The Transitioning Military Service Member’s Guide to the Civilian Helicopter Job Market

Note: This story first appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of ROTOR.

The civilian helicopter industry has expanded exponentially in the past few years. This expansion, coupled with the ongoing retirement of Vietnam-era pilots and maintenance personnel, has created numerous opportunities for a new generation of military-trained helicopter pilots and maintenance technicians.

If you have ever worn a uniform in defense of your country, let me thank you for your service. Military pilots and maintainers deserve to be acknowledged for the many thankless jobs they have performed during their careers, as well as for volunteering and serving their country in a time of war. Furthermore, it should also be acknowledged that, because of the current drawdown of U.S. military forces, many quality veterans’ transition out of the service is directed, not voluntary.

Beginning your civilian career can be as simple as visiting a career or industry website, finding a job you like, and applying. However, for some transitioning service members, the job search can be long and frustrating.

Finding that new job isn’t always easy, but your transition into the civilian sector will be easier if you properly prepare. As a transitioning service member myself, I compiled the following tips to help my fellow veterans avoid some missteps in their search for a job in the civilian helicopter industry.

Take a Leap of Faith

One of the greatest obstacles facing transitioning military personnel is the desire for a guaranteed civilian job before leaving the service. By nature, aviators are advance planners. They are reluctant to let go of their familiar, steady job in the military before landing, no pun intended, their next career.

Unfortunately, the military requires that transitioning service members complete their separation paperwork a minimum of nine months before their separation date. Meanwhile, most civilian employers will only consider candidates for positions when they are less than 60 days away from their availability date.

This means that most service members must begin their transition process without the safety net of a guaranteed job, requiring a huge leap of faith on their part. There is not anything that the industry can do to ease this stress, but transitioning service members should be aware of this difference between military and civilian environments.

Establish Priorities

There are many factors that come into play when deciding which job is the right one for you. However, sorting through and ranking them is easier if you first clearly establish your personal and family priorities. Some factors to prioritize when choosing a job are location, money, job security, workload, work schedule, promotion potential, and sense of accomplishment.

Your priorities are just that, yours and yours alone. You may prioritize being near family, while someone else puts location at the bottom of their list and a flexible work schedule at the top. And that’s fine.

Once you have determined those priorities, write them down and continuously refer to them during your job search. When priorities are clear, decisions are much easier.

Make Sure Your Résumé Translates

There’s no getting around it: military and civilian aviation language are different. However, there are many ways in which your military education, training, and experience can translate into real advantages for you and your future employer. A successful transition to the civilian helicopter industry depends on your ability to define those benefits in your résumé, job applications, and interviews.

For example, a good portion of military pilots have little experience flying in the U.S. National Airspace, as most of our missions occurred in foreign lands or during military operations. While those in the civilian helicopter industry appreciate and value our service, the positions they need to fill generally do not include those requirements. However, these same employers may well be looking for skills that are commonly executed during military operations, such as medical evacuation, high-altitude, night-vision goggle use, low-visibility, landing to unimproved surfaces, and firefighting, to name a few.

Take a thorough look at your résumé. Have you translated your military experiences so that someone without a military background can understand the training, skills, and experience you bring to a civilian position?

In general, use civilian terms in your résumé when applicable. Avoid using military acronyms or terms; use plain English instead. For example, instead of using pilot or PI, use second in command or SIC. Do not use PCS or permanent change of station; use transferred. You were not deployed; you were temporarily assigned. You didn’t belong to a battalion or squadron; you were part of an organization that was responsible for ... You get the idea.

This is an area where a fresh set of eyes may be useful. Most base transition offices offer résumé review services; be proactive and make an appointment. If that is not an option, ask the opinion of someone you respect and trust. When you receive feedback, check your pride at the door and listen to their concerns — these reviewers are just trying to help.

Stop Selling Yourself Short

When applying for civilian positions, service members often see themselves as a pilot or a mechanic. This line of thinking is counterproductive. In reality, the leadership experience and professional schooling that you received during your military career are extremely valuable skills to bring to your new job.

Many companies are not only in need of pilots and maintenance personnel, but they also need people to fill leadership roles as well. Being a leader is what the military trained us to do; we do it inherently and instinctively every day. Make sure your résumé includes your leadership experience and professional schooling, and be prepared to discuss how these enhance your qualifications.

Network, Network, Network

The key to finding employment in the civilian helicopter industry is to get out there and meet people. Go to events like the annual HAI HELI-EXPO® trade show, Heli-Success, or any of the field events for helicopter aviation that are held all over the country. If you are interested in a specific sector, such as helicopter air ambulance, then go to related events, such as the Air Medical Transport Conference.

