Academy Flight Training Pathway to Becoming an Airline Pilot - A Pilot's Perspective
Updated: Jan 20
The Aviation Journey Begins
In 2016, after graduating from The University of Tampa with a Bachelor of Arts in Dance, I came home discouraged and unsure what my future would hold. I was looking into real estate, personal training, teaching dance, and more. My mom, who’s now retired, was a Captain on the Boeing 787 with American Airlines, and she had been flying all my life. It was always just my mom’s “job,” and I hadn’t thought much of it. She had been to career days at my school but instead of considering becoming an airline pilot myself, I was just focused on how cool of a job my mom had!
Choosing a Flight School
I had never shown much interest in aviation, but after feeling unsure about my future after college, my mom suggested that I try flying. My first flight was in a Cessna 152 at a “mom and pop flight school” called A&M Aviation in Bolingbrook, IL. I love rollercoasters and thrills and flying gave me that same adrenaline rush. Needless to say, I caught the “flying bug.” I immediately decided to pursue flying as a long-term career. I ended up getting my private pilot certificate at A&M in about three months. After a lot of consideration, I decided to go to Embry Riddle Aeronautical University for their four-year degree program.
Once I was accepted into the program, I began looking for places to live in Daytona, FL. It was at this point that I started seeing advertisements for ATP Flight School. I decided that because I already had a four-year degree, a fast-track program might be a better option. At that time, I lived in Chicago, IL, and after visiting multiple ATP training centers, I decided to attend the Mesa, AZ, location. Mesa is by far their largest and nicest location and also has VFR flying weather year-round to get training done quickly. ATP had a modern fleet of Cessna 172R models and Piper Seminoles. I elected to do the 100-hour multi-engine program. This meant that I would do my instrument training and crew cross-countries in the Piper Seminole. The cost was not much extra for the amount of additional multi-engine flight time I would receive, so it seemed like a good deal.
The ground training was mostly remote and self-paced. However, since I lived in student housing, I spent a lot of time studying with my roommates both at home and at the training center. My instructor, Brandon, was great! He would always help with what I needed and was sure to schedule my flights as often as possible. I was flying pretty much every day and mostly in the mornings to beat the Arizona heat. I got through my Private, Multi-Engine, Instrument, Commercial Multi-Engine, and Commercial Single-Engine ratings in about five months.
The biggest challenge that I faced at ATP was the Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) course. It was supposed to be two to four weeks and ended up being closer to two months, which held me back a bit. It was great to have extra time to study and prepare, but the “fast-track” selling point of the program quickly dwindled. This was not the fault of ATP. There were multiple factors, mostly related to the Designated Pilot Examiner availability and the process that was required with the Federal Aviation Administration’s Flight Standards District Office (FSDO). CFI training in itself was humbling. After moving through the program so quickly, I had a lot of confidence going into CFI training. However, I quickly learned that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did. This challenge was my favorite thus far in training because I learned a lot and formed a passion for flight instructing.
Building Flight Time
After ATP, I was hired as a CFI by American Flyers in Houston, TX, where I became an Envoy Air Cadet. I really solidified my passion for instructing at this small school. I learned a lot about weather in a short amount of time. I also loved being able to take someone with zero aviation experience and sign them off for solo flight. I always tried to make a big deal of this for the student because it was such an important milestone! I worked for American Flyers for about six months and then decided most of my career would be in the Dallas, TX, area, so I packed up my things and started work at US Aviation Academy as a CFI (maintaining Cadet status with Envoy Air). I quickly advanced because of my prior experience as a flight instructor.
I became the 141 Curriculum Manager for the Instrument Training Program and gained lots of experience working with international students (mostly Chinese). This added challenge was fun for me because it forced me to teach in a very straightforward manner and actually made me a better flight instructor overall. I later became a Check Airman with the flight school and conducted Private, Instrument, and Multi-Engine Commercial checkrides! I was averaging approximately 60-80 flight hours per month, which felt like a good pace. Anything more than that was really draining. There was not much time to eat, sleep, or take care of myself. My health really dwindled toward the end of flight instruction because I was always going from flight to flight without many breaks. Overall, flight instructing was where I learned the most about aviation; more than I ever learned during my actual training. It forced me to learn the topics in depth because I had to be able to teach them.
Airline Career Transition
Once I had obtained 1,500 flight hours and met the other ATP experience requirements, I scheduled a class date with Envoy Air. The first thing I did was the ATP/CTP course, which is required for the certificate, but it also acted as a great transition to flying jet aircraft. I did all of my training and instructing with a steam gauge six-pack instrument panel, so transitioning to a glass cockpit with advanced avionics took a little getting used to. After completing the APT/CTP course, I started the three-month training program with Envoy Air for my ATP certificate in the Embraer 175. Training was smooth, easy, and all the instructors were very friendly and wanted everyone to succeed. I was paired with a pilot upgrading to Captain who was very helpful along the way. At times it was discouraging, but I had to remember that transitioning from a light twin to a large regional jet was no cakewalk! There are some parallels, but it did feel like I was in over my head at some points. I would think to myself, “Am I cut out for this?” In the end, I was because I earned the ATP certificate and type rating! I made it to my first IOE trip before the effects of COVID-19 caused the industry to take a plunge. Unfortunately, I will be furloughed, but I am glad to be back flight instructing until I am recalled.
Would I Have Done Anything Differently?
If I could do it all again, the only thing I would change was how I treated myself as an instructor. I worked myself into the ground and would often fly without eating the whole day or just having Hot Cheetos and a Redbull. This was no way to live my life and actually made me sick at one point. I now prioritize healthy eating, exercise, staying hydrated, and remind myself to slow down because my career depends on my ability to hold a First Class medical.
Advice for Aspiring Aviators
My advice for anyone wanting to get into aviation is to just go for it. There will never be “the right time.” It will always be “too expensive,” but it is SO worth it in the end. I’ve watched my mom have a successful, fruitful career with American Airlines. The small taste I got of flying a jet and living as an airline pilot felt like a dream. There is no work to take home at the end of the day, and you get the BEST office views!
I would also recommend that all pilots stay curious in everything they do. Curiosity made me the flight instructor and pilot I am today. Do more than the bare minimum, always keep safety at the forefront (don’t get lazy), be passionate, and stay excited for yourself and your students. I believe that my mindset of putting forth 110% of my efforts into everything I do propelled me in my career. I went from zero flight time to First Officer at an airline in three years. I worked my tail off and loved every moment! I wish I could do it all over again!!
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