Flight school has the reputation of being the place where military aviation careers begin and end. Naval aviation students go through a few months of grueling training — classes, sims, routine flights, and check rides, and those who master it all get those coveted gold wings pounded on their chests. Those who return to flight school as flight instructors often aren’t driven by earning so much as exiting a military career and looking ahead to civilian employment, whether that is a contracted job working the simulators, a gig in the airlines, or something completely unrelated. Sure, a flight instructor tour seems like a natural fit for someone about to retire or drop their papers. It’s all the perks of flight school (no deploying, minimal time spent actually at work) and none of the flight school stressors (the students do most of the flight planning, and the instructors certainly are not competing with each other to be at the top of the class).
Not every flight instructor returns to flight school hoping to ride off into the sunset, though. Some intend to return to the fleet after three or so years of instructing, but that’s the exception, not the norm. Ever wondered why?
Why Flight Instructor Tours Shouldn’t Clip Wings
There is an incredibly insulting saying about teachers, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” You’ve probably heard that and rolled your eyes right along with the rest of us, but let it really sink in. If that were true, it would mean we aren’t taught by the best of the best; we’re taught by the ones who couldn’t hack it. Now, picture yourself sitting on aircraft — F-18, jumbo jet, helicopter tour of the Hawaiian islands, you choose — would you rather your pilot have learned from the tip of the sword or the bottom of the barrel?
In Radical Candor, Kim Scott talks about the game-changing difference between U.S. pilot training and German pilot training during World War II. The U.S. Air Force plucked some of the best pilots from combat and sent them home on rotation to train new recruits. The Germans started to fall from the top of the leaderboard in the sky “because they flew all their aces until they were shot down.” Those pilots never trained their successors; they never shared what they knew to give new recruits a leg up. In fact, according to an article by Wing Commander Dean Andrew of the Royal Air Force, German pilots who displayed “insufficient skill or aggression became flying instructors.” That is the “those who can’t, teach” philosophy brought to life.
Based on what we know about the outcome of World War II, it seems that the practice of rotating the top pilots back through training commands as instructors worked out pretty well. In theory, that is still how the system works today. Winged pilots can go from fleet to instructor to fleet, most likely with a B billet and maybe a school slot peppered in there somewhere, but that certainly isn’t the mindset in the pilot community.
Perks of Mid-Career Flight Instruction
A mindset is a tough thing to change, especially in a community that is fueled by competition. But, the aviation community runs on something else, too — camaraderie. So, let the mindset shift start here.
Choosing to be a flight instructor at the end of your military career is a great idea — show what you know, then ride off into the sunset knowing you set the next generation of aviators up for success. Torch equals passed. In the process, you can focus on your transition into the civilian world without worrying about a deployment getting in the way (although that random IA is always a possibility). Embrace the more flexible schedule and spend much-needed time with family. Travel. Decide where you really want to put down roots.
Likewise, choosing to be a flight instructor in the middle of your career can also be a good idea, and it is not a career killer if you don’t let it be one. It’s not the traditional route, but it’s possible, especially with the current pilot retention incentives. Three years in a flight instructor tour is perfect respite from the fast pace of fleet life without sticking a pilot behind a desk (because nobody is happy in the house when a pilot isn’t flying). Enjoy the flexible schedule and extra time available for family, free of six-month interruptions. It can be the perfect setting for military families with young kids.
If your pilot is interested in instructing, look into it! Have conversations, ask questions so you have all the facts going into the flight instructor tour (but remember, things are constantly evolving, so keep asking questions), and stay in touch with people in the community. You don’t have to flee the fleet forever, it’s just a stop along the way of a long career in aviation — one that lets you pay it forward.
Photo Credits: MKB Photography | Kristi Stolzenberg
References: Radical Candor | Strategic Culture in the Luftwaffe — Did it Exist in World War II and Has it Transitioned into the Air Force?