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How Being a Military Pilot Prepared Me to Fly Civilians

Mick Williams shares how flying in combat translated into a career in commercial aviation

spinner image retired navy commander Mick williams of fort collins colorado
​Retired Navy Commander Mick Williams, 50, of Fort Collins, Colorado, flies for Delta Air Lines.

Most passengers don’t realize the varied backgrounds of the people in the cockpit. Your pilot might have been a Blue Angel, or someone who has spent significant time as a civilian flight instructor, or someone who flew experimental aircraft.

spinner image a photo of mick williams in front of a fighter jet from when he flew in the navy
Courtesy Mick Williams

As for me, I went to Navy flight school after graduating college and then flew F/A-18 fighter jets. I saw combat in four different theaters and eventually became a Navy test pilot. ​

The dynamic nature and complexity of those military ops prepared me to be a commercial pilot, but not the way you might expect. The problems we work through are different. Sometimes a mundane decision like holding a plane for a few extra minutes can have a huge impact for 10 delayed passengers. I embrace the challenge of navigating turbulence or a line of powerful thunderstorms. For me, that’s what I love: being in positions where you’re making strategic decisions that have a positive impact on the lives you are responsible for. ​

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In the Navy, that pressurized decision-making came into play whenever I landed on an aircraft carrier. Or the time I helped a wingman who lost oil pressure over Iraq. On a commercial flight, you don’t get too many off-script opportunities. Your job is to provide a safe and predictable flight. But stuff happens, and you can lean into that wisdom of experience.​

Similar to Williams, Air Force Veteran Tamaron Nicklas re-entered the cockpit as a commercial pilot 25 years after retiring. Here is her story:​​

VIDEO: Air Force Veteran Reenters the Cockpit at 58
VIDEO: Air Force Veteran Reenters the Cockpit at 58

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