"Have you ever thought about becoming a pilot?"
October 1, 2020
Matt is working towards his Commercial Pilot Certification, flying through Thunderbird Aviation with aspirations to fly for a major airline.
The journey to begin flight training started back in early December of 2017 as an innocent conversation. My sister's husband had just poured us another cup of coffee as we leaned against the kitchen countertop, relaxing following breakfast at their lakeside home in Prior Lake. We talked about the ins and outs of our daily grind and the challenges of working in our respective fields.
Justin had in recent years made the jump from pilot for Compass Airlines to Delta Airlines and was working his way up the ranks as a captain. I was struggling to find light at the end of the tunnel in a detail-oriented role of a service scheduler, dubbed "deployment coordinator," and expressed that this was not my end-all dream role for career advancement within corporate-America. He listened with patience to how my then-current job focused on fine details, was rooted in technology, but structured around being process-driven and meticulously purposeful in execution. And then the question came that set into motion a series of events changing my life: "Have you ever thought about becoming a pilot?"
Had I ever thought about being a pilot? Surely that option had occurred to me during my high school freshman year for career path orientation. Quite possibly the idea may have been introduced even before when I was very young. My earliest aeronautic experience was when I was 7 years old, taking off on a plane for the first time with the family for a Disney World vacation to Florida. Since then and every time between, there has always been a thrill of being in the air, moving so fast in such a magnificent machine. So what had ever dissuaded me from viewing the job of manning an airplane's cockpit as something I could do?
"You're smart," Justin continued, "and detailed. You're great with math and calculations – I really think it's something you could do. Just think about it." So I did, probably for the first time seriously in my life. The idea took root as I played with the notion in my mind, of the training effort required and of the potential rewards. I looked around at their beautiful home with its amazing lakefront view, then to photo albums on a coffee table added over the last few years from their adventures traveling the world. Greece, Iceland, Italy. Not to mention the random photo message I had received from him the previous winter – "Skiing at the top of the Swiss Alps, you can see all the way down to Italy in the distance." Quite the testament to the lifestyle afforded by the income bracket and perks of the career. Delayed gratification and the time investiture requirements did not dissuade me from starting to dream.
A few weeks later I was back as we celebrated Christmas, during which time I received a nondescript card amongst our exchange of presents. Inside was a gift card my sister's family had given me for a demo flight from Thunderbird Aviation, a local fixed base operator at the nearby airport. He explained that it was a good opportunity to get me into the cockpit of a general aviation aircraft and see if I liked being at the controls, to better determine if it was something to pursue. Such a thoughtful gift, especially in light of our recent conversation, really hammered home that I had motivational support if I wanted to entertain flying long-term. It helped that during family dinners there were many, many stories of the fun – and crazy – experiences both Justin and his father had over numerous years in flight. A couple weeks later into the new year went by before I made the phone call, setting an appointment for the demo flight.
The day of the scheduled flight came and I walked into the door of Thunderbird Aviation at Crystal for the first time. A young man named Israel introduced himself as the flight instructor that would be taking me up. He talked through what we would do and how I would be operating the controls from the pilot's seat, performing nearly all phases of flight except for landing. We reviewed the basics of what each gauge was for and how the inputs worked. I was thrilled how much control and freedom this would mean on my inaugural trip.
After the engine was started and our headsets were on, my instructor said he would be taking care of the radio calls during the trip. While taxiing, hearing those first few radio exchanges to ground control for clearance was captivating – it was like listening to another language! Israel assured me that communication within aviation followed a logical, process-driven format that was easy to understand after learning it. Once in position on the runway I was able to bring the throttle up to full, zipping forward as speed increased. Being a cool, clear January day, it was just perfect for the plane's performance as we effortlessly lifted off into the sky.
An hour later I was safely back on the ground with a newfound fervor for the magic of aviation. My first phone call afterward was to my brother-in-law to tell him how things went. "So, what'd you think?" was his question. "I could definitely see myself doing this long-term," was my reply. We talked in detail about what made sense to aim for as a career path though he very emphatically stated that ATP (Airline Transport Pilot) was the way to go. Lots of other options were available: corporate charters, regional airlines, cargo flying – but my general impression from his perspective was that ATP was where it was at for a target job. Several important milestones were needed, however, before catching up to where Justin was at. I was about to learn my first very important lesson regarding aviation training: you have to have an absolute hunger and desire to pursue flying as a career.
In the following weeks the training plan we discussed made sense on paper. First was to work on a private pilot certificate. This, most obviously, would be the cornerstone on which everything else would be built. Second, would be expanding skills to become instrument rated, allowing flight by instrumentation only and in more challenging weather conditions. Following these would be commercial and multi-engine ratings. "You won't be able to fly a jet with just a single engine rating," Justin joked. And finally, a certified flight instructor rating to become a teacher one day myself as I gained hours of flight time towards the ultimate goal.
