What It’s Really Like Going From Flying Air Force F-15s To Airline 737s

A veteran F-15E pilot on the challenges and rewards of leaving decades of combat squadron life for the airlines.

byJamie Hunter| PUBLISHED Nov 10, 2022 3:18 PM
What It’s Really Like Going From Flying Air Force F-15s To Airline 737s
Jamie Hunter
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Retiring from the military after a long career can be extremely daunting. The military is a way of life, it controls your life, to a certain extent; there’s family time for sure, but a military life is regimented — it is essentially planned for you. Separating from the military or retiring is a major point in life for anyone with a career in the armed forces. The civilian outside world is a very different place, with its own, very new, set of challenges.

For one U.S. Air Force veteran, leaving the service after 21 years, 19 of which were spent flying the Boeing F-15E Strike Eagle, it was all about it being the right time to move on. Lt. Col. (Ret.) Bill Wooten retired from the USAF in early 2022. Now, he has traded the cockpit of the Strike Eagle for that of a Boeing 737 airliner. “One of the strangest things has been introducing myself as Bill. For 20 years I’ve been known as “Wild,” my callsign in the Air Force,” he told The War Zone.

Bill Wooten with an F-15E during his time as commander of the 492nd Fighter Squadron. Jamie Hunter

“I spent 19 years in the Strike Eagle; that’s a long time to be in one community in the Air Force. I think the hardest thing for me since retiring — and for most guys that have flown fighter jets for a long time — is missing the flying.” 

“People used to ask me what it’s like flying the Strike Eagle. The first time I had to describe it I think I said something like ‘it’s awesome,’ or something like that. I then actually thought about it, and so the next time someone asked me I explained that I didn’t really think about actually flying the F-15, I actually just thought about employing it. It’s all about how I’m going to target, how I’m going to get to the target, what tactics are going to be used, all those things. You never talk about how you’re going to take off or land the jet, or how the ride’s going to be if there are bumps and turbulence. In my new airline world, that’s all we talk about! It’s such a different philosophy.”

Wooten’s 19 years in the Strike Eagle included operational test flying in Florida and Nevada. He says the pinnacle of his USAF career was when he commanded the 492nd Fighter Squadron “Bolars” at RAF Lakenheath in England. “I could have done that job two or three times over,” Wooten says. “I loved teaching the young guys how to employ the jet and get the most out of it.”

Aircrew assigned to the 492nd Fighter Squadron depart their aircraft to reunite with friends and family at RAF Lakenheath, England, in October 2020. The 492nd FS had just returned from a six-month deployment in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jessi Monte

Having completed his command tour, Wooten took a job as the Deputy Group Commander of the 53rd Test and Evaluation Group at Nellis Air Force Base, in Las Vegas, Nevada. It would be his final role before retiring from the military. Wooten’s wife remains in the USAF and is a senior maintenance officer. “Her still being active-duty at Nellis means I do still hear about events that are going on, but if it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t hear about any Air Force events. I know the Weapons School graduation is coming up, it’s the right time of year, but I don’t know any of the details. It’s amazing how quickly you fall out of the loop. It’s definitely up to you to stay involved.”

Events like the U.S. Air Force Weapons School graduation ceremony at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, provide an opportunity for retired graduates like Wooten to keep in the Air Force loop, to some extent, at least. U.S. Air Force Photo by Airman 1st Class Dwane R. Young

Wooten left the Air Force and went straight into a job as a 737 pilot for a major U.S. airline. “After my command tour at Lakenheath, I got selected to be a colonel. I’d have had to go to war school in Washington, D.C., or Alabama for a year, then I’d have probably picked up a staff job for two years. For me, I just knew it was time to retire and stop moving around for my kids, so I actually asked for the deputy commander job at Nellis. It meant I could go back to flying the Strike Eagle with the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron, my old Nellis operational test unit, while my wife concentrated on her busy role at Nellis.”

“The Air Force will pull as much as it can from you. My advice is that if you know it’s time to leave, get yourself into a less demanding job because getting hired for the airlines is a full-time job in itself with all the applications and the preparation for the interviews. My last months in the Air Force saw me working my 40 hours a week at Nellis, with another 40 hours on the application process. I read a book called Cockpit To Cockpit by Lt. Col. Marc Himelhoch, USAF (Ret.), which includes tips and tricks to help you transition from a military to an airliner cockpit. I didn’t believe what I read until I actually did it!”

The USAF runs a program known as TAP, the Transition Assistance Program. It’s mandated by the Department of Defense that between six months to a year prior to departing the service, the person leaving has to enroll in the program. It’s a tiered program that’s ultimately designed to prepare people for civilian life, how to build a resume, and how to prepare for interviews. “It was an easy tier for me because as a pilot I was applying to the airlines, and furthermore, I was taking courses on my own. But the Air Force does a good job of preparing people to leave. Your commander must let you undertake TAP courses, and to be fair they tend to pull back the throttles on your work pace when they know you’re transitioning out. For me, my last six months were fairly gentlemanly — they did a really good job.”

As might be expected, a job flying the 737 is a world away from the cockpit of the same company’s Strike Eagle. Boeing

“The company, too, has been fantastic. They give you a mentor and they help you through the training, and the simulators, and help prepare you for each phase. I found it incredible that the first time I landed the 737 for real I did it with 200 passengers sitting behind me! My mentor asked me how it was all going. ‘This is so easy,’ I said. He looked at me inquiringly. ‘All I’m doing is flying. Taking off, flying across the country, and landing,’ I replied. I mean, I have coffee sitting in a cup holder. I take off, climb up and at 10,000 feet I can grab a sip of coffee. It’s so, so different from flying a fighter. All you’re doing is thinking about flying and getting your passengers from point A to point B in the safest, most expeditious manner you can and giving them a smooth ride.”

