ILLUSTRATION: JOHN T. LEWIS
ILLUSTRATION: JOHN T. LEWIS

Two paths to the cockpit

From your vantage point in the cabin, do you feel most comfortable with a military-trained crew at the helm? Or does it make little difference to you where the front-seat occupants of your business jet cut their aeronautical teeth? It’s one of the long-standing debates in business aviation: Does military training and experience make a candidate more qualified for a civilian flying job?

Some argue that the military’s full-time pace of training and sophisticated aircraft make this question a no-brainer. The steely nerves required for combat flying are just the ticket for handling any potential emergency, they add. So, pick the guys or gals with the silver (Air Force) or gold (Navy) wings on their chests.

The flip side of the argument questions whether military pilots might have it too easy in some critical areas. They’re backed by a massive support infrastructure that assumes responsibility for flight planning, performance calculations, weight-and-balance stipulations, and fuel requirements.

It’s not as if military pilots never learn how to handle all of that. They do. But the argument is that these skills likely atrophy over time from lack of use. Of course, you could say much the same thing about airline pilots. But, as a rule, crews flying business jets have to be far more self-reliant. They’re responsible for flight plans and schedules that can flip on a moment’s notice.

There was a time when you had little choice but to opt for pilots with military background, because the vast majority of career pilots got their start in Uncle Sam’s uniform. During World War II, the U.S. Army Air Forces (it didn’t become the Air Force until 1947) graduated 200,000 pilots, and the Navy also churned out aviators at assembly-line rates. This created an ample supply of flyboys after the shooting stopped.

(As sexist as it was, they were virtually all “boys.” Civilian cockpits didn’t welcome the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots—the WASPs—after the war, even though they had ferried high-performance combat aircraft all around the world. In fact, it has been only within the past year that their sacrifices have been recognized and rules changed to allow WASPs to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.)

Of course, all pilots from “the Big One” retired decades ago. Most Vietnam-era military pilots flew helicopters, so for a long time, it was virtually impossible to land a rotary-wing job if you weren’t ex-military. But now, most of those pilots are also retired. And though the Air Force is now facing a fighter-pilot shortage, the number of ex-military pilots entering business avaition is much smaller than it was some decades ago.

So moving forward, civilian flight schools will be the main suppliers of pilots. These range from mom-and-pop operations to large specialty training organizations such as FlightSafety International. Colleges that specialize in aviation programs such as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Purdue, and the University of North Dakota are also major feeders for the employment pipeline.

One common factor among those—civilian and military—who have made the sacrifices necessary to become professional pilots is a love of flying and a dedication to doing so as safely as possible. The risks involved are obvious, whether people are shooting at you or not. Pilots learn early in their careers that their skill and focus on minimizing every possible risk is what places them at the head of the class.

As the old saying goes, “Superior pilots use superior judgment to avoid all situations requiring their superior skill.”


Mark Phelps, a private pilot, is a longtime BJT contributor and a managing editor at our sister publication, Aviation International News.

Show comments (4)

I live right next to a huge Air Force base and have flown and worked with both civilian and military pilots. One thing that has struck me is that there are outstanding pilots from both streams. Surprisingly there are also lousy pilots from both sources. Also military training has not seemed to keep pilots from having the same kinds of stupid accidents all pilots do. There is a bit of "if I can fly a B1 I can sure fly a Mooney" arrogance too.

Although I'm biased, as a former USAF fighter pilot, it would be hard to deny the value of the $6MM the military says it invests in its pilots. I think many of my military commanders who flew in Vietnam would disagree that "most Vietnam pikots flew helicopters." Personally, I see the benefit of military training in high altitude awareness and knowledge of maneuverability above 40,000 feet, a skill that I don't see taught or exercised at the civilian training centers. Likewise, aerobatic training is invaluable, as the new EASA requirement for new ATP pilots shows. I wouldn't trade military training for any other form. As Manfred Von Richtofen said, "...anything else is rubbish..."

I think the answer is.... it depends. It depends on the person, and it depends on the type of military training and missions the pilot performed. I know two first hand examples of "military trained" pilots whose military training did little to make them great jet pilots. The first flew as a Forward Air Controller (FAQ) in a Bird Dog over Southeast Asia at 1,000' in the 1970's. His military training did not make him a great JET pilot, but his professionalism and dedication did. He's one of the best aviators I've ever known. The other pilot flew large cargo jets for the Air Force and received the 6MM version of jet training. Yet, his fellow pilots flying civilian aircraft always reported him as mediocre at best and he never learned that passengers care about the ride, even though his cargo didn't. Some habits are hard to break. Yes, most military pilots trained to fly jets should have excellent skills because they got really good training, but it's just not that simple.

The article's section on having it "easy" in the aspects mentioned don't hold true for Army helicopter pilots. We are responsible for performance planning, flight planning, fuel requirements, weather, weight and balance calculations, etc. There is no support infrastructure(other than maintenance) for us. For what it's worth.

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