I caught the aviation bug from an unlikely place. I was a student at J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson, Texas when I signed up for an Aviation Science class that basically turned out to be a Private Pilot ground school. The class was taught by the school's golf coach and visited regularly by a former Braniff pilot who loved aviation and teaching others to fly. Aviation was and still is his passion. Three at a time, he offered to take each and every one of us up in his own airplane, a beautiful 1966 Cessna 172. The flight was his personal gift to our class and cost us nothing.
|1966 Cessna 172 - N4664L|
We each got about fifteen minutes at the controls. Some loved it, some hated it, some got sick and a few showed some natural ability and a desire to take the next step. After flying with everyone who wanted to go, one person out of the class was chosen and taught to fly for free. Really it was more of a trade…one hour of his time for one hour of the student’s. He chose me and I spent the summer mowing my instructor's lawn, washing his car and learning to fly. It was a good trade.
|First solo...July, 1987.|
Unfortunately, I moved off to college before I got started on my next license. Money wasn't growing on trees, and the added expense of a flight instructor meant I had some saving to do, so I got a summer job at a local FBO working as an assistant to two mechanics. They put me to work and trained me in many of the less glamorous jobs around the hangar. I spent most of my time changing brakes and tires, cleaning spark plugs, tearing down air frames and sweeping the shop floor in the sweltering summer heat of north Texas. The guys knew I was trying to build time so they often came up with reasons for me to go out and “test fly” an aircraft after they were finished with repairs. These flights were usually unwarranted, and we all knew it. Technically speaking, this was the first time I was paid to fly an airplane since I was on the clock earning minimum wage at the time.
Using the money I earned during the summers and with the generous assistance of my parents and grandparents, I earned my Instrument, Commercial and Multi-Engine Ratings before graduating from college. I graduated in 1991 with a Liberal Arts degree in hand, 750 hours in my logbook and an ignorant belief that I would walk through the doors at the local airport and land a job flying airplanes. I really didn't care what or where I would be flying or how much it paid. I just wanted to fly.
What I didn't know was that a pilot could not get such a job without at least 1,200 hours total time and 200 hours multi-engine…and I didn't have it. Plan B meant getting my CFI, CFII and MEI certificates and teaching others to fly. I got my ratings, landed a job at Monarch Air at the Addison Airport in one of the suburbs of Dallas, Texas and gave 780 hours of flight instruction in nine months. That’s a lot of flying in a short amount of time, but I was hungry and I wanted to move on to the next stage of my career.
In my ninth month of instruction, my buddy Lee and I decided to start our own Part 135 operation. We still didn't have the flight time needed to get hired, but we figured we could hire ourselves. It came to our attention that the school we worked for had, at one time, operated Part 135. So with permission from our boss, we got all the old books and manuals and went to the FAA for help. We were assigned a Principal Operations Inspector and with his assistance, we managed to get our little business flying in relatively short order. The week we opened our doors for business, the FAA grounded all the aircraft belonging to one of our local competitors, which presented a huge opportunity for our little freight company. We were in business!
The only problem was that we were flying two airplanes, a Cessna T210 and an F33 Bonanza. Both were single engine aircraft and we needed to gain multi-engine experience if we had any hope of moving up to a job with a corporate flight department or a regional airline. So three months later, after our competitor had finally gotten all their planes back in the air, they hired us both to fly twins. We happily accepted the jobs and handed our company to the next set of flight instructors looking to build Part 135 experience.
Then, as I was walking out the door for my first day on the job, I got a call from Atlantic Southeast Airlines in Atlanta, Georgia. I had interviewed with the company two months earlier, but hadn't heard anything since and assumed I hadn't landed the job. Turning in my two week notice on the first day was not fun or well received, but I couldn't turn down the job with ASA.
Three weeks later, I was in new hire class at ASA where I spent six years as a regional airline pilot…two years in the right seat of an EMB-120, two years in the right seat of an ATR-72 and two years back on the EMB-120, this time in the left seat. By the time I had finished my first month at ASA, I was already applying for a job with the majors. I only applied to the airlines I really wanted to work for, and I decided I would take the first job that was offered to me and never look back. I submitted applications with American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United and Southwest but only interviewed with American and Southwest.
Then, in the summer of 1999, while sitting in a hotel room in Long Beach, California preparing for what would be my last EMB-120 check-ride, American Airlines called to offer me a job. I was ecstatic with the news and wanted to celebrate, but I still needed to pass that last check-ride. As you might imagine, I found it incredibly difficult to concentrate.
|Taken by my First Officer on my last day at ASA|
Later that same day with the check-ride successfully complete, the phone rang again. It was Southwest Airlines. My two top picks offered me a job on the same day and presented me with an unexpectedly difficult decision. At the time, American paid more, had a better retirement plan, flew bigger, more exciting airplanes and flew them around the world. American Airlines Captains were receiving yearly bonus checks large enough to purchase new cars and Southwest just seemed like a better paying regional airline job. At least that’s how I rationalize my decision today. I always said I would take the first job I was offered and never look back, so I stuck to my plan and accepted the job at American.
I’m in my 14th year at American now and I still have trouble with the whole not looking back thing. It hasn't been the career I thought I was signing up for, but I love what I do and wouldn't trade a minute of my experience for anything else. It is all too easy to lose sight of all the great things in life, clouded by what could have been better. I am thankful for a great job and I am thankful that someone is still willing to pay me very good money to fly airplanes for a living. I love the airplane I fly and no one could claim to have a better office view. The feeling of a well flown approach or a smooth landing in difficult conditions is one that cannot be duplicated in any other line of work. I enjoy the people with whom I work. I visit cities all over the country and will someday fly all over the world.
Is the job of an airline pilot as good as it used to be? Will it ever be as good as it once was? Maybe not, but I think my friend, author and fellow blogger Karlene Petitt put it best when she said "I guess it depends if you are flying for the end goal, or the journey."