How to Become a Pilot: Exploring Civilian and Military Paths

Ever wanted to become a pilot? This post shows you the paths available and which one might be for you!

How to Become a Pilot: Exploring Civilian and Military Paths

Have you ever felt like your life wasn’t exciting enough or you just weren’t living up to the childhood dreams you set for yourself? Maybe you feel unfulfilled and need a new challenge in life. Well, many people sign up for a half marathon or take some cooking classes to spice up their life.

Or you can do what I did: quit your job and go try to become a pilot without any prior flying experience!

Still feel too comfortable in your decision? Quit your job, join the military, and then maybe become a pilot due to the strict medical standards you only find out about after commissioning! Now we’re talking.

But why would you want to become a pilot in the first place? And how do you know if the civilian or military route is right for you? Let’s dig in.

Why Become a Pilot?

Starting my journey to earning my wings (aviation-speak for your flying bachelor’s degree) was one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life: In a couple quick years I went from zero exposure to the aviation world to now checking the weather forecast every couple hours and having Flightradar24 on my home screen.

But there have also been many positive outcomes! I’ve made new friends, developed highly technical and problem-solving skills and lived in many locations that I never thought I would (and hopefully never will again… Kingsville, TX). Additionally, with a median salary of $150,000 and an unemployment rate of less than 3%, the financial benefits are just the cherry on top.

Almost one-fifth of all Americans have never flown on a commercial aircraft, and an even smaller number (1%) of Americans even have their private pilot’s license. Crazy!

I want to show you it’s easier than you think to take to the skies and trade that desk in your office for one that’s at 30,000 feet.

What Is a Pilot’s Job?

The role of a pilot encompasses a wide range of responsibilities and can vary significantly based on several factors, including the type of aircraft, the geographical location, whether it's in a civilian or military context, and other elements.

I like to break pilot careers into two groups for simplicity: civilian and military. Both can fly a wide range of missions and aircraft and both have their unique job description.

Civilian Pilots

In the civilian sector, pilots can be found steering everything from massive commercial airliners to nimble private jets, or even maneuvering helicopters for various purposes.

Commercial airline pilots are responsible for transporting passengers and cargo on scheduled routes, often working for major airlines. This role demands strict adherence to safety regulations and exceptional interpersonal skills for interacting with crew and passengers.

This guy shows you how much fun the airlines can be.

Private pilots, on the other hand, may fly smaller personal aircraft for business or leisure travel. Their job often requires more flexibility in scheduling and routes.

Helicopter pilots in the civilian world engage in a range of activities, from medical evacuations and search and rescue operations to aerial photography and news reporting.

Military Pilots

Military pilots operate aircraft for defense and tactical missions. These pilots might fly fighter jets, large transport aircraft, or helicopters.

Fighter pilots (think Top Gun) are trained for aerial combat and often participate in reconnaissance and precision strike missions.

Transport pilots in the military handle the logistics of moving troops and supplies, requiring skills in navigating various terrains and weather conditions. These were the C-17s helping to evacuate civilians out of Afghanistan in 2021.

Military helicopter pilots are seen in every service but most notably in the Navy for hunting submarines and ship-based cargo delivery and in the Army and Marine Corps for attack and troop/cargo delivery.

Pay to Fly: The Civilian Path

The path to getting paid to fly civilian starts with the foundational step of obtaining your Private Pilot License (PPL). Aspiring pilots must be at least 17, proficient in English, and pass a medical exam to ensure they're as fit as a fiddle. Ground school lays the theoretical groundwork, and then it's off to accumulate at least 40 hours of flight time. This includes solo flights, which are essentially the "trust falls" of aviation. Passing both written and practical FAA exams is your ticket to the next level.

Next up on this aerial ladder is acquiring an Instrument Rating, crucial for navigating those cloudy days and starry nights. Then, it's time for the big leagues: the Commercial Pilot License (CPL). You'll need to be 18, have more advanced flight training, and pass tougher exams. During this time pilots gather experience through jobs like flight instructing or banner towing - think of it as paying your dues, but at 5,000 feet.

The final boss in the commercial game is the Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL), the golden ticket to the cockpit of a commercial airline. You'll need a whopping 1,500 flight hours, pass the ATPL theory exams, and even time with advanced flight simulators. Different types of professional flying might require you to seek out specific type ratings: multi-engine, seaplane, etc. in order to have the qualifications to fly different aircraft.

I know what you’re thinking, all the training cannotbe cheap! And you’d be correct… the path to becoming a commercial airline pilot in the USA is estimated at over $100,000 USD!

There has to be a better way…

Get Paid to Fly: Military Aviation

Or sell your soul to fly… same thing.

Military aviation has a much higher barrier to entry than the civilian world and it’s for one massive reason: you have to join the military. I know, crazy.

Which means you’ll have to commission (through OCS, ROTC, or the Naval Academy) and therefore commit to some amount of years in the military—I don’t even know if i’ll want to be in the military in 4 years…

However, once you earn a commission, get accepted into the aviation pipeline, and successfully pass the medical screening (which is way more restrictive than a civilian flight physical) you’ll be ready to start your military flight training, which I think is the best flight training you can get.

Regardless of which branch you pursue, you’ll get a pretty similar curriculum: ground school basics in aerodynamics, introductory Cessna flight time, fixed wing time in a military aircraft like the T6B (UPT for Air Force or Primary for Navy and Marines), and then finally aircraft specific training in a jet, helicopter, or large fixed wing aircraft. Or… time in multiple platforms if you fly the Osprey—something you can definitely only fly in the military!

Once you complete this military flight school you’ll earn your wings: silver for Air Force and Army and gold for Navy and Marine Corps.

And then the fun begins. In the military, you’re kind of always in flight school. Whether it’s learning to stall a Cessna for the first time or learning to launch hellfire missiles from a Cobra attack helicopter or getting your section lead qualification in an F18, there is always something to be working towards. And that’s what makes military aviation so unique, nowhere else in the industry is the flying just the foot in the door. Getting airborne in a P8 Poseidon is just step one, locating and tracking submarines is the entire reason you’re airborne and that adds a whole additional layer of piloting.

The best part of all? You get paid to do all of it. So not only are you not spending over $100,000, you’re actually getting paid a substantial amount to do all that training and more!

So… Ibiza or the Ike?

Civilian aviation offers the freedom of choice and a more direct route to the cockpit. Self-funded, self-paced, and relatively straightforward. But let's not ignore the turbulence: the financial burden can be hefty, and the journey, albeit more flexible, requires significant personal investment and commitment. You're the captain of your destiny here, but the cost of fueling that dream is steep.

On the other hand, military aviation presents an opportunity wrapped in discipline and duty. The costs are covered, and the training is top-notch. You're signing up for more than just flying lessons; you're enlisting for an all-encompassing lifestyle where the stakes are as real as they get. The commitment is deep, and the path is rigid, but the rewards?

So, where do you land in this airspace of choices? Civilian skies promise personal autonomy at a financial cost, while military routes offer a structured path with a commitment to service. Both journeys lead to the captain’s seat, but the choice of aircraft and route depends on what you value more: financial and personal freedom or structured training with a sense of duty.

I'm eager to hear your thoughts – what path sounds right for you? Let me know in the comments or shoot me an email!