So You Want to Become an Airline Pilot? The Military Route.

I wrote this article for Airways Magazine as a follow on to Captain Mark Berry’s article, So You Want to Be An Airline Pilot. Airways decided not to publish it, but I do think there is some good info so here you go.

So You Want to Become an Airline Pilot? The Military

“Before you get to sell what we teach you over at United Airlines, got to give the Navy six years of your life, sweet pea. Lots of things can happen in six years. Another war…”
Lou Gossett Jr. in Officer and a Gentleman

phantom on the ball cv 41

I often get asked how to become a Naval Aviator. It’s not as simple an answer as you might think. Here are the options for USN Naval Aviator alone: Naval Academy, NROTC, OCS, Retread and a multitude of programs that have come and gone over the years.

I’m an aviation geek I suppose. I had a career as a Naval Aviator, flew as a Test Pilot and now I’m a 777 First Officer for a major airline. I’ve flown cargo, corporate and still have my CFI/II/MEI. I write books, screenplays, articles (obviously) and have been a technical advisor in Hollywood. All aviation based. I stay in touch with many aspects in the world of aviation, especially the military side because all four of my kids have been, or are currently, in a program I will describe in this article.

First, a Gut-Check: the military route means on average a ten year commitment (it was 6 when the quoted movie was made). Many of those years will be deployed, and on some of those deployments you can expect to get shot at. The pipeline is very competitive. You may still owe the sponsoring branch years of service even if you don’t get your wings. Then there is the dreaded threat of drones accompanied by the most feared phrase in military service: “The needs of the (insert- Army, Navy, USAF, USMC or USCG here).”

RF-4 soot down

As Captain Berry asked in his civilian route article; “Are you still here?”

I will attempt to keep this general, informative and as accurate as possible. But first a WARNING. Things change, rapidly. Always get the most updated information from an Aviation Officer Recruiter and get it in writing. Never sign on a promise; if it’s not in the contract, it does not exist. Period.

Still here?

Okay; strap in. Before we cover specific routes to those coveted wings, we will discuss in a bit more detail the Gut-Check paragraph and what to expect in military aviation in general.

1. You are an Officer (Warrant Officer) first and foremost. Depending on service you can expect to have a ground job and lead troops.

2. You will be evaluated mostly as an Officer, not an aviator. “Does he play well with the other children and listen to the teacher?” Back in my day (BIMD) there was one block for aviation skills on an Officers Fitness Report.

3. Your performance as an Officer will directly determine follow on orders; like to Top Gun, Test Pilot School, or a tour in Adak Alaska counting trees (hint there are none). And remember, you owe ten years.

4. What can you expect from each service? Deployment!


a. Army Helicopters– Expect to spend months in a tent in some third World s—t-hole (TWSH), eating m-rats and getting shot at, mortared and bored to death. Standing duty, and reading a lot of very frustrating rules of engagement (ROE) that seem specifically designed to get you killed.
b. Navy (Jets/Helos/Maritime/Tilt-Rotor)- Expect to spend months on board USS Boat (except maritime…unless you get a ships company follow on tour), paying for bad food, standing watch, getting shot at while flying over the same TWSH with the same ridiculous ROE. And being bored, a lot. Oh yes, paper work. A lot of awards, evals, and general de-forestation required to take care of 150 sailors and their careers. Coast Guard is pretty much the same except over shallow water 😉
c. USAF (Fighters/Cargo/Tankers/Tilt Rotor/Helos)- Expect to spend months deployed, eating better food, staying in better quarters, but flying over the same TWSH with the same ROE, the same paper jungle and remember you will be getting shot at. An additional item, the most feared word in military aviation, DRONE. They have a bunch of them. Of late, due to recruitment/retention issues, this may become a specialized field, however be forewarned.
d. USMC (Jets/Helos/C-130/Tilt Rotor)- All Marines Are INFANTRY Officers. Period. After commissioning, all USMC Second Lieutenants will go to The Basic School (TBS) which is Infantry Officer training and lasts 6 months. Then flight school. Marines get to do all the above; tents, boats, quarters, bad food, and paper work. In/over the same TWSH, with same idiotic ROE, and same bullets. Additionally, however, remember all Marines are Infantry Officers, and all Forward Air Controllers (FACs) are Aviators, do the math.

5. ALL TRAINING TIME IS DEAD TIME. Say again? Translation, you will owe 8 years after USN/USMC/USCG training and 9 after USAF and Army. It takes on average 2 years to train a Naval Aviator (USMC/USCG and USN pilots are all Naval Aviators), 1 year for USAF/Army which adds up for everyone to around 10. Training time for TBS, OCS, delays, flight school, etc. does not count. Only post-winging time counts.

6. Basic Requirements.
a. A 4 year college degree (exception Army Warrant).
b. Flight Physical (eyesight req’s vary).
c. Flight aptitude, general knowledge test.
d. Physical fitness test.

