Welcome everyone, to a new episode of Airways Profile, our column dedicated to people in aviation, those without whom our passion would surely not exist, and to whom our thanks go every day for their work and their incredible effort, especially during the current pandemic.
We don’t have one guest today, but two! One of the most famous married couples in aviation, Margrit and Joe Fahan!
Margrit, Joe, thank you again for being here with me. Let’s begin! The first question is always the same: what’s your name and what is (in your case, was) your role in Aviation?
Joe Fahan – I was a pilot for Delta Airlines. I was hired by Northwest Airlines in 1984, and became a Delta pilot in 2008 when the two airlines merged. I flew the 727, DC-10, 747-200, 747-400, and spent the last 17 years as captain on the A330. For the last 5 years I was a Lead Line Check Airman on the A330.
Margrit Fahan – I was a pilot for Delta Airlines as well. I was hired by Republic Airlines in 1985, which merged with Northwest Airlines in 1986. I flew the DC-9, A320, DC-10, and A330. It is important to me to help encourage and mentor more girls and women towards careers in aviation!
With only 6-7% of the pilot workforce being women, my goal is to have more role models for young girls to see in the flight deck!
Why become pilots? Where did it all start?
Joe – I wanted to be a pilot ever since I was a kid. As I watched the space program progress from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo, I wanted to be an astronaut. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t pursue that route, as I am 6’3” tall and would’ve never fit into the capsule! When I was 15, I took an introductory flight lesson, and when I turned 16, I started working toward my ratings.
I soloed at 16, earned my Private license on my 17th birthday, my Commercial on my 18th birthday, and my ATP when I was 23 – all minimum ages for those licenses.
Margrit – My parents are from Germany, and Dad flew gliders in Germany at the end of WWII. When I was 16, we lived in California and my dad introduced me to gliders at a local airport. I began flying gliders there, eventually becoming an instructor. After several thousand hours of glider flying, I transitioned to powered airplanes, eventually flying Twin Otters for a small airline in New Jersey. From there, I was hired to fly at Republic Airlines.
You are quite famous online for being the “flying couple”. How did you become the “flying couple”? Actually, let me rephrase that: how did you become a couple?
Joe – We met while flying for Southern Jersey Airways in New Jersey and were friends for many years before we began dating. We both ended up at Northwest Airlines where we found ourselves single and flying at the same pilot base. We were married in 1992.
After our two sons were grown and off to college, we began flying together as a crew in 2015. We both spent 17 years on the A330, and although we flew together a few times as DC-10 pilots, it was when we flew together on the A330 and began our social media presence as the FlyingFahans.
How did you two ends up flying together? Did you ask for that specifically, or did it just happened?
Joe – The easy answer is “seniority”. Every aspect of an airline pilot’s schedule, airplane, and seat is a function of seniority. You can’t just “ask” to fly with someone, you have to be able to “bid” a specific trip – and the likelihood of getting that trip depends on where you sit on the seniority list: Highest seniority picks first, and so on down the line.
Also, while there are other pilot couples at the airline, few are flying on the same type of airplane, let alone one being a captain and the other being a first officer. Our situation was that our two sons had both gone off to college, so we no longer had to fly opposite schedules in order for one of us to be home with the kids.
In addition, by the time that happened, Margrit was the most senior first officer on the A330 in New York, so she was able to hold any trip she desired – she simply arranged her schedule bid so that she would be assigned any and all trips that were assigned to me. It worked well for the last 6 years of our career!
So, you started flying together. What was different when flying with your spouse rather than with another pilot? Were there advantages, such as understanding immediately each other in certain situations, or was it more complicated?
Joe – Professionally, it rarely makes much difference if you know the other pilot or not. We are all trained to do specific duties, which allows two complete strangers to operate the flight the way the company dictates. Of course, it may be more relaxed and familiar when you personally know the other pilot, but in the end the job is performed exactly the same way.
Margrit – I wouldn’t claim that any married couple would make a good crew together, and in fact we were regularly asked “How could you work with your spouse – I could never do that!”. We just found that working together wasn’t a problem, we both knew our duties and responsibilities and got the job done. An added bonus was that when we were on a layover, the normal stresses and complications of life weren’t as much of a factor, it was more like being on a date!
