34 years

In February of this year I turned 34 years old. I think I’m not the only one who hopes this is only the first third of my life. I know my dog wants me around longer to take him out and around the block. He’s currently protesting my prolonged placement in front of my laptop by holding a vigil beside the front door. Sometimes I wonder if maybe he really wants me dead…

I remember when I left Idaho for flight school in 2005 and I thought I would be the oldest new pilot there. I was 22 years young but I felt like I had a whole lifetime of experience behind me already. I couldn’t convince my young fiancé to make the trek across the country to Florida to join me in my new life as an aviation student. I had worked a few different jobs as an IT professional and even been laid off. I wrecked my first car my parents gave me, I bought another car that quickly broke down and sat sheltered, and then I wasted even more money on a car I bought on the internet.

Before any of that I made the wise decision to quit high school early because I failed to earn enough credits to graduate. Sometimes, when I tell this story I blame my friends but the reality is I hated high school. I didn’t fit in, there wasn’t a group I felt like I belonged to, and there was almost no place I felt comfortable. I enjoyed working on computers and building computers and playing with computers and that’s what sort of propelled me out of high school. My group of friends were very tech-savvy and they inspired me to be more like them. I wanted to be as smart as them. I wanted to be as cool as them.

So when I left Idaho for flight school in 2005, at the ripe old age of 22 years old, I really felt like I had already lived a full life. I think it’s the plight of every 22 year old on the planet, the stories are the same the details are just different. Perhaps every decade we perceive our struggles and experiences as the most diverse and dramatic as any human that has ever lived.

As a direct result of my poor performance in high school, I felt compelled to work harder in flight school. I had a few things going for me this time around. I fit in there. All around me were people that were my age (surprise!) with my interests and my same goals. I finally belonged and felt comfortable with my peers. Better than all that hippy crap, I was genuinely interested in the content I was learning. I had a strong desire to be a good student. Being a good student meant I would be a good pilot. Later in life I would learn that’s false though.

That isn’t to say I didn’t struggle. I had some learning plateaus. I had a hard time learning instrument flying because it tended to involve some math. Being the high school dropout and GED owning person I was, math wasn’t exactly second nature for me. Reciprocal headings and courses became the bane of my training and a focus for my instructors. I got through it because I had good teachers and because I wanted to get through it.

There was a time in my life where giving up was easier. I proved that in high school. I could have gone to summer school and got the credits I needed to graduate with a high school education but I chose to take the easy way out and quit. I don’t want to say that I regret that decision but it was definitely the wrong decision to make.

Eventually I made it through all my training and earned my instructor ratings and was immediately hired by my flight school. Once again, I was motivated to be a better pilot at every opportunity. I volunteered for extra work, I volunteered to learn new aircraft, and I volunteered to work in any program I could. I taught the same aircraft 4 different ways. Because each program wanted the students to learn it their way. I became a check-instructor. I gave check rides to students. I learned a lot. I failed a lot of students. I was the iron fist of my flight school and my reputation wasn’t based on fluffy kittens or lollipops.

In 2008, after I had instructed for a little over a year, I decided I was ready to try and find a job outside of instructing. I loved teaching, but I knew it wasn’t the career that I wanted for myself long term and it certainly wasn’t going to give me the lifestyle I thought I wanted. Lucky for me the global economy was collapsing and airlines were furloughing and going out of business. I had the esteemed privilege of interviewing at several airlines in 2008 and getting hired, only to be told later that no such position existed anymore. Classes were being cancelled. Pilots were being furloughed. One airline told me I lacked the confidence to be an airline captain.

The exact day I interviewed with Airnet Express in Columbus Ohio, the company announced they would be furloughing 55 pilots. The first time in the existence of the company that they would be laying pilots off work. There I sat in the crew room in Columbus with a giant “pilot applicant” sticker on my chest, while pilots walked by and laughed. A few brave ones took pictures of me. I finally asked what all the commotion was about and I was handed the form letter placed in every pilot mailbox regarding the layoffs. Airnet is now out of business.

Following that disaster, I was flown to New York for an Interview with Colgan. I studied more than I think practically necessary and I couldn’t sleep at all the night before my interview. My interview was in the morning and I think I woke up around 4 am and resumed studying. I ironed my suit a few times, paced around my roach infested La Guardia airport hotel room, and talked to the walls about aviation regulations. All that preparation served me well in about half the interview. Turns out they wanted to know why I wanted to work for Colgan, what I felt my strengths were, why I would make a good airline pilot, and whether or not I was a good fit for the company.

