Getting Back in the Game

By: Aaron Hagan

As I cruise into my 50s, it has been interesting to see where my peers and fellow warriors have gone along the way. I’ve lost a few fellow warriors to disease, a few to accidents, and a few to combat along the way. What is fun, however, is seeing a few of my old superiors, contemporaries, and subordinates migrate over to the airline side of the fence after serving their country for 20 to 30 years.

Many of these folks either made plans to transition at some point or at the last minute saw the opportunity for solid second career and made it happen. This article is not for them. This article is for that retiring officer who never really considered the airline gig and made other plans, and is now perhaps having second thoughts on that decision.

First, let me start off by saying I understand how getting offered a six figure salary to run a company or program or do something that seems more “tactical” than flying passengers or boxes from point A to B might be enticing. I’ve had friends and contemporaries offered positions in the oil business, defense contracting, real estate development, software, and host of other fields. Nobody wants to “start over” in their 40s at the bottom of anything, and the idea of leveraging those leadership and decision making skills you’ve honed over two decades is often very appealing. However—when I watch friends dive into the business world, I cannot help but remember Forrest Gump observation after he returned to Alabama after the Vietnam War to chase his friend Bubba’s vision of a shrimping business: “Shrimping is HARD….” Guess what—business is HARD, and sometimes plans don’t go as expected. Many guys are finding out the business world isn’t so much fun, right about the time they realize they haven’t flown any iron the last couple of years.

At some point, every pilot who leaves the military jumps off a financial cliff and takes a pay cut for a period of time. In the early1990s and early 2000s, the first year pay at airline was tough for a captain or major leaving active duty. For a retiring Colonel, it was a tremendous step down. The appeal of migrating over to a 100-150k DoD or business job vice a 50k airline first year salary was obvious. The cut in pay might last for three to five years or more. The industry has changed, however. With the current contracts at most legacies and FDX, SWA, and UPS…second year pay often approaches what many of these non-flying leadership positions offered. Even more importantly, the amount of work and stress is incredibly lower. The upside potential is also higher than in recent years. An FO can make 175-200k at many companies while a captain at a legacy or FedEx may make 250-400k a year. The financial penalty for the leap is much less severe these days.

So—for those of you now taking a second look at this industry, I’ll offer a few suggestions and pointers.

Currency is a problem for many of you. During some of my “Ask Albie Anything” Conference Calls, I’ve had Charle Venema on as a guest. Charlie was the head of hiring at UAL for several years, and will identify himself as “…the SOB who came up with the requirement for 100 hours in the last year….” He goes on to describe how when UAL starting recalling guys who had been our of the cockpit for several years, they saw many of them—previously qualified airline pilots—struggle after the layoff. Because they were already employees, they gave them extra training and they bounced back. The issue is if a new hire had the same kind of struggles, they would have most likely been fired or asked to resign. Charlie never wanted to put the “death mark” on a pilot’s future application by firing him, so they looked for pilots who were current. It wasn’t out of malice—it was to the protect the pilot.

So—Colonel—what do you do when its been 2, 3, or more years since you’ve flown?

When my old friends reach out to me for advice, they usually have two possible solutions:

1. I’m gonna go get my 737 type/ATP to requal….

2. I’m going to go fly a bunch of General Aviation….

The issue with option 1 is it is good, but it still might not be enough. Maybe the head guru at SWA says he’ll interview you, but even if he does you have to pass the interview and you will be at SWA where you will be an FO until you are in your late 50s. If you want SWA…and are happy with that…maybe that angle is enough. The cost of that ATP/Type, however, is on you.

Option 2 often just isn’t enough. GA is cool…but it doesn’t always seem to count much at the majors. They want quality time…and single engine piston time is better than nothing but it doesn’t carry much weight.

So….let me offer option 3. Going to a regional airline for a stint can help you in many ways. First, it gets you qualified again, with an ATP, at no cost to you. Second, the training is usually built around someone coming to their first jet, vice the experience assumed when you show up in training at a major. Some Fighter pilots struggle in their first 121 training at a major if they go direct from active duty. Its not insurmountable, but there are enough differences to create some challenges—including crosswind landings and crew coordination. The regional’s training is built for first timers, and is often better and more complete training than you get at the majors. It won’t hurt you to do this once before you show up at Delta or FedEx. Finally—there is “baggage” with hiring a retired O-6. The unspoken (or articulated) question will be “are you going to be okay being the FO and learning a new gig without being the man for a while?” Most retiring officers do great at this—but a handful don’t. Six to twelve months in the regionals answers the question before its even asked, and indicates you are ready and willing to dive into your new role without drama.

The question I often get is “will the regionals even hire me if I they think I will leave? “ The answer at least for now is a resounding “yes”. The regionals need quality pilots, and they know you will be solid. They’ll amortize their training costs if they get to keep you for even a year or less. Additionally, there is always the chance maybe you’ll like it and stay—and anchor there vice moving on. Case in point—a few years ago I had a retired PAS from Utah go to Skywest. He was perfectly content if nobody ever called to drive to work at SLC and be an RJ captain for 100k a year. His family had non-rev benefits on not only Delta but United, and he liked the people he worked with every day. It would have been a good, low-stress gig for a retired Colonel. Delta came along, however and plucked him up. This was in 2011/12, when things were not nearly as tight as they are now. One old friend went to work for ASA/ExpressJet out of Atlanta after a flying layoff of about 8 years. Less than 10 months later he got hired and is now a 777 FO for FedEx. He will probably make about 200k his second year on the job.

So—what is the biggest barrier to retiring officers doing this? Money and ego are the biggest issues I see.

For money—here’s my take. In 2-3 years you’ll be at parity or better if you make this leap. The longer you wait, the more money on the back end you leave on the table. There is never an easy time to jump. So—jump now and get on with it and you will be closer to getting the dollars back. Grab a W-2 from a friend at the airline and take a look. I don’t know a single DoD project manager or simulator instructor that makes half of what I made last year as a captain. I also bet I have a lot more free time and a lot less stress.

Second—realize that the airline job is a noble profession. We need good people to come over who take pride in doing the job right. The US population doesn’t travel by rail or ferry for most of interstate travel—we fly. We are an aerospace nation. By taking your skills into this market you are continuing our dominance of all things aviation, and you can have pride in being part of that legacy. Additionally, if you still want to shape policy or contribute in the DoD world you can—part time. I have flown with F-22 and F-35 system gurus and experts that did that in their off time when not flying for an airline. The beauty is they they were now getting paid airline dollars and accruing airline seniority while they still helped their nation. Its not a “this or that” decision when you become an airline pilot, but it can be a “this AND that….” if you don’t mind the extra work.

So—if this note gets to you and you want to chat—give me a call. I sell interview prep, but bullshitting about life and this industry is always free. I seem to be doing a lot of that lately with some retired warriors, and if I can help you get some focus please feel free to reach out.