In the US, it used to be a majority of the airline pilots came from the military ranks. However in the last couple of decades, civilian pilots have come to make up the largest portion of new-hires.
There are almost as many ways of becoming an airline pilot as there are pilots. However my experience may be an 'average' example.
I started flying on my own just out of college and within a few months had my private pilots license. Then over the next few years I built up more advanced licenses and ratings while working my regular 'day job' to pay for it. My timing was off a bit since once I had my commercial license and flight instructor ratings it was just after the first gulf war and nobody was hiring at the time. I continued flying on my own until a few years later when I landed a full time instructor job. This is a very important first step for any pilot - the first job. Many start as flight instructors, or parachute jump pilots, or banner tow pilots etc. Once you have about 1500 or more hours you become more attractive to the regional airlines. Most will require some multi-engine flight time and that can be the hardest (most expensive) to come by. When times are good (say the late 90's) you could get a job flying with a regional with 1200 hours total time and a couple hundred multi-engine time. The last couple years (since 9/11) a lot of the regional simply weren't hiring or if they were, required much higher minimums. It's all a matter of supply and demand.
Once you are hired by a regional airline, you are 'in the system' and have a lot more options. At the regional, just like the major airlines, your options of where and what you fly is almost entirely decided by your seniority. The pilot that has been with the company the longest has his/her choice of what base and what plane to fly. Then the second most senior person makes their choice, and so on to the newest person on the list. And everyone has a different idea of what they want. Maybe they prefer living at a certain base. That will dictate what equipment and routes they will fly.
After flight instructing for a few years I was hired by Chautauqua Airlines. I was assigned to fly the Saab 340 out of Pittsburgh. That suited me fine because it was (at the time) the biggest plane they flew, and since I lived in Seattle it was an easy commute to PIT
. The first couple months I was on reserve, which meant I had certain days assigned to me to be available to fly if someone called in sick or on vacation. After a few months the airline had expanded enough and there were enough pilots below me on the seniority list that I could bid for a regular schedule. That is what I did until I was offered a job with Hawaiian Airlines, and started again all over with them.
Chautauqua at the time was just a USAirways Express carrier. There were a number of pilots that left CHQ
for USAirways, but not as a 'flow-through'. They had to compete for the US jobs along with all the other candidates. There are a couple regionals where the senior captains get to go straight to the mainline airline, but they are the exception rather than the rule.
Once I was hired at Hawaiian I was again assigned my new base and plane, which happened to be a DC-10 engineer in Seattle. They were expanding enough at the time that I had my choice of bases and of course chose to stay at home in Seattle. That meant that my flying was almost exclusively between SEA
because those were the routes flown by the SEA
pilots. We normally didn't get to fly to Tahiti, Samoa, Alaska, or other west coast cities - those were flown mostly by HNL
based crews. Once I had been there a few years I was able to upgrade to a co-pilot position on the DC-10, again based in SEA
. A couple of pilots senior to me decided to remain as more senior flight engineers rather than junior co-pilots because they preferred being able to pick their schedule more than the increased pay but uncertain schedule of a junior reserve F/O.
Now of course, Hawaiian went into bankruptcy and furloughed over 100 pilots, including me. Seniority still rules however, and the most senior pilots on the list will be recalled first as the company expands (or other pilots retire). Like everything else in the job, seniority is everything.
That is the heart of how pilots get experience and upgrade. It is all based on seniority, and the individual pilots choice of what they want out of the job.
One smooth landing is skill. Two in a row is luck. Three in a row and someone is lying.