Is joining the air force a good way to become an airline pilot?

I've always loved the air force. However, my main goal is to become an airline pilot. Would joining the air force affect becoming a commercial airline pilot?

I am asking because if I join the air force, I am committed to seven years of service. Would this put me behind other pilots? Or, do airlines like pilots with military backgrounds?

• I believe Australia has airlines with cadet programs, where you train from no experience to a first officer's slot. Since those come with job offers, that'd probably be the best route. – cpast Apr 21 '15 at 6:35
• Thanks cpast, thanks for the fast reply. I'm leaning more towards one of the cadet programs. – Fraser Apr 21 '15 at 6:58
• Might depend on what you do in the Air Force. If you end up doing food preparation in the kitchen, you won't be any closer to your goal of being a pilot ;) The answer might be different from country to country. Specifying what country you're talking about will help people answer from their personal experience, rather than their personal opinion on a hypothetical situation. – Jeff Bridgman Apr 21 '15 at 13:24

4 Answers

Honestly, every U.S. Air Force pilot I know, who wanted to retire to the airlines, got hired on with no problems. The ex-Air Force pilots I know have all gotten immediately put into the big planes: A380, 747, 767, 787, etc right from the start. This is because the airlines know that an ex-military pilot has had some of the best training and experience in high pressure situations.

That being said, in the USA it is very hard to become an Air Force pilot. You have to contract with the Air Force before they even let you know if you can go to pilot training. That means, if you don't make the cutoff for pilot training, you have to spend at least 4 years in the Air Force. If you do make it through Air Force pilot training you have to contract for 10 years after you finish flight school, which means about 12 years from your date of commissioning. This will take a good 16+ years out of your life, including the time spent in college. However, you will progress from your first flight all the way to potentially flying F-22s in under two years - a rate of progressing you won't see anywhere else.

Bottom line is, if you don't want to join the military then you shouldn't. By joining the military you are expected to give your life for people you may not know, or even care about. That aside, there's no point in spending a minimum of 16 years doing something you don't like, or fighting for a cause you don't support just to become an airline pilot. If you can find a good airline cadet program, or scholarship, you can become a great airline pilot, it will just take a longer time to progress from one aircraft to another.

Just a little tangent. That being said, I'm currently an AFROTC cadet, and I had no military background. I love AFROTC, the US Air Force, and the USA. I'm currently applying for a pilot slot in the U.S. Air Force, but if I don't make it I would be vary happy taking other jobs, too. The key is to have small, achievable goals that you can take one step at a time.

I wish you the best of luck.

• This answer generally applies to Australia as well (which I believe was where the question was asked before a few edits). I would say that if his goal is to fly an airliner and he won't be happy doing anything else (including ground-based work) the Air Force is a risky move. But if he's attracted to the military lifestyle and all of its demands it certainly will not hurt his future career. – Ben Apr 21 '15 at 23:01
• Awesome, thanks for the replies. I've always been attracted to the military ever since i was really young. To be honest as long as im flying i guess it doesn't really matter whether im military or civilian. The thing I love about this site is everyone does care and they put time and effort into their comments. I'll be sticking around so i'll see you guys again then :) Again Sponge Bob and Ben your replies willapplies to Australia as well (which I believe was where the question was asked before a few edits). I really help me in choosing my career path. Thank You – Fraser Apr 22 '15 at 2:23
• Actually, the statement You have to contract with the Air Force before they even let you know if you can go to pilot training is not completely true. Joining a guard or reserve unit can provide you with a pilot slot before commissioning. However, most people getting guard/reserve pilot slots already have significant civilian hours. It is possible, though rare, to get a pilot slot straight off the street in a guard/reserve unit – SSumner Apr 24 '15 at 0:01
• @SpongeBob - AFA and AFROTC comments are actually incorrect unless you hold permanent resident status in the US (aka Green Card); even then you might not be able to attend the AFA due to citizenship requirements. The only way that non-resident aliens in the US can generally enter the US military is through the MAVNI program which is currently only being used by the US Army to help address a shortage of doctors, surgeons, and certain language skills (not translators, just servicemembers who speak the languages). There are also additional visa and physical presence requirements that must be met. – habu Apr 30 '15 at 12:46
• AFAIK, you cannot become an officer in any branch of the US military unless you're a US citizen (MAVNI normally gives citizenship before you're actually commissioned). USAF pilots are required to be commissioned officers, and aren't recruited through MAVNI (we already have plenty of pilot candidates), so you'd have to be a citizen first. – cpast Apr 30 '15 at 19:25

As previously mentioned, joining the Air Force is a great way to become an airline pilot. Now that we've established that... Do NOT join the Air Force to become an airline pilot or to fly. Join because you want to serve your country and if you are lucky enough then you will get to fly.