Probably the biggest hurdle for any prospective pilot awaited me as I worked on the logistics of how to start training – financing the endeavor. No doubt about it, this was likely the reason I hadn't previously given much serious thought to aviation aspirations. Not only did the overall monetary cost exceed my estimations, but the time commitment was staggering – with years to plan in order to gain enough knowledge and proficiency needed. Unfortunately, my sister and her husband were good motivators for the inspiration and career coaching, just not financial backing. My parents were not in any position to assist either. I'd faced this before when earning my first educational degree: I'd have to do it on my own. The words echoed in my mind about one needing to have a motivation so strong that you'll overcome the obstacles on the way and find solutions to get you into the air. If you're lucky or driven enough through your youth to identify this ambition, having an opportunity to attend a college focused on aviation training is the most effective way to go. In fact, I discovered the industry is almost tailored for it. A young college student is generally not balancing a full time job, family, or living expenses in the same way that career-oriented adults do. Starting flight training with all of its investment requirements poses a unique challenge the older one gets and based on financial means. Luckily several options presented themselves the more I did research.
Barring military experience for flight, my funding choices were reduced to three options. Out-of-pocket training, loans, or enrollment for an accredited degree from an institution. At this point developing a plan was critical to success. My own personal situation omitted the out-of-pocket method simply due to my lack of assets. Loans, I discovered, were possible, though quite restrictive when it came to covering aviation training; plus they had finite limits to how much you could borrow in one-go even from lenders specialized for flight training. That meant that after completing one portion of education such as the Private Pilot Certificate, there'd be a repayment period compounding to catch up on before starting the next rating. My plan was to move ahead as quickly as possible which did not make loans appealing. By process of elimination, looking for a school that included flight training seemed to be the right choice.
Despite being called a flight "school" and teaching a skill, most flight schools are not accredited education institutions which excludes them from federal student loans. My personal obligations necessitated looking within the immediate Twin Cities metro for my education needs. As it turned out, there was really only one choice for schools that fit my criteria: Academy College. The college based in Bloomington happened to be the only one offering local aviation degrees which allowed for financial assistance to cover flight training, rental, and expenses. An added bonus was that by following the institution's program, progress would be made under FAA Part 141 rules with FAA-approved instruction. This differed from the standard FAA Part 61 flight training requirements which could be obtained from any certified flight instructor, not being associated with a flight school. Utilizing Part 141 training throughout would ultimately result in fewer required hours needed to obtain the ATP rating. Academy had also partnered with Thunderbird Aviation as their local fixed based operator at two locations, enabling flexibility for scheduling. I set an appointment with the admissions director to determine how this could work out given the very tight restrictions I was now facing.
While the prospect of working through Academy College seemed to shore up financial concerns, it posed my second greatest obstacle: time. Not only would the classes themselves require time, but the homework on top of the flight training component went well above and beyond normal college classes. The upside was multiple class time options, though the downside ended up at the same result of a completely full schedule.
Working a full time job started sounding more like a hindrance than a benefit. Furthermore, work-life-school balance and ideas of social events became almost nonexistent. I had to ask myself whether I could be so dedicated, for a very long period of time, and shut out what had become the daily normal. Worse still, I pondered what would happen to me if anything would happen to me physically, my health, or mental well-being with the strain of undertaking such a monumental challenge taxing my wallet and calendar alike.
The answer was not as simple as I had hoped, but did lend to the idea that some flexibility for both time and money would be the best way to move forward.
Fortuitously timed tax returns and other unpredicted windfalls enabled a new, better plan to emerge.
Thunderbird Aviation was only one of several FBOs around the metro that offered Part 61 flight training, and ever fewer of those that provided Part 141 for the college route and independent student pilots. Chasing after Part 141 training was incredibly important at the time since it meant over a 30% reduction in the hours needed for the long-term ATP rating. Academy College, on the other hand, allowed for a Private Pilot Certificate to transfer in for course credits. By returning back to out-of-pocket as an option, I set up a new goal to independently fund my Private. Thankfully, Thunderbird made this pain a little less sharp by offering 10% paid-in-full discounts to rentals by keeping funds on account. Following completion, I would then transfer into Academy to continue their aviation program lessening the overall amount of time strain impact while still retaining several important aspects: remaining local, continuing to work full time, using federal loan assistance, and balancing life responsibilities.
Three months after my demo flight I had finally built up the money and planned an education path to transform aviation from a dream to reality.
