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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 flying in. What I found slightly humorous during this time was that when we did have the occasional cloudy day, flight instructors would cancel their flights. No way was I going to cancel a perfect opportunity to show my students how to fly IFR in the clouds – a truly great experience.

In June of 2015, I hit my magic number of 934 total flight hours. Most people reading this may already know that a Restricted-ATP certificate requires a minimum of 1,000 flight hours if the aviator attends a university flight school with a four-year degree program. So how did I get away with 934 hours? Simple, I went through the Federal Aviation Regulations and Aeronautical Information Manual (FAR/AIM) with a fine-tooth comb and found every extra hour that I could count toward the required 1,000 hours. I learned that I could count a portion of my simulator time toward my total time. I also learned that I could count up to 25 hours of simulator time that I would receive during my regional airline training! It can vary for each individual, but for me I was able to add an additional 66 hours toward my total time. This wasn’t a big difference in flight time, but by doing some simple research, I was able to get to the regional airlines one month faster. And believe me, when it comes to seniority and the associated quality of life at an airline, every month counts.

A Trip Back Home to Where it all Began

After leaving Phoenix and my fellow UND friends, I headed back to good ol’ Mom and Dad’s house up in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. Boy what a transition. While going through my old room, I found a lot of memorabilia I hadn’t thought of in a long time. One of those things was an old certificate that was given to me when I had my first flight. It had been so long that I couldn’t even remember where the airport was located. Luckily, it was on the certificate that I had framed. I did a quick Google search and found out it was only a few miles down the road! On a random Tuesday right before my Compass Airlines training started, I decided to take a drive back to where it all began. I took a few pictures

and the certificate with me and knocked on Captain Larry’s door – nine years after my first flight.

When Larry came to the door, he had no memory of who I was until I showed him the pictures. It was such a powerful moment for both of us when I got to share with Larry just how far I had taken my love for aviation. He invited me in, and I had the pleasure of speaking with Larry and his wife, Carol – both of whom I am still in contact with to this day. From what I could see in Larry, paying it forward and helping a young aviator achieve success will bring a lifetime of happiness.

Compass Airlines & Pilot Recruiting

A few weeks later, I was drinking from a firehose as I tackled training at Compass. Man did I ever meet some great people along the way there. It may not have been the highest paying job, but we sure did have a fantastic time. Training was tough, but I had a great bunch of guys all going through it with me. Most of these people I still talk with to this day. One of the great friends I made during this time was my simulator partner, Alex Nikle. His name should sound familiar because he is one of the founders of this very website. Alex has been very helpful throughout my aviation career. Not only is he now a

close friend, but I followed in his footsteps most of the way to where I am now. Alex became a Pilot Recruiter for Compass, and later I did the same thing. Want to talk about a networking dream? That was it! What a fun time I had recruiting. I got to share my flying experiences with other pilots and encourage others to step up to the regional level.

To come full circle in networking, this is how I knew the aviation industry could be so small at times. Remember Brendin Nelson? He was the guy that got me an interview with Compass Airlines. Well as it turns out, I had the pleasure of not only being a pilot recruiter like him but also got to be his First Officer on his very last flight at Compass. I also had the pleasure of flying with Alex Nikle for his last flight at Compass. Both individuals went to Delta Air Lines, my dream job at that time.

While flying full-time and recruiting part-time at Compass, I eventually made my way up to Captain. I upgraded at the first opportunity I was given. At the time, I debated bypassing upgrade so that I could stay in Minneapolis, MN (MSP). I spoke with Alex and he said, “Never bypass an opportunity to upgrade. Take it as soon as you can get it.” I am so grateful for that advice. Shortly after upgrade, MSP closed its doors at Compass Airlines. I would have been holding out for nothing. If the opportunity to upgrade is available, I highly recommend doing it!

Being a captain at the age of 25 has its own challenges, but they are all worth it. In fact, I can honestly say that it not only made me a better pilot but also improved my

communication skills. The captain gets to set the tone of each flight which is great, especially if one loves their job. Unfortunately, crewmember personality conflicts will occur. As a First Officer, it is inevitable that one will eventually encounter a captain who is unpleasant to fly with. Bad trips often stem from captains with large egos, ignorance, and poor decision making. Don’t be “that guy.” If a Captain ever does something bothersome throughout a trip, chances are other First Officers don’t like it either. Keeping a cool, calm, and collected head in good and bad situations makes for the best types of captains.

