? I’m not that familiar with the rules and regulations governing civilian aviation except what I crammed to pass the Airline Transport Pilot written exam. How can I ensure I’m adequately prepared? 

Well, I’m here to tell you that it won’t be near as bad as you’re thinking. The skill, discipline, and attention to detail that has made you a successful military aviator makes you a known and very desirable quantity to the airlines. With humility and a little “gouge”, I’m confident you’ll be welcomed with open arms anywhere you go. 

As a note, this article is the first of several that will discuss your transition so I’ll try to keep it to ‘Cliff’s Notes’. Below we’ll talk a little bit about what to expect and the prep that will make your life much easier as you progress through your first civilian aircraft training program. 

Most airlines have transitioned their FAA-approved training programs to what’s called AQP: Advanced Qualification Program (FAR 121, subpart Y). This program is designed to take you through learning “gates” and is a vast improvement over what we used to have (which was basically: learn, know, memorize everything and then take an oral and simulator checkride at the very end that encompasses everything you have learned). This fairly recent change in airline training has made the quality of training better and your ability to retain the information and perform to standards much easier (and less stressful). 

Company Indoc

You’ll first go through a basic indoctrination (BI) course that is mostly administrative in nature but will be foreign to you (or at least it was to me). How do I prepare for this phase you ask? I have been through several of these and they were all different because, in short, every airline is structured differently. The best thing you can do to prepare for this phase of the training is to listen, take notes, ask questions, and last but not least, get yourself a pilot mentor.

A pilot mentor should be a current pilot at your new airline. Some airlines actually assign one to you and they will be your lifeline. Many processes within an airline seem complex but really aren’t with a little explanation from a friend. Some examples of things they can help you with include learning to navigate the company website and/or apps used for scheduling, bidding, trip trading, trip drops/pickups (the essential quality-of-life stuff), as well as questions about company benefits, insurance, union dues, per diem tax credit, crash pads, base information, and so on that could be a time-consuming learning process if you were to go it alone. Plus, there’s no way you’ll retain all the information that is thrown at you in BI. 

As far as technical knowledge goes, it helps tremendously to be familiar with some airline terminology. If you google airline terminology, you’ll find thousands of hits. also has a free App that will help you learn airline nomenclature and you can use it later to learn aircraft specifics. Quizlet flashcard sets are built by its millions of users so you can contribute by making your own as well.

Just knowing common acronyms and terms such as MEL, OPSPECS, TAFB, etc. will improve your overall understanding of the material presented to you in the BI phase. A review of the Minimum Equipment List (MEL) Preamble document either from the FAA website or, better yet, a copy of your new airline’s specific Preamble will help you understand the basics of your aircraft’s airworthiness procedures. 

Weather requirements for dispatch and alternates are also important to review but vary by airline depending on their OPSPECS (which is short for Operations Specifications or approvals authorized by a specific airline under its Air Carrier Certificate). Reviewing part 91 and 121 subpart U will give you familiarity on this subject for now. I’ll work on providing a more specific list in another article. 

Learning your company and the rules they operate under is very important.  One concept foreign to military aviators are exemptions.  Your company will operate under the standard FAA guidelines with additional rules established by the company, however, they will also operate with exemptions.  Exemptions are like caveats to the rules. 

One of the more complicated exemptions is called exemption 3585 that allows your company to dispatch to an airport that may be below landing minimums at the ETA. Another exemption 5549 allows a High Minimums Captain to flight plan, release, and fly to the lowest published CAT I or CAT II minimums during his/her first 100 hours in a service as pilot-in-command (PIC) with certain caveats. Details about both of the exemptions mentioned above can be found by searching for Operating Approvals or OPSPECS, number A005. 

As you can see, airline operations can seem complicated but simply by having some familiarity with the nomenclature, and the rules that govern a part 121 air carrier will give you a comfort level. 

Let me just finish here my reiterating the word familiarity. I know you are a ‘type A’ personality. Most of us are or we wouldn’t be here. You will undoubtably put a lot of undue stress on yourself and decrease your bandwidth for learning what’s really important if you try to memorize everything I have mentioned above.

Simply study the big picture and the few regulations I mentioned since you’ll be using those for your first 100 hours at the airline. There will be ample time during BI to get more aquatinted with specifics and you’ll find that most airlines’ BI ‘tests’ are take-until-you-pass. Airlines and the FAA know that nothing can be learned overnight. So relax and take it all in! 

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