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Future Pilots

The Decision: Military or Civilian

In 2019, we hosted a FAPA Job Fair and Future Pilot Forum in San Diego, CA. Directly across from the venue hotel was the San Diego Padres stadium. As I was looking at the enormous building it occurred to me that, like that building, there are several points of entry into the world of professional aviation and there are many places from which to enjoy that career. There is not – there cannot be – only one entrance or one destination, or those singular locations would be completely overrun and congested.

There are many unique ways to enter the aviation industry, and there are many facets of the industry to enjoy. FAPA has numerous articles talking about the industry, whether airline, corporate or charter (Part 135). On top of that, our Pilot Career Advisors have experience across the board when it comes to the various paths one might take to reach their goal of being a professional pilot. But one particular path that has remained untouched (until now) is the military route.

Thirty years ago, the military wasn’t the only route, but an overwhelming majority of pilots were coming from their ranks. And they were the preferred candidates. That phenomenon has flip-flopped in more recent years, with the majority of pilots obtaining their flight training through college or a civilian flight school. Still, the military is one of the many options available.

So many people disregard the military due to a simple lack of understanding on their part of the process. According to Jeffrey Van Orsow, author of Alternate Route: the Ultimate Guide to Becoming a Pilot in the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve, through his own experience in the process, “no one knows about it.” In fact, he stated that two years into his journey with the ANG, he was still running into people that didn’t know the process. “It doesn’t cost you anything to speak to a recruiter or to take the qualifying test and obtain your results”, he advises in his book. But so few people do, and just continue to make a decision with their lack of understanding. To best illustrate this point, here are a few of the most widely accepted – and incorrect – reasons to avoid the military for one’s pilot education.

· There is no guarantee that you’ll get a flight slot; you may end up being a chef. I have to admit that, before researching this article, I was proceeding under this assumption as well. It’s not true. Members of the Air Reserve Component can apply for a pilot position, choose their aircraft and their base prior to committing to the Air Force. When offered this decision, 2nd Lieutenant Daniel Huntington stated, “It was a relief to know where my wife and I would be going and what I’d be flying.”

· Even though the civilian world has lifted its restriction on corrective lenses, the military still requires uncorrected 20/20 vision. This assumption is just as widespread and not true as it is in the civilian world, according to Lieutenant Huntington. “I think there are a lot of rumors about how good your vision has to be.” To become an officer and finish your Air Force flight training, you must merely have vision that is correctable to 20/20.

· This is a career change for me and I’m too old! This is another common misconception that continues to plague both the military and civilian route. So many aspiring aviators “… automatically eliminate themselves before having the facts”, according to Van Orsow. At this time, the upper age limit to begin your military Undergraduate Pilot Training is 35 years old.

· It takes years more time if you go the military route. This is another area in which I was not versed initially. Upon acceptance and including training, the Air Force will ask for a ten-year commitment. As a reservist – a part-timer – however, you can begin working a civilian job while you are still honoring your years to the military. And with the jet-time you are accumulating, members of the Air Force Reserve should be able to skip the regional airlines on their path to their career and enter the industry directly at the major airline level in only 6-7 years.

Let’s compare this to the civilian route. Assuming a full-time training schedule, you’re looking at 6 months to 1 year of pilot training to obtain your Commercial Certificate with Multi-engine and Instrument Ratings … maybe your CFI as well. You are then looking at around 18 months of time-building to reach ATP minimums. Hopefully, you get picked up by a regional carrier shortly thereafter and might spend 3-5 years there before getting recognized and hired by a major or legacy carrier. We’re looking at 5-7 years, to reach your goal. Plus $60,000-$80,000 in training costs/debt. The time frames are almost exactly the same, and the debt isn’t an issue. The one big difference is that the ANG route requires a Bachelors degree at the point of entry, while the civilian route doesn’t until, maybe, the end. Also, if considering the ANG route, it is encouraged to have at least one’s Private Pilot Certificate prior to entry.

Federal Aviation Regulation Part 91.103 states that each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight. We understand that you may not be a pilot just yet but, if you are going to be, it behooves you to start thinking like one as soon as possible. In order for you to make the best decision – we call it a Pilot in Command decision – for your future, you must consider all possibilities; the military is one of three categorical possibilities for pursuing your education. It is an option that must be researched. Is it for everyone? Of course not. Is it for some? You betcha.

“The Air Force is hunting for pilots,” Huntington states. After six months in the ANG, he is loving it and unsure whether or not leaving the Air Force for the majors will eventually be the right decision for him.

There are, of course to be fair, some downsides to consider with the guard or reserve route. For one, you could get activated. That’s right; you could end up being needed by the military and what was once a backseat job to your civilian flying career could become your whole life for a period of time. In addition, while you can choose your equipment and base, you will still need to qualify on that aircraft. In the event that you are unable to pass the training, you may find yourself looking at a backup plan that might not have been as ideal as your primary.

Do your due diligence: visit a recruiter, talk to guardsmen or reservists or members of all branches of the military. Visit colleges and talk with flight schools. Become familiar with all available information concerning your education, your path, and your future, so you can make the best and most informed decision for your career.