You mentioned that you started flying together when your children went off to college. How did you manage to form a family by making a life that is certainly not easy? I am thinking about shifts, long layover, thanksgiving at 35,000ft…
Joe – A two pilot (or pilot/flight attendant) couple faces some challenges, but also benefits. Family life can be challenging, and for about 20 years we flew opposite schedules – it was our philosophy that we wanted to have at least one parent home with our kids at all times…to the extent possible.
When our boys were young, we didn’t have the seniority to be able to completely control our schedules, and it was a constant source of stress trying to arrange our schedules which changed every month. The other downside to it was that our time together as a couple was limited, we referred to it as “tag-team parenting”. We ended up having several au pairs living with us, which was a huge help.
They became part of our family and we keep in touch with three of them to this day.
Margrit – When young people learn to fly a plane, it becomes a passion and it’s all you desire. But when you start a family, the family becomes your number one priority, and that’s when you start making career decisions based on what works best for the family: Where you’re based, what plane you fly, which position you choose (first officer, captain, instructor, etc.), even which cities you fly to are all influenced by family.
By staying a very senior first officer, Margrit was able to actively participate in several roles in our children’s school lives, enjoy holidays off, and have much more control over her work life. There is a LOT to be said for quality-of-life vs income or position, and we all make decisions based on what works best for us.
I can only imagine the amount of effort you two put for your family! Congrats for what you achieved together!
Speaking of the job, you both worked first in short-haul and then long-haul. What is the main difference? How is a day for a long-haul pilot different when compared with the day of a regional pilot?
Joe – Regional flying – Because Margrit and I both came from the civilian, regional world (we called them “commuters” back then), we have nothing but respect for those pilots. These are the pilots who are in the trenches – they are flying a lot in a day, getting rescheduled, sometimes jerked around, really doing the hard work of aviation. It’s a great way to learn the aviation world, and they make excellent pilots.
I don’t want to say it’s a “young pilot’s job”, because some stay with it for their entire careers and love it. Again, it all comes down to what choices work for you. I have friends who flew domestic trips their entire career and loved being home every night. They may have tried long-haul flying and didn’t care for it – the time zone changes, the jet lag, maybe the different cultures.
Margrit – I used to say that short haul flying, or domestic flying is “all about flying the airplane”. Multiple legs, several different cities in one day, crossing weather fronts more than once – it’s all about that, and if you get a long layover somewhere, it’s an added bonus.
Conversely, long-haul flying is “all about the layover”. One flight, one takeoff, one landing, and then at least 24 hours (frequently more) in a city that you fly to because you want to be there (seniority permitting, again). International flying is flying to a major destination, and there are lots of benefits to that!
You both have flown a lot of different aircraft, and both ended up flying the Airbus A330. Why the type?
Joe – Prior to flying the A330, we were both flying the DC-10. While we had the seniority to fly any other airplane (I had flown the 747 as well), it’s not always the type of airplane that draws one to fly it.
After flying all over the world, I found that I preferred flying to European cities the most – the length of the flights was shorter than flying to Asia, I felt more at ease in Europe, and the history there is amazing. As for Margrit, she felt the same way, plus she is a native German speaker and loved flying to Germany.
The A330 took the place of the DC-10, and New York offered a nice variety of European flying. The 747 and the A350 were both primarily serving the Asian market, with limited trips to Europe. The 777 would have been an option as well, but once we trained on the A330, we found that we loved the Airbus and its way of operating. I used to say, after transitioning from the DC-10 to the A330, that it’s “the same job, with a better office”.
Joe, here is a question for you. What is, in your opinion, the main difference between Boeing and Airbus aircraft?
There is a bit of a rivalry between the two, and between the pilots who fly them. Both are fine machines, but I really do prefer the Airbus for a few reasons: It’s quiet, much quieter in the cockpit that the Boeings that I flew. It gets up to higher flight levels quickly, offering more options for cruise (than, say, the 767-400) and cruises at a nice speed (m.80-.82). And best of all, ergonomics!
