Confessions of a Reserve T-38C IP

Whether you’re a new pilot aspiring to fly the T-38C in UPT, or you’re looking for a fun and exciting Reserve job as you leave Active Duty, teaching Phase III as a Reserve T-38C IP could be a great option for you. Don’t take my word for it though. Check out my latest post on BogiDope, based on an interview with pilot doing that job right now.

I have a treat for you today! I just interviewed a reserve T-38C UPT IP, whom we’ll call Star-Lord for the sake of anonymity. The results of our conversation will explain how to get that job as a reservist along with the good and bad of that path. If you’re looking to leave Active Duty in the next few years (and you should be) this article is a must-read for you.

Then, we’ll discuss Star-Lord’s pet peeves and secrets to success for T-38C students in UPT. If you’re a Guard or Reserve pilot who thinks you’ve got it made once you get to UPT, you’re in for a rude awakening. Whether you’re part of the Total Force or on Active Duty, this post needs to be mandatory reading for every T-38C UPT student for the next few years.

Click here to read the rest!

MASS – The UPT Scoring System Explained

My latest article on BogiDope explains the Merit Assignment Selection System (MASS) that determines assignments for every USAF UPT student. I think this is a cornerstone article for anyone aspiring to become a military pilot.

We almost don’t go a day without a future UPT student asking us how to get the assignment he or she wants. BogiDope exists to help you make that happen!

The easiest way to do this is to sign up with a Guard or Reserve unit in the first place. However, for those of you on the Active Duty path, your final aircraft assignment depends entirely on your performance in UPT. We wrote a 3-part series on Winning UPT that covers what you really need to know and do. We truly believe that if you work as hard as you can, and follow that advice, you’ll be happy with your outcome on graduation day.

That said, some people still want to know all of the details. Today we’re going to look at the Merit Assignment Selection System, or MASS. This is like the Google search algorithm for your UPT scores. It’s a mathematical formula that the Air Force uses to summarize months of your blood, sweat, and tears at UPT into a single number.

You get one MASS score for your efforts during Phase I and Phase II, and that is what determines your class rank for Track Select. You get a completely new and separate MASS score for your work during Phase III, which is what determines your class rank for post-UPT aircraft and base assignments.

Google’s algorithm is a tightly held secret, and it’s constantly changing. A lot of companies make a lot of money by guessing how the algorithm works and selling that knowledge to website owners and advertisers. Thankfully, the MASS isn’t so secret. While some of the details are tough to come by, you can go read AETC Instruction 36-2605V4 and learn exactly what math the US Air Force uses to compute the MASS.

For the sake of simplicity, we’re only going to dig into the specifics of the MASS score for flying T-6s in Phase II today. No matter what you fly in Phase III, the MASS works the same way. The only differences are the inputs. Here’s how we’re going to work through this:

Click here to read the rest of the post!

Second Career Pilots

In my latest post for The Pilot Network, I answer a question that I’m hearing more and more:

“I’ve been working in my career field for a while, but I’m thinking about becoming a professional pilot. Am I too late?”

I wanted to give a thorough, and potentially definitive response to this question. Here’s an excerpt of the start with a link to read the full post on TPN-Go.com:

Network, meet my friend Mario. We met one night at our kids’ Cub Scout meeting. I was about to randomly mention to the crowd of parents that I’m a pilot anyway…because, I don’t know if you’ve heard but I’m a pilot…and when I saw that Mario was holding a copy of AOPA Pilot magazine I really couldn’t help myself.

Mario said that he’s retiring from his career in law enforcement and thinking about becoming a professional pilot…at an age greater than 50. By the time the scout meeting ended, I think I’d cured him of any doubts. He recently completed his Private Pilot Certificate and is working on his Instrument Rating. He loves flying and is excited about the prospect of a second career as an airline pilot.

Mario realizes that he’s late in life to be starting at zero hours, but he’s realistic about his career progression potential. His attitude has him set up to really enjoy this second career, and I’m very excited for him.

I’ve noticed a few people in similar situations asking around online if it’s realistic to start a second career as a professional pilot later in life. My answer is a resounding “YES!” with a couple caveats. This post is intended to outline what you need to do to get started.