“There’s still so much I still need to learn about the 737’s avionics, making sure I always hit the right switches, getting that new muscle memory. In the Strike Eagle, I was so in tune with the hands on throttle and stick [HOTAS] controls, and whatever the aircraft it just takes a bit of time to get used to it. The biggest change flying-wise is that now I just concentrate on flying the airplane.”

Moving from the military to a big corporate firm also brings with it company politics and things like work unions. In the Air Force, you go where they tell you to go and you do the job they tell you to do. Wooten says it’s very different in the airlines, where if the union decides that the staff will not go to work, then that’s what happens. “That’s really weird to me right now, but I know that it’s ultimately for the betterment of everyone. It’s just new to me and I need to find my role in that.” 

In the cockpit of a Boeing 737. Roman Becker/EyeEm

All the major airlines are currently going through a round of contract negotiations, not just about pay, but also relating to work rules, reporting times, and incentives. “I’ve never been part of a union. I’m currently in my first year with the airline, so I can’t vote on any of this stuff, but I’m watching, listening, and learning all about it, knowing how we are stronger with a bigger voice thanks to the unions.”

Having been in the airline for six months, Wooten is currently sitting as a reserve pilot. This means a pilot can be on an 11-hour call-out to report for duty. The airline also has a two-and-a-half-hour call-out, which means a pilot is acting as a ‘field standby.’ Wooten explains: “I can sit the 11-hour call out at home in Vegas, that gives me plenty of time to get to the Los Angeles airport, where I operate from. If I’m on the shorter call-out duty I need to get closer to LA and wait during my 15-hour shift. But in general, I can be at home, taking the kids to school — it’s a whole different world.”

Pilots in Wooten’s company typically either sit in reserve or hold a line. The latter comes into play as pilots become more senior within the company and they can hold a set schedule, so they know when and where they will fly. But if you’re junior and just starting to hold a line, you tend to get the less appealing schedule — red-eye flights and working weekends. 

Typically, the airline looks for pilots to fly 80 hours per month, which equates to 12 days at work. A pilot sitting reserve typically has 18 shifts per month. Sitting reserve means there’s less certainty, and it makes planning family life more difficult. However, pilots on reserve can bid for their schedules, which means they can bid for certain days to not be on reserve, such as birthdays or major holidays. If a pilot sits reserve and doesn’t get a call, they can also look in the scheduling system and see what’s available to go and fly.

“This month I technically could have held a line as I’m just about senior enough. I’ve only been with the company for six months and there are already 1,200 new pilots that have joined, so I’m already senior enough to hold a line and pick what I want. But chances are holding a line would be a bad deal for me right now, I’d pick up all the weekends and all the holidays. The beauty of the Air Force is that generally when I was home, I was home. Even as a squadron commander I was typically home at weekends and if the USAF had a long holiday weekend, we had a good few days off. As a senior officer, I could easily use my 30 days of leave and disappear for two weeks. My time off typically coincided with family time.

Wooten’s former office, the cockpit of a 492nd Fighter Squadron Strike Eagle. Jamie Hunter

“Nowadays, I’m home all week, so I can run the kids around and support my wife. But, now I don’t know my schedule until 15 days prior to the month. Planning that family vacation or even a road trip is nearly impossible. Once I’ve been with the company for a year I can bid for time off, but summer vacation is probably a complete non-starter as it’s the airline’s busiest time, and even if there is capacity, all the senior guys want that time off. It’s very challenging for a junior pilot to get a vacation. So, overall, I’m around at home more, but not always at the right time.”

Looking back at his career, Wooten says he most misses the squadron life. “I loved having that camaraderie, all working towards that common goal. The mission briefs, standing around the planning table, having those chats, doing the debrief and learning from what we did, then having a beer afterward and hanging out with the squadron. It absolutely does not happen in the airline world in the same way.

On a particular trip, you’ll fly with the same captain, but in your whole time with the company, you may never see that person ever again! You meet an hour prior to the flight, you’ll learn a bit about each other, discuss your interests. That might be a three-day out and back, you’ll have dinner together, things like that, but that’s it. It’s a short-lived relationship. Many of the pilots are ex-military, and we can discuss what we did, what was the latest and greatest, but you just don’t get that same level of camaraderie.”

“I honestly think just talking to the guys on the squadron about what’s going on in their lives, the latest tactic or threat we are working, and for me especially having been in the test world, we talked all the time about the new tech, where we are going with the jet — we talked about that all the time. I miss that a lot! Teaching the young guys/gals and passing on that knowledge and influencing the next generation. Hanging out with people with similar interests and aviation upbringing — I haven’t seen much of that on the outside yet.”

Wooten at the controls of an F-15E over southern England. Jamie Hunter

“I’m going to be moving away from Nellis next summer where I will likely not have any aviators nearby. I’m going to have to adjust my social conversations dramatically as I will likely be living next to a banker, or a guy selling cars. I’ll still need to travel back though for Weapon School graduations and patch nights to keep in contact with good friends. I think it’s definitely on me to make those relationships continue and I hope to maybe contribute somehow with my previous knowledge. I have a lot of airline friends that have side hustles working around the base or helping with different exercises. I think that would be a good way to keep up with everyone too.

“Overall, after transitioning out of the military, I definitely have more family time and love spending much of it with my kids. I am way less stressed and have tons of time to work out. I love all the new opportunities the airlines give me as well as the travel experiences… but my heart will always be in a combat squadron.”

Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com

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