Updated: Jan 20, 2021
If you’re reading this, you are probably just like the rest of us; people who can’t imagine a life without aviation, who have been told again and again that we have “the disease.” This is also known as the “aviation bug,” the thing that won’t allow our one-track minds to even consider another career. I personally have this bug, and I am proud of it. As I write this today, I have been a pilot for almost 20 years, and I am currently a Boeing 737 First Officer for American Airlines. Although my career has been the proverbial “roller coaster ride,” I wouldn’t change a thing. All of the experiences I’m about to outline brought me to where I am today, and honestly, I could not be happier. Currently, my wife and I live in downtown Chicago, IL, and I have a short train ride to my dream job at O’Hare International Airport (ORD). Wherever you live and whatever your aviation aspirations are, hopefully, my story provides some help and inspiration for you to reach your goals.
University Flight Training & Early Career
Prior to starting my aviation journey in 2001, I was your run-of-the-mill aspiring airline pilot growing up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. As a kid, I would obsess over the endless stream of airliners overhead on final for runway 14R at ORD. Often times, my dad and I would drive to the runway threshold just to watch the planes fly over at super low altitudes — yes, it was a lot like that scene in Wayne’s World. Having set my sights on my ultimate career goal during my teenage years, I also knew early on that my ideal path to get there would be to attend a four-year university. Even though that’s the course I chose to pursue, there are countless routes you can take to achieve your aviation education and career goals, and truly no single option is better than any other.
There are too many facets to take into account in this short blog regarding how you will begin your journey; but rest assured, whether you attend a four-year university, learn to fly at an FAA Part 61 school, join the military, or choose any other option, you will succeed if you want it badly enough. My decision was simple. I wanted three things: to learn to fly, to earn a bachelor’s degree, and to have the full “college experience.” Lucky for me, that was all possible just three hours from home at the University of Illinois - Institute of Aviation in Champaign, IL. Even luckier for me, my high school grades and college test scores were sufficient. At the end of 2000, I was accepted into the Aviation Human Factors Bachelor’s Degree program beginning in the fall semester of 2001.
It’s no secret that 2001 was not the best year to start flying. Despite this fact, I spent the entire year prior repeatedly hearing that this was “the best time in the history of aviation” to begin a career as a pilot. The folks saying this weren’t wrong; they were basing their assumptions on the fact that an unprecedented number of retirements were on the horizon at all of the major airlines. None of us could have seen 9/11 coming, nor could anyone have predicted that it would take roughly 10 years for the airline industry to recover. However, the takeaway should be this: as a pilot you will hear a lot of advice and opinions on your career path from your peers, instructors, and coworkers. In fact, captains I fly with today regularly comment on how “great” my career is going to be. But none of that matters. Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring, and if there is a better example of that than 9/11 or Covid-19, I am not aware of it.
If I had put all of my stock into the promises of my “perfect timing,” then I would have quit flying one month into my education. Fortunately, I did not quit flying. I followed the entire Human Factors curriculum and graduated in four years with High Honors and a 4.0 GPA in my major. Along the way, I earned my Private, Instrument, Commercial, Multi-engine, CFI, CFII, and MEI certificates and ratings. Although the Institute of Aviation no longer exists at the University of Illinois, the progression of achieving your ratings along with a formal bachelor’s level of education is very common at many schools around the nation.
Building Flight Time & Experience
For those of us who graduated college in 2005, jobs were rather hard to come by in the aviation industry. All of the major airlines still had thousands of pilots on furlough, and although the regional airlines were hiring, it was nowhere near the boom that they had seen in years prior or would see a decade later. As a result, hiring minimums remained relatively high and were generally out of reach for new college graduates without a way to build flight hours. Many of my friends from college went to the Air Force or other military branches. Some even found jobs outside of aviation. Having already spent my senior year working as a flight instructor for the university, I decided to make the natural transition into full-time flight instruction. My hope when I started my job as a Certified Fight Instructor (CFI) was to build some hours over a couple of years, especially those much-needed multi-engine hours, and land a job at a regional airline.
Lo and behold, fate stepped in. Have you ever heard the old saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know?” (Spoiler: This will be a repeated theme throughout my story). A couple of years prior, I had made acquaintances with a captain from the private jet management company next door to our aviation school and made sure to keep in touch with him. Near the end of that year, they were in need of two additional pilots. The captain I met previously thought of me right away. Having that key contact got my resume into a very short stack for consideration.
In 2006, I was hired by a company called Flightstar; my first real flying job! We were a team of 19 pilots for a fleet of 10 airplanes — King Airs and Falcon 10s, 20s, and 900s. All of us were required to be current on at least two separate aircraft types, for which we were on call 24-7. I got to fly my first turbo-prop, my first jet, and work in a true crew environment. However, I quickly realized that it was never going to be that airline job I really wanted, so I decided to leave after a short year. I had a pocket full of turbine time and multi-engine time upon my departure from Flightstar. At that time, numerous friends and ex-instructors from University of Illinois were flying for American Eagle Airlines (today called Envoy Air). My contacts and friendships proved to be invaluable, as their internal recommendations helped me land an interview quickly and made me an attractive candidate in a competitive hiring environment. I survived the two-day interview and started a month later. By spring of 2007, I was flying the Embraer 145 out of ORD for American Eagle.
Regional Flying & Transition to a Major Air Carrier
Over the next six to seven years, the industry and my airline went through quite a bit of turmoil. 2008 brought on yet another downturn as a result of the housing crash and subsequent economic impact. Although American Eagle furloughed some pilots, I had the seniority to stay on and weathered the storm for the years that followed. In 2009, the mandatory retirement age was changed from 60 to 65, further stagnating the seniority lists at all airlines. By the very end of 2011, just as things were finally getting back on track, AMR (the owner of American Airlines and American Eagle at the time) declared bankruptcy. Without going into too much detail on what bankruptcy means for a pilot group, I’ll sum it up as “not good.” Even though I was ensured a future flow-through to mainline American, no one knew if that was ever going to happen or how long it would take, so I decided to leave.
Outside of flying for another regional, which would have been a lateral and unbeneficial move, my options were few. I applied to the small number of major airlines that were hiring at the time: JetBlue, Virgin America, Spirit, and US Airways, and I contacted anyone and everyone I knew who flew for those airlines. Once again, it was a good friend who was able to give me that much needed boost and get my resume onto the right person’s desk. Although it took over a year, at the age of 30, I was invited to interview with Virgin America in early 2013 and was offered a class date in August of that year. A quick Public Service Announcement: Don’t ever lose touch with your friends, colleagues, flight instructors, and peers. I can all but promise you that you will need them, and they’ll need you at some point in your careers.
I absolutely loved my years at Virgin America; everything about the job was stellar. We flew mostly coast-to-coast, one-leg days, with a team of incredibly fun coworkers. However, in 2016 we found out there would no longer be a Virgin America when we were bought by Alaska Airlines. Although my job wasn’t in danger, I once again decided to put out job applications, this time to the three biggest airlines: American, United, and Delta. After more than a decade of furloughs, all three were finally hiring pilots, and LOTS of them. Getting in early during a big hiring wave means everything for your quality of life… remember that. With each airline having about 20,000 resumes on file, it was extremely hard to stand out. I attended job fairs and went with the tried-and-true method of reaching out to anybody I knew working at each airline that could help with letters of recommendation in attempt to get face-to-face time with anyone of influence.