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time. I apologize for not doing it sooner, and I hope there’s still time for it to help!

Click here to read the rest on TPN-Go.com!

Best Airline Application and Interview Prep Services for 2020

In my latest post for BogiDope.com, I took a look at some of the top airline application and interview prep companies in our industry. I’ve worked personally with a few of them, and got lots of great feedback from members of The Pilot Network on others. Here’s an excerpt to get you started:

Whether you’re a young aviator on the Ultimate Military Pilot Career Path, or you’re an experienced military pilot finally making that transition from Active Duty, learning how to apply for an airline job is a critical skill for most BogiDope fans. I’ve written here about the amazing pay at the major airlines. The Quality of Life in those jobs is even better.

With such fantastic career potential, it’s definitely worth investing a little time and money in some preparation for your airline applications and interviews. At BogiDope, we get to see the difference that application review and interview prep make in the lives of current/future military aviators every day.

In his fantastic book about how to become an airline pilot, Cockpit2Cockpit, author Marc Himelhoch makes the excellent point that finding a flying job is a full-time job. If you’re going to invest that much attention and care into your airline applications, you want to make sure that you’re getting your money’s worth. The airline industry’s application process has prompted the formation of many companies that provide application and interview prep or consulting services. We’re going to take a look at a few of those today in hopes of helping you find the one that fits you the best.

Click here to read the rest on BogiDope.com!

Palace Chase and Palace Front Explained

In my latest post on BogiDope I discuss the Palace Chase and Palace Front programs. Beyond just describing the basics, I look in depth at some strategies for timing your application and making sure your commander(s) support your request. Here’s an excerpt:

“It’s easy to feel trapped as an Active Duty Air Force pilot. With years to go before your Active Duty Service Commitment is up, your family may worry that you’ll never get to leave the ongoing cycle of long workdays broken up by multi-month deployments. For some families, that end can’t come soon enough. Thankfully, the USAF has both an officially-sanctioned shortcut, and a companion that smooths the transition for an on-time separation from Active Duty, codified in their own Air Force Instruction. These programs, called Palace Chase and Palace Front, are perhaps some of the most important policies in the US Air Force. Today we’ll explore what they are and how to employ them to your benefit.”

Click this link to read the rest!

What is Vanilla FI?

Believe it or not, I didn’t originally plan for Pilot Math Treasure Bath to be a book. The idea started as just a blog, until I realized all the problems with that plan.

There are dozens (if not hundreds) of blogs about FIRE or the broader Financial Independent (FI) movement these days. I don’t know why, but I find it objectionable how common it seems to be for a person to discover the idea of FIRE and immediately want to start blogging about it. (Blogging is supposed to be cheaply available to the masses. I should have no reason to oppose that, right?)

In my lifelong pursuit of hypocrisy, I started thinking of topics for blog posts almost as soon as I started reading Mr. Money Mustache and the like. Starting a blog is so easy that I almost jumped on the FI noob bandwagon and did it without further thought.

Thankfully though, I took a moment to think a little further into the future and realized that a full-fledged FI blog would need to cover a lot of the basic principles that comprise the framework for the idea of FIRE. I decided I didn’t want to do this for two reasons. 1) The basics have already been covered ad nauseam. 2) The idea of writing about the basics failed to excite me.

As I further considered what I’d write about (and what name I’d choose for) a personal FI blog, I realized that most of what I had to say centered around the common gripes, misconceptions, and simple lack of education I was hearing from the pilots I fly with. Pilot Math Treasure Bath ended up being a catchy name that would allow me to focus on pilot-centric topics and hopefully help out my aviator friends.

I realized that it’d be tough to convince most of the pilots I know to read a blog at all, let alone one that would need at least 15-20 posts to even present my basic philosophy on Pilot Math. I decided that the average pilot would be far more likely to read what I have to say if I consolidated everything into a single book, and that set me on the path I took.

It would have been impossible to explain all my ideas perfectly or exhaustively in a book that I wanted to actually publish, so I figured that this website could host a blog where I could expand on what I’d written in the book.

While I think my focus on Pilot Math makes a lot of sense, I still have a few things to say about FI and FIRE movements in general. That’s what I’m calling “Vanilla FI” here. Anything I write about under this topic should still be pertinent to aviators focused on applying Pilot Math, but I hope these posts will reach some non-pilots as well.

