The definitive military-to-airline transition guide

Ok it's not definitive, that's just clickbait. There is zero doubt whatsoever that there are a hundred different ways to become an airline pilot. Probably the most surefire way to get there is one of the regional airlines flow-through programs, even with their suspect timelines and marketing figures. In my indoc class there were a few regional pilots from outside those programs, even some guys who flew for Kalitta and Emirates. Flying corporate or other cargo is another tired-and-true (if a bit longer) way of gaining lots of turbine PIC. Of course, the airlines snap up military pilots like crazy, and I am thankful to be one of them.

Yes, I have experienced only one of the many ways of becoming an airline pilot, and mine was probably about as typical as most, with some major exceptions. I would like to share some of the wisdom I gained throughout the process.

In many ways I've been preparing for this transition for twelve years. My goal has always been to be an airline pilot, even before I had a passing thought about being an Air Force pilot. Literally my whole military career has been leading up to this point. It's completely, 100% why I decided to get out--I have always loved flying too much to let the Air Force get in the way of that. Hilarious, right?

I began compiling and submitting my applications over a year prior to my availability date. Yes, a year. Others have various timelines they offer but I think there is not really a "too soon" if you are even remotely serious about making this transition. There are several reasons for this: 1) it takes a surprisingly long time to gather the multitude of letters of recommendation that you need for this, 2) it takes a surprisingly long time to format your information into their preferred information, and 3) there is apocryphal but probably wise advice that "they" can see when you applied. We do know that they can see when and how often you update, so why not have that one last notch in your belt to say "I've had my application in with you for [insert number of months/years]."

Something that I found galling as I watched others before me go through this process was the bald-faced assumption that they would get a job with X Airline, sometimes only one of two or maybe three companies that they would apply to. How arrogant! I found out later that my resume was *maybe* slightly above average in terms of hours and quality of hours, but how smug to assume that because you're an F-xx or C-xx evaluator with XXXX hours that they are just begging to get your phone number. We've all heard of the astronaut not getting the job. There are literally thousands of "you" in the pool. Cast a wide net.

So that's what I did. I had live, updated applications with the big 6, plus 2 LCCs, 2 second-tier cargo operations, two different 135 operators, and a regional airline. Yes, that's a baker's dozen of applications and resume formats that I kept updated for a full year, at least once a month.

How did I do? I ended up first with a class date with the regional (they told us up front that they were giving us class dates unless we proved otherwise--what a time!), interview requests from an LCC, one of the cargo outfits, and a 135 operator. Finally after all of that I got the call from my big-6 "target" airline and that's who I work for now. I'm unendingly thankful for this job, but there is also a great thankfulness that the application process is over.

After all of that, the silver bullet for me was a family friend (the guy I bought my Cherokee from, actually) who is now a very senior check airman at my airline. I never saw his recommendation hit the application website, but I got the call for an interview literally days after I sent him my resume. He has my unending thanks and beers whenever I see him next. If you don't have that kind of family friend, you should probably have as many internal letters of recommendation as possible. The more, the merrier, but I can't say what the magic number is, and nobody but the HR department at your airline can. I can say that 3 appears to be too few and 10 is probably overkill.

But that's all philosophy. The nuts and bolts of it are actually pretty simple:

- Logbooks: I have always kept a personal logbook so it was fairly "simple" to compile my hours in the format the apps desired. If you have only military records, there are several reputable services that will do the heavy lifting for you, money very well spent.

- Application review service: Extremely cheap insurance. I had already been the editor of an academic book when I did my apps but I still could not review my own app for typos, inconsistencies, etc. You've heard of the guy who wasn't getting calls because he didn't check "English proficient" because he thought it was obvious that he spoke English." Make it look sharp, spend the money.

- Interview prep service: Probably worth the money. It's one of the "what if" kind of insurances. What if you don't do it and don't get the job? Would you have gotten it if you had invested the time and money? If you don't interview well, if you don't have the first clue what the STAR method is, or if you are interviewing with one of the airlines with a CRM exercise or a technical evaluation, it is extremely cheap insurance indeed.

- The application itself: the boxes you check are literally boxes that "green up" your application, sort of like a ribbon chart. Not a sim instructor in your airframe? Get the cert. Haven't been to Safety School or AIS? Try for it. It's worth noting that I'm not aware of anyone in my class who hadn't been flying in the year preceding our hire date. Fly, fly, fly. Even getting a tailwheel endorsement is a box to check on one of the apps. Plus it's a load of fun!

One closing thought: this is a very hard transition no matter how you slice it. How many people have to give their employer six months' notice when no employer will hire you six months in advance? If you have a family, a mortgage or three, a car payment or two, you probably stress a lot like me about being able to pay the bills after you quit your job and cross your fingers that all those numbers and letters you put in a website will generate that glorious email. Take heart, cast a wide net, and stay positive.


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