I recently received an email that made me go back in time and think about just how it was that I got to where I am.
Here’s the email I received:
“Hello Ruth, I admire your work as a pilot and what you offer for student pilots like me who also dream big!
I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit of your journey and what you went through to get where you are today. I know it wasn’t easy and that you made sacrifices…what were those? What tips can you give me in my pursuit of becoming an airline pilot? What would you do different, if you had to do it all over again?
Thank you for your time and hope to hear from you soon”
Wow…where to begin…
I guess the first thing I can say is that…no, in no way was it easy to navigate the confusing and, at times, disappointing, maze that leads to a life as a professional pilot. My stubbornness certainly paid off whenever I encountered a seemingly insurmountable obstacle – I refused to give up on my dream, in my mind, there was no other option than to figure out a way.
I would think about what in the world could I do if I couldn’t be a pilot – a wildlife biologist perhaps, due to my love of animals and nature – but, that would mean starting my education all over again. So, barring a physical impairment that would deny me the ability to fly, I just couldn’t see myself working at any other job.
Firstly, I was too intimidated to go right into flight school. I wanted to understand HOW an airplane flies. I had to know the theory behind the machine first and then I thought I would be more at ease while learning to fly. When I looked up what I could study to understand the theory of flight, I came up with an Aerospace Engineering major. That sounded aviation related to me, so I decided to get a degree in that first, and then learn to fly.
I didn’t know any pilots or anyone involved in aviation at all that I could ask questions. Also, back then (1994), I think the Internet was around, but it was not nearly as prevalent as it is now, and I certainly didn’t have access to it. All I could do was guess at the best course of action and then just go for it.
I decided to apply to the Aerospace Engineering program at the University of Virginia (UVA). Why UVA – because I was living in New England at the time and I really wanted to get away from the cold weather. I decided UVA was south enough, but not as far south as Florida, since that’s probably where I would end up next.
I got accepted at the School of Engineering and Applied Science at UVA and 4 difficult years later, I graduated with a degree in Aerospace Engineering and a Computer Science minor. I got the CS minor because I knew airplanes were getting more and more computerized and thought that some extra insight into computers would make me even more marketable as a pilot. I’m not sure that it did in the eyes of my employers, but my familiarity with computer programming languages definitely helped me get promotions and raises. For example, in almost every position I had, I was always able to develop some type of software tool to make my organization more efficient – and employers always go crazy over that.
Back to the sacrifices – I clearly remember one of the first sacrifices I made once I embarked on this journey: SLEEP. It seemed that the entire engineering faculty had conspired to make the first two years of engineering school some kind of evil study to see what would happen if you used sleep deprivation to weed out those students who wanted the degree badly enough from those who would rather enjoy the college life as it’s portrayed in typical American culture – classes, partying, sleep…repeat.
We were assigned so much homework that you could walk into the computer lab at 4AM and find a wild frenzy as students frenetically tried to get their assignments finished by the time class started 4 hours later. We all had to pull several all-nighters unless we wanted to hand in incomplete homework assignments. I impatiently waited for Saturdays when I could thankfully catch an extra few hours of sleep…then it was back to work.
Of course it didn’t help that part of my financial aid package stipulated that I had to work at least 10hrs per week to pay for tuition. One of my jobs was to go around to different libraries on campus and pick up books or photocopy articles for professors doing research. I remember a couple of times when I was so tired that I fell asleep sitting, slumped over a pile of books, while I waited for the person in front of me to finish using the copy machine. I must have been asleep for no more than a couple of minutes, but I remember what a world of difference it made…it felt like my brain was about to shut down and those few minutes of “recharging” kept me going for another few hours.
I did get to enjoy some of my college life, however, especially in the last two years since many of the students who didn’t make it had dropped out and the professors started easing up on the amount of work assigned. I loved going to football games or even playing flag football, basketball, and soccer with friends. I attended a few parties, but I honestly didn’t enjoy them very much – they seemed rather pointless to me as I saw too many people trying to be someone they were obviously not.
After graduating from engineering school, I was accepted to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) in Daytona Beach, FL. With a solid knowledge of flight theory under my belt, I felt I was ready to learn to fly. To my pleasant surprise, the classes for the professional pilot program were extremely easy compared to any class I took at UVA. I couldn’t believe I had been so intimidated by flight school before. However, the engineering mind does not necessarily make a good pilot out of someone. In engineering, one can be very methodical and take as much time as is necessary to solve a problem.
Pilots don’t have that luxury. When you’re in the flight deck going over 100 mph (or even up to 500mph in the high performance airplanes), you need to make decisions quickly, but you also have to make the best decision at the time given a particular, unique situation. Switching over from one mindset (engineering) to another (pilot) was a big challenge during my private pilot training. So, even thought the ground classes were easy for me, flight training took some getting used to, and, by no means did I consider myself a “natural”. Instrument flying was different – I loved it. It was much more precise and methodical, which was more my style (such as is with engineers).
My sleep didn’t get any better at ERAU, even though I took less credits per semester (about 16 compared to the 21 at UVA). The difference was that I had no financial aid from ERAU since it was a private university. I had to take out additional student loans (both federal and private) and I was working an average of 32 hrs per week, in addition to attending classes and flight training. My work shift ended at 1130PM and I had to be at the airport by 530AM to start preflighting the airplane for my flight lessons. It was another 3 years of hard work. Even though I lived in Daytona Beach – I think I only made it to the beach about 3 times in as many years. I simply didn’t have the time or the money to do anything other than work and study. The exception to this was riding on the back of a motorcycle all over Florida. I had always wanted a motorcycle, but that’s when my love affair with Harley Davidson started.