I didn’t even make it to the simulator evaluation. The human resources representative asked me so many questions that made me look at my feet and wonder, “what?” that she ended the interview. She pulled me out of the holding tank room where we all were waiting in between the various phases of the interview and told me “We are going to end the interview here, we don’t think you have the self-confidence to become an airline captain.”

I remember getting my suitcase and walking outside and wondering to myself what the hell I just got hit with. In the years since I’ve realized that I prepared for the technical portion of the interview but failed to prepare for the HR part. I would argue that my failing that interview was one of the better things to ever happen to me, however, at the time it was exceedingly difficult to find any silver linings. To this date, to the best of my recollection, this interview remains the sole interview I’ve had where I didn’t get the job. Colgan is no longer in business.

At the suggestion of a friend, I flew up to Milwaukee for an interview with Air Cargo Carriers to be a pilot in a square shed with wings and engines. I interviewed on a Wednesday and I remember the interview very well. It was extremely informal and I simply sat in the office of one of the chief pilots and we talked about regulations and flying and the color of runway lights. I specifically remember reciting with precision part 91.175(c). He was impressed. Then I flew a “simulator” which was an old computer with flight sim 1985 and a paper panel of their flying shed. The simulator was of a King Air, but I was told “don’t mind that.” He hired me on the spot. The reason I remember it was a Wednesday is because by Friday I was called and told the class had been cancelled and all future classes were probably cancelled. Amazingly, ACC is still in business today.

At this point, I was pretty discouraged. It was hard to stay motivated when I seemingly was un-hirable. I loved teaching and instructing was very rewarding in every way except monetarily. So there I stayed, teaching my way around the Florida airspace for another two years. I was actually on the precipice of quitting aviation for a while in favor of returning to school when I got my next job.

I had applied to and been accepted by Boise State University in 2009. I had planned on attending classes starting in the spring of 2010 and even had my financial aid lined up. My friends lived in Boise and I was excited to get back in school and maybe fly on the side. I looked up teaching jobs in the area and there were a few places I could teach at part time while I went to school. I was 26 and thought it would be a great time to get my degree and maybe take a break from full-time flying.

As a last-ditch effort, I got my ATP in a Seminole in Florida in the summer of 2009 and decided I would update my logbook and my application to a few airlines. I wish I was joking when I say I updated my application the day before a large regional announced they would start hiring for the first time in two years.

The. Day. Before.

I had literally just put myself on the short list to get hired by a large regional airline. By January 2010 I had an interview scheduled in Dallas with American Eagle.

I had a little more experience this time to draw from but I also knew that I needed to spend a little more time studying some HR questions like: why did I want to work there? Why would I be a good airline captain? I might have studied that more than I studied what color runway lights were.

I can’t remember how many people started that day, but it was over 15. By the end of the day only two of us were hired and I couldn’t believe it. I thought for sure it was some trick or perhaps a mistake. Had I finally got a flying job that didn’t require me to teach? One that had earnings potential? I came back the next day for a hearing test and then flew home in first class and ate pasta for dinner.

In April of 2010 I was in training on the ERJ-145 and life was going pretty well. I mean, besides the ground school instructor who was bi-polar and yelled at me for no reason, locked people out who were late, and called on the same person to read-aloud every day, even though they read like an 8th grader. My first simulator instructor didn’t actually teach me anything, he just said, “show me a V1 cut.” I remember turning around in the seat and looking at him replying “I don’t know what that means, sir.” Shortly thereafter we were upside down and the screen of the simulator went red.

Luckily for me the policy was for the instructors to change students about half way through and our second instructor actually knew how to teach. In no time at all I had completed my simulator training and I was off to operating experience in the actual jet. I remember thinking, surely the days of poor instruction are behind me! Ha! My OE instructor was a pilot examiner for the FAA and had been one for about as long as I had been alive and he was pretty good at yelling and telling me how bad I was. At least that’s the way I remember the experience.

My favorite story from the two trips we did together was when we were going through security in Cincinnati. I went through the metal detector a few times and set off the alarm each time. Soon I was removing pieces of clothing, keys, watch, shoes, belt, anything I thought could possibly contain some trace amount of metal that kept setting the alarm off. After my third or fourth iteration of trying to get through this machine my instructor remarked “You know, Jared, you’re going to be doing this every day now. You really need to figure out a better system.”