While building flight time as a Captain, I knew I was getting closer to my dream job. At this point I pulled all the cards I could. I wanted Delta Air Lines to know that I wanted to be a pilot for them. Every time I bumped an elbow with a Delta employee, I kept them as a contact. Even before I went to Compass, I was stopping at the Delta booth during the SAMA Career fair at UND. It’s never too early to start. When I was volunteering at Oshkosh AirVenture, I would stop over at their booth again just to say hi. Once I became a recruiter for Compass Airlines, I went to every event I could that Delta hosted to get my name out there. By the time I was a Captain for Compass, I not only knew many pilots that were now at Delta, but I also was on a first name basis with a few Delta recruiters. This was huge!

Landing My Dream Job at Delta Air Lines

AirlineApps is Delta’s, and many other airlines, application platform. The first time I filled out my application on AirlineApps it was absolutely horrible. There were spelling errors, half-finished sentences, and addresses that didn’t coincide with where I was actually living. I thought it was fine at first. However, as a pilot recruiter for Compass, I quickly realized how wrong I was. This is the first impression the airlines have of an applicant!

Is it worth it to pay $200 to have someone review your application? YES! Think about it this way; there are typically over 15,000 applications on file for any given airline. Out of those 15,000 applications, the airline will choose a maximum of 1,000 or so people to interview. I can guarantee that if an applicant doesn’t have a clean-looking application, the recruiters will notice it and move onto the next one immediately. The way we looked at this as recruiters was simple: If individuals are not willing to put in the attention to detail on their application now, then why would they pay attention to detail when coming to work for us? Not only did I keep my application flawless, but I made sure to keep it up to date with current flight hours and address history each month. As an applicant, one never knows when the application is going to get selected for review.

On May 15th, 2018, at the young age of 26, I received the long-awaited email! “The Delta Pilot Selection Team is pleased to invite you to visit our World Headquarters Campus in Atlanta to be considered for employment as a Delta Air Lines pilot.” I remember waking up to this email like it was yesterday. I was so excited. In fact, I shouted “YES” at the top of my lungs that morning. I only had 300 hours of turbine PIC (Captain time) from Compass Airlines. This was unheard of! Most people wouldn’t even be considered for an interview until a minimum of 1,000 hours turbine PIC.

So how did I get so lucky? Honestly, I don’t know. If I had to guess, I would say networking! The only thing I could think of that got my application pulled for review was due to my good friend, Dustin Dryden. He was a former Captain I flew with at Compass Airlines that not only helped me become a pilot recruiter at Compass, but when he was hired at Delta, he put in an internal recommendation for me. Internal recommendations are highly beneficial! Each Delta employee only gets to put in one per year and it guarantees that the application will get reviewed and scored by the recruiting team.

I spent months prepping for my interview by going to the library almost every night. I was going to make sure I gave it my best shot. I had both friends and family give me mock interviews. However, the biggest help for me was the mock interview I did with a pilot recruiting colleague the week before my actual interview. We rehearsed several scenario-based questions and various situations that involved dealing with challenging events both on and off the flight deck, all while videotaping my answers. If an individual is ever prepping for an interview, I highly recommend that he or she videotapes themselves. It really helped me!

Even though I was a pilot recruiter and knew what to expect for the interview, I was still very nervous. In fact, I remember being in the panel portion of the interview and stuttering through the first few sentences of “tell me about yourself.” Delta did a wonderful job of making me feel like I was in a safe place. As my nerves eased, I began to talk normally again. The best thing an individual can do in any interview is to take a breath, smile, be honest, and stay consistent with one’s answers.

Successfully passing the Delta Air Lines interview was a dream come true! At 27, I was officially on the books as a Delta Air Lines Pilot. How did I do it before 30? Hard work, a little luck, and a whole lot of networking!

These are the pictures I gave to Captain Larry Steenstry, the man that started it all for me.

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