MIAMI — Woody is a pilot for a major U.S. airline. He has made it to that lofty position that many an aviation enthusiast would consider the Holy Grail of aviation: the airline cockpit.
But dreams come with high price tags—not just financially, but emotionally.
“When I was a little kid, I wanted to be an astronaut,” Woody said. “So, I had tons of airplane models, looked at anything that flew, and always wanted to go to the airport.”
While his story begins like many a typical pilot, his climb up the aviation ladder has been, to say the least, strenuous. Three times, from three failed airlines, Woody has been furloughed (laid off). Three times, he’s been forced to pick up his family, sell the house and move. And, while he’s been flying for major U.S. carriers for 16 years now, at his current airline, he still languishes in the bottom 15% of the seniority list.
Yes, Woody has had it tough. While many would say he has “made it,” made it to what? He’s still not in the left seat—the Captain’s chair—and has yet to receive a line, or a schedule. For the dozen years he’s been at his current airline, he’s been stuck on reserve; that is, waiting for the phone to ring to replace a pilot who called in sick. In other words: the bottom of the bottom.
Was it worth it?
“It was an unbelievable set of circumstances that got me to my airline,” Woody says. “I worked hard to get here, and I feel blessed to be here. But, even so, I’ve been junior my whole career.”
At 48 years old, with a wife, Kirstin, and two teenagers, Ian and Sophie, to support, it hasn’t been easy. Worse, life itself has thrown the family some very tough curve balls.
“We got married in ’93,” Woody reflected. “In ’99, our first daughter, Gillian, was born. Within a year, at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, she passed away.”
When that happened, he said, they had a choice.
“We could be a team and get through it,” he says,” or we could not be a team, and life could be completely chaotic and spiral out of control. I know a lot of people that, when hard times come, they start to drink. They become dependent on something they think is going to make them feel better.”
Whenever something bad happens, he says, he and Kirstin try to ground themselves in reality.
“Anything that took us out of reality just wasn’t a good thing,” he says.“So, for some reason, we’ve always been a good team.”
After the loss of their daughter, Woody and Kirstin became advocates for others searching for answers to their own children’s medical issues. To their surprise, Woody says, the very act of helping others turned out to be some of the most healing therapy they’ve ever encountered.
Still, the couple was in for hard times. Within a few scant years of losing Gillian, Woody was furloughed, hired by another airline, and furloughed again. All told, three furloughs in as many years. For a pilot bent on an airline career, the volatility was stressful, to say the least. Worse, each new job placed him back on the bottom.
Woody says, “Everything’s based on seniority, so you want to get to your airline as soon as you can. So, you have to be a go-getter. Go from a flight instructor to a commuter job to an airline job. But life for me hasn’t been a straight, linear line. It’s been a lot of curves and lots of ups and downs. Two steps back one step forward.”
Through the ordeal, Woody says, he’s learned to appreciate what he has, right where he has it. Moreover, he’s learned to live his life in the moment, savoring the blessings he and his family do have.
Woody’s son is in a similar position, he says. “Ian wants to be an Engineer. And, as an A student in advanced classes, Ian believes his future is all mapped out.”
Pilots tend to think the same way, Woody says. Striving for a goal is good, but Woody is concerned that Ian may one day look back on his life and wonder where it went.
“You’re trying to teach your kids to do the right thing, but there has to be a balance,” Woody advises.“Work toward your goals, of course. I’m not saying be a slacker, but we’re pushing these kids these days to be overachievers.”
As a former University of Colorado alpine racing athlete, Woody knows about focusing on a life goal. But he compares it to the Japanese way of life. “Push, push, push, and suddenly you have a lot of suicides and people are unhappy, and what’s it all for?”
His advice: Stop and smell the roses.
“If you’re going to put those blinders on to reach that goal, then you’re not going to look around. You’re going to miss relationships, miss some beautiful people in your life that are going to pass you by, because you were so obsessed with getting to a goal.”
So, Woody has made peace with where is at the moment. But, with all the turmoil and extra effort it’s taken for him to land that airline job—only to get stalled at the bottom of the top—does he still actually like his job?
“It goes back and forth,” he admits. “For awhile, I didn’t really like coming to work.”
However, Woody feels like he’s turned a corner. With each flight, he’s learning to come out of his shell.
“Getting out on the road, having a mini-adventure with the crew, getting to know them and not closing them out like I used to. I’ve found that has helped.”
Despite the camaraderie and financial benefit of flying regularly, however, Woody actually prefers his reserve schedule, he says, as opposed to a flying regular line. Being on call often allows him much more time at home with his family.