The side stick is wonderful, no big yoke right in front of you…and the slide-out tray table is a godsend for meals or any other use. Non-Airbus pilots tend to consider the Airbus as a strange machine that doesn’t let you really fly it. Nothing is further from the truth, you can fly the Airbus just as you can fly any other airplane, it just happens to have some nice safety features that you’ll never need if you fly it correctly.
Margrit, here we are! Same question for you, but instead, what is for you the difference between DC9/DC10s and Airbus aircraft?
Along with what Joe said about the nice ergonomics, great performance, and quiet cockpit on the Airbus products, I would agree with him that the A330 is by far my favorite airplane to fly. The McDonald Douglas aircraft had a not-so-wonderful way of getting your outside leg and knee wet anytime you got deiced or experienced heavy rainfall on the ground!
The technology was also much more advanced in both the A320 and A330…remember the 1960’s… hence the term steam gauges on the DC-9 and DC-10. I enjoyed all the jets I flew but I cannot say enough good about the Airbus. I do have to give it to the DC-10, however, for having HUGE cockpit windows, making sightseeing all that much better!
We are in 2021 now, a year into a pandemic that as we know has hanged the entire world of aviation. COVID-19 also had a particular impact on your lives, since you basically retired because of the pandemic. Where did the idea of retiring come from?
Joe – Covid absolutely had an impact – It’s the reason we retired. The public stopped flying, international travel came to a halt, and although we were not forced to retire, we decided to take advantage of an early retirement package offered by our airline. I retired one year earlier than the mandatory retirement age, and Margrit retired five years early.
Your last flight was from Milan Malpensa (MXP) to New York (JFK). I cannot be more than happy about the fact that your last flight was from my home base to my second home base, and I have to ask: how was your last flight? What went through your minds during your last landing?
The last flight was strangely normal, except that the knowledge that it was our last on the A330 was definitely on our minds. Of course, we both strived to make our last landings good ones, and the reality of it hit as we turned toward our gate and got the “water salute” from the fire trucks.
What does the future hold for you two? How do you plan to spend your retirement?
We are working on an opportunity to resume flying, and in May we are scheduled to train for a new airplane in the corporate world. We will fly for a group of private jet owners, with an aim to be flying together as a crew again! Not only will this give us a chance to experience a “new” facet of flying, but hopefully we will have some new experiences for our followers on our @flyingfahans Instagram page.
We are also hoping to get more involved with Pet Rescue Pilots (@petrescuepilots), a charitable organization that flies animals in shelters to locations where there is a demand for adoptable pets. we have both flown with this organization before and will be looking for opportunities to fly more missions.
Other than flying, we are enjoying our new life in Florida, living on the water and enjoying boating, being with friends, and the near-tropical scene where it all happens.
Well, that’s absolutely one of the best reasons for burning aviation fuel! And after this beautiful excursus about your story and your career, I have a question in my mind: Is there anything that makes you proud to be pilots?
Joe – I am proud that I’ve accomplished what I set out to do when I first took a flying lesson. I had a great airline career and I got to see the world. I’m also very proud of our two sons, one an airline pilot and one a Naval Aviator. I’m also very proud of Margrit for being such a good pilot and “travel companion” of mine for the last 5 years of my career.
I am also proud to be able to offer advice to the young pilots I meet. I remember being in their shoes, and it makes me feel good to pay it forward.
Margrit – I am proud that I was able to accomplish my dream of being a pilot in the face of the many obstacles that female pilots had to endure back when I started. When I looked into attending the Air Force Academy early on, I was told that “women could not be pilots in the military”.
I persevered on my own and ended up exactly where I wanted to be. In fact, I was the first female pilot to fly the Airbus A320. I am proud of my pilot family and proud to be a role model for upcoming female pilots.
You’ve just mentioned your sons. Did your children ever tell you they wanted to be pilots when they were young?
They didn’t really talk about it much early on, and we didn’t push them into it. They were, of course, exposed to flying from an early age, but their interest really took off (no pun intended) when they made friends with another set of brothers who loved flying. From then on, it was a group effort, each encouraging the others to learn to fly.