Let's break down the timeline and steps to get there:

Commissioning Sources:

USAFA:

• 4 years, paid for, excellent opportunities, sets you up great for your career
• horrible REAL college experience, don't get to experience much of the real world

AFROTC:

• 4 years, MAY get a scholarship to have SOME paid for, real college experience
• Pretty good networking but not as good as USAFA

OTS:

• 9.5 weeks
• Little to zero networking, may/may not prepare you to be an officer

Your best chances of getting a pilot slot are through the Academy. Through AFROTC you apply to a Rated board; however, you may get selected as a CSO, RPA, etc. With OTS you apply for specific positions (ie. pilot only) so you won't do something you don't necessarily want to do.

I've seen all 3 sources and ultimately finished with OTS. I think AFROTC is probably the best option if lots of pilot slots are being given out. Having said that, USAFA is really the only guaranteed way if you want to deal with a lot BS.

So now you've received your pilot slot and commissioned as an officer, now what? On to UPT....

You'll go to either Laughlin, Vance, Columbus, or if you get selected for ENJJPT then to Sheppard. Here you will go through Initial Flight Screening (I think it's been changed to IFT now) where you'll fly the DA-20 for approximately 20 hours up in Colorado.

Finally, everything you've worked for... You start slackademics... 6 weeks of Aerospace Physiology, T-6 Systems, Instruments, Formation, etc. You'll then move on to the flight line where you'll fly the T-6 and work 12 hours a day and then come home and study for a few more.

After about 6 months you'll track to either T-38s, T-1s, or Helos. Statistically a class size is about 24 studs with 4-5 T-38s (maybe a Guard or couple internationals in here too), 1 Helo, and the rest to T-1s. You'll move into Phase 3 and repeat the Academics and flying for your jet.

You reach drop night after 52+ weeks of UPT. You're racked and stacked amongst your peers and given a jet you may or may not want. Lately fighters have been dropping quite a bit, but it comes and goes. Most likely your class of 24 studs will get 2-3 fighters.

If you got a heavy (which will be most of your class) they'll nugget off to their next base to do about 6-9 months of upgrade training in the C-130, KC-135, KC-10, U-28, etc. Other than that, I can't tell what exactly that involves.

But let's say you were one of the lucky ones and dropped a fighter... Next you'll move on to Intro to Fighter Fundamentals (IFF) where you'll continue to fly the -38. Here you'll learn to fly very, very basic BFM and BSA. They're teaching you to be the best wingman you can be. If you graduate you'll move onto your B-course...

B-course locations and times depend on what jet you get. For the Viper, it's about 9 months. This is where you'll go through your IQT (initial qualification) and learn how to employ. Once you graduate you'll nugget of to your first fighter squadron where you'll complete MQT (mission qual).

After 250-350 hours, if you're good then you'll be sent to 2-ship upgrade training.. And this basically continues your entire career.

If you want to serve and fly doing it, then great! But I would not look at military flying as an entrance into the airline world. Yes, you will be able to fly circles around your peers after your military training, but it will probably be the hardest you've ever worked.

As I've laid out, this process has taken most of us years and guess what, the training never stops. I haven't even really talked about all the TDYs, deployments, missed holidays, missed birthdays, missed anniversaries, etc. You will be away from your family a lot. And when you are home you're going to be working 60+ hours a week. And when you're home for the night you're going to need to study.

I don't want to discourage you, but just want you to see what Air Force flying is really like. Good luck!