After graduating in 2003, it was a very different post 9/11 world for pilots and pilot jobs had simply disappeared. I would have to start repaying my student loans in addition to making a living and while I had never intended on using my engineering degree (it was just a backup), I was left with little choice than to take up an engineering position. I would work as a part-time flight instructor, I rationalized, and wait for the aviation industry to turn around. I also decided that while working full time as an engineer and flight instructing part-time, I would also go to school to obtain an Aviation Maintenance Technician certificate so I could learn how airplanes are maintained. Again…sleep was sacrificed.
I knew pilots had to maintain a medical certificate in order to fly….AND I was slipping into my late 20′s…so my metabolism had slowly started to betray me. As a student, I remember eating 3 entire foot-long Subway sandwiches in a single sitting. And like all good things in life, that came to an end, so working out became part of my daily routine. I would hit the gym from 5AM-6AM, be at work by about 630AM, and work until 3PM. On alternating weekdays I would either go to school or flight instruct from 3PM – 730PM. Weekends were also dedicated to AMT lab or flight instructing.
I tried to have a social life during the first year as a new hire, but I reluctantly realized that the previous 7 years of sleep deprivation had taken a huge toll on my immune system. I started coming down with the flu or a bad cold every 6-8 weeks – it was like clockwork. Of course, it didn’t help that I hated eating vegetables and I probably hadn’t eaten a single “green” food since I had left home at 18.
It was only then that I started paying attention to how much sleep I got an tried making sure that I would get at least 8 hrs a night. I still couldn’t down green veggies, but I started taking vitamins and carotinoid capsules that seemed to help quite a bit.
Fast forward 2 years – I had been working as a design engineer, which was a lot of fun, but I still dreamed of flying the big jets someday. I had read an article about test pilots who used both their engineering skills and their flying abilities to make a living and just like that – I decided that I was going to be a test pilot. I had no prior experience in flight test, so in addition to my workouts, my full time job, part time flight instructing, and AMT school, I started reading and studying about flight test theory and different flight test departments.
At the same time, I had discovered the wonderful world of Audio books. During my commute to work I started listening to all sorts of books on Leadership, Personal Finance, Negotiating Skills, People Skills, and Communication skills. These books were really an eye-opener for me. None of these “skills” had ever been mentioned, never mind “taught” in either “engineering school or pilot school”. Yet, many already successful people seemed to be preaching the importance of them. I realized what a bad listener I was, what a horrible negotiator I was, and how poorly I interacted with people that where different than me (non-engineers or non-pilots). I put these newly-learned skills to the test right away and I immediately started getting positive results.
For example, I negotiated my entire dining room be carpeted for free for a savings of about $300. But, the most important take-away I got from this “audio book education” was the ability to convince my boss to let me seek out and get involved in opportunities that would directly benefit my career at the expense of his own.
Without going into too many details, I obtained a temporary transfer to a flight test department even though it would mean no benefit to my own organization, yet it had the possibility of being a huge benefit to the company as a whole. This was a the breakthrough that I had been looking for for 3 years, and it finally happened.
I continued to flight instruct part time – in total, I worked full time as an engineer and part time as a flight instructor for 9 years. In the last couple of years as a flight instructor I also started ferrying airplanes to build flight time. That seems like long time to hold two jobs, but it was worth it and I learned a lot.
However, even this dream-come-true opportunity didn’t come without more important sacrifices. One of those was the huge geographical move away from my family. Even though I had been living away from home for 8 years, I still got to see my parents, siblings, nieces, and nephews at least a couple times a year. This move would make it so that seeing them even once a year was tough. And although, at the time, I was ready to make that sacrifice without a second thought, as the years go by…..it seems like a bigger and bigger sacrifice to make.
The other sacrifice that was deeply felt at this time was moving away from a boy that I really cared for and had dated for 5 years. At the time, I just thought this was part of the deal, and that I would soon find someone else that would be just as compatible. But, almost a decade later…I’m starting to have my doubts.
Regardless of the sacrifices, however, my journey from student, to engineer, to flight test pilot has been an incredible joy. Yes, at times it was frustrating and stressful, but I just kept going. Once I started working in a flight test organization, I quickly proved myself a valuable member of the team and the opportunities have been opening up for me ever since.
To answer the rest of the questions in the email: my best advice to give someone is to never give up. If you set your mind to doing something, just keep thinking of how to accomplish your goals and, most importantly, take action to do so. Don’t just hope that someone calls you and offers you an opportunity – actively seek one out, make phone calls, attend conferences, introduce yourself to people and try to think of how you can help. Make yourself valuable wherever you go.
I’m tempted to say that I would choose a different flight school if I could go back and do something differently – but, if I had done that, I wouldn’t have met that special boy I mentioned. So, although worse off financially, I gained a much richer personal experience and so I wouldn’t change a thing.
However, if you already have a college degree, seek out a good flight school that’s not associated with a university for some savings. Although ERAU is a great university academically, my personal opinion (right or wrong) is that their flight training is over-priced. If you must get a degree with the ERAU name on it – make it an engineering degree or business degree and do your flight training somewhere with more reasonable prices.
That’s my story in a nut-shell…I hope it helps you reach your goals, I know you will if you just keep going. The path to your dream is already there…you just have to find it.