Another great place to start your networking is at the Military to Civilian Workshop at HAI HELI-EXPO. The workshop is free and covers everything from networking to résumé to the way you dress. Former military members who are now in the civilian industry also drop in and talk about their transition experiences. These mentors range from line pilots to chief pilots, directors of aviation, and the occasional CEO.

Another way to network is to visit a local company you are interested in and just talk to the people who work there. And don’t forget to connect with your military peers who have already made the transition.

The helicopter industry is full of nice, welcoming people. If you are unsure of what to talk about, remember that you all have one thing in common: a love for aviation.

Review Civilian Regulations

As part of the process of transitioning to a civilian aviation career, begin thinking like the civilian aviation professional you want to be. Many transitioning applicants fail to do their homework and do not review relevant FAA regulations, such as the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) and Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM). When you show up for an interview without a basic understanding of these, you’re effectively telling the interviewer that you are not serious about the job.

A lack of familiarity with civilian regulations can also hurt your job search. For example, many aviators think that military pilot in command (PIC) time is logged exactly the same as civilian PIC time. It’s not; see FAR 61.51, Pilot Logbooks. In this case, not knowing the FAA regulations may cause you to think that your hours do not qualify you for a job when you are actually fully qualified.

Learn the Culture

Make an effort to learn the culture and language of your potential employer and the civilian helicopter industry. This will minimize the risk of realizing too late that your new position isn’t a good fit for you. This is another area where networking with future colleagues and attending civilian industry events will pay off.

Many people in the civilian industry never served in the military. In the case of pilots, this means they acquired their flight time and ratings by working two jobs or by sweeping out hangers and washing aircraft for free, just for an hour of flight time here and there. Civilian maintenance technicians had to pay for their training out of pocket. Respect their backgrounds, training, and passion for aviation, just as you want them to respect yours.

When you do begin your civilian job, get to know the culture of your new organization before trying to change it. You may realize that the world doesn’t need changing, but rather you do. Establish a reputation for being flexible and open to new ideas.

Get a Medical Exam

Most transitioning aviators are unsure of how to get an FAA medical examination and whether they will qualify for a Class 1 or Class 2 medical rating. If you have a current military flight physical, then you are a safe bet to get at least an FAA Class 2 rating, which will qualify you for most major helicopter jobs. You can use the search tool at to find an aviation medical examiner.

The FAA medical examination was a major stress point for me. After 25 years of military service, I have developed a few medical issues requiring annually reviewed waivers. While I am professionally qualified for most jobs in the helicopter industry, I was unsure if I could actually obtain an FAA medical rating.

A week after I decided to retire, I went to the most well-known aviation medical examiner in my area. I sent him all my records beforehand. After I showed up to his office, I sat in the waiting room for an hour or two while he talked to the FAA about my situation.

In the end, I received my FAA Class 1 rating and a large weight off my shoulders. This scenario isn’t going to be the same for everyone, but I do want you to know that there is hope, even if you have a few major medical waivers in your file.

Your First Job Is Just the First Step

View your initial job in the civilian aviation industry as the entry-level job that it is. Like the military, just because you start at the bottom doesn’t mean you will be there forever. Helicopter aviation is a relatively small industry. If your boss thinks you are a diligent, competent employee who can be counted on, the word will quickly spread. And so will the opportunities.

Remember, the helicopter industry is a close-knit community: don’t burn any bridges during your career search or, for that matter, during employment. Just because a company cannot hire you today, it doesn’t mean they or someone they know will not be able to hire you in the future.

Be Master of Your Destiny

As you can see, you must proactively plan for your postmilitary career. This does not mean you should discard your current hopes for promotion or career advancement within the military. Keep doing what you are doing. However, start working on plan B, your backup plan, while you have time and the security of your military paycheck. While you are at it, go ahead and come up with plans C, D, and even E. Don’t wait for the pink slip to show up and then decide to start planning.

I know too many military personnel who failed to plan for a future outside of the military. When their situation changed, they entered a state of shock and confusion. As the author Napoleon Hill wrote, “You are the master of your destiny.“ Be proactive and take charge of your future, and you will be better off.

Your Civilian Career Is Waiting

So after 25 years of service, why have I decided to retire from the military? My current job is great, but an assessment of my personal and professional aspirations reveals that I have achieved and surpassed every goal that I set for myself when I joined the military. Is this true for you?

Review your personal and professional goals, and then decide what is right for you and your family. When the time is right to transition out of the military, the civilian helicopter industry will be waiting for you.