BALPA is the professional association and registered trade union established to represent the interests of all UK pilots
Mark Clayton
Senior First Officer
As long as I can remember I have always wanted to become a pilot. As a child I attended air shows and looking up at those aircraft inspired me. I knew exactly what I wanted to do! Since then I have been lucky enough to fulfil my dreams and as a pilot I’ve enjoyed the extraordinary feeling of freedom and unparalleled views of the world that my job provides.  

Today, I am a civilian airline pilot, qualified to fly the Boeing 737, as a Senior First Officer. But my flying journey didn’t start here.

Fledgling flights

My first voyages into the air were when I was lucky enough to attain a Sixth Form University Scholarship from the RAF. While studying for a degree at Loughborough University I also completed RAF Elementary Flying Training on the Grob Tutor and was assessed as suitable for Fast Jet training. From there my natural path was to join the military.

Her Majesty’s Service 

Immediately after university I undertook RAF Officer Training and then began my Fast Jet Flying Training, firstly on the Tucano followed by the Hawk. As I neared the end of the Hawk Weapons syllabus, I was told I was going to fly the Tornado GR4. Owing to a bottleneck in training on the Tornado, I was told I could expect up to an 18-month wait to begin flying the aircraft. Not wanting to stall with my career progression and with having one eye on my eventual dream to become an airline pilot, I did what most people don’t – I requested a transfer from Fast Jet flying to Multi Engine Training.

Fortunately, the RAF was overborne with Fast Jet pilots at the time and therefore my request was granted and I started Multi Engine Training the very next week! This flew by (quite literally) and I was sent to fly the Hercules C130J. I was fortunate enough to be selected to fly for 47 Special Forces Squadron and served on the squadron for three and a half years, flying the Hercules strategically around the world but also in a variety of tactical disciplines, mainly within non-permissive environments. This flying tour was, as you can imagine, exciting and varied. I completed numerous tours of Afghanistan and operations in Africa as well as many training exercises around the UK and USA.

Following this tour, owing to my previous Fast Jet Training experience, I was fortunate enough to be selected for instructional duties and was sent to basic Fast Jet training to instruct on the Tucano T1 aircraft. This was a super rewarding role where I was privileged enough to help students attain their Fast Jet wings and continue to maintain the RAF’s proud legacy of excellence in flying training. Again, I held this role for three and a half years and also attained qualifications as a Human Factors Instructor (military equivalent to a CRMI) and a Human Performance Coach.

Life after the military

During my last tour as an instructor, I had completed 12 years in the RAF and was at a natural point for which I could leave the RAF and transition into civilian aviation. Fortunately for me, some airlines were recruiting at the time and I was lucky enough to be offered a job with one of the UK’s largest legacy airlines, flying the Boeing 737 to which I started in January and have thoroughly enjoyed since and have not looked back.

Making the transition

The path from military to civil aviation is well-trodden. But being part of the military is a way of life and leaving that world can be daunting and you need to be proactive.

The RAF did give me incredible support. The Career Transition Partnership is one very valuable organisation that has been put in place specifically to help this transition and I would thoroughly recommend them.

I think in the military, particularly as pilots, we become very used to our career manager, flight commander or squadron boss etc. telling us where we need to be or go and what we should be doing next. When I made the decision to leave the military it was very much down to me to seek the resources that were available and apply for them in the appropriate way. Fortunately, this transition is quickly becoming a well-trodden path, so I would urge anyone who is thinking of making this transition to, in the first instance, speak to people, you know have successfully transitioned to get their hints and tips on how they found it.

One very valuable resource that I have not mentioned yet is the education officers located in the learning centres of most military bases. These people offer invaluable advice and guidance to help make your transition a success. Again, I would strongly recommend contacting them and using them throughout the process as they are specifically trained to help you with achieving a successful move.

Funding the move

Moving from military to civil aviation obviously required some retraining. There are costs associated with this but the financial incentives available from the MOD in the form of MOD enhanced learning credits meant that achieving my full ATPL was far less painful on the bank balance than it could have been.

In addition, the resettlement grants also available meant that much of my accommodation and living costs when on different courses and interviews were all covered; again, easing the significant costs that can tot up when changing career path.  

Life on civvy street

I made the move and today I am a Senior First Officer on the 737. Airline flying is a world away from the top gun image of military flying. But it is still a fantastic career. Yes, at times getting up at 4am for an early morning flight can have its drawbacks, but this is quickly counteracted by the amazing destinations I get to fly to on an almost daily basis, as well as the opportunity to operate some of the most advanced aviation technology in the world. The views we get from the front aren’t bad either!
Airline flying allows me to continue to serve the public. This is something that is extremely rewarding – knowing that you can really make a difference to a passenger’s holiday or business travel by giving them a comfortable, timely and safe journey.

I particularly enjoy being able to greet the passengers as they board the aircraft and then wish them safe further travels as they disembark. This can immediately put even the most nervous passenger’s mind at rest and can perhaps help to inspire potential future pilots to become involved in aviation, which again I think is very important.

A message to others

Leaving the military can be daunting. But don’t be put off. It is a well-trodden path and if you are willing to do your research you’ll find there are plenty of resources out there to support your move to a fulfilling career in civilian flying.

If you have any questions about making a career change within the pilot industry, then get in touch at to find out how BALPA can help you on your journey.

Posted on 25 August 2017

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