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Majors by 30: My Path to Delta Air Lines

Updated: Jan 20, 2021

For me, the itch for aviation started when I was 14 years old. I was a scrawny little paper boy delivering the Sunday Shopper to my neighbors when this old man along my route decided he was going to take me under his wing. I had no idea who this man was, yet he demanded I call him Grandpa Heggie. As the weeks went by, he started asking if I was interested in aviation. “What is aviation?” I replied. He responded, “Well, how would you like to go up on a free flight?” “Absolutely!” I said.

It turns out Grandpa Heggie wasn’t a pilot himself but rather a strong aviation enthusiast that was part of the Chapter 60 Experiment Aircraft Association (EAA) which happened to be near my hometown. He said that he knew a pilot that did EAA Young Eagle flights and would get everything set up. As the days went on, Grandpa Heggie would stop over at my house just to talk airplanes and drop off some flying magazines. This was my only real “in” to the aviation world. A week went by, and we were all set up to go on my first flight!

In September of 2006, at age 14, I got the official aviation “bug.” Grandpa Heggie introduced me to retired United Airlines 747 Captain Larry Steenstry. That was a day that I will never forget. Larry took all of us down to his hangar where he rolled out an old Aeronca 7AC. Moments later, Larry hand propped the Aeronca, and we were off – boy, what a rush! Once we got back on the ground, I said my thank-yous, took a few pictures, and Larry signed a Young Eagles Certificate for me.

I went home and raved to my mom and dad about how I wanted to be a pilot one day. They both gave me a look that could be described as, “Yes, we encourage you to do that… but it sounds expensive!” And expensive it was but also worth every penny. Once senior year of high school arrived, I had a serious decision to make, Purdue University, Mankato State University, or the University of North Dakota. I was accepted to all three aviation programs, but I wasn’t sure which to choose. Therefore, it was time for a road trip. My parents and I went to visit all three schools that summer.

Flight Training Universities

The first stop was Purdue University which is where I really wanted to go. It was a Big 10 college, had a large campus, and was known to be a lot of fun. I really liked the aviation department and was ready to sign the dotted line once I saw their training fleet. However, it was really expensive, and it was only the first college of the three.

The next stop was Mankato State University. I quickly realized that Mankato was a lot smaller school when compared to Purdue. At first, I thought I wasn’t going to like that; however, I actually loved it! I could take a more hands-on approach and the class sizes weren’t overwhelming, so I could engage more easily. The issue for me was their aviation program. At the time in 2010, they didn’t know if they were going to keep their aviation program. It was expensive, very small, and they only had a handful of airplanes at that time.

Which brought us to our final stop, the University of North Dakota. I really didn’t see myself going to this school because it was so far away from home. However, I heard it was one of the top aviation schools in the nation, so I gave it a good look. I was blown away! It was perfect! The people were very friendly, the campus was all in one location, and the real kicker… the training fleet. They had and still have a fleet size of over 100 aircraft. It was a no-brainer at that point and tuition was cheap! Little did I know at the time how many doors UND would soon open.

I had the time of my life at the University of North Dakota. I made a lot of friends, earned the degree I always dreamt of, and most importantly became a pilot! Don’t get me wrong, this didn’t happen overnight. There was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that went into my undergraduate studies. My biggest advice for anyone in college is this: Don’t give up on yourself. Stay focused, stay organized, get involved, and most importantly NETWORK!

March 2nd, 2011 - FIRST SOLO - 19 Years Old

During my freshman year of school, I didn’t know what kind of pilot I wanted to be. I just knew that I wanted to fly airplanes. The University really helped me see what all of my options were. At first, I really leaned toward becoming a corporate pilot. Then, I thought about opening my own flight school. Eventually, I heard of an upcoming pilot shortage and decided that I would be an idiot not to jump on the airline pilot bandwagon. In my opinion, making my decision no later than sophomore year, and sticking to it, was the key to my success.

Network Early & Often

While attending college, I did a lot of networking. To this day, I still remain in contact with not only friends that I met along the way at UND, but also a few professors. The more people one meets, the more opportunities he or she will have in the future. Some individuals find it hard to meet new people; however, it is easier if one gets involved! Get involved right away. During my undergraduate studies, I worked part-time as a Zamboni driver, volunteered for several groups on and off campus, and even tutored other aviation students, all of which I would highly recommend. These activities are fun and a great resume booster.

After graduating with honors from the University of North Dakota, I, like many others, became a full-time Flight Instructor for UND Aerospace. This was one of the most challenging, yet rewarding, jobs I have ever had. It was also the first time I actually got paid to fly an airplane! Even though my students tried to kill me occasionally, often when I least expected it, there were moments each of us will never forget – like when I gave them the keys for their first solos.

Remember when I talked about how important networking is? Well, this is why. Among other conferences, I would attend UND’s SAMA Career fair each year. I did so all the way from freshman year until the year after graduation. Doing this not only helped me become more confident in talking with people, but also helped me become a familiar face with the pilot recruiters. This all paid off during my senior year. After speaking with many other regional air carriers, I eventually made my way to Compass Airlines. At that time, I didn’t know a lot about them, and I honestly didn’t have very high hopes of getting an interview since I only had approximately 300 flight hours to my name. Keep in mind, most people during this time weren’t getting interviewed until they had 800 to 1,000 hours of flight time.

It was my lucky day when I crossed paths with Compass Airlines pilot recruiter, Brendin Nelson. I found out Brendin was a UND Alumnus and wanted to help fellow UNDers out. After talking for a bit, he handed me some paperwork and basically said apply before next week, and I will see it through that you get an interview. I couldn’t believe my ears! An interview with only 300 hours? How? Well, I guess I was at the right place at the right time, because that’s exactly what happened. A month later I secured a Contingent Job Offer (CJO) with Compass Airlines. My next step was to build flight hours!

Building Flight Time to R-ATP Minimums

Becoming a flight instructor is highly encouraged when one is looking to build flight time. Not only do flight instructors get paid to build that time, but they also become better pilots themselves. The best way to learn is by teaching. Mistakes are made occasionally, but that is okay. The important part is to learn from these mistakes and get to know what does and doesn’t work.

Being a flight instructor and trying to build time in Grand Forks, ND, is challenging. The weather during the winter months can really put a damper on flight hours. This was both good and bad. I learned how to fly in some of the most challenging weather conditions. I also learned a lot about Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) and how to actually apply those rules to real-life situations. However, there were plenty of times that I simply couldn’t fly because the weather was just too bad.

This was true until I made the decision to transfer flight instructing jobs down to Phoenix, Arizona. I got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expand my aviation knowledge in a new climate. However, I was a bit intimidated about flying around mountains and class B airspace. It was something I had never done before. The weather was perfect every day! This again was both good and bad. It was great because we got the opportunity to fly every day. However, when it came to flying IFR, students really struggled with real-life applications. There were simply no clouds to go