Updated: Jan 20, 2021
The year 2020 started off with a lot of promise and hope for my career. I had finished off 2019 by flying a trip from Amsterdam to Orlando, acting as a relief pilot with another University of North Dakota (UND) alumnus, Dave Barnes. Spending hours over the Atlantic, we were able to catch up, laugh, and have a great time! It was wonderful working with someone I had looked up to when I was an undergraduate at UND.
For the first couple of months of 2020, life was great. I was considering upgrading to captain on the Airbus A220 or Boeing 737, and I was able to enjoy a profit-sharing check from Delta. Having been offered a mentor position in early 2019, I was in the process of mentoring numerous pilots who had just been hired at Delta, including some of my former first officers at Republic Airways. I had some amazing layovers in Maui which afforded me the opportunity to snorkel with sea turtles. In early March, I was invited to be a pilot ambassador at Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles, representing Delta Air Lines, who was announcing its partnership with the Los Angeles Olympic Games. I represented my company and mingled with some of our greatest athletes, including Kerri Walsh-Jennings, Mallory Weggemann, Allyson Felix, and Michael Phelps. Simply put, I was on cloud nine. Little did I know that two weeks later it would all come to a grinding halt.
The Novel Coronavirus, or Covid-19, was raging throughout the world. By mid-March, it became obvious that this virus was not just another virus. It was a force to be reckoned with. Highly contagious, with a surprising lethality, this novel virus swept across the world. No country was safe. From China, it quickly made its way to the United States, Canada, Europe, and throughout Asia. Governments caught off guard were left with little option to keep their citizens safe from this unknown pathogen. Italy, Spain, and Iran seemed especially vulnerable, with scores of populate dying every day. The United States was not spared, with high density areas, such as New York City, Chicago, and New Orleans bearing the brunt of the deaths in the U.S.
On March 13th, President Trump made an announcement to the United States on national television. He immediately placed a travel ban on all visits to and from Europe. A ban to the United Kingdom would follow a few days later. With these announcements in place, and the fear of the virus in full force, air travel in the US became nearly non-existent and future bookings plummeted. Planes that only a few weeks earlier were filled to the brim with passengers were flying nearly empty. Delta quickly announced that they were parking 300 airplanes, with more likely to follow. Eventually, 300 turned into 700+.
I took the news hard. Like most pilots, I had worked very hard to get to where I was. I had spent nearly ten-and-a-half years flying at the regional airlines, working hard to accumulate hours, upgrading to captain to obtain PIC turbine time, doing the job fair circuit, working as a ground school instructor — the list goes on. To see that all potentially evaporate within weeks was shocking to both the body and the mind.
Memories of 9/11
Mike Tyson said everyone has a plan until they’re hit in the mouth. Yeah, he was definitely right! I was a freshman at the University of North Dakota in the fall of 2001. Aspiring to be a pilot, I had grand dreams. My career path was laid out for me, and all I had to do was keep my head down, do my job, and I was on my way. However, on 9/11, that all changed. When the attacks happened, I was in shock and devastated. I do not remember a lot about that day except that at 4:00 p.m., a bunch of us went to Clifford Hall to hear one of our professors, Ken Polovitz, speak. Ken is a wonderful man, a man I admire greatly. With his reassuring voice and kind words, he told us we were exactly where we needed to be. This would undoubtedly be a setback to our careers, but perseverance and determination would allow us to achieve our dreams. Those words clearly stuck with me, as I was more determined than ever to not give up.
Fast forward to the present. I wasn’t a spring chicken at Delta. I had 3 ½ years of seniority, which meant I had nearly 3,000 people junior to me. It certainly seems like a lot in good times, but when you’re employer is parking nearly 50% of the fleet, it feels dire. I had no back-up plan. My degree was in commercial aviation, which meant I was qualified to fly airplanes. I had dabbled in other jobs here and there, but my bartending skills were more or less useless with restaurants and bars shut down due to Covid. Thankfully, UND came to my rescue just when I needed them.
On March 27th, UND Aerospace hosted a webinar with professors Jim Higgins, Kent Lovelace, and Brandon Wild. Those watching were reminded that this industry has faced many setbacks, but in the long run, it has persevered every time, and this time would be no different. With every setback, the industry has seen changes. We would see changes again; however, in the long run, we were going to be okay. It was exactly what I needed to see to pull myself out of my funk.
What to do?
