Would you feel safer if you knew the person flying your plane came from a military background? You can’t exactly go into the cockpit and ask your airline pilots for their resumes. But how much does it really matter? In fact, the similarities between the Air Force and civilian aviation might surprise you. We’ll look into the challenges and successes both careers face, and answer that burning question for you, too.
True or false: Military pilots make more than civilian ones.
False. Commercial pilots earn more in salary
There’s no beating around the bush: Commercial pilots do make more money than Air Force, especially with bonuses. That said, the military has tried to bridge the gap, in recent years. Both fields acknowledge the challenges their pilots face, and want them to receive fair compensation for them.
In 2017, Congress increased peak aviation incentive pay for those who have 14 years of service or more. That rate rose from $840 a month to $1,000. It also raised the ceiling on pilot retention bonuses, from $25,000 a year to $35,000. That increase intends to keep enough pilots at each level, especially as service increases.
True or false: The military offers pilots more exciting opportunities.
True. Civilian pilots do not drop many weapons
One military pilot weighed in on an airline questions forum. “There are many reasons that people join the AF and be a pilot,” he said. “I’ve had the chance to fly at 500 feet and 0.9 Mach, supersonic, drop weapons, air refuel, and do many other things you just don’t get to do outside the military.” That said, he does plan to work in commercial airlines after he retires from the Air Force. The Air Force itself uses that excitement as a selling point.
“We’re emphasizing the value proposition in the Air Force,” said Brig. Gen. Michael Koscheski, director of the Air Force Aircrew Crisis Task Force. “Money is a factor but it’s not the factor, because people join to do amazing things, work with amazing people and with the world’s greatest technology, and live a life that matters.” He added that the military has “cornered the market” on those benefits, and it wants to compensate pilots accordingly.
True or false: Women sit in the cockpit in equal numbers to men.
False. A huge gender gap still exists today
In the Air Force, women first entered pilot training in 1976, navigator training in 1977, and fighter pilot training in 1993. While many women do go through training and become Air Force pilots, men still outnumber them.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, just 4.4% of all pilots licensed to fly a commercial U.S. jetliner in 2016 were women. That number has barely moved since 2007, when women held 3.8% of those licenses. Nina Anderson, a former pilot at Command Airways in New York, said she thinks it has to do with preconceptions. “I think the stigma is still there, especially with young girls, that if you are going to go work in the airlines, you are going to be a flight attendant.”
True or false: The cockpit itself feels like a boys’ club.
False. Even with low numbers, women enjoy equal footing
Fortunately for women who do choose to become pilots, the aviation industry does compensate them equally. Airlines set pay scales according to union contracts, and advancement comes via seniority.
“I would say 98% of the men I flew with were respectful,” said Erika Armstrong, who flew 727s for Northwest Airlines during the 2000s. “I never had a problem with them, and the other 2% were going to be jerks no matter what.”
True or false: Both commercial and Air Force pilots’ work-life balance suffers.
True. Pilots have a hard time finding balance
Several female commercial pilots and other industry professionals said work-life balance suffers, for a variety of reasons. Continued gender assumptions ranks high, as does the huge time commitment in training and flying professionally. Both men and women who have left the Air Force said similar issues affect their work. In exit surveys, some pilots have pointed to cultural issues that affect their quality of life. Some of those include “dissatisfaction with excessive duties unrelated to flying and inability to maintain work-life balance,” said a report.
In addition, airlines have far from standardized benefits and rules related to maternity leave and breast pumping aboard the planes. While those have improved over the last decade or so, some pilots would like more relaxed rules. “I think the industry and the airlines could look at their family leave options,” said Chad Kendall, chief instructor at the Jacksonville University School of Aviation in Florida. “If they look at the need for women to provide support for their children … it’s hard to do when you are flying an airplane all the time. Those types of work rules or support, I think, would make it easier.”
True or false: Commercial airlines suffer from similar pilot shortages.
True. Tightening regulations have led to fewer pilots, period
A recent Congressional Research Service report said the a steep rise in commercial airline hiring comes partially from industry expansion. Fleets of commercial aircraft will double in size over the next 20 years. Over the past three years alone, many major airlines have raised pilot salaries by 20% to fill cockpits. In addition, up to 40% of commercial pilots will hit the mandatory retirement age of 65 in the next 10 years.
A 2010 law also rose hiring standards for airlines, requiring 1,500 logged flight hours just to qualify for an Airline Transport Pilot Certificate. That put a premium on the experience of military pilots. By the time they complete their initial 10-year service obligation, military pilots often do reach that standard. That draws pilots away from the military with higher salaries and sometimes, better work-life balance.
True or false: More pilots fly in the Air Force than civilian planes.
False. The Air Force suffers a serious shortage of flyers
An Air Force pilot shortage hit 2,000 in 2017. Because of the commercial airlines hiring boom, both industries have struggled to fill seats but the Air Force remains hardest hit. “This is a unique period because [multiple] things have happened, all about the same time,” said Koscheski. “This also is a long-term problem, really a national pilot crisis. Airlines, especially regionals, are running short of pilots as well.”
That military branch, for its part, has continued brainstorming ways to address the issue. For the long term, the Air Force intends to widen its pilot training pipeline by 25% to address stiffening competition. How that will play out depends on a lot of factors, but both the military and commercial airlines will need to scramble to keep planes in the air, over the next few years.
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