The Ultimate Military Pilot Career Path (Part 1)

I’ve written extensively on The Pilot Network about what I consider to be the Ideal Career Path for a Military Pilot. I envisioned that path specifically for a pilot on Active Duty in the military; however, that doesn’t have to be the case. It turns out there’s an even better option, the Ultimate Military Pilot Career Path, and BogiDope is the perfect place to get started on it.

Military units in the Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve, Army National Guard, and other Reserve branches hire young men and women directly out of college and send them to military Undergraduate Flying Training (UFT). You’ll see shortly why this is probably the best possible way to become a military aviator. Had I known this was an option, I’d be flying C-130s out of FE Warren AFB, WY, or Colorado Springs, CO, or F-16s out of Buckley AFB, CO, right now. I want you to benefit from my hindsight, so I’m giving you access to what I consider the best kept secret in military aviation.

Table of Contents

  1. Active Duty – The Hard Way to Become a Pilot
  2. Guard and Reserve – The Better Way to Become a Pilot
  3. Qualification Training – A Full-Time Job
  4. The Guard and Reserve Advantage Defined
  5. Wrap-Up

Active Duty – The Hard Way to Become a Pilot

Let’s put this into context by first looking at how the military gets pilots for Active Duty:

Most military pilots come from a military service academy (USAF Academy, Annapolis, or Westpoint) or the college ROTC program. Just getting into a service academy is extremely competitive, and getting a pilot slot upon graduation narrows that field. (At the Air Force Academy, the selection rate for people who want to be pilots is about 95%.)

The ROTC program offers some amazing, competitive scholarships, though almost anyone is eligible to join whether they have a scholarship or not. Unfortunately, getting a pilot slot through ROTC is even more competitive than at a service academy because you’re competing with every other college in the country for about half of the spots available each year. (The selection rate for USAF ROTC pilot hopefuls drops to about 33%.)

The military does hire some pilots who didn’t do either of these programs. They go to Officer Training School (OTS) after college, and then right on to pilot training. It’s also possible to fly helicopters for the Army as a Warrant Officer without even having to finish college.

The military’s UFT programs are very stressful. (They’re designed that way for a reason.) One of the many stressors is worrying about whether you’ll do well enough in the program to earn a spot flying the aircraft you want. I always felt bad as a UFT instructor watching new classes come in with every student thinking he or she was going to be an F-22 pilot. That’s a statistical impossibility, and the process of having that realization forced upon you isn’t fun.

After UFT, Active Duty pilots generally owe about 10 years of service before they’re eligible to even consider moving on to the airlines or other jobs. That was an amazing 10 years for me, but it was a lot of work. I deployed 8 times, trained on 4 different aircraft, and had more than one assignment so far from my wife that we couldn’t even live under the same roof. It’s a great career, despite the frustrations, but there is a much better way to do things!

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Guard and Reserve – The Better Way to Become a Pilot

Instead of burning yourself out trying to get into a service academy or win an ROTC scholarship (where you’ll then continue to burn yourself out competing for a pilot slot) you can go to college like a regular person and apply for a pilot slot directly with any Guard or Reserve unit you choose. BogiDope maintains a listing of these job openings all over the country. You can browse through those listings, or use MilRecruiters Map to identify specific squadrons in places you’d like to live with aircraft you’d like to fly. The map also lets you see airline bases near those units, allowing you to identify places that work for both military and civilian careers. Once you find the right Guard or Reserve unit, you “simply” fill out an application just like any other job.

(Okay, it’s not that simple. The application process is unique, there is a relatively limited number of job openings, and there are many ways to maximize your chances. BogiDope has successfully helped hundreds of pilots through this process. See more here.)

