A common question between pilots in an airliner, especially on day 1 of a trip with someone new, is “Where did you start?” We all want to know the past experiences of the pilot next to us. If his (see note below) background is civilian, usually he followed this path: desire to fly/leave current job; learn to fly/earn pilot ratings (e.g. private pilot, instrument pilot, etc.); earn instructor ratings; build flight time as a flight instructor; fly small cargo planes, fly for a regional airline, or fly for a corporate airline (e.g. NetJets or XOjet); build flight time as a captain; get hired by a major airline. There’s more detail here.
Military pilots also have an arduous path, but as you might guess it’s different. The most noticeable difference is pay; civilians must pay for their training and then earn meager salaries while teaching and building flight time. Military pilots get paid to train and earn decent salaries while building flight time. Here’s the path for a Navy fighter pilot: want to fly/join the Navy; earn a bachelor’s degree; get a commission (this could be at the Naval Academy, Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps, or Officer Candidate School); select aviation; pass Initial Flight Screening (or: how Navy says “get a private pilot rating”); attend aviation preflight indoctrination; pass primary flight school; earn a slot in the Strike (i.e. jet) pipeline; pass the jet program, and in the process make your first carrier landings and earn your wings of gold; go through the fleet replacement training; join the fleet as a fighter pilot; fly for years gaining experience and skill. Two good overviews of this route are here and here.
This is a long process. After receiving a bachelor’s degree, a student in the Strike syllabus needs about two years to earn his wings. His eight year service commitment to the Navy starts afterward. Thus, a new officer who goes into Navy flight school can expect to stay in the Navy for ten years after graduation; most of those years will be spent in the cockpit. By the time he is eligible to leave the Navy, he is well qualified by temperament, trustworthiness and experience to become an airline pilot.
At that point he has a choice to make – stay in or get out? His first opportunity to join the airlines comes very late compared to a civilian’s. This is the most important drawback to the military route. Here’s why: pilots at major airlines are unionized; they are organized in seniority order by date of hire. It is a pilot’s seniority that determines his ability to choose the airplanes and bases that best suit his needs. A pilot hired by a major in his 20s will be a “bottom feeder” while he’s young, but by the time he’s middle aged he will have good seniority and a rewarding career. A pilot hired in his 30s has lesser career prospects in comparison; he usually won’t get better choices until his 40s.
Some Navy pilots see this and stay in the service until military retirement after 20 years of service, and then join the airlines very late; it’s not so bad for these pilots, as their military retirement benefits (money, health care and other privileges) offset their late starts in the airlines.
This post has only addressed the somewhat measurable differences in money outcomes between the two routes. The military life has the added feature/bug of being more fun/attracting more enemy fire. Some pilots see the bug as a feature, assuming it misses. There’s no way to quantify that so I didn’t address it. I will only say that flying in the Navy was a lot of fun – a quantum leap more fun than flying in the airlines.
Bottom line: civilian pilots, in general, pay a steeper initial price in money but have a better chance at starting young at a major airline; military pilots don’t pay such a high price initially but do miss out on some opportunities as they get older, but they can offset some of this by serving for 20 years and augmenting their airline salaries with retirement money.
Note: using the masculine pronoun for the sake of convenience. I have flown with many fine female pilots.