What would you say to a kid who tells you that he/she wants to be a pilot? What’s your advice?
I advise anyone who shows a desire to be a pilot to follow their dreams. I believe someone should be a pilot if it is truly their passion. There are upsides and downsides to aviation, and it takes someone with a true desire to fly to be a success in aviation.
How can a person become a pilot?
There are several pathways to becoming a pilot, and each individual needs to decide which path is best for them – whether it is a civilian route or military.
Our advice to aspiring pilots is constant: You should have a strong passion for flying if you want to be happy in this field. If you think you want to be a pilot because you’ll make a lot of money, or for the travel, you may end up disappointed.
Aviation has always been cyclical, with great highs and devastating lows. We believe that if a pilot has a strong passion to fly, it’ll be easier to weather the tough times that invariably come.
What was the funniest thing that ever happened to you while flying?
Joe – I don’t know if this is considered funny, but one thing that comes to mind was an episode while Margrit and I were flying to Europe one evening: We were having our meal in the cockpit, and I had a full cup of butternut squash soup in a cup in front of me.
I went to grab the cup, missed it, and ended up spilling the entire cup of yellowish-orange soup down my uniform shirt and pants. Luckily I avoided spilling any on the airplane itself, but I spent the next hour, basically almost down to my underwear, trying to clean my shirt and pants with club soda and towels.
Margrit – Way back when I was a fairly new DC-9 copilot, I got to fly my first trip with a female captain! It was a great trip and we were done with day one of a three-day trip and were all on board the hotel shuttle talking about dinner plans with our 2 flight attendants. On the smallest DC-9-10, we often only had 2 flight attendants.
The van driver was standing at the back of the van with the door open, even after loading all our bags. Sandy, our captain, finally asked him what he was waiting for….. he said he was waiting for the 2 pilots:) She told him we were all there and he looked at us closer and saw our uniforms, we all laughed, but he was rather embarrassed.
What is the biggest fear for a pilot?
We don’t fear the act of flying an airplane at all. The more realistic fears are the things that might prevent us from flying – losing our medical certificate, the financial health of the company, economic downturns, etc.
Have you ever declared an emergency?
Joe – There are “emergencies” and then there are “emergencies”… There are perfectly legitimate times when it is appropriate to declare an emergency to get priority handling or have emergency equipment standing by, when in a situation where the airplane is operating with a system failure, or a serious cabin issue (medical or other passenger problem). It also protects the crew should there be an unplanned deviation from normal procedures due to aircraft issues.
As far as declaring an emergency because were really having trouble, I’d have admit that I’ve had a pretty quiet career! One hydraulic system failure on the DC-10 that resulted in a turn back to our departure airport, a couple of medical emergencies. I’ve been blessed! Margrit has a slightly different tale to tell…
Margrit – Well I have had two major emergencies, 1 minor emergency, and a few passenger-related issues where we had to declare an emergency to receive priority handling and have either medical staff or law enforcement meet the flight. There are often onboard medical emergency flights that are longer, like overseas flights.
Usually, there is someone on board with medical knowledge who can help out and resolve an issue before a divert or emergency clearance is necessary thank goodness. Bad passenger behavior, most often due to excessive drinking is harder to handle and has created a few “emergency handling” requests.
My toughest emergency was a loss of both major hydraulic systems on the DC-10. We were left with a backup system and a reservoir with additional fluid and had to complete a 35+page procedure in the COM (cockpit operating manual) prior to landing. It was a flight from DTW-FRA and we diverted to BOS.
Due to the loss of hydraulics, we had limited communication, instrumentation, automation and only backup breaking. Gear and flaps had to be lowered by hand and the landing closed the runway in BOS for several hours due to cleaning up hydraulic fluid. Luckily there was an overnighting aircraft there and we transferred passengers, baggage and crew and continued to FRA.
The other big one was a compressor stall and subsequent engine shut down due to ingesting something into the engine on takeoff. It happened at night, leaving DTW, and the tower enjoyed quite a light show as we were shooting flames from both the front and back of the engine nacelle. It was a full flight and a very heavy takeoff weight, but the good old DC-10 climbed out on 2 out of 3 engines. We completed all our checklists and returned to land.
