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Military Flight Training Pathway to Becoming an Airline Pilot - A Pilot's Perspective

Updated: Oct 23, 2021

Personal Biography: Phillip Smith

I started flying at the age of 15 at the Peter O. Knight Airport in Tampa, FL, earning my Private/Instrument ratings in high school, and then attending college at the US Air Force Academy. While at the Academy, I was an instructor pilot in the glider program. After realizing I wasn’t going to major in Astronautical Engineering, I decided to major in Legal Studies, graduating with a (cough, cough) GPA. Luckily, the Air Force pilot training program does not care what your GPA was in college. Therefore, I was able to start fresh and become a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training program and was selected for the F-15E Strike Eagle.

I was first stationed flying the F-15E operationally out of RAF Lakenheath, UK, where the squadron deployed to the middle east and other garden spots of the world! After two and a half years in the UK, I returned to the US to teach in the F-15E at the schoolhouse in North Carolina. While there, I became the Air Force’s F-15E Airshow Demonstration Team pilot for the 2008 and 2009 airshow season. Having had a blast at airshows for two years, I then decided to continue the fun by deploying to Baghdad, Iraq, for 374 days as an Aide de Camp to the Commanding General in charge of rebuilding the Iraqi Air Force.

After some fun-in-the-sun in Iraq, my next assignment was to fly the F-16 in the arctic of Fairbanks, Alaska, as an aggressor pilot, where I played the enemy role in training. After a few years in Alaska, I jumped from active duty to the Air Force Reserves and was hired by JetSuite flying the Cessna CJ3 under Part 135. Finding out boxes liked my landings more than people, I was then hired by Atlas Air to fly the Boeing 747-400. After approximately nine months at Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines heard I finally learned how to land an airplane and offered me a job, where I have been since December of 2014. I have flown the Boeing 757/767 and now Airbus 319/320/321 at Delta and will be upgrading to Captain in November. In addition to Delta Air Lines, I am still a Reservist in the US Air Force as well as a contract aggressor pilot flying the L-159 for Draken International.

What got you interested in aviation?

When I was a kid, my dad would take my identical twin brother and me to the Tampa International Airport Control Tower, where he worked as an Air Traffic Controller. We would watch the airplanes for hours, and I knew I was meant to be in the air. I also saw the movie Space Camp at a young age and wanted so badly to be an astronaut. I went to Space Camp at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, FL, and the Space Academy in Huntsville, AL, to start on that dream.

Why did you choose the military training pathway?

I chose the military because I wanted the education and experience of the US Air Force Academy; I’m glad that I did it, but Embry Riddle was looking WAY awesome in the middle of basic training. I also wanted to serve. My dad was prior Navy, went off to become an Air Traffic Controller, and then ended his working career as a Deputy for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.

What were the different phases of training?

I was in one of the first T-6A Texan II classes at Moody AFB, GA, when the Air Force started moving away from the T-37 Tweet to the T-6. There were lots of academics and simulators for the first few months of training before touching a real airplane. The first phase of flight training was what the Air Force calls “contact,” which is a fancy word for your private pilot training and basic aerobatics.

After contact, I completed the instrument phase of training. Upon mastering the ILS/LOC approach, it was time to put two airplanes close together in... wait for it…formation phase. I did really well in the contact and instrument phase, but now I was doing something I was taught NOT to do – put two airplanes close together on purpose. After testing my Blue Angel/Thunderbird skills in formation flying, it was time for some low-level navigation training. This was the final phase of T-6 training, and it was time to “track select.” Track select is when you choose your aircraft category track of fighter/bomber, cargo/refueling, helicopters, or C-130s. I selected the fighter track and moved to Columbus Air Force Base, MS, for T-38 training, where I was lucky enough to fly the new glass cockpit T-38C.

What challenges did you encounter during training?

My biggest challenges were the academic tests early on in pilot training. The flying wasn’t the hard part for me. This isn’t me being a cocky prick, I just had 600 flight hours by the time I got to pilot training, and as stated above with college, academics aren’t my forte. I had to learn how to manage my time, study, and graduate as a team in pilot training. I had MAJOR help during study sessions with friends who would explain something to me if I wasn’t getting the bleed system or how a jet engine works, which was HUGE. Cooperate to graduate was going full steam ahead.

Is there anything you would have changed if you could do it all over again?

I would not change my career path. I might choose different assignments, but I’m grateful for the opportunities I have had and the people I have met along this path.

Career after training: What did you do immediately after training?

I flew as much as I could immediately following training for a few months to reinforce what I had learned, hoping that the knowledge would stick around a little bit longer!

What was the transition to civilian flying like?

Going from the fighter pilot world to the Part 135 world was not the easiest transition to make. Learning the automation was also difficult. If I had $5 for every time I said, “What the heck is it doing now?” and clicked off the autopilot to hand fly, I would be a rich man. I had a great sim partner at JetSuite to cage my ego and help my perspective. Dr. Dick Karl, decades-long writer for FLYING MAGAZINE and world-renowned doctor and surgeon, had recently retired from full-time medicine in order to chase his dream of becoming a professional pilot. He could have bought his own Citation Jet, but he wanted to be part of a team. He wanted to be a First Officer like I did; a lavatory cleaning, coffee making, bar stocking, gear throwing First Officer at JetSuite. His mentoring and friendship is how I made it through training, which made my transition to the Part 135 world much easier.

What advice do you have for others?

Aviation is something many will not understand. There are people who just look at aviation as a way to get to meetings. There will also be those in aviation who have been battered by the unforgiving turbulence, furloughs, pay cuts, and worst of all accidents/deaths. Don’t let that deter your path. Stay motivated, stay focused, and if you need it, ASK FOR HELP/ADVICE. Don’t go at this alone. There are thousands of mentors that met the same hurdles you are facing, so don’t be afraid to ask for help and guidance along the way!

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