University Flight Training Pathway to Becoming an Airline Pilot - A Pilot's Perspective
Updated: Jan 20
Biography: Bret Hildebrant
My name is Bret Hildebrant. I was born and raised in the Chicagoland area and currently live north of downtown Chicago. I’ve had a passion for aviation since I was young but didn’t start flying until college. I went to the University of North Dakota and graduated in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautics majoring in Commercial Aviation, as well as a Bachelor of Business Administration with a second major in Aviation Management. I started flying for the airlines in 2010 and currently fly the Boeing 737 out of Chicago O’Hare (ORD).
The Passion for Flying
I went on vacation every two years to visit family in Denver, Colorado. I was always excited to go on the flight and see the flight deck and wondered what it would be like to be a pilot. When given the choice, all my projects in grade school involved aviation. My dream was to fly the A-10 Warthog and I thought my career would certainly involve both military and airline flying experience.
Why he Chose The University of North Dakota
I initially looked at the Air Force Academy, but later realized that I wanted to go to college like most of my peers. I wanted a four-year university experience with a structured training program tailored to the airlines, and also a degree that I could apply outside of the aviation environment. After seeing a few programs, I ultimately decided on the University of North Dakota. During my enrollment, the aviation program had about 2,000 students while the university had approximately 14,000 students. UND also provided plenty of extracurricular and social activities including Greek life, student government, and intramural sports. The most attractive aspect to me was the flight program. Flight operations had a new fleet of aircraft with state-of-the-art equipment and was nationally known to be one of the best programs in the country. The program operated as a Part 141 flight school and had a highly structured curriculum with instructors and professors possessing various backgrounds of aviation experience.
A Little Bit About the Training Program in North Dakota
The University of North Dakota is located in Grand Forks, ND. Most of the classwork and simulator training was located on campus, while all flight training was located about five miles west of town at the Grand Forks International Airport. North Dakota is a great learning environment because it is subject to hot summers and very cold winters. Located in the Red River Valley, it was always windy which made training a challenge. A typical day involved classwork like any other university, but being part of the flight program, you also had about three days per week of flying corresponding to the coursework. During my enrollment, UND’s fleet consisted primarily of Piper aircraft. The Private and Instrument Pilot courses used the Piper Warrior and Cessna 172 Skyhawk aircraft. Next, commercial maneuvering was in the Piper Arrow, followed by Commercial, Multi-Engine, and Instrument training in the Piper Seminole. The final course was training to become a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI).
Challenges Along the Way
Time management was my biggest challenge throughout training. My goal was to graduate in four years with two degrees. Typically, I took 16-18 credits per semester of coursework plus the flying associated with each course. It was definitely a lot, but I became really efficient at what I did. I also chose my route because I wanted the college experience by becoming more involved in other activities on campus. I participated in Greek Life and intramural sports while also working all sorts of jobs, such as flipping burgers and bartending.
I was able to get student loans for most of my training expenses, but also wanted to do what I could to limit loans as much as possible. When I obtained my CFI, I worked for UND as an instructor, typically working with four students per semester while concurrently completing my own coursework. It was all a balancing act of having a social life, while maintaining good grades and building enough flight experience to ultimately get hired by the airlines.
Is there anything you would have changed if you could do it all over again?
I would have reduced my course load each semester and committed more time on my second degree. I stayed at the university each summer, with the exception of the summer following my freshman year. I didn’t really give myself a break, so toward the end I felt I was getting burned out and just ready to graduate. I wanted to get through training and to the airlines as quickly as I could. I passed on internship opportunities that really could have excelled my career down the road. Not to take away from my experience, because I still had a great time, but I should have slowed down a bit. One of my best friends always got worked up for not getting hired at a major airline, while comparing himself to everyone that had been hired. I always told him, “Your time will come, just relax. We’ll look back at this in 10 years and say it was stupid to worry about those things. Just enjoy the ride and let it happen.” He was later hired at Delta and had interviews with American and United all within a few weeks of each other. Would I change one thing if I did it all over again? I’d listen to my own advice and just enjoy the ride.
The Next Steps...
After I completed my flight instructor training course, I was hired at UND to be a CFI. I worked up the ranks and became a Check Pilot where I evaluated students as they progressed through training and ensured that our instructors were performing their jobs to the appropriate standards. I also worked as a Supervisor of Flight, where I managed the daily flight operations including abnormal and emergency situations as well as administered all flight activity. In 2009, I was offered a C-130 Air Force Reserve position in Minneapolis, but unfortunately my vision did not meet the appropriate standards. A year after graduating from UND, I was hired at American Eagle Airlines (now Envoy Air) and flew the ATR-72 based out of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Forth Worth, TX. Next, I flew the CRJ-700 based out of Chicago O’Hare and eventually upgraded to Captain, where I became a Line Check Airman. I later moved on to American Airlines as part of their flow agreement where I have been based in Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago flying the Boeing 737.
Transitioning to Airline-Style Flying
I feel like the university prepared me well for the airlines. The flight program’s capstone course provided training in a CRJ-200 simulator. The class operated just like an airline ground school. They taught all the systems and procedures so you would be prepared for line flying. When I was hired at American Eagle Airlines, the ground school operated very similarly to the UND CRJ-200 course. I made it through training without any problems. It wasn’t easy, but I was well prepared. My first flights were intimidating; I was flying with veterans and I was once again the rookie. However, I flew like I was trained; I always strived to be better, learn more, and get to the point where I was comfortable and competent in my new role.
Advice for Others Entering the Industry
I volunteered for a union position as the Chairman for Professional Standards for a period of time while I was at American Eagle Airlines. We promoted and maintained the highest degree of professional conduct amongst our pilots, and we addressed problems that were professional or ethical in nature. Primarily, we helped resolve conflict between crewmembers that may have adversely affected fight deck safety. At some point in your training or professional career, you will eventually encounter conflicts with your peers, instructors, First Officers, Captains, etc. It may be a personality conflict, a managerial style, or even a Captain that is micromanaging too much. Coaching or constructive criticism may be perceived too direct in nature.
A trend we saw was the lack of conflict resolution skills and the ability to have constructive conversation when conflict arose between crewmembers or peers. Pilots would come to our volunteers in our Professional Standards group and ask us to solve their problems. The first question I would always ask was, “Did you address the issue and try resolving it yourself yet?” Nine times out of ten, the answer would be no. Most of the time the other person involved had no idea that they said something wrong or did something in a way to negatively affect the other person. Problems are solved by having conversations. Conflicts will happen throughout your entire career. Each time it happens, learn from it and learn how to deal with it. I’m not saying you should bring up every issue each time you have a problem with someone. However, if it’s distracting you from doing your job safely, address it and solve it before it grows into a larger problem.
Bret Hildebrant is a graduate of The University of North Dakota with a dual degree in Aeronautics and Business Administration. Bret has logged over 7,000 flight hours and is type-rated in the ATR-42/72, CRJ-200/700/900 as well as the Boeing 737. He is based out of Chicago O'Hare (ORD) as a First Officer with American Airlines.
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