I already wrote one post about inflation in my book’s Pilot Math calculations that qualifies as much as Vanilla FI as it does as a pilot-specific topic. You can also look forward to posts on the Inconvenient (or Unspoken?) Hypocrisy of The FIRE Movement, a mash-up of The 4% Rule and the concept of a Talent Stack, and more. I hope you enjoy reading, and please let me know if you have questions or topics that you think I should cover.

Thanks to Syed Ali from Unsplash for this post’s feature image!

How I Made $4400 to Eat a Slice of Pizza

I just wrote about some ways to make sure that both pay and Quality of Life are fantastic once you get to a major airline. Here’s a teaser:

Dear TPN, I just made $4,400 flying to New York and back for a slice of pizza. How was your day at work?

No, I’m not exaggerating or kidding you. While this is far from an everyday occurrence, each of us has the power to increase the likelihood of getting good deals by choosing what companies we apply for and then what categories we bid for once landing a job.

(In airline speak, “category” is the seat you occupy on the aircraft you fly, and the base from which your trips start and finish. This time last year, my category was Atlanta B717 FO. My current category is NYC A220 FO. This time next year, my category will be NYC A220 Captain. https://community.thepilotnetwork.org/posts/emet-why-did-you-take-a-junior-captain-seat)

The three different categories I’ve flown since starting at Delta each represented a unique combination of Quality of Life (QOL) factors. (Most of) my intent here is not to brag, but use these situations, along with some general industry insight, to present you with a comparison. I hope this will help you shop for jobs and categories in the future…or at least give you something new to debate around the flight school water cooler or while you pretend to work on TPS reports and science projects in your military cubicles.

Click here to read more!

Winning UPT Financially

This week on BogiDope I got to write about how to apply the principles from Pilot Math Treasure Bath to USAF Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT.) I argue that not only will applying these principles pay off in the financial long-run, it will also help you perform better in the program. Here’s a preview:

“If you’re headed to pilot training, you absolutely must read our 3-part series on Winning UPT. It explains how to perform well in your training program. However, that’s just part of your life at that point. Today we’re going to discuss how being smart with your finances will help you do better at UPT, and set you up for success later in life.

Perspective – Start With Why

If you want to do well at UPT, you need to stay focused on why you’re there. Your ultimate goal is to become a combat-qualified aviator in the greatest Air and Space Force the world has ever known. With that in mind, you should put the vast majority of your time and energy for that year into studying, chair-flying, and whatever else it takes for you to excel in this program.

Let’s be honest, you’re probably not used to this. Was college 4-5 years of razor-sharp focus on your studies…or did you spend plenty of time enjoying yourself? Were there sports, social gatherings, pursuing romance, road trips, and other distractions?

It turns out, that’s okay in college. Most schools require core/gen ed classes to make you a well-rounded person, but they’re not all so rigorous that they prevent you from also allowing your general life experiences to make you well-rounded.

Make no mistake though, UPT is not about breadth. Your entire year in that program is razor-focused on getting you to build some pretty specific skills as an aviator. It’s important to maintain balance in life, but you can maintain that balance while crafting your environment to maximize your professional development.

We’re going to look at ways to do this through the lens of pilot personal finance. Part of the reason for this is that I just wrote a book on the subject, Pilot Math Treasure Bath, and I feel like I have some authority on the subject. This topic is near and dear to my heart, and I truly believe that your career and life overall will be better if you consider the principles I discuss both here today and in that book. I also believe that the career earnings of a professional military pilot have the potential to set you up for financial independence and ultimate freedom in life…if you handle those earnings carefully.

The other reason basing this discussion on personal finance is that our entire society is shaped around a mindset of spending and consumerism. If you’re not careful, that culture will steal your attention from doing well in UPT and divert you to focusing on things that matter far less than flying jets and pulling Gs. Designing your life to avoid consumerism will protect you against those distractions.”

Click here to read the rest!

Inflation and Pilot Math

Dear Friends and Readers,

Thank you for your support of Pilot Math Treasure Bath so far! Between Amazon and some in-person efforts at the amazing TPNx conference I’ve sold over 200 copies since releasing my book.

