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Overcoming Adversity: A Professional Aviator's Journey

Ever since I can recall, my eyes were always glancing toward anything that flew. Having grown up adjacent to the Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT), we were a big US Airways family. Half of my family members worked in operations or maintenance. When I think back to my first flight, which was a trip to Orlando, FL, on the Mad Dog (MD-80), my excitement for Disney World seemed microscopic when compared to my excitement for the flights there and back. After that first experience flying, my childhood was packed with non-revenue standby travel and visits to the flight deck.

I dreamed of flying for most of my life; however, there were several obstacles to tackle before I ever made it to a flight deck. One of the bigger obstacles was a birth defect that made me legally blind in one eye. Growing up with my condition made some things difficult, but not impossible. I was raised to laugh at things like this and push through barriers that this particular problem created. Having a good sense of humor was one important thing I am happy that I developed, because it is not only necessary to survive in this industry, but life in general.

Overcoming all the comments from doctors and career pilots alike was always difficult. “It’s cute you want to be like me, but you’ll never make it past your first solo.” Things like that were always hard to hear and made me think at times, “Wow, do I really need to grow up and NOT be a pilot?” However, as I continued to age through the hard times, I discovered that there were, in fact, great one-eyed pilots, like Wiley Post and Captain Carlos Dardano, who accomplished so much. After learning about TACA Flight 110, where Captain Dardano experienced a dual-engine flameout on a flight from Belize to New Orleans, I decided that if they could do it, I would have absolutely no reason to ever give up.

My first logged flight was in September of 2006, at the age of 13. After this flight, I asked for flight time in lieu of birthday or Christmas gifts. I had been bitten by the flying bug! After about five years, I logged approximately 25 hours of dual. Then, at the age of 16, I was getting ready to solo. These times were problematic, as I could not seem to get the landings down correctly. After several lessons, I ran out of money and was told to give up. Discouraged again, I focused on a possible military career. I spent seven years in the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) and focused on that during high school. Becoming Cadet Commander of the Pittsburgh Squadron was something I was most proud of at that time.

My first college semester was at Valley Forge Military College. My time in CAP served me well there, as most aspects to a military college life were not far off from CAP. My time at Valley Forge was short as the Army claimed I was unfit for any duties that the military could assign me. After trying 100 different ways to serve in the military, I went back to Pittsburgh after my first semester at Valley Forge and ended up at a local Pittsburgh community college.

If the military wasn’t going to let me fly, I was going to find a different way. I applied for my medical certificate and signed up for the Community College of Beaver County’s Professional Pilot program. Being the most popular and economical choice in the area, there was no better way to start my formal training. After approximately four or five lessons of getting back in the saddle, I realized that I had found my true calling. I finally accomplished my first solo flight, which was a feeling I couldn’t describe. To do something that seemed impossible was a feeling of accomplishment that I’ve never felt before.

As my classes moved along, I was almost ready to take my private pilot checkride. However, there was one thing – my medical was limited to being a student pilot. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) took about nine months to process my medical due to a paperwork issue and a government shutdown. Because of this, I was stuck attending instrument ground school with no private pilot certificate and seemingly no end in sight, burning through what cash I had saved up. However, a light at the end of the tunnel finally showed its color when I was given the opportunity to take a flight with an FAA examiner to prove that I could safely operate an aircraft.

This FAA ride went very well as we taxied into the ramp on an early, cold winter day. The examiner said, “Tom, there’s no reason why you won’t have a long fruitful career.” I could finally breathe after nine months of blowing through money on a career that I wasn’t even sure I could have. I finally got my Private Pilot Certificate less than a month later. My career was finally starting! I could fly!

My schooling continued throughout the next 14 months. I was behind on my flying, but I did what I could. Coming from a place where I had to fund college on my own, I ended up working throughout this whole process. Some days I would wake up at 3 a.m. and de-ice planes until 8 a.m., go to class until 2 or 3, and then fly at 4 p.m. I tried about every line and ramp job at least once during the subsequent four years. After tossing bags, fueling, and aircraft cabin cleaning, I finally ended up at a medevac company working as an Operational Control Specialist.