Upon depositing my tuition to Thunderbird, I was posed with a new question: who would be my flight instructor? Given my narrow experience thus far the only general aviation pilot I'd flown with was Israel. Fortunately we had gotten along quite well during our brief flight and I appreciated his style and patience. Knowing that I would likely fly with many others in the future, I stuck with whom I knew for the time being.
Another experience I've rarely encountered has been being surpassed by my juniors, though certainly not lesser. Israel was in his early 20s, while I was in my early 30s. One has to accept that age gaps will sometimes be a null factor for knowledge when entering into a career where experience is often gained fresh out of high school – and I was outside of the bell curve for entrants. The best advice that my brother-in-law gave me was to simply study, study, study. Only my retention and skill would matter in the end, which consequently, also proved to be a cost-effective approach.
As I absorbed new skills, new vocabulary, and new knowledge one more factor began to unfold – the unpredictable. When attempting to optimize a flight schedule by adding two or three days into a week, it was not unheard of to have multiple cancellations. Sometimes there became scheduling conflicts with airplane availability, more often it was for flight instructor availability. Most of the time, however, was simply Mother Nature not presenting favorable conditions to fly. As a student pilot there are many meteorological states that will ruin a planned training day – too low cloud cover, poor visibility, heavy wind, and thunderstorms to name a few. By themselves they can be a minor setback, but wiping out an entire weekend scheduled in the air could mean going a week – or more – between lessons for the weekend warrior. Aviation skills and proficiency are perishable skills that degrade with disuse. The effect on a student pilot is often even more pronounced the further apart lessons happen. When translated back into cost, this means more time (and money) will be needed to hone the skills needed, ultimately delaying progress. Simply put, flying frequently and often will result in maximized efficiency.
Just under four months into my training I finally soloed around the Crystal airport, my family watching from the base of the control tower. Upon return, Justin congratulated me before cutting the back off my shirt to date it – a classic rite of passage amongst new pilots I was told. My progress had been hard-fought, though several weeks throughout spring and summer had passed between lessons for aforementioned reasons. Scheduling only became more difficult as plane and instructor availabilities filled up. Israel was flying frequently for fire-watch, building additional hours to make a bid for regional airline application. Two more months went by with sporadic meet-ups for training, though I attempted to stay fresh by chair flying and immersing myself in ground school courses online. Eventually, however, my primary instructor had moved on leaving me hunting for a replacement. The unfortunate timing deepened with the unexpected passing of my father, impacting my own schedule and focus while grieving.
Losing a parent is a tough blow any time, but especially just around the holidays. I had been away from the cockpit for several weeks and just starting to connect with new instructors, but the mental distraction slowed my progress considerably. Whereas I would have been on track to finish my Private Pilot Certificate by the end of the year, my own self-imposed scheduling limitations stifled the gains being made. For a couple of months each lesson ended up more as review of existing material to return back to a previous point. This was not part of the plan and definitely not in the budget.
Time creeped around to January again marking the anniversary of my demo flight and nine months into training. I rebounded and multiplied my efforts at last and was able to finish each stage of training. Setting an appointment to fly the checkride for final approval came slower than expected yet again due to availability, weather, and currency. By the time all of those things aligned it was mid-June, however 14 months after starting my aviation career I finally became a certified pilot.
I've learned a lot during the time it took to earn my Private Pilot Certificate and even more in the following year to gain my Instrument rating. Thunderbird Aviation has helped immensely along the way, providing fair pricing, discounts, knowledgeable instructors, safe aircraft, and scheduling flexibility. Through their connections I was able to meet my current flight instructor Cliff, who has over four decades of experience and a wealth of knowledge.
The range of aircraft available continues to expand just as my own experience does. My path has also changed from potentially attending Academy College to independently financing my continued training, thanks in part to my father's legacy. Overall I'll continue to fly through Thunderbird because they can provide everything I need to succeed in my dream of being a commercial pilot. The sky's the limit to how far I can go.
Here are several points that I would summarize to anyone in a similar position prospectively looking to become an airline pilot or pursue anything aviation-relation following traditional college-years.
• Determine whether the money, time, and social challenges are something you can work through.
• Find family or friends that support you and can be positive influencing motivators.
• Save money wherever you can, whenever you can.
• Create a plan for your education to follow, but be flexible to change it according to your needs and situation.
• Interview your potential flight instructors, find out what their goals are and how long they will be around. If possible find a retiree with lots of time that loves flying to be your instructor – they will have incredible stories and often take an investment in your success.
• Schedule frequently and often for flight time, be prepared for changes.
• Study when not flying and stay sharp.
• Finally, be passionate - develop a hunger and desire to fly.