Choosing when to jump ship

With current airline hiring (and the military ops tempo), “Should I jump ship and go to the airlines?” is discussed frequently in online forums, at the squadron bar, over pizza with the bros. Unfortunately, there is not a universal yes / no answer. The answer is always preceded by “If your priority is (fill in the blank)…” It’s a decision that every pilot has to make for himself / herself based on personal priorities and situation. Our best advice: BE INTENTIONAL.

A lot of military pilots come through our doors for ATP training; they are at all stages of military careers and each with a reason for going to the airlines. I love talking to the pilots who decided to separate based on something they want on the other side – improved family life, a new job, better opportunities. These pilots have loved flying for the military but are ready to take the next step and are excited about the future.

The stories that are hard to hear are those who are jumping ship because they can’t stand the ship anymore. The pilots who were so busy and overworked, they didn’t stop to consider another option until 13-15 years into their career…and then they regret not transitioning at the 10-year point. Or the pilots who stuck it out until 20 because of the military retirement but didn’t know about the guard/reserve options. Or the pilots who waited until they couldn’t take another day of the flying squadron environment and then started the year-long transition process. One of our instructors tells young pilots who are trying to decide whether or not to stay past their initial pilot training commitment: “Leave before you hate the F-15.” On your last day, I hope you say “It was a good ride,” and not “Thank goodness that’s over.”

Being intentional about your future takes some time and some soul searching. It’s easy to stay busy dealing with the nearest threat (upgrade, running a squadron, deploy/spin up/repeat) and never get around to it, but make time to think through and plan out your future, so that in 5 and 10 and 20 years, you are where you want to be. Educate yourself on airline and military lifestyle/pay/opportunities/mission/security; at the moment, there is an abundance of information out there – networks, fellow pilots who have transitioned, transition assistance companies (the ones we’ve partnered with provide great write-ups on the good and bad of the airlines – checkout ECIC, Checkedandset, Cockpit2Cockpit, TPN). Then look at the factors that are the most important to you based on your goals, consider the pros and cons, and leave when it makes sense for you. Don’t chase money and be disappointed by the straight-and-level airline flying. Don’t feel obligated to stay for 20 and spend 7 years hating every minute of the crazy ops tempo. Don’t wait until year 15 and then realize you’ve missed out on potential seniority/earnings because you didn’t take the time to consider your options earlier.

And then once you’ve made your intentional decision, MAKE A PLAN. If you decide to stay in the military for now but plan to fly for the airlines at some point, read Cockpit2Cockpit to set yourself up for success. And get your logbook in order. And get ahead – the CTP and ATP never expire and have no currency requirements; you can knock out the training at any time.

If you decide to transition to the airlines, then it’s time to get busy building your plan. To figure out what to include in your plan, do some research – join The Pilot Network to hear about hiring windows / job fairs / the latest hiring trends; read Cockpit2Cockpit for transition gouge and helpful transition checklists; call us here at MIL2ATP to ask questions about training and preparation.

You will need to allow at least a year to complete training, prep your app, and get ready to interview, so start building your transition schedule at least 18 months before you want to start with an airline. The process is a lot less painful if you avoid the I-woke-up-this-morning-and-decided-to-go-to-the-airlines-tomorrow route. Training fills up early (our Mil-to-Airlines Course is currently booking up 6-9 months out), so if you want to be able to train when/where you want, planning ahead is crucial.

So if you find yourself asking the question “When should I transition?”, don’t stop at bar talk or scrolling through others’ answers on Facebook; make time to define your goals and educate yourself on the options. Then make an intentional decision and create a game plan.