Having to work all this time made flying difficult due to cash flow. I even took a whole year off from flying because I simply couldn’t afford it. While working at the medevac company, I was exploring options for my future flying job. As my commercial checkride was fast approaching, I was able to secure a position as a Seaplane Pilot flying in New York City. I had it set up where I would take all my paid time off from my medevac job to take my commercial pilot and commercial seaplane checkrides. I was able to accomplish both within the allotted time, so I packed up my car and headed to Long Island.

Being a “green” commercial pilot with barely 270 hours at the controls, I was thrown into the right seat of a C-208 Caravan amphibian. The learning curve was STEEP, but I was fortunate enough to work with great captains who showed me the ways of flying on the water in New York City. Flying there was unlike any other kind of flying. There were many challenges, especially for a newly minted commercial pilot. During my short seaplane career, I was paid to do the coolest thing in New York City – fly on the East River. The experiences from this job are still some of the most memorable of not only my flying career, but my entire life.

During the time of an individual’s first flying job, one must be both humble and confident. Being able to speak up and take charge in situations is key. Just because other pilots have more hours, does not necessarily make them 100% right all of the time. However, it is important to be respectful. One other big thing is to continuously learn, no matter what happens. The day you show up thinking you know everything is the day you should get out of flying altogether.

After my time in New York, I was able to, through the help of the non-profit Professional Pilots of Tomorrow, find a job closer to home with a commuter called Southern Airways Express, based in Franklin, PA (FKL). This is where the bulk of my flight time building occurred. Although times at the commuter were tough, it made me a better pilot. Flying without an autopilot in all weather conditions makes an individual sharp. During this time, I can surely say that I really learned how to fly. I was at Southern Airways for a total of 13 months and was lucky enough to fly the Cessna Caravan through wonderful year-round western Pennsylvania weather.

While I continued to build flight time, a new job appeared on the horizon. As I was living in Pittsburgh, the next place to advance my career was a no brainer. I interviewed at Republic Airways and was selected for the November class of new-hire First Officers. It was at this time that I reflected more positively on my time at Southern because they gave me the opportunity to build my hours productively and efficiently; for that I was and am grateful.

New hire training soon began with a slight simulator delay between ATP/CTP and aircraft systems training, which provided me with some time off. During this time off, I was able to really relax and study a lot for what was about to come. About a month before training was to resume, I got a call that I was not prepared for – my father suddenly died at the age of 43. It was a hit I was not ready to take, especially before training. The thought of taking a later class crossed my mind, but I knew that he would not have wanted that. The systems class started that winter, and I went back to work.

During that time, I was dealing with my family and learning about a whole new airplane and career. This was the most challenging thing I have done. Going through a personal loss and then going right into training was incredibly rough. While it might have been acceptable to quit or delay training, that wasn’t an option for me. I surrounded myself with my studies. With the help of an amazing simulator training partner and various instructors, I made it through training with my head held high.

My first trip in the Embraer Regional Jet was the following summer. That trip was

something to remember. I flew from Chicago O’Hare, IL (ORD) to Key West, FL (EYW) and back, two days in a row. The feeling of finally flying a jet was unlike anything else in the world. After everything I had endured, I was finally in the flight deck! After one more trip, I passed IOE and became a line-certified airline pilot.

The following years, I learned so much from many people on the road. Once I got through my first 500 hours on the jet, my imposter syndrome started to wear off. I was lucky enough to be home-based and have the schedule that I wanted. As months at the job turned into years, COVID hit and took out the whole industry. During this time, I was one of the lucky ones to keep my job throughout the ordeal. Now that things are getting back to normal, the future for not only me, but also our industry, looks brighter. I am now working a lot and enjoying every minute of it!

The reason for me writing a post like this is to hopefully motivate others. No matter what happens or what anyone says, you CAN accomplish your goals. From someone like me who had every reason to quit or give up, I will say – never give up.

This is the short version of my story, and I feel extremely privileged to be able to share it. My career path was not always on time or as planned, but through the help of so many amazing people, both in and out of the industry, I can confidently say that I have one of the greatest jobs in the world. I truly feel privileged and lucky every time I get to fly. Always remember to keep flying and make it happen, no matter what!

- Thomas

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