Two primary educational and training routes are open to the pilot: civilian or military.
Let's assume for the moment that your career goal is a seat with a major airline. What are your options for education, training and experience?
Such airlines as Delta, American and Northwest still prefer military pilots and hire primarily from the pool of ex-military aviators. Even so, you should opt for flying with a branch of the military only if you desire a military career as such. The military flying option is a slower route to the major airlines today. If you want to be a military pilot, fine; if what you want is to be an airline pilot, you can get there quicker as a civilian-and quick is good. It locks up your seniority position sooner.
With thousands of civilian-trained airline pilots having proved the worth of civilian career channels, some airline recruiters actually prefer the flexibility of civil aviation. If a civilian candidate is offered a job, two-weeks' notice can be given to the current employer, whereas a military pilot must complete his service obligation. The biggest factor, however, is supply and demand: The supply of pilots separating from military service cannot keep pace with commercial pilot demand; pilots with civil flying backgrounds are now filling the majority of openings with major airlines.
Those civil backgrounds are highly varied. There are numerous avenues to a seat with a major airline.
A natural career channel was established by Northwest Airlines not only by sponsoring the ab initio program with NATCO and the University of North Dakota, but also by moving to set up with Express Airlines I (the airline subsidiary of Phoenix Airlines Services, Inc. in Atlanta) a "track system" for pilots. Under this program, still developmental in late 1989, a pilot hired by Express Airlines I, which feeds Northwest Airlines at such large hubs as Memphis and Minneapolis/St. Paul, was to be given a Northwest Airlines seniority number so that if he later was chosen as a pilot by Northwest, he already would have begun building his time under Northwest's pay, benefits and promotion schemes. This track system was to operate both independently of and in conjunction with the ab initio program; that is, a good student coming out of the University of North Dakota program would be able to take a job with Express Airlines I immediately upon graduating, but the regional airline would not be restricted, of course, to these students in filling its pilot needs.
Other early track programs were those at Pan Am/Pan Am Express and Continental/Continental Express. These were not acting in conjunction with an ab initio program.
Both programs, however, assigned a major airline seniority number to pilots hired by the regional/commuter carriers (the number being awarded after probation). The regional establishing a track system with Pan Am was Ransome Airlines, bought by Pan Am and utilized as Pan Am Express. The regionals having track systems with Continental were Britt Airways and Rocky Mountain Airways, both bought by Texas Air and used as Continental Express. Continental refers to its regional airline track system as its Pilot Development Program. "Farm system" is another term for a track program.
The advantage of such career tracks for the regional airlines is stabilization of the pilot corps; for the majors, the advantage is in having pilots tied into a maturity program that will enlarge the supply of quality jet airline pilot candidates.
It should be noted that some regionals have grown so big that they have become in effect "pilot feeders" for their major partners as well as passenger feeders. Pilots with Fresno, Calif.-based WestAir can work their way up through several turboprop types into the British Aerospace BAe 146 turbojet, and from there to a seat with a major airline, often United. Pilots with Seattle, Wash.-based Horizon Airlines stand in a similar relation to national carrier Alaska (the two airlines, Alaska and Horizon, are owned by the same holding company).
is a technical FAA piloting term, referring to the move up from one aircraft type to another, but it also has been applied to a kind of program initiated by TWA and FlightSafety International. The so-called transition program provides yet another avenue from zero time to an airline job. TWA and FlightSafety designed their program to move graduates of college aviation schools from a green student state to the status of a qualified Fairchild Metro first officer. As with the other programs, the good student pilot is made ready for a regional/commuter airline job, not for a seat with a major or national airline. The pilot then gains his or her turbine time and Part 135 or 121 flying experience while working for the regional airline.
Ab initio, transition and track programs keep popping up, and these can be expected to play an increasing role in pilot supply for the majors.