RSAF WSO (Fighter) to Airline Pilot. Making the transition

“Talk to me Goose” – Tom Cruise in Top Gun. Many in the audience of Top Gun wrongly assumed that …

“Talk to me Goose” – Tom Cruise in Top Gun.

Many in the audience of Top Gun wrongly assumed that “Goose” was just another Fighter Pilot sitting behind Tom Cruise in his F-14. But the truth is “Goose” was a Weapons System Officer or WSO (Fighter) for short? The WSO (Fighter) typically sits at the back of a multi-crew fighter, and they play an essential part in Fighter operations, especially so for the RSAF’s F-15SG and F-16D+. Think R2D2 in Star Wars.

But when the fun of being a WSO in a Fighter stops, can a WSO make the transition to an Airline Pilot in Singapore? Well, it might not be as easy (or as cheap) as the Fighter Pilot sitting in the front of the Fighter, but it is definitely possible!

Getting a Pilot Licence

To begin the transition, a WSO needs to get a pilot license. There are two options for a WSO to get the license. One of the ways is to get a CAAS Commercial Pilot Licence from one of the Flight Schools in Singapore, and the other way is to fly over to one of the Flight Schools in the USA to get an FAA Commercial Pilot Licence.

While the factors and advantages between the FAA and CAAS CPL differ from person to person (a civilian with zero hours may find that getting the CAAS CPL is more advantageous as compared to getting an FAA CPL), for a WSO (Fighter), I highly recommend getting a FAA Commercial Pilot Licence from a Flight School in the USA due to the following reasons.

  1. A typical CAAS Flight School requires a zero hour student (and an RSAF WSO Fighter is classified as a zero hour student) to attend the course full time, taking up to 1 year to complete. As a result, the WSO (Fighter) will likely need to leave the RSAF for the course. In comparison, a typical FAA Flight School will only require six weeks to complete, and there is no need to complete the course in one go. For a WSO, the course could be completed in 2 x 3 weeks stint (typically the schedule for WSOs based in Singapore), or over 24 weekends (generally ideal for WSOs based in the USA).
  2. It is cheaper in the USA. Getting your CPL in Singapore should cost at least SGD$150,000, while the FAA CPL will cost under SGD$75,000.

Read here for a comprehensive comparison of the FAA CPL and the CAAS CPL.

Ideally, WSOs (Fighter) who are planning to transit should hope to get a posting to the USA. The Cost of Living Allowance could be used to (partially?) fund the flying training somewhat, and with a better work-life balance in the USA, flying can be done regularly on the weekends.

So why the FAA CPL and not the FAA ATP?

The problem here is with FAA’s recognition of WSO hours.

By FAA’s definition, WSOs are not Pilots. Hence, for a WSO with 1,500 hours in the F-15SG, the FAA wouldn’t allow these hours to be recognised as FAA ATPL pre-requisites. The good news here is that these hours can still be used in Singapore, which we will cover later in this article.

The FAA ATPL requires a minimum of 1,500 flying hours, while the FAA CPL can be achieved in under 200 hours in a Part 141 training school. Since having a CPL from any ICAO contracting nation qualifies you for a job as an Airline Pilot in Singapore, there is no need for a WSO to spend more (and it can be ALOT more) money for the FAA ATPL.

Flying training in the USA

Most flight schools in the USA allows for flexibility in training. A WSO wouldn’t need to leave the job to complete training. As mentioned earlier, WSOs based in the USA will be able to get the training done on the weekends, while WSOs based in Singapore will be able to break up the training into 2 x 3 weeks stint in the USA.

Differences in license requirements

Any WSO going to an FAA flight school should take note of the differences in requirement between the FAA CPL and the CAAS CPL. To Ensure a smooth conversion of the FAA CPL to a CAAS CPL in future, make sure all CAAS pre-requisites are done!