I’ve received a lot of kind feedback on my book, and a tiny bit of tough love. I appreciate both types of responses and I hope you’ll keep them coming.

Pilots take our work very seriously because lives actually depend on our ability to do it properly. Every training flight and serious military mission concludes with a debrief where we identify the good and bad from our sortie, and identify things to work on in the future. We regard these debriefs as almost sacred, and they come with some important ground rules:

  1. There is no rank in the debrief. If the Colonel Wing Commander screwed something up, the Captain Instructor Pilot addresses it.
  2. Take your spears. No matter how great or important you think you are, a pilot humbly accepts his or her critiques and tries to find value in them.
  3. All feedback is done with the ultimate goal in mind: making everyone safer and more effective at their mission.

In that spirit, I’m very thankful to the author of one of PMTB’s reviews on Amazon. I feel that the review was thorough, well-considered, and accurate. I only earned 4-stars in part because of how I didn’t go far enough in addressing the effects of inflation in my book. For the sake of transparency, here’s the full text from that section of the review:

My major beef (and it is fairly minor) with the pilot math portion of the book is that, while he acknowledges the role of inflation on page 104, he appears to totally leave it out of his calculations on page 69. While the average household spending as of 2016 was $55k+, accounting for inflation means that the pilot would need to spend $68k+ to afford the same expenses 7 years later just before their Captain upgrade. Then, the author suggests doubling the spending at Captain upgrade, but due to inflation, this will end up being actually closer to $140k in expenses than $115k. When the pilot retires in their 30th year, the expenses would increase to $235k annually – the equivalent of $115k in 2016 dollars. This is over double the expected expenses when the Captain first upgrades. Then, those expenses will again increase over time during retirement, either more quickly depleting the treasure bath, or requiring the pilot to work longer to get a self sustaining bath. The higher expenses in earlier years will no doubt reduce the power of compounding interest in the later years, since the pilot won’t be able to have as high of a savings ‘rate’. I will concede that he used today’s pay rates over thirty years, while pay rates would likely increase over time (though they have yet to keep up with inflation in my experience), so that might offset many of the increased expenses. He argues that he uses a conservative interest rate of 5% to account for some of this, though that means one would need an actual 8% interest rate over thirty years to account for inflation in order to make his numbers work. A minor point, but one that throws the calculations off a bit.

This is valid feedback, and I want to address it today. Even if I wanted to, it’s too late to change the charts in the book to reflect the increases that my reviewer suggests. However, I hope you’ll end up agreeing that Pilot Math has accounted enough for inflation to remain usable.

I’ll start with a small quibble. Yes, I could have overtly addressed inflation in the calculations in my book. I consciously chose not to, in part because the charts were already complicated enough. I had to try and keep them readable in paperback and eBook format. I’ve also posted the charts on my Calculators page so that you can download and customize them to your heart’s content. They’re pretty monstrous spreadsheets and I didn’t want to make them so complicated that they’d be impossible to figure out. (I hope to publish more user-friendly versions some day.) However, if you would like to adjust them for inflation, you’re welcome to do so.

Now, with that complete, let’s talk about inflation and how I addressed it in my Pilot Math.

Inflation

First off, inflation sucks. If you ask 10 economists what causes inflation, you’ll get 435 different answers. The bottom line is this: over time, money tends to lose value. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics has a bunch of fancy tools to display historical inflation rates. Here’s annual inflation rates from 1957 to 2019:

US BLS historical inflation rates from https://data.bls.gov/pdq/SurveyOutputServlet.

Over the very long-term, we say that inflation averages somewhere around 3.0% per year. This means that if you stick a $1 bill under your mattress today, one year from now it will only be able to buy as much as $0.97 would have on the day you stashed it. That effect compounds as time goes on, just like interest in your investment accounts compounds in your favor.

Looking at this another way, if your family is able to limit spending to $57,758 (the value I use in Pilot Math Treasure Bath) this year, next year you’d have to spend $59,491 to buy the same amount of stuff. If this trend continued to Year 9 at a major airline (when I assumed you’d upgrade to Captain in the book) you’d have to spend $75,361 to get the same value that the $57K figure got you in Year 1.