• Great answer, but I felt like my son (US Army) was talking to me over his currently very poor cell phone signal. If you would kindly expand on the jargon, that would be greatly appreciated. USAFA, USROTC, OTS I get, but many may not. CSO, RPA, UPT, ENJJPT? Help!! You did get better with it towards the end, so that's appreciated. – FreeMan Jul 7 '16 at 14:42

There are advantages and disadvantages to becoming a professional pilot via the military route:

ADVANTAGES:

Lots of multi-engine turbine time, in all weather conditions, day or night using modern avionics. One of the key things airlines look for in pilots is that kind of experience. You can build up that kind of time in the civilian world, but be prepared to work several years, first as a CFI, then moving into corporate flying or the regional airlines for low pay and hard hours.*

Flight training is free, once you are accepted into the program.

Experience operating an aircraft under stressful conditions or in combat shows you can think on your feet and can operate unfazed in emergency or dangerous situations.

Good leadership building skills. Military pilots are officers which is the civilian equivalent of a manager. You will have other assigned duties in your squadrons other than flying which require you to lead small teams of enlisted personnel in activities related to squadron need ie maintenance, procurement, etc.

DISADVANTAGES:

Lengthy commitment: It costs Uncle Sam about \$2 million USD to train a pilot from entry into JPTS to ready to enter their assigned squadrons, so a lengthy commitment (typically 7 years) is required.

Small number of available slots: Pilot/Naval Aviator/Marine Aviator - especially fighter pilot - are extremely sought after slots and entrance is highly competitive. Top grades in undergraduate work plus solid leadership skills are a must for a good shot at a pilot slot UPDATE: times have changed and there is s high demand for military pilots. The USAF needs over 2000 pilots right now, including 1500 fighter pilots. The USN/USMC have similar recruitment shortages.

Stringent academic and medical standards: Military flight training will not accept people who need corrective lenses and a few other medical ailments can often disqualify people from pilot slots. It is more strict than what you would find in getting a civilian medical certificate from the FAA. UPDATE: with the pilot shortages, the military is issuing a lot of waivers for corrective surgery and lacing their standards. It’s s supply and demand thing.

More demanding / high washout rates: Military flight training is much more demanding than it's civilian equivalent. Pilots and particularly combat pilots are selected from the very best available crop. Instructors are quick to identify slow learners or people who can't grasp the basic fundamentals and weed them out for good reason: they are likely to be killed in combat or get others killed. Struggle in UPT, you’re likely to fly tankers or cargo aircraft. Really struggle and you will likely fly a word processor. And you are committed to 7 years with that branch of service whether you complete flight training or not.

Civilian Routes to Professional Pilot are available: There is no reason you cannot become a professional pilot in the civilian world, but it will be more expensive and time consuming to build the hours needed there.

Military commitment: You are signing on a dotted line to become an indentured servant of the US Government; this includes a declaration to fight and, if necessary, to die for your country.

I would say that joining the Air Force is not a good way to become an airline pilot. Becoming an Air Force pilot is an excellent way to become an airline pilot. However, becoming an Air Force pilot is incredibly competitive. If you are not an Air Force Academy grad, it's even more. They have about 1,400 training slots available and if you don't get one of them, you still have to serve. It's an excellent job and you will learn a lot, but it will put you a few years back in airline seniority.

Also, there is now a push to get flight training largely excluded from the GI Bill (HR 476). If that happens, you lose even that benefit which is great for reducing a large expense towards that airline job.

If you do get that Air Force flying job, then it should not put you behind other pilots. A lot of pilots do it that way and they are well respected. However, the government is starting to make it more difficult (and expensive) to make the transition. If you end up in a single engine fighter like the F16, it's even more so because you need to get some multi-enging time, typically at your own expense. There are some other requirements as well.

It's a great career and a great path into the airlines but not a sure thing at all.

• If it's the USAF and you got a fixed-wing pilot slot, you'd get some multi-time regardless of what you end up flying as advanced flight training is conducted in the T-38 before people get assigned to their respective airframes for specialization. The concern, however, is a valid one as most mainline carriers would expect to see several thousand multi- hours and 100~ in a small, supersonic jet a decade prior is unlikely to be considered sufficient all by itself. – habu Apr 30 '15 at 13:05