“It’s less money, but it pays the bills just fine. I’m not going to kill myself to make ten more hours a month, only to be gone 75% more time.”
And what about the job itself?
“When you close the door and get flying,” he says, “it’s a great job!”
Woody realizes that, despite the volatility wrought on the airline industry through 9/11 and the economic crisis of ’08, he actually has it better than others.
“We as pilots always think we’ve been hit really hard,” he says.“Yeah, we have, but everybody’s been hit hard. Nobody has it easy. And those guys in the business world often hate their jobs. I can’t say that about mine.”
But pilots also tend to make it harder than it has to be, he says. While he likes his job, he says, he doesn’t live for it. And therein lays the trick.
“I think it could be better, but if you think that way and it makes you angry, you just have to kind of let that go. Pilots are our own worst enemy. (Referring to the self-defeating infighting among pilot groups during a recent merger—see “The Airline Pilots’ Kryptonite”.) I think our jobs could be ten times better. It didn’t have to be this hard, and it could have been much better for everybody.”
And what does he expect for his future?
“Long term, I would like to make Captain, that’s a given,” he says.“The ego of it all, I don’t care. But, for financial and retirement reasons, that would be a wise thing to do.”
Woody says he’s not been able to provide for Kirstin and the kids the way he’d like, but he has been able to pay the bills and put a roof over their heads.
“But I don’t want us to have to worry about money,” he says.
Even so, he plans to hold off on any Captain upgrades till Sophie graduates from high school.
“At that point,” Woody says, “it would be all about retirement. Then again, something might happen in the next few years that changes that formula. But, that’s the frustrating thing about being pilots; we’re the last to know.”
Like many pilots, Woody would like to own his own airplane.
“I’ve always wanted to get my kids into aviation,” he says.“Or at least expose them to it on a different level than just going to an airport and walking onto an airliner. Using that small airplane as a tool to have fun and travel. There’s a ton of places to go within a few hours’ flight in a small plane.”
At his old job, he says, many fellow pilots used to fly their family to weekend fly-ins. For him, that communal spirit was its greatest draw.
But for now, that dream will have to continue flying its perpetual holding pattern. A graduate of the School of Extra-Hard Knocks, Woody says he’s flown with plenty of pilots who’ve had it relatively easy—and are up to their eyeballs in debt.
“Yeah, some bad things happened to us,” he allows,” but we went from being clueless to being pretty fiscally responsible. We drive old cars, we live very frugally. But, I’m not judging anyone. If I’d had it easy, I can almost guarantee you I’d be a different person. I’d probably have spent oodles of money and been really irresponsible, and probably had a big head on my shoulders.”
Woody says their challenges have served to keep him grounded, and humble.
“I see pilots that don’t seem to think that anything could ever happen to their careers or lives,” he says,” and when it does, they’re surprised.”
Conversely, Woody admits to being challenged look toward an optimistic future, rather than always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“The long term implications of Gillian’s death, and the three furloughs, the moves . . . they’re still manifesting themselves,” he says.“A little bit of self-doubt, of letting myself go. I’m still afraid to commit to new friendships. That was never my character trait before.”
Despite his own challenges, he has some excellent advice for the upcoming generation of pilots.
“If I had any advice, just enjoy where you are. Don’t focus on the bad things. There’s nothing you can do about it, you’ve got to move on. Life is a good thing if you want to make it positive.”
Alongside a healthy attitude comes personal health as well, he says.
“Keep eating well!” he exclaims.“Don’t get soft. Always remember your roots, and try not to step on people.”
The self-induced karma, he says, will pay off in the end.
As for flying, Woody had one last thing to say.
“Being a pilot’s an interesting thing,” he says.“You walk into the cockpit, meet somebody and think, ‘Man this guy’s gonna be hard to fly with.’ And maybe they are, for a lot of people. But a lot of those guys turn out to be some of the best friends and pilots that I’ve known. They were just going through shitty times.”
Woody implores us to remember that we’re not the only one going through hard times.
“Everybody’s going through something. That’s one thing I’ve learned. Instead of feeling sorry for yourself, just remember that there’s very few people that have it perfect.”
While Woody and his family may have had it tougher than most, in many ways their lives are a study of life itself. Through their challenges and ordeals, they’ve learned, grown, grown wiser and grown closer.
Pilots—or anyone pursuing a career—could learn a few things from Woody’s story.
As you strive toward that dream, don’t forget that you’re already living it.