All right, thanks for the tip. Jerk. I finally made it through and began the process of putting myself back together beginning with my pride and dignity. While I slowly re-assembled my uniform my instructor tried to get through the metal detector gauntlet and guess what; he wasn’t very good at it either! I stood there with probably the biggest grin of my entire sarcastic life and just watched him do the same dignity disassembly of his uniform. He finally made it through on the third or fourth try and I just stood there and smiled at him. “You know Bob, you’ve been doing this a long time, you probably should have a system figured out by now.”

Oddly enough, he didn’t find it to be as funny as I apparently did.

Long story long, I got off OE and was sent to the line as a reserve first officer in Dallas. I spent a little over a year there before I transferred to Chicago to be closer to my then flight attendant girlfriend. That memoir will have to happen another time.

Since early 2011 I have been based in Chicago and in late 2013 I switched airplanes. Late last year I upgraded to Captain on the CRJ and that’s where I currently reside on the seniority list. A junior CRJ Captain trying to figure out why my 2,000 hours of experience on the jet haven’t translated 1:1 to the left seat. It has been an interesting experience, being the boss man. People always ask me how I deal with the stress of holding the lives of so many people in my hands and I always had the same answer: it’s easy, I just worry about me, I’m very selfish like that.

Turns out that feeling is just a little bit different while sitting in the left seat. The best description I can offer is that I live in a constant state of panic wondering what I’ve forgotten to do. My instructors told me this while doing OE as a Captain, you will constantly wonder what to do and sometimes you don’t have anything to do, and you have to be OK with that. I’m not OK yet.

My very first day with an FO and no Check Airman babysitting me from the right seat, I decided that the weather was so beautiful that I drove the airplane right past my assigned intersection for takeoff. I was just staring out the window, totally ignorant of the fact that I had passed right by my turn off. Lucky for all of us I didn’t cut anybody off and it was Chicago where it takes an act of God or a four alarm fire to cause alarm.

In a few days I will make the move once again, between aircraft, between companies, between seats, to join the ranks at United Airlines. Behind the scenes of all this flying I went back to school and got a degree. For three and a half years I worked as an airline pilot and moonlighted as a college student. In December of 2015 I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree and in December of 2016 I interviewed with United Airlines.

United for me has always been special. My grandfather worked for United and my father grew up travelling the world and I grew up hearing all about both. I remember hearing about how my grandfather flew to Holland every year (or about) to have a Dirkmaat family reunion and I always wondered how they could have afforded that trip so often. My father told me how when he was a teenager he would fly to Hawaii for the weekend to surf. Before that he backpacked around Europe with his pre-teen younger brother. Alone. I had to ask if I could go across the street and my father was gallivanting around Europe.

Beyond United, my grandfather inspired me in many ways. My IT jobs most likely came from my passion for computers through my grandfather. When I was 10 or 11 he gifted me an old Apple II computer. 512k of RAM and no hard drive, but it did have two floppy drives, which was excessive. It was monochrome and had MacWrite and MacDraw. In fact it is only in this very moment that I’ve realized while I write this on my MacBook that perhaps my grandfather fostered yet another love in my life: writing. Damn. I tried to keep a journal on that computer and would often write about nothing, trying to sound smart. I wish I could read those journals now.

One of those floppy disks had Microsoft Flight Sim 1.0 on it. It practically lived in the disk drive. It was awful and yet it was everything. Monochrome lines split the screen and made a poor horizon. The instrument panel took up 60% of the limited screen space and I stared at every instrument with wonder. This began my love affair with flying that has lasted to this day and hopefully for the remainder of my days. I remember trying to fly the airplane with the keyboard and single button mouse with the assistance of my best friend. We took turns operating the ailerons and elevator and flew all around San Francisco trying to stay aloft but with no destination in mind. Sometimes simply finding San Francisco again to land at was an accomplishment.

My cousin was a private pilot and I remember excitedly showing her my accomplishments on my computer and even asking her serious questions about VORs and how they worked and what the compass rose really meant. I don’t know if she was impressed or just scared of my obsession with planes and computers but I remember feeling like I was a pilot.

My grandfather worked for United for 34 years when he retired on May 31, 1985. I will be 34 years old when I begin working for them this March. Maybe it only feels poetic to me, and maybe it’s only powerful to me, but it definitely feels like both. A man that unknowingly influenced my entire life hasn’t lived long enough to see any of it, let alone appreciate the irony of it all.

34 years. I can’t imagine the road he traveled before he started at United like I have traveled before United. The trials he went through before World War II, emigrating to the United States, traveling across the country, and everything in between. Maybe everything I went through to get to this point means nothing or maybe it’s simply the same story with different details.