In the book, I assume that you’ll double your spending to $115,516 after you upgrade, but my reviewer is correct in stating that inflation would require this figure to be much higher…somewhere around $150K in Year 9.

That’s a significant difference. At one point I calculated that a pilot’s total savings in Year 9 would be around $137,000. If we raised our spending figures to account for inflation, the total savings amount for the year would be more like $102,000. Does this completely destroy the whole theory of Pilot Math? I argue that it does not. However, this does mean that it would take longer to reach Financial Independence, the point at which passive income from investments covers all your annual spending needs.

(If you want to run some numbers for yourself, I used this calculator from bankrate.com. I just put the rate of return at 3% to show the effects of inflation.)

So what’s the deal? Why didn’t I show the effects of inflation directly in my charts?

The 4% Rule

Let’s remember that one of the key assumptions of Pilot Math is The 4% Rule. This rule says that if you have a nest egg, a pot of investments, as long as you only spend 4% of the total balance of those investments each year, they will effectively last forever.

I didn’t pull this out of thin air. This rule is based on a study conducted by three professors at Trinity University. The original study was published in 1998, and you can read an updated version of their study with newer data here.

The study didn’t start at 4%…it solved for it. The authors were trying to determine a safe withdrawal rate for retirees, under the assumption of a maximum 30-year retirement timespan. They wanted to know what percentage could a theoretical retiree spend per year without running out of money before he or she died.

They examined this question by looking at every 30-year timespan since 1926. This means they accounted for the Great Depression and every downturn since. Their conclusions were impressive. If you invest 100% in the stock market, a 4% withdrawal rate gives your money a 98% chance of lasting for a full 30-year retirement. That 2% failure rate probably represents a person who retired the day before the crash that triggered the Great Depression. Starting retirement at any other point results in success, when using past data.

It’s very important to note that this conclusion comes from Table 2 in the version to which I linked and that table accounts for inflation. My reviewer was right in that I don’t show how my numbers account for inflation, but the original Trinity Study upon which I based my assumption of a 4% withdrawal rate accounts for it whether I show it in my charts or not.

I suspect that my reviewer had never read the Trinity Study itself, but I hope that he or she will because it’s impressive!

It’s worth noting that not only does the study show that a 4% withdrawal rate has an inflation-adjusted 98% success rate, but that after 30 years the total balance of the investment account more than doubles, even if half of it is invested in bonds.

In the context of Pilot Math Treasure Bath, this means you could quit working, spend $57,758 from your Treasure Bath in Year 1, increase that spending to match inflation each year, and after 30 years your Treasure Bath would have more than twice as much money in it as you had in Year 1.

While this seems unbelievable at first glance, it’s borne out in the real-life example of Justin, the author at Root of Good. He retired in 2014 with a net worth of $1.3M. His family of 5 doesn’t quite spend 4% because they’re happy living on less. Still, as of October 2019 their net worth has climbed to $2.16M! It’s nearly doubled in just 5 years…far short of the 30-year timespan in the Trinity Study.

(For more excellent discussion on the 4% Rule and safe withdrawal rates, I recommend a post by the Mad Fientist, and a large body of work by Michael Kitces.)

Pay Increases

While my reviewer was correct in noting that my numbers didn’t show the effects of inflation on spending, he or she failed to give equal weight to the other side of the equation. It turns out that airline pilots get pay raises.

When I started at my airline in 2016, first year FO pay was about $70/hr. Toward the end of that year, we signed a new contract worth a lot of money. The total pay raise over the four-year contract was 30.1%. My first year FO pay immediately jumped 18% to $83/hr. (They even sent me a check for about $10K, making the pay increase retroactive to January 1st of that year.) If you look on airlinepilotcentral.com, you’ll see that first year FO pay is currently at $92/hr.

Over the last four years, that average pay increase of 7.5% per year has more than doubled inflation.

When asserting that I should have increased my annual spending numbers such that they would have hit $75K in Year 9, my reviewer should have simultaneously asserted that I increase my annual income levels to reflect a Year 1 FO pay rate that would rise to $178/hr over the same time period. This would have shown a given pilot’s income effectively doubling, while spending increased by less than 35%.

