Help Wanted: Military Pilots to Fly Commercially

Help Wanted: Military Pilots to Fly Commercially

By Anayat Durrani

The airline industry is looking for a few good men and women in one of the largest pilot hiring surges in recent history. Becoming a commercial airline pilot traditionally has been a top career route for many military officers, most of whom join after their military retirement or as reservists or guardmembers.

“I believe I was in the minority of pilots who made the jump to the civilian flying world 25 years ago,” says Jeff Nielsen, host of the popular Airline Pilot Guy aviation podcast ( and a former Air Force pilot. “I had always wanted to be an airline pilot and went into the military specifically to get the experience required to land a job with the majors.”

His motivating factors were money, time off, and flying. As he rose through the ranks as a pilot and an officer, Nielsen says jet-flying opportunities became less frequent. The idea of flying for the airlines for a full career became more appealing.

“Talking to friends who had left the military for airline careers, it became clear that the airline pilot lifestyle was attractive,” Nielsen says. “[There was potential for] a lot more compensation and a lot more time spent at home. And you got to fly an airplane. That was your job.”

Boeing forecasts the global commercial aviation industry will need 498,000 new commercial airline pilots by 2032. Some 85,700 new pilots will be needed in North America alone. The pilot demand is fueled by baby-boomer generation pilot retirements and “steadily increasing airplane deliveries, particularly single-aisle airplanes,” the Boeing report says, estimating a global need of about 25,000 new pilots annually.

“The increase in worldwide demand for pilots puts former U.S. military pilots in a unique position for post-military job opportunities,” says Capt. Bob Bellitto, USN (Ret), global sales director for Boeing Flight Services. “U.S. military training is exceptionally well regarded by the commercial airline industry. Pilots are perceived as safety-focused, highly disciplined, dedicated to the mission at hand, and skilled.”

A large number of pilots are approaching the retirement age of 65 in the midst of new Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules requiring new training and additional rest between flights. The new rules require copilots, or first officers, to achieve 1,500 hours of flight time for their certification, an increase from 250 hours. The mandatory rest periods during flight duties will rise from eight hours to 10 and requires pilots get a full eight hours of sleep between flight-duty segments.

However, “the FAA's emerging requirement for commercial pilots to have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight time has been reduced to 750 hours for former military pilots,” says Bellitto. “These types of skilled pilots will be sought out by commercial carriers in the U.S. and worldwide.”

Jenna Williamson, a spokesperson for Southwest Airlines, says the airline has about 650 pilots who also are flying with the National Guard or Reserve. She says they have an estimated 4,500 to 5,000 pilots who have served at some period and either separated or retired from the military.

Historically, the industry has relied on former military pilots. Kit Darby, president of Aviation Consulting LLC and a retired United Airlines captain, says they are favorable candidates, but the supply of military pilots is limited. The military pilot percentage of major airline new hires is currently around 33 percent. At the same time, he says their available flight hour experience has lessened due to budget constraints and decreased combat operations in the Middle East.

“Almost half of the Air Force's pilots are now trained on drones (UAVs), which are not counted as flight experience by the airlines,” says Darby.

But military pilots who really want to fly likely will move toward careers that allow them to do so in the civilian sector, explains Darby. And the airlines offer many attractive benefits - such as complimentary family travel without the extended separations of military service. Darby says a typical major U.S. airline pilot works about 15 days a month and has some schedule flexibility with seniority, a solid income, and company-paid retirement ranging from 12 percent to 16 percent on top of their income.

“My 35-year career value at the majors places the average career - pay, benefits, and retirement - at nearly $11 million in 2013 dollars,” says Darby. “Average first officer starting pay is $50,000, increasing to $95,000 after five years. A starting captain after 10 years averages $125,000, and a typical captain makes $155,000. Top annual captain pay averages $200,000 and peaks at $280,000.”

Nielsen says a few years after he separated from the Air Force, the military increased the commitment from six years after earning your pilot wings to 10. When adding time spent in undergraduate pilot training, he says pilots already were in for 11 or more years, making the decision to leave military pension and associated benefits before 20 years much harder. Nielsen says since he joined the major airlines many things have changed.

“After several recessionary economic cycles and associated stagnation and furloughs, compensation in the airlines has decreased,” says Nielsen. “Work rules have changed, and pilots are working more days then ever. Benefits have also diminished, including pensions and health care.”

However, he notes much has improved in the military. He says compensation “compares very favorably” with civilian aviators as do retirement pension and health care benefits. Nielsen says the playing field also has leveled over the years, making leaving a military career a tougher decision.

“My advice to those who are already in the military, enjoy their jobs, but desire to someday work in the airlines is this,” says Nielsen: “Stay in for your 20, get that retirement, then apply for the airlines and enjoy another 20 or more years.”