For many years, a key source of pilots for airlines has been taking in military aviators and putting them through transition training to become qualified for the commercial flight deck. Over the years it has been a fruitful hunting ground for airlines seeking talented air crew. US airlines have been leaders in attracting military flyers, but it has been a route for many elsewhere too.
But how much has the desire among military pilots to cross over to commercial flying changed in recent times? Mike Gerzanics is a captain at Southwest Airlines who retired from the US Air Force in 1995. Following his departure, he worked as an engineering test pilot for United Airlines for nine years and had a brief stint as a Boeing test pilot, before going full time at Southwest in 2005. He regularly flies with first officers who have just retired from the military.
So why do people want to transition? “I think for me and a lot of the military pilots coming over, it’s a love of flying. Perhaps they were not going to fly anymore in the military, that they were looking at a staff job. I do think, however, it may not be the primary reason,” Gerzanics remarks, noting that he is speaking in a personal capacity. “I think the bigger part is airline schedules, at least how we do our rostering. We work less in the civilian world, make more money and you have more flexibility. And I believe that's driving it.
“Another factor is that the US had expeditionary forces in Iraq or Afghanistan for many years. The constant rotation to foreign war zones grinds on people’s families. People just want to be home more. And you can make more money and have more control of your schedule as an airline pilot than you can as a military pilot,” he adds.
Even in an era of increasingly diverse opportunities, with many temptations for careers elsewhere, Gerzanics thinks that there’s still a high level of desire for the military pilot to move to the commercial arena.
But there are exceptions. “There was a guy in my squadron who during his next assignment earned an MBA at Duke [University] and he ended up being the chief technology officer for Rolls-Royce for a couple of years. So he pursued the business path,” Gerzanics recalls. “There are people who simply don't want to fly any more, but I think the majority of the military pilots go on to fly elsewhere. For one thing, once you’ve got your foot on the ladder, it's a fairly defined progress.”
He continues: “As long as you're competent, you're going to do fine. Also, available types of flying in the airline industry is so diverse. At United, you can be a very senior first officer and fly a few sectors a month maybe, and never touch the yoke, because you're an international relief-pilot. Or you can fly for Southwest, which I do, and you can fly three or four legs a day.
“If you want to be in charge, at the cargo airlines such as FedEx and UPS, guys are upgrading to captain in a year to three years, which is unheard of in the airline world. And a captain makes around one-and-a-half times the salary of a first officer,” Gerzanics says.
The paradox in Gerzanics’ story is that, originally, he never actually wanted to be an airline pilot. “At the 15-year point as a test pilot in the Air Force, I was looking at being an executive officer for a general or going to the project office. So I got out, I got a job as an engineering pilot for United in which I was kind of half test pilot but also flying for an airline, which I thought was cool. Then I was made redundant and thought, ‘Now what do I do?’ So I went to another airline because the money is good and I really enjoy flying aeroplanes. Additionally, I enjoy the customer service aspect, which I wouldn't have said I wouldn’t have predicted when I left the military,” he explains.
Those who didn’t plan to be airline pilots should therefore not dismiss it too quickly, Gerzanics advises. “I feel blessed to have had two or three careers. I feel my experience would be less if I’d gone straight into commercial aviation,” he emphasises.
Military to commercial pilot transitions occur in many countries, with various reasons for making the switch. “All individuals are different, so I don’t know how we would be able to quantify what the reasoning might be for people to move to a new role,” admits a Royal Air Force spokesperson, who notes that when it comes to resettlement arrangements for military pilots, there is plenty of support from the UK Ministry of Defence.
“Again, every individual will be different, but the MoD offers a comprehensive package for all service leavers and offers funds and courses for qualifications through the resettlement services run by the Career Transition Partnership [a partnering agreement between the UK MOD and Right Management],” the spokesperson adds.
Anthony Petteford is a consultant in aviation training and education with more than 25 years’ experience, including more than 11 years as managing director of Oxford Aviation Academy, during which time it was acquired by CAE. He has also founded and led other major Approved Training Organisations (ATOs) and well as being an Airbus A320 pilot for a time with British Midland.
Petteford saw the military conversion pathway in action at some of those companies and keeps an eye on the current scenario. “With a retiring military pilot, you've got to start with their respective backgrounds. If they've been flying the multi-pilot types, such as the Hercules or the Voyager or similar, then naturally it's a very simple transition to them becoming qualified for commercial flying,” he remarks. “In some cases, they’re the same aeroplanes [Voyager is a military A330].”
A good example is AirTanker, a company whose primary role is ‘to ensure the safe and effective operation of the RAF’s fleet of Voyager aircraft’. “At AirTanker, in collaboration with RAF Brize Norton, you will see some very easy transitions for pilots who have flown those aeroplanes [in the RAF] across to flying for AirTanker. In terms of training for civilian qualifications, they just have to do whatever transitional flying is required to take the skill test, both for the commercial licence and instrument rating,” Petteford says. “Then they have to do the APS/MCC course or the MCC course. Help for this can be found through the ELCAS (Enhanced Learning Credits Administration Services) approved scheme, which enables military pilots to get £2,000 off their training.”
If an ATO wants to take military pilots and enable them to get this credit, it has to become an approved provider under ELCAS. “To get this credit, pilots need to hone in on a list of such ATOs. UKFlying is an organisation that specialises in facilitating the most appropriate connections between the military pilot and the ATO, so they can help. What candidates then have to do, in terms of the necessary conversion training, will be determined by the types of aeroplanes that they used to fly,” Petteford comments, before describing the process.
“If a military pilot comes to an ATO – irrespective of the funding – and explains their background, they then have a meeting with the head of training, who will review their background and experience before sending them for an individual consultation. After looking through the pilot’s logbooks and so on, a bespoke course of training will be proposed which encapsulates both the commercial licence, the instrument rating, and the MCC,” he says. Once that training is completed successfully the challenge is finding the flying job in the commercial sector.
Of course, airlines themselves offer transition pathways. British Airways, for example, has its Direct Entry Pilot Scheme (Managed Path/UK Service Pilot) which it describes as “an exciting career pathway for experienced pilots from the Army Air Corps, Royal Air Force, Royal Marines and Royal Navy who have completed their minimum service”.
Whichever route the military pilot selects, continuing a flying career, as Gerzanics exemplifies, can be rich and varied.
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