For Many Veterans, Aviation Jobs Feel Right

Similarities between military, airlines make aviation careers more appealing

By Natalie Fiorilli

Published November 8, 2019

Read Time: 3 mins


From exploring storied mounts Everest and Kilimanjaro to serving multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Leo Kuhlenschmidt has been all over the world.

Retired after a 30-year Army career, Kuhlenschmidt now works as a customer service representative for United Airlines at Pittsburgh International Airport.

Why the shift in career paths?

For one, the opportunity to travel more. But another reason is more surprising: the similarities between the military and the aviation industry.

“It’s very mission-focused,” Kuhlenschmidt said. “When we come to work, we have a set job and the best part about it is being on a team. Everyone is supporting each other. Everyone is working together to get the passengers on the plane. The airlines are a lot like the military; it’s a team effort.”

Back home

After retiring as command sergeant major in 2012, Kuhlenschmidt returned to his hometown of Pittsburgh.

“I had tried a couple jobs after the military, but they weren’t a good fit,” he said. “At United, we have a lot of other people at work who are former military. A lot of things we do are similar to the military, and I can relate to it very easily. We all speak the same lingo and a lot of the skills we have from serving are transferrable to this industry.”

Kuhlenschmidt also enjoys his travel benefits.

“I go everywhere – the airline has really given me the chance to work on my bucket list,” he added. “I’ve taken a trip every month this year.”

Kuhlenschmidt is one of thousands of veterans who have gone on to work in the airline industry.

In addition to offering jobs in fields common to the military, such as pilots and aircraft maintenance technicians, several airlines, including United, have military recruiting programs in place.

Along with recruiting programs, most airlines have pages dedicated to hiring veterans on their career websites.

Thousands of vets

According to Southwest Airlines spokesman Brian Parrish, the carrier employs more than 8,100 individuals with military backgrounds, which makes up about 13 percent of Southwest’s workforce.

Jim Pendergraph, a PIT-based ramp supervisor for Southwest, is one of them.

A veteran of the United States Marine Corps, Pendergraph served for 23 years in roles including aviation operations specialist and drill instructor.

“I worked in aviation while I was in the service, and came across this,” he said, adding that he constantly applies the skills he gained through the military.

“As a supervisor, I’m in a leadership role and the experience goes a long way with that. There’s problem-solving, people skills and just being organized. A lot of it transfers over.”

Likewise, Eric Mortimer, a customer service manager for American Airlines at Pittsburgh International, has been able to apply the leadership skills and discipline gained through his military experience.

After serving in the Army as a nuclear biological chemical specialist, Mortimer began his airline career with U.S. Airways, continuing with American when they merged in 2013.

“It teaches you discipline with things like attendance. It doesn’t just teach you to do your job, it teaches you reliability and responsibility,” said Mortimer. “I would do it all over again.”

Similarly, his experience working with American has been rewarding, especially in his interaction with programs like the Snow Ball Express, which offers families of fallen military members a five-day vacation. The program is funded by the Gary Sinise Foundation and sponsored by American Airlines.

“Volunteering to help Snow Ball Express means so much to me because it could have been me,” he said. “I have a soft spot for helping soldiers. If there’s something additional I can do when I see a service member traveling, I try to take care of them.

“One of the most rewarding things about serving is that it’s something you earn, it’s not something you can inherit. You had to put your signature on a line at some point, and it’s not because of who you are or where you came from. I’m proud of my service.”

Go to Top