More Than One Way to an Aviation Career

Two flight instructors take divergent paths.

people standing in front of airplanes
Brad and me with Amber Phillips and friends at Punta San Francisquito, Baja California.Sam Weigel

There are some days when ­absolutely everything is right in the world, and this is one of them. Dawn and I woke up this morning, three days after my 38th birthday, and sailed Windbird 26 miles from the delightful island of Bequia to the pristine Tobago Cays marine park, flying our colorful spinnaker on a sporty 7-knot reach. We anchored near Jamesby Island in 15 feet of gin-clear water, bobbing gently in the lee of Horseshoe Reef. Sea turtles and spotted eagle rays frolicked around the boat, and we soon jumped in with them. In the afternoon, we took the dinghy on a snorkeling ­expedition outside the cut, where the cerulean shallows give way to deep blue depths as a brilliant profusion of sea creatures hunt and feed along the ­nutrient-rich drop-off. We met fellow cruisers for a West Indian ­barbecue dinner on the beach, and have now settled into Windbird's cockpit for a dram of the local Sparrow's rum as a three-quarter moon rises over the breakers on the reef. Best of all, this A-letter day has been shared with two of our favorite people in the world, Brad and Amber Phillips.

I first met Brad 17 years ago, when I was a young flight instructor in Southern California. He was briefly my student while he earned his ­multiengine flight instructor ­rating, and then we instructed at the same busy flight school for a while. Brad and Amber were at our wedding; shortly after, he helped me get hired at Horizon Air, the regional ­airline for which he then flew, and we were nearly neighbors for three years. Since then our careers and lives have diverged, but we’ve continued to get together several times a year for various flying, sailing, traveling and motorcycling adventures (a few of which have made it into these pages; see “Back to Baja,” November 2016). By now we have a pretty rich trove of “there we were” stories to mine for laughs whenever we’re together, and these always seem to lead to planning the next big thing. At any given time we have a good half-dozen harebrained schemes in the hopper, and I think the key to our friendship is that we know we can depend on each other to eventually make every ­ambitious plan a reality.

On the face of it Brad and I are a bit of an odd couple. He’s a backslapping Alabama good old boy who migrated to the Pacific Northwest; I’m the ­living embodiment of “Minnesota Nice”—which is really “Minnesota Polite and Reserved.” I am naturally more introverted and cerebral where he is gregarious and instinctive. Brad is a risk taker, as evidenced by multiple ­broken bones and his missing half a thumb; his motto in motorcycling and life is, “Pin it to win it!” I’ve slowly gravitated toward this view, but I hated pain from a young age and it made me naturally risk-averse. Brad is a born deal-maker and has always supplemented his ­flying income with various side ­ventures, while I’ve happily dropped down to part-time pay for a couple of years as a wandering sea gypsy.

We’ve never really talked about these differences, but they occasionally seep into our discussions. Tonight the breeze is warm and the rum is flowing, so we talk well past “sailor’s midnight.” We trade ­reminiscences, each recounted event or encounter leading to another ­half-remembered tidbit, back to the beginning of our friendship and beyond. And then we abruptly shift to our present lives…so different at the moment, but we’re both happy, perhaps as content as either of us has ever been. It suddenly strikes me that other than those few years where our lives paralleled, Brad and I have had fairly disparate career paths, and we’ve both ended up in the place that feels best for us. There is a really good lesson here to be gleaned by anybody considering a career in aviation.

two men standing in front of motorcycles
Brad Phillips and me on our 2013 dirt-bike trip down Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.Sam Weigel

My own story will be familiar to longtime readers, but here’s the Cliffs Notes version for the uninitiated: I knew I wanted to fly from a young age. I took lessons throughout my teen years and earned my private pilot’s license on my 17th birthday. I went to a major collegiate aviation program (University of North Dakota) and earned a bachelor of science degree in aeronautics. I flight instructed and flew Part 135 cargo for a couple of years after 9/11, and then flew for two regional airlines for exactly a decade before getting hired by one of the “big three” legacy ­carriers. I now fly the Boeing 757 and 767 as a first officer on domestic and international routes, but give away most of my flying during the winter and spring when I’m sailing full time.

Brad left a broken home at an early age, had no idea what he wanted to do and dropped out of college after one semester. On a whim, he rode his bicycle across the country and ended up in Portland. He worked service jobs for a while, until he found out that his then-girlfriend was pregnant with his child. “That lit a fire under me to decide what I wanted to do with my life,” he says. “Right around then I saw an ad for Mt. Hood Community College’s aviation program. I went in, got them to tell me exactly what it was going to cost and signed up on the spot.” He worked multiple jobs at night and flew during the day, winding up with his ratings, a two-year degree and a massive sleep deficit—but no debt. He flight instructed and flew skydivers to build hours, but he wasn’t getting enough time. That’s when he convinced his newlywed wife, Amber, to pack up their meager belongings and move to Southern California. It paid off: He got hired at Horizon Air less than a year later.


Read more by Sam Weigel: Taking Wing


Fast-forward five years. When I left Horizon to go fly for Compass Airlines, Brad considered doing the same thing but ultimately stayed put. He and Amber loved their life in Portland, and he was making enough money with his side ventures. Brad was also more senior at Horizon than I had been, affording a pretty good quality of life. But it was a completely stagnant list; several times Brad was slated for upgrade training, only to have it canceled. He languished in the right seat for 12 long years, though he did get his four-year degree and ATP in the meantime. At the time, he felt like he had missed the boat by not leaving Horizon when I did, and I privately agreed.

And then, four years ago, Brad got hired by Spirit Airlines. At the time I was slightly aghast. Perhaps it was because the ultra-low-cost ­carrier business model is anathema to my employer; since emerging from bankruptcy, the legacy carriers have waged a decadelong battle to boost and sustain yields through consolidation and capacity discipline. But it was also that Spirit was a wreck operationally and its pilot contract still lagged well behind most of the industry despite a contentious 2010 strike. Alas, Brad didn’t have any turbine PIC time due to his inability to upgrade at Horizon, and at the time Spirit was one of the few major airlines desperate enough for pilots that they didn’t care about TPIC.

It turned out to be a match made in heaven. Spirit grew by leaps and bounds, and Brad upgraded after only three years; he’s now a midseniority Airbus A320 captain. Spirit has improved its operational performance, and its pilots signed a greatly improved contract last year. In some ways, its work rules are better than those I work under; there is a lot of schedule flexibility and many quality of life provisions. It’s easy for those so inclined (e.g. one Brad Phillips) to earn a great deal of overtime money covering last-minute trips. Spirit’s culture is young and informal, which suits Brad very well. My airline’s culture is much more straight-laced, with a strong ­military influence. It’s been an adjustment for me, and I doubt whether Brad would have enjoyed it much.

The point here is that there's ­something in the aviation industry for everybody—even within the fairly homogeneous world of airline flying—and more than one way to get from point A to B. In the optimistic environment of the current hiring boom, there is no shortage of career advice being doled out to prospective professional pilots. While it's important to network and seek out mentors and listen to their input, you also need to keep in mind that everyone views this industry through the lens of their own personality and values and experience (which is usually a decade or more removed from present conditions). There's no yellow brick road to follow, no perfect path to some ideal promised land. You have to do what makes sense for you. Brad and I made different choices that brought us to different places, but we're both really ­satisfied with where we ended up. Here's a toast of Sparrow's from Windbird's snug anchorage to wherever you are, hoping that your own unique path in aviation brings you as much happiness as our respective paths have brought us.