Seeking an Aviation Career

I recently received an email from a young lady named Maddie who is looking into a flying career. She is 14 but her questions are from a mind of a 20+ year old. You will see what I mean as you read them yourself. This young lady, no matter what she does in life will be very successful.

Capt. Denny

“What classes in school would be most important?” “How long is ground school?” “What feelings do you have when you first fly solo?” “What options do women who fly have for careers?” “What benefits do I have for college if I get my private license when I’m 15 rather than in college?” “What are the worst and best parts of flight school?” “How long is the entire flight school?” “Was there a reason that you choose the navy over the air force?” “What is the best and worst part of being a commercial airline pilot?”



I am quite impressed with your questions. I do a large number of talks to students and I very seldom get asked the caliber of questions you put together. It shows me you are serious about where your future will take you.

What classes in school would be most important?

My studies were mostly science and math because at the age of 14 I knew I wanted to be a pilot. I grew up in the 60’s when the race to the moon was going on. Chuck Yeager, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were my heroes. I was 18 when Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon July 20, 1969. Here is a photo of me with Neil Armstrong a few years ago. Sad to say he passed away a year later.


I did not have anyone to guide me in my career I sort of stumbled along and figured it out on my own. I am very fortunate though to have successfully been flying 44 years. Not all pilots go the science and math route. One pilot I flew with at United was a concert pianist and did an absolute career change. My Navy friend was a Criminal Justice major in college. Pilots come from all walks of life with the same desire to fly. Once you get the bug you are hooked.

My suggestion is to get a well rounded education. I focused on the science and math but also took accounting, computers, economics, business and marketing courses. Many pilots save their money and they start their own business on the side. My friend Dave flys for United and owns a limousine business in Chicago. Capt. John also flys and owns four Subway stores.

I would also suggest to focus on a secondary dream. For example I like to help people and now I am on the Board of Directors of the Capt. Jason Dahl Scholarship. A flying career gives you the opportunity to do something else.

How long is ground school?

Ground school could be as quick as two months and you can solo an aircraft in another two months. That is fast paced but the average is a semester in college.

What feelings do you have when you first solo?

Maddie, It is a feeling that you have for the rest of your life! When I am asked this question I immediately get goose bumps and two mental photos I took come into view. The first is the instructor stepping out of the aircraft after my lesson and saying; “I want you to go out and do four landings to a full stop and then bring the aircraft back and tie it down”. “I will be waiting in the flight office for you”. I will always remember the smile on Neil Jennings face. Now Neil has done this so many times to his students that he can’t possibly remember the look of sheer terror on all his students faces, mine included. The second mental photo is sitting in the aircraft lined up for takeoff. Just me by myself, in an aircraft looking down 3000′ of runway. What a moment!

Neil weighed about 180 pounds and when I pulled back on the yoke and rotated the plane just leaped in the  air. What a difference in flying performance that made. At first I thought the plane wouldn’t stop climbing. I turned and flew downwind which is parallel to the runway but opposite of the direction you will be landing. Let me mention now that there are five names given to the traffic pattern around a private airport. Crosswind, downwind, base and upwind and final.(They are also called legs). This helps other pilots who are also in the traffic pattern have a situational awareness of other aircraft. Landings are always into the wind so after takeoff you turn left or right and this is called the crosswind turn. Your next turn is the downwind leg which is parallel to the runway and the wind is at your back. The next turn is your base leg and you will be perpendicular to the runway. Then you turn final and line up with the runway. The upwind leg is used to enter the traffic pattern and the wind is off the nose of the aircraft.

So here I am in the traffic pattern. I’m thinking I am really doing this! What is that noise? Was it always there? What if I have an engine failure! What do I do? What if my radio’s fail! What do I do? On and on my mind is going a mile a minute which is only 88 feet per second so I begin to calm down and just enjoyed  flying. Also in the back of my mind all my training was being brought to the front and now I am ready!

What options do women who fly have for careers?

There are a couple organizations that promote women fliers. One is “Women in Aviation” , and the other is If you google both groups you will find that women fliers are in every branch of the military services and are in every commercial and corporate flying jobs. The opportunity for women is the same for men.

What benefits do I have for college if I get my private license when I’m 15 rather than in college?

Terrific question. First you will know early if you really like to fly and if this is the career path you seek. Students go to college and select a career for any number of reasons without knowing much about what they are getting into. For example as a pilot plan on working weekends. As an accountant for the Federal Government plan on having weekends and all holidays off. Finding out in college that flying is not what you thought puts you in a dilemma of what career path to then take.

A second benefit to already having your private pilots license is you can start working toward your instructors certificate. Once you become an instructor you can teach other students how to fly. This way you begin accumulating flight time with no cost to you. Additionally you will be paid roughly $15/hr but most important your flying skills will improve.

Maddie, I like your thought pattern on this. All young adults should be as inquisitive as you are in choosing a career. Take a look at the Young Eagles program to get started.

What are the worst and best parts of flight school?

The best part of flight school is the thrill. You are going into something that you have a desire, therefore studying and commitment comes easy. The worst part for me when I started was the weather not cooperating. Many times you go out to the airport for a lesson and the weather is “Socked In”.

This term is used when there is mostly fog and visibility is low. On every airport there is a wind sock. This tool lets pilots know the direction in which the wind is blowing. If the wind is blowing you most probably will not have fog. So when you are at the airport and cannot see the wind sock you are “Socked In”.

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Take this time when the weather is not cooperating to engage in “Hangar Talk”. Listen to the experience of other pilots. Ask them any question you may have. In the flying business there is no dumb question. It is just dumb if you don’t ask it. Go into the hangar and talk to the mechanic. Ask him how a plane works etc….. Make use of you time waiting till the weather improves to improve your skills.

How long is the entire flight school?

There are many variables involved in this question. Usually I would say four months in the Ohio area is a pretty good average for ground school and your private certificate. Weather is always a factor and how many instructors the flight school has and their availability.

Was there a reason that you choose the navy over the air force?

I attended Kent State University in 1969 and enrolled in their flight program. Beginning my second year I spoke with a Navy recruiter that was on campus and looking for pilots to fly in Vietnam. His answers to my questions were right on, his demeanor and of course the uniform sold me. Kent State had Air Force ROTC on campus that would pay for my college but the Navy had me hooked.

What is the best and worst part of being a commercial airline pilot?

As with any job I have had over the years the worst part is when a fellow employee says “I Can’t” or “It’s Not My Job”. In the airline industry every customer deserves to get where they are going on time and with their luggage. Each and every customer should get 100% support from every employee!

Whether it was my military or commercial flying the best part is pushing up the throttles. Today leaving Chicago for London I taxied onto the runway and after we were cleared for takeoff I looked at both my copilots and said; “Let’s Go Flying”. Instant goose bumps!

Every day I get a chance to help others. Being a commercial pilot I work in an environment where we misplace or lose your luggage, delay or cancel your flight, sometimes you have to sleep in the airport overnight and to top it off security goes through your belongings. So flying for the general public is not as glamorous as it use to be. But it is a necessity. Each customer behind my cockpit door is traveling for a different reason but each one is just as important as the other.

Another benefit of flying over this great planet of ours is I never get tired of looking outside and viewing what I am flying over. With our current technology I can instantly get the latitude and longitude coordinates of a land mass I just saw. Then I can go to Google Earth and look at it more closely.

Maddie, Thank you for letting me reminisce about my last 44 years of flying. If you have any more questions please send them to me. I will be more than happy to answer them.

Capt. Denny


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