Taking Wing: The Winding Road

New Flying columnist Sam Weigel writes about the unexpected twists and turns of a flying life.

Sam Weigel|

Life takes some pretty interesting turns now and then. Most of us have at least some idea of what we want and how to get there, but it's not always where we end up, and the path is seldom straight. The choices we make, the people we meet, forces out of our control and seemingly random events combine to take us places we never envisioned. A few months ago, I was a happily anonymous regional airline pilot. Today, I'm writing my first monthly column in the venerable pages of Flying magazine. How did this happen?

I suppose the natural place to start is April 1994. I was 13 years old and had just received my first copy of Flying, the subscription a birthday present from my parents. I was still a few months away from the Young Eagles ride with a local CFI that doomed me to an unconventional adolescence of flight lessons, working to pay for them and dreaming about airplanes the rest of the time. I spent rather little time with friends my own age — to say nothing of the fairer sex.

I opened the pages and met the men whose words would accompany me through those lonely, flight-stricken years. There was Richard Collins, sharp as a tack, writing no less than three of the seven features and flying his Centurion like an airliner from Hagerstown, Maryland, to Orlando, Florida, through clouds and rain and forecast ice. There was Gordon Baxter, for whom airplanes were fine and dandy, but you could tell they were mostly just a neat way for him to view a world that fascinated him and to meet all sorts of interesting people, his real passion in life. There was wise old birdman Len Morgan, reminiscing about flights that spanned almost the history of aviation itself, from the DC-2 to the 747.

Over the next four years I mowed lawns, shoveled snow and did odd jobs, scraping together enough money for one glorious hour of flight. I borrowed Jeppesen training manuals and studied them obsessively. I logged hundreds of hours on Microsoft Flight Simulator. At one point, I emailed Peter Garrison when I couldn’t get my young mind around the now obvious idea that excess thrust ­— not excess lift ­— allows an airplane to climb; Peter gamely set me straight. A sunny April morning in 1997 found the old C-150 climbing rather sprightly, with the right seat bewilderingly empty on my 16th birthday. Exactly one year later, I took my dad flying in the same airplane, the pride of a newly minted private pilot burning in my chest.

By then, I had vowed to make this avocation my vocation as well, in the mold of Morgan. The August after graduating high school, I moved to Grand Forks, North Dakota, to spend entirely too much borrowed money on an aviation degree, but I didn’t care because I was flying new-smelling airplanes three or four times a week, and the future was bright. The mental rigor and scientific precision of instrument flight delighted my inner nerd. The commercial cross-countries felt like globe-spanning adventures despite never leaving the upper Midwest. Twin throttles thrumming in my palm transformed the humble Seminole into a passable airliner.

I crammed the formidable CFI course into a jam-packed semester, got burned out and retreated to St. Louis for an internship with Trans World Airlines. There, in the midst of a shotgun merger, I inexplicably fell in love with an unstable and unforgiving industry, one that soon put most of my new friends and coworkers out of work.

With renewed energy and vision, I landed a summer job instructing at a busy flight school in Los Angeles, where I built 400 hours of flight time in three frantic months. At the end of August 2001, I reluctantly returned to North Dakota’s bitter plains to finish my last year of school while instructing part time.

Then came that fateful September day when everything changed and sent so many young pilots places we never expected. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been such a surprise. Aviation has always been a cyclical business, and a pilot’s career is akin to that of a big-wave surfer: timing the swells, riding the good waves, ducking the bad ones and trying to avoid getting swamped by a monster. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks merely amplified a very big bad wave that was already coming, and it engulfed almost all of us.

Minnesota summers may be short, but they are tailor-made for old taildraggers and grass airstrips.|

In the aftermath, thousands of pilots were furloughed, flooding a job market that had shrunk dramatically overnight. But I had just graduated with $70,000 in debt; what was I going to do, quit? Anyway, the new reality did little to dampen my enthusiasm. So I adapted. When the University of North Dakota's instructor ranks swelled with furloughed pilots, and students became scarce, I packed up my old Buick and drove back to California. I kept teaching until I had 1,200 hours, hauled freight for a small Part 135 carrier until they went out of business and then flew cargo for Ameriflight.

The regional airlines started hiring again as the continued fallout from 9/11 perversely spurred their growth, and in April 2004, I was hired by Horizon Air, my airline of choice. I was assigned the fast, burly Q400 turboprop out of Portland, Oregon, flying up and down the West Coast and as far east as Billings, Montana. I loved the airplane, the people and the routes. But the industry forces that grew some airlines would destroy others, and Horizon’s excellent infrastructure, investment in technology and experienced workforce were all severe handicaps in a business where costs trump quality. Horizon has shrunk significantly since 2004. Had I stayed, I would still be a junior first officer.

Instead, I reluctantly left Horizon in late 2007. My current employer was a new regional then, the bastard child of a major airline bankruptcy, with ridiculously low costs and therefore explosive growth. I upgraded to captain very quickly, and later, attrition afforded me excellent seniority. My airline was one of the few safe shelters in the storm of 2008, and our ranks filled with furloughed pilots from around the industry. The job also brought my wife and I back to our native Minnesota. Leaving Horizon to come to a new startup was a risky move that has paid off so far. Tomorrow? Who knows, it’s a crazy business.

I’ve had a rather ordinary career in extraordinary times. In 12 years, I’ve flown for two flight schools, two cargo outfits and two regional airlines. It’s not what I envisioned when I started out, but the journey has been remarkable. I’ve experienced adventure, joy, frustration, growth, friendship, heartbreak, boredom, fear and moments of sublime beauty and grace.

Through it all, Flying has been a constant companion, a frequent stowaway in my flight kit. I was saddened to see Bax, Len and Richard hang it up but have enjoyed the new faces. Flying kept me connected with general aviation, luring me back in when time and money allowed — first in rented C-152s and Cherokees, then a borrowed C-170 and now a flying club J-3 Cub that's one-twelfth my own and just about the most fun you can have with your pants on. But writing for Flying is another one of those career twists I never expected.

In 2005, I began writing an aviation blog at fl250.blogspot.com. It started as a creative outlet and a way to communicate with distant family and friends but grew into something more. The quality was uneven at first, but the instant feedback of the format helped improve it. And over the years, I've written some pieces I'm pretty proud of. Robert Goyer stopped by and apparently liked what he saw enough to invite me to write for Flying's June and September issues. It was your response to those articles that led to this column.

It’s been a winding road to this point, but I’m thrilled to be here. I’ve decided to call my column Taking Wing. I’ll share stories from my early career and those of my friends, writing about what it’s like to be a young professional pilot working up through the industry. When the spirit moves, I’ll wax rhapsodic about sunset Cub patrols spent terrorizing Minnesota’s grass strips. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ll occasionally encroach on Les Abend’s territory with airline tales. As my career takes its next steps, I’ll write about that too. I’m eager to see what the journey has in store and am looking forward to sharing it with you.

We welcome your comments on flyingmag.com. In order to maintain a respectful environment, we ask that all comments be on-topic, respectful and spam-free. All comments made here are public and may be republished by Flying.