Despite what you may have heard, you don't have to join the military to become an airline pilot. Times have changed greatly over the last two decades and more than ever, airlines are hiring civilian trained pilots. Of those pilots hired by major US carriers in 2008, a only 28% had military backgrounds. Compare this to 1992 when about 90% had military experience! (Source: Air Inc) Fewer and fewer military pilot appointments, longer commitment times, and the pay difference for a senior military pilot to start over as an airline new hire are resulting in lower numbers of military pilots seeking airline jobs. According to the USAF, the number of active duty pilots staying in the military
has steadily increased over the last decade: In 2000, there
were 4,841 active duty Air Force pilots and in 2010 there were 5,740- a 19% increase. Air Force attrition rates show that 1,280 pilots
left the service in 2007, 525 in 2009 and 240 were expected to leave in 2010, an 81% decline in three years. By 2016, the Air Force will also have less than 1,000 fighter aircraft in
its inventory, which represents only 32% of their 1989 fighter fleet. By comparison, the next cycle of airline hiring is forecast to be one of the biggest with about 40,000
pilots needed over the next decade, according to Louis Smith, president of FltOps.com
So how to you get trained to be one of those pilots?
An aspiring airline pilot can do their flight training and earn their pilot certificates and advanced ratings via these civilian routes:
For those on the career track, you should also know that a degree in aviation is not necessary. However, many do choose to go to an aviation university as the curriculum interests them and they can get college credit for their flight training. There are many 'big name' schools such as Embry Riddle Aeronautical University or the University of North Dakota that offer 4 year degree programs in aviation for around $200,000 but it really doesn't matter what school you attend. Students earn their Private pilot and Commercial pilot certificates (yes- it is technically called a 'pilot certificate' and not a 'pilot license'), Instrument & Multi-engine ratings, and usually their Flight Instructor certificates while doing their degree. Many smaller schools offer aviation degrees as well. The average cost for an aviation degree is about $118,000 (the top end being ERAU Prescott at $282K and the low end being Oklahoma U at $68K). Visit this link for a degree program and cost comparison chart. It's is an excellent resource for what you get by school and what it will cost. To research aviation universities further go to the University Aviation Association website. Upon graduation, a student commonly has about 250-300 hours flight experience going this route, unless they became a flight instructor as part of their degree program and build additional flight hours via teaching new pilots. However, a mere 300 hours is not enough to get an airline job.
For many years several aviation academy programs advertised their affiliations with certain regional carriers as a 'fast track' to an airline career. Mesa Pilot Development, Pan Am Academy, ATP Flight School and the Delta Connection Academy were some big names. Such schools would advertise in Plane & Pilot or Flying magazine each month claiming "We'll make you an airline pilot!" or "Looming Pilot Shortage!". You get the same certificates & ratings at an academy as you would at an aviation university but without the degree. Successful graduates of such academy programs were guaranteed an interview with the academy partner airline(s). This was not a job guarantee but an interview only. Such programs typically cost $50K-$80K. An academy program, or university for that matter, may try to sell you on 'being ready' for when hiring resumes again and that may be in 2012 or 2013. Take anything they say with a grain salt as you must remember that getting students (and their money) is their livelihood.
Lastly, a local flight school or flying club is another route to get all the necessary certificates & ratings. Some airports do not have flying clubs, but it's worth investigating as clubs are often not-for-profit and for their members. They have no overhead or staff to pay, so they are often less costly than flight schools on the same airport. One can typically expect to spend around $30-$35K on their Private & Commercial certificates plus Instrument & Multi-engine ratings if done via the school/club route. A benefit with many clubs is that some their CFIs may have more experience than those at a flight school who has hired their past students with a fresh CFI certificate. Club CFIs may be airline pilots or working professionals who have spent years instructing on the side simply because they enjoy teaching.
On August 2, 2010 the FAA Reauthorization Bill-H.R.5900 was signed into law. A key part of that was provision laid out in the Airline Safety and Pilot Training Improvement Act of 2009
which requires all pilots to have an Airline Transport Pilot/ATP certificate
to be hired at an FAA Part 121 operator (airline) beginning in August of 2013. The minimum flight
experience for this pilot certificate is 1,500 flight hours- up to five times
the flight experience the average bridge program graduates had. There will likely be exemptions for military or specific aviation program graduates (once those programs are approved/instituted) but such exemptions are only in the discussion stages. While this may seem like a lot of flight experience, during the 1990's it was near impossible to get an interview with out at least twice that amount of time. Most came with experience flying small freight or cargo at night in all sorts of weather as well. Minimum flight experience levels required to get a job have varied over the years and during 2000-2007, when many regional airlines were experiencing expansion, the requirements came down as airlines struggled to fill their new hire classes. After the Colgan 3407 crash and subsequent focus in the captains improper control inputs, concerns were raised over airlines hiring pilots with the bare minimum requirements for a commercial pilot certificate, 250 hours. (Renslow had been hired with low time and had 3,379TT at the time of the accident.) This new law is an attempt to mandate more experienced pilots. However, a pilot with no real depth of flight experience in 1,500 flight hours is not much better than a new commercial pilot with 250. This is where the opportunity for a real 'bridge program' lies. Several extra hundred hours flying around in clear skies doing the same thing over and over are not going to better prepare any pilot for an airline job. Hopefully the next step in this regulation will be to address that gap in experience, not just focusing on numbers.