I’ve never just been a "line pilot" at any airline I’ve worked at. At Pinnacle Airlines, my first regional, I was head of the Pilot 2 Pilot committee, a volunteer program that allowed pilots to essentially mentor other pilots. While not a direct mentorship program, it was a way for line pilots to understand the work rules/union contract in greater fashion, thus allowing them to answer questions other pilots may have. At Lynx Aviation, I was part of a group working to develop safer procedures flying into the Aspen, CO, airport; one of the most complicated airports to fly into. I worked with the program manager and chief pilot to develop a visual approach into runway 33, which very few aircraft can land on due to the surrounding terrain. At Republic, I was a ground school instructor as well as a mentor. I love being a pilot, but I also love helping others.
During Covid, I realized that my situation was not great, but there were people in far worse positions. It would be selfish to just sit around feeling sorry for myself. There were people in the airline industry that needed reassurance that things would improve and that this was just a setback. It was time to do just that. Using my experience as a mentor, I began contacting my mentees. I also reached out to people that weren’t under my direct mentorship, but that I had known either through UND or the regional world. I didn’t have much information to pass along; the situation at Delta was changing by the day, but I wanted to be a reassuring voice, someone people could reach out to if they were struggling professionally or personally. I truly enjoyed this process.
Reconnecting with old friends was fantastic! We shared stories of what we were doing during the pandemic and the imposed lockdowns. We shared financial advice and career advice. The more junior-seniority people that I talked to were obviously concerned about their futures, but drawing from what I had learned all the way back on 9/11 at UND, I told them to not do anything drastic. It’s hard when the chips are down to make smart, rational decisions, but it’s more important than ever.
I also used the opportunity to reach out to people I considered my mentors. Since my enrollment at UND, I had learned what value a mentor has. Not just as an industry contact, but someone you can lean on when times are tough or you need that proverbial kick in the butt! I called Dan Malott, who was my Lead Flight Instructor at UND before I left for the regionals. We spent a lot of time catching up, and his calm, encouraging voice, reassured me that I was doing the right thing.
Six months of uncertainty
Throughout 2020, the situation at the airlines was confusing at best, dire at worst. Some regional airlines went out of business. Furloughs looked inevitable at the legacy carriers. Delta, my airline, offered an early retirement package that over 1,800 pilots took advantage of. Still, they were announcing that nearly 2,600 pilots were going to go into an unassigned aircraft status (they were unable to furlough due to the CARES I act passed by Congress, which prohibited furloughs until October 1st, 2020, at the earliest). It was during this time that another mentorship opportunity came about, this time through our airline’s pilot union, ALPA. It was a furlough mentorship.
The idea was that if Delta announced furloughs, we, as mentors, would have a certain number of furloughed pilots we would be working with. Lending an ear, updating them on the industry, offering advice, etc. It was the perfect opportunity for me to continue my mentoring, especially because people would really need it if the furloughs occurred.
I read some information ALPA put out on furlough programs, as well as attended an online seminar for the mentors-in-training. I gained a lot of information about listening, as well as providing feedback. It was valuable, and it served me well. I was so grateful to be a part of it. Thankfully, Delta announced there would be no furloughs. The pilot union and company came to an agreement where we would avoid furloughs for an exchange of very minimal work changes. It was a blessing for our junior pilots, and I was proud that my company wasn’t going to furlough for the time being.
I also returned to the line during the summer. Having not flown since mid-March, I was requalified in the simulator in late July and in August, I finally flew an airplane. I counted the days – it was 136 days between flights, which was a record for me in my career. It was great to be back, and I realized how truly blessed I was.
Throughout the pandemic, I reflected quite a bit on my life choices. I was very grateful to be where I was. Delta, for the most part, handled the crisis our industry faced very well. I was also grateful to have made a lot of contacts and friends within the airline world. It was nice to lean on those people and commiserate with them. It also kept me informed about what other companies were doing.
I was very grateful for my family. My wife was extremely supportive of me and spent a lot of time listening to me worry about the future. She helped me come up with a plan and a backup plan in case things didn’t work out. She also gently reminded me that my career goal had already been achieved. I had flown an international heavy aircraft “across the pond,” so everything at this point was just gravy on the biscuit.
I was also grateful to have been a mentor at Delta. It taught me listening skills, coping mechanisms, and most importantly, a way of giving back. Throughout this whole pandemic, we’ve heard sayings like, “We’re all in this together." However, as airline pilots, there are not a lot of people we can talk to about our careers. Mentoring helped me to lean on other pilots, and I certainly hoped that I helped the pilots who leaned on me.
If there’s one thing I want to emphasize to young, aspiring pilots, it’s this: Mentorship is a massive key to a successful career in the industry. I still lean on mentors I’ve had in my circle for nearly 20 years now. These people are more than just letters of recommendation. They’ve been through what you’ve been through and have seen what you’re going to see. Their advice is free, and worth much more than that.
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