A Transition Journey: From the Army to Piedmont Airlines

Every rotor-to-airline transition journey is unique, with its own specific challenges, decisions, and pathways. Mine is no different, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer. There is however, a common denominator that MUST be a part of every successful journey, and that is the importance of understanding how a given RTP pathway differs from another, how the regional & airline industry works, doing your due diligence, and purposefully quantifying exactly what each choice will cost you. These are not separate actions, but a single interconnected view you must have of your new career choice.

My “Army-to-Piedmont” story begins in 2014, having been denied an IPC slot due to the sequestration and government shutdown that hit right as I was going to WOAC. Although I was grateful that I was allowed to complete the IP specific course track despite my IPC being pulled, I could see the writing on the wall. The promotions that year were brutal, and I could see how things were shaping up. I began hitting the helicopter forums, going to the HeliSuccess conventions, Heliexpo, and other industry job fairs and events.

For the next 2 years, I learned that the civilian helicopter industry is very fickle.Despite being approached by many companies, nothing was opening up at the time. Sure enough, after 10 years of service I was forced out in 2016, and after 2 years of applying, a helicopter job was simply just not meant to be for my life. This was a hard pill to swallow. I loved flying Blackhawks, and I was proud to have served with many great soldiers I call my friends. To all of my fellow Army pilots: (virtually all of them are here now!) I miss you each and every day.

I ended up doing odd jobs for friends, being unemployed, doing charity work, volunteering, doing construction contracting, being unemployed again (having a baby in-between!), living off savings, and sometimes collecting benefits. It was a very rough 15 months. Of course through this time, I kept applying for helicopter jobs, seeking interviews, and yet no doors were opening. God had other plans, I just never received the memo. In August 2017, I got a Facebook invite from Erik Sabiston (an old acquaintance from our flight school days at Rucker!) to come join an online group of rotary pilots transitioning to the airlines. I was wary. I had been a fixed wing pilot before joining the Army, and I was “definitely” not interested. But Erik persisted, and called me. I will never forget his first words: “Brother, you HAVE to join the airlines!” I had no idea of the industry crunch that was coming, the rotary transition programs available, the signing bonuses, or the light on the horizon. But Erik patiently explained that this was simply “the opportunity of a lifetime, for pilots in our generation.”

For the next 3 solid months, I spent virtually all day researching RTP programs, regional life, how airlines worked, and read countless articles and reports on the industry. I signed up for ALL the forums out there, spoke with every airline pilot I knew, and diligently compared each option. Ultimately, weighing and quantifying each decision against gaining seniority at a major airline (most other variables were inconsequential for our family), I decided that Piedmont, with the guaranteed flow to American Airlines, was the right choice for me. I interviewed 7 November 2018, was hired immediately, and started with Infinity Flight Group in Trenton, NJ 3 weeks later.

I cannot speak highly enough about Infinity, and a 5-Star review does not do them justice. I highly recommend them for ANY flight training, and for anyone thinking about a transition, they should be seriously considered. I completed my fixed wing training very quickly through the winter, with few delays, and took my CMEL checkride 42 days later utilizing Piedmont training funds. There I met a lot of other RTP students, some utilizing the Mercer Community College GI Bill program, and several of the Infinity instructors are Piedmont pilots now.

From there I was on to ATP-CTP, INDOC, Ground School & Systems, simulator training, checkrides, and lots of studying! I received my ATP and ERJ-145 type rating 15 October, 2018. Every training timeline is different, and I would definitely say that I was purposefully not rushing through the courses. I specifically asked for several delays to buy a house, complete our family move, attend weddings, etc. Other fellow students I trained with have already been flying the line for a while, and friends I know at other airlines hired at the same time are still sitting on reserve, so I would clarify that INDIVIDUAL RTP EXPERIENCES WILL VARY! 

A word of critical advice to anyone attempting a transition: Talk to those in front of you, and keep in touch regularly. I personally struggled a lot with the (new to me) airline training mentality, the amount of self-guided-study, and the fixed wing concepts that can only be overcome with an extensive jet flying background. Those at the company, and fellow pilots in my class were a HUGE asset, with group study sessions, conference calls, and airline specific info. My class had a high percentage of RTP students, and yet because we all pulled together, the company saw some of the highest test passing rates of any new hire and systems classes.

For anyone coming behind, I would highly advise you to keep in touch with those ahead in the pipeline, so you know what to expect, how to study, any problem areas, checkride formats, and company procedures. I never found any attitude of hostility towards rotor transition student or new hires. But it was incumbent upon us to prove ourselves with a good attitude, diligence, and a willingness to learn. I think even the former corporate/part 135 pilots in our class felt appreciated when we went to them with jet flying questions!

Remember that airline training and flying is VERY different from anything you have ever experienced. Sometimes it can be challenging understanding the logic of why certain procedures have been developed, or why training is conducted in a given manner. I would say that information is power. Get as much information about your airline as you can, thoroughly understand your training department, ask questions about the instructor’s expectations, and thoroughly inquire about anything you do not understand, no matter how small. Often in the military we are left to kind of figure it out ourselves. The airline is more than willing to help you, and steer you in the right direction because (SURPRISE!!) they actually WANT you to be successful. Probably because they are paying for it….

Keep a humble attitude. Ask for help. Put in the long hours of study & preparation. Network with those ahead of you. But above all else: DO YOUR DUE DILIGENCE!

Things out there are changing at a very rapid pace, and programs, pay rates, domiciles, bonuses, and opportunities are developing virtually daily. What works for you may not necessarily be the right answer for someone else. What worked for you 4 months ago may no longer be the wisest choice. But in the world of airline flying, seniority, pay scales, and age 65 retirement, every choice is definitely quantifiable. Do the math, weigh your decisions, chart out your goals, and there will surely be some great options for you out there.

As Erik said: “You HAVE to join the airlines!”

- Bruce West

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RTAG is a Veteran run 501(c)(3) non profit organization designed to help all veterans, regardless of experience, jumpstart their post military career in the world of aviation.

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