Converting your license

Ground Examination Requirements

In accordance to the CAAS SASP, FAA CPL holders with less than 700 “total hours” are required to complete all 14 CAAS examinations before the license conversion can be completed. And that is pretty darn painful. Thankfully, CAAS recognises WSO hours as P2 hours, thereby qualifying a typical WSO with more than 700 “total hours”.

There are also other requirements in the CAAS SASP as well. They are summarised as follows

  1. 700 Total hours – as mentioned, WSO P2 hours are counted
  2. 200 hours as PIC of aeroplanes of which up to a maximum of 100 hours may be (PIC U/S) – since flying and getting your FAA CPL in a Part 61 flights school should get you 200 PIC hours, you should meet this requirement.
  3. At least 10 hours of cross-country PIC instrument hours – again, as part of your Part 61 training, you should already have this requirement.

So, meeting the above requirements, you’ll qualify for a waiver for 12 of the CAAS papers. You’ll only need to do the Ops Procedure and Air Law papers.

Another requirement

An applicant for a Singapore CPL who has passed the theoretical knowledge examinations prescribed by the foreign licensing authority at the CPL level will be restricted to single-pilot operations. Such applicants, if intending to operate in a multi-crew environment, will need to pass the theoretical knowledge examinations at the ATPL level to have the restriction lifted. – CAAS SASP

Since you’ll be holding the FAA CPL and converting to a CAAS CPL, based on the above paragraph in the CAAS SASP, you’ll only be restricted to single-pilot operations, meaning you CAN’T fly the A320 and B737, rendering you useless to airlines in Singapore. Thankfully, there is a way around that. You just need to show ATPL level knowledge.

As a proof of “ATPL level knowledge”, a WSO would need to complete the FAA ATP computer examination. And since the FAA requires all candidates to complete a CTP-ATP course before attempting the FAA ATP examinations, a WSO should signup for the CTP-ATP course from a good flight school in the USA.

While the CTP-ATP isn’t cheap, a WSO will come to realise its well worth it. CTP-ATP cost between USD$5,000-$8,000. As part of the course syllabus, the Multi-Crew Coordination Course can and should be waivered later when doing the type rating in Singapore. Since a typical MCC cost between SGD $5,000 to $15,000, the CTP-ATP might be well worth it.

It is worthwhile to note that with the completion of the CTP-ATP and passing the FAA ATPL knowledge examination, the FAA CPL holder would hold an FAA ATPL (Frozen). It’s a technical term since the FAA doesn’t actually have a definition for an FAA ATPL (Frozen).

CAAS Examinations

Having attained all the requirements mentioned above, the WSO would be excused from 12 CAAS papers. The two CAAS papers that need to be completed in Singapore are Ops Procedure and Air Law. The WSO can get it done as a private candidate before or after securing a job in an Airline in Singapore. Do take note that the CAAS paper is only valid for three years.

Keeping the FAA CPL Licence current

One of the pre-requisites in the FAA-CAAS license conversion is that the FAA CPL must be valid at the time of conversion. For the FAA CPL, this means that the instrument rating, the bi-annual proficiency check, and the FAA Class 1 Medical must all be current at the time of conversion. Read about how to keep your instrument current in Singapore.

Note: For the FAA CPL medical requirement, while the FAA doesn’t require the licence holder to hold a Class 1 Medical to exercise some of the CPL privileges, meaning the validity of the medical is 5 years, CAAS usually insists on Class 1 medical at the time of conversion, so just keep keep with the Medical every year, together with the RSAF’s annual medical.

Getting a Job in Singapore

With the FAA ATPL frozen, the WSO can now apply to all the Airlines in Singapore. Scoot and Jetstar Asia are the most likely to hire a WSO Fighter who is a new CPL holder, but there is no harm in applying to SilkAir and Singapore Airlines as well. (Who is hiring?)

Licence Conversion

As one of the pre-requisites for a license conversion is to be hired by one of the airlines in Singapore, there is no need to complete the paperwork ahead of time.

Once hired, license conversion can be started with the FC02, followed by the other forms.

Let me know if this article helped! Good luck!

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