Air Force to Airline

How to do it, was it the right decision and would I recommend it?

I am a former RAF pilot that completed 16 years service in the RAF having flown the Typhoon for 12 years, including operational missions and 5 years as a flight commander. In this article, I wanted to highlight my experiences of the transition, the challenges, my thoughts and some areas that I hope will be useful to other military pilots making the move into “civvie street”.

An RAF Typhoon. Photo copyright courtesy of @this_is_air2air.

Why leave? Given my qualifications and positions held I was doing well as a fighter pilot and Officer but I still left the Service.  Sadly the career path I desired and what we wanted for our family no longer matched the options on offer.  This doesn’t mean I hated military service, in fact quite the opposite especially from a professional perspective.  Had my desired path, instructor bonus and/or flexible pension contributions been available, I may well have stayed.  Given the comfort blanket that military life and employment provides it is a daunting prospect; the change is completely achievable just don’t leave before you’ve achieved everything you want to.

My plan. I intended to retrain and gain my Commercial Pilot License (CPL) with the intent of gaining either an airline job, employment in the Middle East or lateral transfer to RAAF.This led to multiple job applications and interviews – I’m a firm believer in having options. I elected to take a pension option and use the maximum 2 years notice, I notified manning (MOD HR) of my intention to retrain to provide me options but I was open to discussing jobs to stay in.Engaging with HR early is a positive thing (not a career foul) for both parties and may open avenues that previously weren’t available, or known to you. Make sure you leave as many doors open as possible and always leave jobs or job offers in the right way so that you could come back (e.g. The negative effects of the financial crash in 2008 and COVID-19 on the jobs market led to a large numbers of PVR’s and options being rescinded or people rejoining the military).

“The grass isn’t greener it’s just a different shade of green”.

Considerations. The wages on offer in the civilian world are generally better than the military, especially in the Middle East; the biggest difference is you tend to get paid more when either the role or responsibility increases.However, these jobs come with risk in the form of driving and flying standards, or different employment laws – that’s why the wage is higher.Whilst the military wage isn’t as much as in the airlines, the military pension contributions are much more.Note the military pension contribution is approx. 50% of your basic wage verses commercial at 10-15%.However given the higher airline wages, especially as a Captain, you can be tax efficient and top up pension contributions yourself to make up for it.When making your decision look at the full picture to make comparisons valid. Useful questions to ask are: “Where do I want to live? What lifestyle do I want? What am I trying to achieve?”

Research. In relation to which job or airline, in priority order: Job security, roster (= lifestyle) and then wage. It’s definitely worth asking friends that have made the transition for advice and “truth data” e.g. Rosters, contracts, pay-slips but also beware – it’s more common for people to tell you the positives of their job, but less so the negatives.

“What is right for them isn’t necessarily right for you and only you know what’s right for you.”

Re-training. My biggest lesson is only complete the CPL training if you plan to use it. The 14 exams are painful; I allowed 1 year, studying most nights, for the exams and used Bristol Ground School.I have watched others do it in <6 months but it really isn’t recommended.My intent was to use the time, resettlement leave (7 weeks) and Enhanced Learning Credits (ELC) to complete the training; allow 6 weeks for the ground schools and sitting exams.

Flying training. I used Aviation Airways at Oxford and flew the DA-42 aircraft; for the most up to date recommendations I would suggest using page can also tell you everything about the process to gain your CPL form all military back grounds and even civil.The training took 3.5 weeks due to the spring weather.The DA-42 is ideal given the glass cockpit and ease of flying to complete a CPL in just 6 hours plus test. However it will not be easy or feel comfortable due to the limited period of time.But given the military pilot pass rate seen by is approx. 100% it’s definitely achievable. To gain employment with an airline you will need a MCC prior to starting, I’d suggest doing this on a large aircraft sim (B738 or A320).Note you are now required to complete a UP Recovery Training (UPRT) too.

Retraining cost.By using my ELCs combined with resettlement entitlement I was able to gain my Multi-Engine CPL and IR plus MCC for approx. £8000 (now add £2000 for the UPRT).Note this cost will vary depending on FJ, ME or Rotary experience.For those starting from scratch then the total costs are approx. £100-120k depending on the route or school used…. not for the faint hearted.

Job applications. It should not be under estimated how important this phase is and expect to make multiple drafts of your CV, tailoring each to the company you are trying to join.There are significant differences in the use of language and demeanour between military and civilian life. I used Flight Deck Wingman, the service and professionalism shown was second to none. I used the CV, covering letter and Airline Assessment Preparation Course products.I’m sure that had I not done so I wouldn’t have got the job offers I did, especially in the airline industry.

A Flight Deck Wingman Airline Assessment Preparation course in action.

Interview. Whilst you might not have as much relevant experience in the civil sector as others stay positive.Your military background has a breath and wealth of experience that others don’t have and employers will be interested to find out more.Ensure you have researched the company you apply to thoroughly and complete a preparation simulator for an airline selection (a recent MCC is ideal).

“The interview process is a 2 way street, it’s not just for the employer but also for you to see if it’s a company and environment you want to work in.”

Transition. I had a number of job offers and by answering the questions above we were able to figure out what was right for us.I selected the company I did, as I really liked the people and work environment that I saw during selection, it was a profitable and expanding airline with a very good reputation and a meritocracy verses seniority based promotion.The first few months will be difficult mentally and physically, for you and your family, due to the stress of a new work environment and domestic situation, but you will adjust fairly quickly.

Airline life.I really enjoy the job and lifestyle; I work 1-4 days a week (depending on time of year) flying 2 sector days, am normally home most nights and have a lot more time off.It’s great having little to no work contact, other than study, outside of duty hours.Albeit there are some very early starts or late finishes its very manageable.Yes the B737-800 isn’t a Typhoon but it doesn’t need to be as I’d been fortunate enough to complete what I wanted to in my Service career.The airline-working environment is relaxed and very professional with likeminded people (it has to be when you spend up to 13 hours a shift with someone).Its incredibly satisfying creating memories for those we take on holiday.The biggest change has been getting used to what to do in my spare time, not something I had mid week in the RAF.It should be noted that if you move and change job initially it could be a lonely time whilst you adjust and make new friends.

Contingency planning.Always have a backup plan; the civil employment world is definitely more volatile and as such you should have savings to last >6 months in the bank plus other job avenues to pursue…. remember always leave the door open.With respect to the airlines always be able to pay your bills on a First Officer wage.

Was it right?A large part of me wishes my military career had continued but it wasn’t to be.In sum we decided it was worth trying something different to achieve our family and long-term goals.I’m really happy we did, even though I write this article whilst being furloughed due to COVID-19, but this wont be the case for all.In the last 18 months I have gained qualifications and experience in a new area of aviation, which provides another string to my bow.Sometimes you have to take another road to figure out what’s right; but there are pros and cons with everything.

“Don’t be afraid of change but make sure you have a solid plan; ultimately chose the job that’s right for you professionally but more importantly that’s right for your family, always have a back up plan and no regrets.”

Senior First Officer, Sqn Ldr (Rtd)

Major UK airline


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