Instead, my reviewer asserted that pilot pay rates have failed to keep up with inflation, though I don’t see that in more recent data, at least for major airlines. One of the compounding effects here is that pilot pay at my airline took a 50% during a period of bankruptcies and mergers in the mid-to-late 2000s. Those pay rates have failed to recover to what they would have been in todays dollars. However, I feel cautiously optimistic, at least concerning the future of my company.

Now, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect pilot pay rates to increase by an average of 7.5% per year. If we carry that assumption out to the 30-year timespan of the charts in my book, first year FO pay hits something crazy like $814/hr. Not gonna happen.

However, I think it is fair to expect airline pilot pay to at least keep up with inflation, if not beat it by a little bit, over time. For my book, I assumed that the two would increase equally, and kept everything in current year numbers for the sake of simplicity.

Stock Market Performance

I also accounted for inflation by assuming low investment returns. According to Investopedia, the historical average annual return for the S&P 500 since 1926 is 10%. This index started with only looking at about 90 stocks. Since it expanded to include a full 500 companies in 1957, its return is closer to 8%.

Remember, this return reflects gains that happened despite covering a timespan that includes the worst Depression and other Recessions in recent history.

For Pilot Math Treasure Bath, I assumed investment returns of only 5%. I chose this number to reflect an 8% return as a conservative take on the expected performance of the stock market going forward, and then reduced that number by a flat 3% to account for inflation.

Ideally, my assumptions reflect returns so low that they’re unrealistic. I used these assumptions in the hopes of showing bad-case numbers, hoping that you would be happily surprised when your actual results exceeded all of my estimates. I can’t promise this will happen, but I believe I at least did justice to the idea of assuming conservative investment returns.

CPI vs Inflation for Spending

Although my reviewer’s math works if we want to assume that a pilot’s spending must increase with an average inflation rate of 3% per year, I think this assumption may be inaccurate. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks a value it calls the Consumer Price Index, or CPI. This index shows the increase in costs for a specific set of consumer goods over a given period of time.

Although inflation does affect the economy overall, the prices for specific products don’t always track with inflation. In fact, the prices for some things decrease over time. Solar power, for example, is getting more affordable as time goes on. Electronics like mobile phones and personal computers were once so expensive that only the rich could afford them. Today, they’re so cheap that mainstream society almost looks at them as throw-aways to be replaced every couple years.

The CPI takes all this into account by looking at actual prices over time. When you look at historical data, the CPI averages lower than inflation. I feel it’s unrealistic to assume that my $57,758 spending figure would have to increase by 3% per year indefinitely. Yes, I could have adjusted it for CPI, but that would have again made things less simple.

Conclusion

Although my reviewer’s critique of the way I showed my math was technically correct, I believe he or she lacked the context for understanding that I did account for inflation in several ways. (I apologize for not explaining this in the book. I guess I’d better start working on the 2nd Edition!) Here’s the list of ways that my Pilot Math accounts for and/or works in spite of inflation:

  1. The Trinity Study that derived the 4% Rule accounts for inflation.
  2. Pilots get pay increases that frequently beat inflation. I did not assume any pay raises for the charts in my book. If I had, I would have at least assumed annual pay rate increases equal to inflation.
  3. I assumed investment returns far below the historical average. The S&P 500 averages more than 10% annual returns in the long run. Many analysts use 8% as a conservative estimate. I reduced that to 5% in hopes of showing investment performance that accounts for inflation. This effectively doubles the inflation protection assumed by the 4% Rule.
  4. Spending numbers probably will probably increase in accordance with the CPI, rather than raw inflation rates.

Thanks again to Draco_CJ for reading my book and giving such a detailed review on Amazon! Thanks for the candid feedback, and I pledge to do better in the future. I hope the context I’ve provided here alleviates some of your concerns about Pilot Math’s accounting for inflation. I hope you’ll apply the principles behind Pilot Math and work toward filling a Treasure Bath, regardless of the specific point at which you’ll reach Enough. I still assert that point is closer than you think.

Nos Amo Servo!
– Emet

The gorgeous hot air balloon inflation photo was taken by Will O on Unsplash. Nice work!

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