The Cockpit and Corporate World: Being a Pilot Influences Your Work Life

University president Tom Jackson reflects on a life of aviation and education.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a month-long series celebrating Black History Month through aviation: Feb. 1: African American Pioneers in Flight and Space | Feb. 4: Legacy Flying Academy | Feb. 10: Why Aren’t There More Black Pilots in the Air Force? | Feb. 11: Jesse L. Brown | Feb. 15: Meet Four African Americans Making a Difference in Aviation | Feb. 18: From “Hidden Figures” to “Artemis” | Feb. 22: Cal Poly Humboldt | Feb. 25: Black Heritage Aviation

If you fly as a hobby, you may have found some of the pilot skills that you picked up in the cockpit benefit you in your non-aviation career. Sometimes, it is the confidence that learning to fly brings—or the ability to prioritize and multitask when flying in instrument conditions—that enables you to handle a particularly stressful situation at work.

Tom Jackson, Jr.

“In business, like in aviation, you have to make decisions,” says Tom Jackson, Jr., president of California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt. It’s doubtful, he says, that any decision made on the ground at the university will be life or death, but he still finds himself thinking like a pilot. 

“Being a pilot teaches you how to plan for all contingencies,” he explains.

Jackson is the first African American to serve as president at Cal Poly Humboldt, whose campus is the most northern campus in the California State University system. He has been in the role since May 2019, coming to Northern California from Blackhills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota.

Jackson’s daughter, 20-year-old Chandi, is still back in Spearfish. Jackson and wife Mona have a 1964 PA-30 Twin Comanche that they fly to visit her. 

“The Comanche is my go-some-place airplane,” Jackson says, noting he also has two 1946 B85C Funks in a hangar back in Spearfish.

“When I bought the hangar, it had two Funks—one is still in pieces, the other one was completely restored by the gentleman I purchased the hangar from. The Funk is the fun plane, the ‘go fly and look for things’ airplane,” he says. “The Funk is so much fun, so calm and slow and comfortable. The twin takes me places where I want to go.”

Jackson’s interest in aviation began during his childhood in Seattle. 

His father was an electrician in the Air Force, and after leaving the service went to work for the city of Seattle. At the time, Boeing kept its headquarters in Seattle, and aviation dominated the region’s culture. 

As a boy, Jackson often looked up when an airplane passed overhead, and he wondered what it would be like to fly one. His father often brought home airplane toys, often models of Boeing airliners that were flown around the yard and the house.

Jackson with his son, TJ. [Courtesy: Tom Jackson, Jr.]

“One weekend, my father took us to an airshow that was happening at the Renton airport. It was a tiny airport in those days. There was a Boeing 707 and 737 on display and helicopters, and I realized that I wanted to fly one day. I still watch airplanes go overhead. It is true what is said: Aviation is not in your blood; it is in your soul.”

Jackson’s passion for aviation ran neck and neck with his passion for education. 

He was the first in his family to graduate from college, earning an associate degree from Highline Community College in Des Moines, Washington, outside of Seattle. This was soon followed by a bachelor’s degree in business management/personnel from Southwest Minnesota State University; a master’s in counseling/student personnel from Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania; and a Doctorate of Education from the University of La Verne in Southern California. During this time, Jackson also served his country—he is a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, Army National Guard, Texas State Guard, and Indiana Guard Reserve.

He took his first introductory flight Jackson out of San Luis Obispo, California.

“Myself and some of my office mates saw an ad in a newspaper for intro flights and decided to check it out,” he recalls. His actual flight training began in the ’90s when he was living in  Abilene, Texas.

“I did my training at Elmdale Airpark (82TS) in Abilene. I started my training in a Piper Warrior, then bought a Grumman Yankee to finish training in,” he recalls, adding that he has been an aircraft owner ever since.

He holds a private pilot certificate with single-engine, multiengine, and instrument ratings. 

One of Jackson’s two 1946 B85C Funks. [Courtesy: Tom Jackson, Jr.]

“I am current and I try to fly every week. It can be a challenge around here because of the coastal weather. Staying IFR-current can be a challenge because you have to be going someplace. I try to fly as often as I can,” he says, noting that he has approximately 2,800 hours logged.

For Jackson, the best part of the training was being around other pilots. The worst parts were the check rides, he jokes, adding that there were some days that were more challenging than others.

“Being a pilot teaches you how to plan for all contingencies.”

Tom Jackson, Jr.

“I was never afraid of falling out of the sky,” he continues. “I was afraid of getting lost on a solo cross-county. My first solo cross-country was from Abilene to Brownwood, Texas. It was in 1998 and Microsoft had come out with Flight Simulator and I practiced on that,” he laughs. 

“The runway at Elmdale Airpark in Abilene…measured 2,999 by 30 feet, and some pilots were afraid to land on it. But after training there, going anywhere else seemed too big and too easy.”

Today, Jackson’s logbook shows flights to airports on both coasts and the country in between as well as trips to the Bahamas and Mexico.

“I think I mastered the fear of getting lost,” he quips.

One of his favorite aviation memories is from when he took his wife, son, and daughter to Florida in 2011 to watch the last launch of the space shuttle Discovery. At the time, the family lived in Kentucky, so the flight to Florida was a day trip.

“The launch was scheduled, then postponed, then rescheduled, so we came back on another day and saw the launch. It was definitely a bucket-list item,” he says.

He’s proud to note that his daughter has an interest in aviation and is looking forward to entering the Air Force soon.

Jackson with his daughter, Chandi. [Courtesy: Tom Jackson, Jr.]

“She started flying with me at the age of 9 months,” he says. “Ideally, she’d like to have her private pilot certificate before she enters the Air Force, but it’s been a challenge to find a flight instructor and to get good weather in South Dakota in the winter.”

Professionally, Jackson has been both an educator and an administrator at several colleges in addition to Humboldt. He plans to keep adding to his aviation certificates, saying he’s also wanted to pursue rotor-wing certification. He would also like to acquire an airframe and powerplant certificate, as his time as a machinist in the Coast Guard gave him a love for turning wrenches.

“I would also like to earn my commercial pilot certificate and maybe even flight instructor,” he says, noting that the aviation culture of ‘a good pilot is always learning’ resonates with him, as do the people who share this mindset.

He’s had the experience of a student he mentored and instructed at a university becoming a flight instructor who eventually helped him acquire his IFR rating. 

“It was serendipity,” he says. At the time, Jackson was teaching at Texas A&M and one of his students was a man named Philip Terry. He was a sophomore and a student pilot. They were in the National Guard together and often talked about aviation.

“He went to Dallas to finish his training,” Jackson says. “He became a CFI and my instructor for IFR. He now flies for an international cargo company.”

Jackson says flight instructors and pilots in general are like professors at colleges in that they have the opportunity to nurture someone’s interest and give them knowledge, and perhaps teach them the skills that change their lives for the better, as well as enhance the lives of those around them.

Jackson notes his instructor’s intonation of “always fly the airplane” helped him build self-confidence, an important attribute in the business world. 

“Just as you must always keep flying the airplane, you must always keep leading in the business world.”

And that’s what education is, he says, a business charged with shaping the future.


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