7. An aviation contract is not necessarily a pilot contract. If your eyes go bad, you could end up in the back seat (USMC does have a pilot contract and Army has no back seaters).
Okay, we’ve talked prelims and requirements. We haven’t even gotten near an aircraft and won’t until we’ve met said requirements, applied, been accepted and completed a commissioning source. A Service Academy, Reserve Officer Training Course, Officer Candidate School (USAF/TFOT) or Warrant Officer School (preceded by boot camp). Let’s break down how we even get that far.
a. Active Duty (AD) for all services- You can go generally one of three routes: an Academy, ROTC or directly to OCS after graduation from college (Warrant does not require a 4 year degree). The Marines can split OCS over summers while in college (PLC) or do it all at once (OCS). I went through NROTC at Missouri after graduating high school, upon graduation from MU I was commissioned an Ensign. Having already applied and been accepted for flight school, I was on my way (after a 4 month delay at the Pentagon…dead time). My youngest son is currently in Quantico at USMC TBS. Obligation for AD is 10 years of full time service (approx.).
b. Air National Guard (ANG), National Guard (NG), Reserve (RESV)– All used to be a very good deal, flying clubs, the whole “War On Terror thing” screwed that up, yes they deploy just like AD, a lot. The Guard usually likes a pilot candidate to enlist and come internally from the organization. This can actually be an asset, especially if you do it right out of high school. It’s a great way to get your college paid for, a fantastic part time job and depending on the State you can get some civilian flight training paid for. My middle son was a Technical Sergeant (E-6) in the ANG, he was commissioned this summer and is currently learning to fly the T-6A Texan at Laughlin AFB. After that, Tulsa to learn to fly the KC-135 Stratotanker and then back to his unit . “Needs of the ANG”; it can work for you too, if a unit needs a pilot they will hire off the street. The Army Guard (Aviation) is very similar. The biggest difference with the Army in general is the Warrant Officer program. A Commissioned Officer can be helicopter qualified, however he is considered an Army Officer and may only do one tour in the cockpit. A Warrant is a Pilot, he/she can stay in the cockpit for 30 years, Reserve, Guard or AD. My daughter is applying for a Warrant position in the National Guard. Obligation for ANG/NG/RESV is ten years, the amount of full time varies wildly unit to unit and by aircraft type. It can be as little as a year, or quite a bit more.

Competition for all these programs is fierce. “Timing is everything”; another term you will learn to hate, unless yours is good. If an organization needs fifty candidates and twenty apply (meeting basic req’s), guess what? They all go. But if they only need two pilots…

USMC F-35s

Before you get to strap on that F-35, you still have to earn it. So how does the training/competition work? Pretty much the same for all services. You will start with ground school and a short intro course of 15 hours in a Cessna (unless you have a private pilot license). An important side note: you are not a paying customer, you are getting a shot at those wings, nothing more. Many will fall to the side along the way, you have to stay focused and on task. Each element completed is merely an invitation to the next.

RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- The T-6A Texan II is phasing out the aging T-37 fleet throughout Air Education and Training Command. (Air Force photo by Master Sgt. David Richards)

RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas — The T-6A Texan II is phasing out the aging T-37 fleet throughout Air Education and Training Command. (Air Force photo by Master Sgt. David Richards)

1. Primary- (USN/USMC/USCG/USAF) all fly the T-6A/B Texan II. A turbo prop with 1,100 shaft horse power, capable of 300+ knots indicated (280 cruise), +7 gs -3.5, basically an updated P-51 Mustang. You will learn basic flight skills, instruments, aerobatics, and formation flying. Everything is graded. Upon completion, you select: jets, maritime, tilt rotor, E-2/C-2, E-6A or helos for USN students. Helos or multiengine for USCG. Jets, C-130, tilt rotor or helo for USMC. The USAF splits between fighters and heavies. Army is all helicopters (first tour) and students go directly to the TH-67 Creek (Bell Jet Ranger) in Fort Rucker.

navy jetranger

2. Intermediate- (USN/USMC/USCG) Students will split into four pipelines (for simplicity); jets, helos, multiengine, tilt rotor (USCG helos and multiengine only). USAF doesn’t have an intermediate they split between fighters and heavies going on to advanced. Naval Aviator’s: Jets will go to the T-45 Goshawk and learn how to fly it, multiengine goes to the T-44/TC-12 (twin engine Beech, Queen Air/King Air), tilt rotor and Helo go to the TH-57 (Bell Jet Ranger). Helo and multiengine learn crew coordination.

080604-N-2798I-083 KINGSVILLE, Texas (June 4, 2008) T-45A Goshawks training aircraft cruise together during a recent training flight over the skies of South Texas. The T-45 is a twin-seat, single-engine jet trainer and is the only aircraft in the Navy's inventory used specifically for training pilots to land aboard aircraft carriers.  U.S. Navy photo by Lt. j.g. John A. Ivancic (Released)

KINGSVILLE, Texas (June 4, 2008) T-45A Goshawks training aircraft cruise together during a recent training flight over the skies of South Texas. The T-45 is a twin-seat, single-engine jet trainer and is the only aircraft in the Navy’s inventory used specifically for training pilots to land aboard aircraft carriers. U.S. Navy photo by Lt. j.g. John A. Ivancic (Released)


