What are the differences between military pilots and commercial pilots in terms of flying skill and experience?

Let's see what Randy Duncan, an experienced commercial pilot, has got to share with us today:


I come from the civilian side and I don’t have any military experience. I’m also going to answer in terms of airline flying in the United States. I don’t evaluate pilots professionally but I do fly with new copilots.

As a long time airline pilot, I have chosen to fly a 737 for most of my career. Most new copilots start out in a 737 at our company so I get a lot of exposure to new folks and it’s one of things I enjoy about the job.

I’m guessing that about 75% of our new hires come from a civilian background and the remaining 25% are retired military.

Randy Gordon (Airline Pilot, Boeing 737, One of the U.S. majors.)

The military folks have been trained by the military for the military. They get broad pilot training at first but then become very specialized in single seat aircraft, crewed aircraft, multi engine aircraft or helicopters. They often spend their entire career in this specialized environment and they get very good at it. Military training seems to be thorough and specialized.

Civilian training is highly varied. They may come from formal flight schools or just join a club and hire and instructor and learn to fly. They often have flown several kinds of missions including being a flight instructor, corporate pilot or regional pilot. Most are involved in transportation but I’ve flown with a few who were crop dusters at some point in their career. Their training can be quite good or kind of mediocre. My own training wasn’t very good because I was broke but I still had to pass the exams and checkrides just like everyone else. That doesn’t mean I’m just as good as a well trained pilot, just that I meet the same standards.


The military folks have some very interesting and often applicable experience to the airline job. Many have flown large aircraft with big crews into challenging situations. These folks have a pretty easy transition to an airline job. The military has embraced more enlightened management practices and junior pilots are now taught to be assertive and firm with their ship commander or seniors. In the old days, the top down management style of the military led to a lot of unsafe practices in the airlines. Thankfully, that’s over. The folks who flew single seat fighters have interesting and challenging experiences but they often did not translate well in airline operations. In the past, these folks tended be insular and poor communicators and had little experience in crew management. They also came from a community with a high opinion of itself and some of them took it to heart. Think of Maverick vs. Neil Armstrong. The airline is looking for Armstrong; quiet, unassuming, humble, orderly, thoughtful and appreciative of their subordinates. Many fighter pilots did not have these qualities in the past. Nowadays, I routinely fly with retired fighter pilots and they’ve changed dramatically. They are much more likely to have much better human interaction and most make the cultural shift very successfully. The military folks usually don’t have as many hours in the air as a civilian but it’s not by choice, the military doesn’t fly as much but when they do, they are often involved in challenging missions. In fact, most Air Force pilots only fly around 15 hours a month. Most military pilots have not spent a lot of time going into a NYC airport on a snowy, windy afternoon at 7PM. It is incredibly busy and their airbase was never anything like that. I kind of enjoy watching them learn the ropes and get comfortable with controllers barking instructions and lots of traffic around while keeping up with their own aviating and navigating. They quickly get good at seeing the big picture and anticipating what’s going to happen next but it’s often a new experience. Most military pilots have very good experience and I like flying with them. They have really interesting stories from their previous life.

Civilian pilots usually come to us with previous airline experience. Many were regional jet captains and they are steeped in airline procedures and culture. They understand how the airline works, what’s important to the airline and are very willing to adopt the airline policies and procedures. They have a very easy transition and mature quickly. Some come from corporate aviation and they may not have a lot of experience in very dense and busy cities but many do. They transition quite easily. Their experience is very broad and they’re very good at abnormal operations and diversions. They are good at changing plans on a moments notice because they were always flying into different unknown airports on their trips.


I can’t really tell a difference between the two groups. It’s such an individual thing and some people are just plain better pilots than others (and me!). I think it has to do with intelligence, trainability and attitude. Those qualities are among both groups and I can’t say that one group has more than another.

In fact, I have a very hard time telling if a pilot has come from a military or civilian background until they tell me. I can sometimes pickup some military jargon in their speech but not often. Both groups do a great job in my opinion. I will note that our airline has made a fundamental change in their hiring practices. 15 years ago, they hired very experienced pilots but they’ve greatly reduced the experience requirements and now screen for trainability, intelligence, mental stability, assertiveness and lots of fuzzy qualities. I don’t know exactly how they do it but I have noticed a big improvement in the quality of the new copilots. (It could also be that I’m old and in decline!)