Plane Answers: Civilian vs. military pilot — which one is better?

Nathanial asks:

Hi Kent,

My dad has been an airline pilot for a major carrier for over 25 years and also fly’s the 757/767, he was also a naval aviator for 10 years before that. He talks about the difference in pilots that were trained in the military vs. the civilian trained pilots. I want to know if you can tell right away who is an ex-military pilot or not? Is there a difference in flying styles? Is one better than the other?

Also, I currently attend College at Syracuse University. To get home for holidays and breaks if I want to use my non-rev passes, I have to take a 50 seat RJ to a larger airport and then connect. However, during the winter my mother has prohibited me from doing so after the accident in Buffalo last year. In the winter she makes me buy a seat on an Airbus that a low cost carrier flies out of Syracuse to JFK, where I connect with my dad’s airline.

Is it safer to fly on a larger aircraft in the winter…especially in a climate as harsh as Syracuse can get?

Thanks for the great blog… it has provided some well needed study breaks. Keep up the good work!

There has always been a debate over which background, civilian or military, turns out the better pilot for an airline. But it’s impossible to get an unbiased view from a pilot since he or she will likely claim their path to the airlines was superior. Civilian trained pilots may argue that a fighter pilot is at a disadvantage since they’ve never flown as part of a crew at an airline. And military pilots may claim that a civilian pilots training is more of an unknown to a perspective airline.
I personally come from a civilian background. If I were to do the hiring at an airline I would insist on an even mix of pilots from civilian and military ranks since both bring a different set of experiences to the company.

In the cockpit, rarely does the subject of military or civilian training come up while we are working together. We’re simply there to do the job in a professional manner with a focus on safety, passenger comfort, efficiency, and on-time performance. And we usually like to have fun doing it. But neither pilot group has a monopoly on professionalism.

I honestly can’t tell if I’m flying with a military trained pilot or civilian pilot when I go to work with someone I haven’t flown with before. Navy pilots are teased about their crosswind landing capabilities, since crosswinds aren’t generally an issue when landing on an aircraft carrier, but I haven’t seen any difference in techniques.

As in any occupation, it’s the approach a person takes to the job that’s important. I’ve seen civilian and military pilots who are professional, talented, detail-oriented, and above all, safe. And I’ve seen examples of pilots who were no longer motivated to learn, were weak in the simulator or who were selective in their procedural compliance. But these examples weren’t exclusive to military or civilian pilots.

Some of the best pilots I work with came to work for their airline without a chip on their shoulder and they were ready to learn from pilots of varying backgrounds.

In the future the vast majority of pilots will come from the civilian ranks, and airlines will become more adept at determining which flight schools and regional airlines can turn out the sharpest pilots.

I can understand your mom’s concern with smaller regional jets and turboprops. Contrary to media reports, the vast majority of regional airline pilots, even the co-pilots, now have over 3000 hours of flight time under their belts. And since the Syracuse to JFK route has either Canadair Regional Jets or Airbus A320’s icing isn’t as big of an issue with the higher flying jets. Statistically speaking, she should be far more concerned if you were ever to consider driving from Syracuse to the JFK Airport.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answer’s Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.