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Qualification Training – A Full-Time Job

Once a unit hires you, they’ll send you to OTS and schedule you for UFT. Not only do they foot the $1,000,000+ bill for your flight training, they give you full-time pay as a Lieutenant or Warrant Officer while you’re there. One of the beauties of this path is that you know from day one of UFT what aircraft you’ll be flying after graduation. You need to fly well enough to pass, but you don’t have to deal with the added stress of having to compete for a spot flying the aircraft you want. I cannot overstate how much this improves your Quality of Life for that year!

After UFT, you’ll go to a qualification course for your unit’s aircraft. This is another very intense few months during which you’re still getting paid and accruing lots of flight hours in a relatively short period of time. After you earn a basic qualification in your aircraft you’ll go home to your unit to Mission Qualification Training (MQT).

It will probably be 18-24 months from the time you go to OTS to the time you’re qualified to fly actual missions with the squadron that hired you. At that point, most units will put you on full-time orders (think of “orders” as an employment contract) for anywhere from a few months to two years. They call this “seasoning” and they want you flying as much as possible to build your skills prior to potentially going part-time. You should plan on deploying, possibly more than once, during this time. All told, you’ll have spent 3-4 years on full-time military flying.

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The Guard and Reserve Advantage Defined

At this point, you can compete for more full-time orders or move to a part-time status. The standard tagline for the Guard and Reserve is “one weekend a month, two weeks in the summer,” but that’s unrealistic for a pilot. You’ll need to spend about one week each month flying with your unit to maintain your skills and continue your development as a military pilot. It’s usually possible to pick up some extra flying, if desired, but you’ll also need to go find a day job.

Thankfully, 3-4 years of military flying is enough to get you to 750 total flight hours in most communities (it will likely be slightly less in fighters since the average flight time for each sortie is relatively low). That magic number lets military pilots obtain a Restricted Airline Transport Pilot (RATP) certificate. A military pilot with that rating should have no trouble getting hired by a regional airline and starting a civilian flying career while continuing to fly part-time in the Guard or Reserve. The airlines hire military pilots knowing that they’ll have a part-time military commitment, and a federal law called USERRA protects your right hold both jobs at the same time. Guard and Reserve units realize that their people have to hold day jobs and you’ll probably find many fellow airline pilots in your unit.

This lets you start the clock on a regional airline career just four years after joining the military. A pilot on this path should be competitive for a major airline job 2-4 years after that, depending on how much you fly. This puts you at a major airline 6-8 years after graduating college.

Your Active Duty counterparts can’t hope to start at a major airline until at least 11-12 years after finishing college. An all-civilian pilot may be able to start at a regional airline, and therefore move up to the majors, sooner. However, he or she probably had to incur $60,000-$100,000 in debt for flight training, above what he or she paid for college. Not only was your flight training free, you made a salary at least as good as any regional airline pilot while you were there. Unlike your all-civilian peers, you’ll be eligible for Tricare, the military’s health care system, while you serve. You’ll also be working toward a military retirement.

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In my opinion, it’s tough to find anything not to love about this career path. It covers the costs of your flight training and removes a significant source of stress from that program. It allows you to start earning a salary the day you finish college. It gets you to the airlines years ahead of your Active Duty peers. It gives you the chance to do amazing military flying that mere mortals can only dream of. It allows you to plan where you’ll live from the very start of your career and protects you from having to move every 2-3 years like Active Duty pilots.

I attended the USAF Academy, and it was great in many ways. I think the service academies and ROTC are wonderful opportunities. However, if I’d known that I could apply directly to Guard and Reserve units, that would absolutely have been my primary plan. Any service academy or ROTC programs would have been backups to my backups. You simply cannot beat the benefits of starting your flying career by getting hired directly by a Guard or Reserve unit.

If you’re thinking about starting your flying career this way, BogiDope has great resources to help! You should also watch for the sequel to this post where I’ll cover a way to optimize this Ultimate Career Path even more. I’ll tell you how you can get college for free, improve your chances of getting hired by the unit you want to fly with, and earn your military retirement four years sooner. Stay tuned for Part 2.

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Part 1 | Continue Reading Part 2 >

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