3. Advanced- Jet (USMC/USN) having learned how to fly a jet in Intermediate, Jet Students will now learn how to employ it as a weapon. Tactical formation, weapons delivery (rockets+bombs), air combat (dog fighting) and then they will go out to the ship solo and get ten carrier arrested landings and catapults.
Advanced- multiengine and helos (USN/USMC/USCG) hone skills and add tactics in the advanced stage, while tilt rotor and E-2/C-2 go to the T-44 to learn multi-engine (E-2/C-2 does intermediate in the T-45, Tilt rotor in the TH-57). Advanced- heavies (USAF) puts student pilots directly into the T-1A Jayhawk a twin engine biz-jet for advanced heavy training, teaching the aircraft under a crew concept. Advanced-fighter (USAF) the T-38 Talon is used for fighter training, it is similar to USN/USMC intermediate jet training. Advanced- helos (Army) teaches tactical employment of helicopters in the UH-72 Lakota.


USAF uses Fighter Lead-in to teach students tactical employment of jets, after winging, flying the F-5. Army goes straight to helos, which is why both have a shorter time to wings (and a longer obligated service).
Remember “timing is everything”? It still cuts both ways. Competition in flight school is a knife fight. BIMD most students wanted jets, you had to compete for jet grades, but if during the week you selected, the “Needs of the Navy”, were for 10 jet slots and only nine guys were in the class…everyone got jets. By the same token you could be in an extremely strong class the next week, all the students better than the number one guy the week prior and there are no jet slots…too bad, so sad. There is no fair!
The Guard, and Reserves are an exception because you are hired by a specific squadron, so you know what airplane you are flying. Which is why Guard/Reserve units are very selective up front and prefer their candidates have prior civilian flight time. Regardless of whether timing worked for, or against, your individual desires, you have to hack the program you are in. Not everybody gets a trophy.


There you stand with shiny wings of gold or silver, now what? Six months to a year learning your Fleet/Line aircraft and how to employ it tactically. Finally you arrive at your Fleet/Line squadron. All trained up and ready to rage like Maverick, one man against the world right? Nope. As a fighter guy you will join up and shut up. Training starts all over as a wingman, then section lead, if you don’t screw that up you will get a division lead qual. Strike lead is a second tour qual. You will also get qualified in weapons and tactics in the real world. Tankers or Cargo? 3P, 2P and after a check that makes an ATP pale by comparison, Transport Aircraft Commander (TAC). Helos, have a similar progression to Helicopter Aircraft Commander (HAC). In both you will learn formation and the specific tactics/mission for your platform.

rocket fire


That is not hyperbole, after my first catapult shot it ruined roller coasters forever. They just couldn’t compare. Watching the sun set over the North Arabian Sea, while oil tankers burnt on the surface is indescribable. A fire fight from 24,000 feet is morbidly captivating, even when it is turned toward you. Military pilots, see things that change them, forever. The incredibly beautiful and horrific.

flight over oil fields

F-4 on government time

For active duty you normally do a three year tour flying in harm’s way on deployments. Then? Well it depends on: needs of your service, your performance and what is happening in the world. I retired from the Navy having never been out of a cockpit (except that first few months of dead time). And keep in mind, rolling off that first tour you will still owe 4-5 years of obligated service.

What you can also count on when your obligation is up, is 2000-2500 hours of jet or turbine time. Much more if you went heavies. You will also have a proven record of getting through one of the toughest syllabuses on the planet. For Guard and Reserve? Well you get your cake and can eat it too. Military can be hired with 750 hours under FAR Part-117 (civilian must have 1,500 unless you graduated from a Part-141 school, then it is 1,000), there is a pilot shortage now, and it will soon be critical.

There is one more way to get your flight training courtesy of Uncle Sam. The GI Bill, my oldest son served with the 10th Mountain Infantry Division, in Iraq. He used the GI Bill to take flight lessons. It has to be an FAR Part-141 approved school and the benefits vary state to State, but it certainly is a viable route to the airlines via the military.
Seniority in the airlines is everything. A single year could mean spending most of your career in the Captain seat instead of the First Officer’s. Was the delay worth it to me? Without hesitation I’d say yes.

This is a no BS, over generalization, and as I warned earlier, could already be OBE (Overcome By Events, we love acronyms in the military). If this life style is for you, talk to someone in person whose “been there done that”, and then an Officer Recruiter.

KC-135 and B-52

Positioning a B-52 behind a KC-135 on a moonless night, to transfer fuel, or hovering a Blackhawk in a brown out punctuated by the streaks of tracer fire, or banging a fighter on and off a carrier with a 200 foot overcast, at night; is not for the faint of heart. Do I miss it? Only when I breathe, I would not have passed it up for all the tea in China or 25 years in the left seat of a Wide Body flying to Paris.



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2 comments on “So You Want to Become an Airline Pilot? The Military Route.
  1. Sean Cooney says:

    Mr. Shanle’s article is a must read for the budding aviator with many options. Great reality check for those who are researching this. Ditto the portion about getting guarantees in writing!!! Military aviation, not to mention being an Naval Officer is not for the faint of heart….yes lots of paperwork in this “paperless” Navy!!! Regardless one has to really want this.
    Hope they eventually publish this.