Military Pilots: How to Launch A Civil Flying Career

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Military pilots must convert their military experience to a commercial license with an instrument rating. If you are on active flying status, getting the required license and ratings is relatively easy. You can take your military training records to the local FAA office and be given a pilot competency written exam. A passing score will earn a commercial instrument pilot's license.

If you have a commercial license with a restriction, you must have the restriction removed by taking a military or civilian check ride on an unrestricted aircraft. (An example of a restriction would be centerline thrust. If you are restricted to single-engine aircraft and to those few multi-engine aircraft with centerline thrust, you will not be allowed to fly the great majority of multi-engine aircraft since, if an engine goes out on these aircraft, you must know how to deal with asymmetrical thrust. When an engine is lost on an aircraft with asymmetrical thrust, one side of the aircraft becomes dead weight that the good engine has to carry from its position out on a wing. Piloting the aircraft then becomes a difficult job.) If you have taken your check ride on a military aircraft, then you must present flight records or orders to the FAA office proving that you have checked out on an unrestricted aircraft before the FAA will issue you a new license without the restriction.

If you have not been on active flying status within the previous 12 months, the procedure for obtaining the commercial license and instrument rating will take more time and money. You must:

  • Hold an FAA medical certificate appropriate to the pilot certificate you seek.

  • Show documentation that you were a rated military pilot before the beginning of the 12 months before the month in which you are applying for the license.

  • Have an endorsement from a flight instructor 60 days before application.

  • Pass the appropriate flight test.

  • Completed three takeoffs and landings to a full stop within the last 90 days.

  • Completed six hours of instrument flying and six instrument approaches within the
Once you have received the commercial license and instrument rating and are current, you should complete the Right Engineer written exam or rating. Ninety-four percent of all pilots hired by the major airlines in 1988 had the flight engineer written exam or rating.

If you are considering taking the written exam, there are two types. The "FEX" is a combined comprehensive exam consisting of 80 questions. The second type consists of two individual exams, a separate exam for the aircraft portion (turbojet/turboprop/ reciprocating) and a separate exam for the basic portion. The exams contain 40 and 60 questions, respectively. It is recommended that you complete either the combined FEX exam or the two separate exams (basic and turbojet). You also should complete the ATP written exam and rating if you meet the requirements for the license. Seventy-seven percent of all pilots hired by major airlines in 1988 had the ATP rating. Minimum qualifications for the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) license are as follows: 23 years old; 1,500 hours total time; 500 hours cross-country; 100 hours night; 75 hours total instrument, of which 50 must be actual instrument time; and FAA Class I medical.

To get the ATP license, you must take the required FAA written exam, oral exam and practical test. You can prepare for the written exam through a cram course (two to three days), audio/video program, or text course; or you can complete a ground school. The oral exam and flight test are very comprehensive and demanding. Completing a ground school program will better prepare the pilot for the oral exam and practical test.

When To Start Applying to the Airlines

Military pilots should start applying to the airlines at least one year before separation, retirement or terminal leave date. Some companies have been interviewing and offering class dates to pilots still on active duty or terminal leave. In 1989, airlines following this practice included American and Northwest, both offering class dates six months in advance of separation, and Braniff, offering class dates nine months in advance of separation.

Once you have separated or retired from the military, a short period of time when you are not employed is accepted. However, long periods on the ground (two months or longer) are considered a negative factor. Ideally, you should get a flying job, any flying job, and apply to the airlines while you are working. Options to be considered are corporate aviation, regional or commuter airlines, flight instruction, or reserve flying. The most important requirement for your career is to maintain flying currency. If you accept temporary work in a non-aviation environment, you can keep current by flying for fun or part time.

Flight Time Considerations

When you are interviewing, your military flight records will be reviewed to verify the flight times on your employment application. In evaluations of flight time, consideration is given for the type of flying, e.g., fighter pilots get less time than transport pilots but have to handle an aircraft under more trying circumstances.

Some companies will allow military pilots to present flight time with a conversion factor, while others will not. The only way to use the conversion factor accurately and legally is to keep a separate civilian logbook and log each flight block-to-block (includes taxi time). The most commonly used conversion factors are .2 to .3 hours per flight.

Just as airlines vary in their willingness to allow military pilots to use conversion factors, some airlines will let the pilot add flight engineer and simulator time to the total, while others will not. Most flight times asked for on the application are specific and straightforward, e.g., multi-engine, single-engine, jet, etc. However, the following guidelines will be of help in calculating other flight time categories that may not be clear to some.

Pilot-in-Command (PIC): While to the FAA, PIC time is any flying time accumulated while the pilot is in command of the aircraft, some airlines will not accept as PIC time any hours spent as an evaluator or in any position that merely involves observing another pilot's flying. If both pilots are PIC qualified, only one can log PIC time for the flight. PIC time is the same as First Pilot or Aircraft Commander time. Go ahead and list as PIC time all hours logged as first pilot or aircraft commander. In airline interviews, your total time then will be probed to see how it was compiled.

Whenever possible, a military pilot applying for a commercial flying job should use civilian aircraft designations and crew position titles.

Your initial contact with most companies will be with a personnel representative. These professionals usually do not have a military background and may not be familiar with the terms used or with military aircraft designators. So you must use designations which they will recognize. For example, the CT-39 is a Sabreliner, the E-4 is a B-747. Instead of using "patrol plane commander," you should say "pilot-in-command." You should not use Aircraft Commander to convey that 100 percent of your flying time was as pilot-in-command at the controls of the airplane. It would be better to show PIC time and total aircraft commander time separately.
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