My other notable event was a lightening strike or some kind of static discharge that put a hole in the radome of a fairly new A320 about the size of a bowling ball, a burn mark along the entire fuselage and a large exit wound on the right side of the tail just below the stabilizer.
It was probably the loudest boom i have ever heard, but the airplane continued to fly beautifully. We really were not aware of the amount of damage until after we landed in SFO. Luckily there were no passengers or flight attendants on board, it was a ferry flight from LAX to SFO.
COVID-19 is the latest crisis in the aviation sector. We had the economic crisis in 2008, and 9/11 was another crucial day for aviation. I know this can be a delicate question for you, so feel free to not answer to it. How was your 9/11 experience?
Joe – I was scheduled to fly over 9/11, but at that time we had an au pair living with us who was scheduled to return home to Germany on 9/12. I switched my schedule to be able to see the au pair off that day, so I was home. Good thing, because Margrit was flying back to the USA from Rome on 9/11, and her flight ended up landing in Amsterdam and spending the next several days stuck in Europe.
I remember rushing home to catch up with the news on TV and saw much of it live as it happened. I remember being quite upset, but once our boys came home from school (ages seven and five), it was time to concentrate on them. I set out large sheets of paper with crayons for them, and to our surprise, they both drew incredibly accurate images of what everyone saw on TV that day. We still have those drawings.
Margrit – My flight left Rome about three hours late on the morning of September 11. We were flying along the west coast of France awaiting our oceanic clearance to proceed across the Atlantic for our destination – Detroit. With three other airliners in our airspace awaiting their clearance as well, we were aware of certain issues causing a delay but had no idea what the problem really was. No one knew exactly what was going on.
French ATC was passing messages of a mid-air incident and a bomb exploding at the Pentagon. Information was sketchy and mostly non-existed for almost an hour. We were all told to return to our points of origin. Lufthansa requested clearance to return to Frankfurt, Alitalia requested a return to Milan, Air Canada returned to Zurich and we (Northwest) were denied a return to Italian Airspace.
There were still known hijackers in the air and no one was willing to take a chance on a possible American terrorist-controlled aircraft at this point. We were finally allowed to divert to Amsterdam and were the last US flight overseas to land safely. We were not aware of what had actually taken place at home until after we landed.
It was horrifying watching the news that evening and heartbreaking to see all the loss of lives…. As Joe said we were in Amsterdam for almost a week before we eventually got back home.
On the subject of crises, in these unprecedented times, aviation has suffered greatly. Where do you think Aviation is going? How will the future for the sector be?
Aviation is and has always been a very cyclical business. There have been several low points to go with all the high points. The Covid pandemic has definitely dragged the industry down, but it will go up again, and I have confidence that it will once again be a thriving industry. I would encourage new pilots to stay positive, and I do believe there are signs of recovery already.
Let’s cheer this conversation up. I discover you on CNN when I read an article about the “Flying couple”. I started digging through social media, and I found you on Instagram! How did the idea of creating an Instagram account come together? What’s the message you would like to send to your followers?
The Instagram page came about in an unexpected way: While on a layover in Athens Greece, we unexpectedly ran into an old friend who I flew with back in the early 1980’s when I flew for a small airline in New Jersey. I had not seen Eric in over 35 years, and at the end of the night I asked if he was on Facebook so we could stay in touch.
He said “No, I’m on Instagram”. I hadn’t paid any attention to Instagram, but I looked up his page (@ericdjordan) and found that he was posting aviation pictures and videos. Margrit said “That looks fun, we could do that”, and our page was born.
What I would say to my followers is that we enjoy posting entertaining content, showing different aspects of our career as pilots, and encouraging young aviators as they begin their careers.
And I am pretty sure your followers (I am one of them!) enjoy your page, your photos, and – what I like most – your sense of humor. It’s something that makes me laugh every time!
We are not at the end of the interview just yet! It’s back-and-forth time! What is…
- Your favorite airlines (Delta is not allowed): JetBlue – they have always treated us very well as we commute between Florida and New England.
- Your favorite plane (A330 is not allowed):
- Joe – I am asked this often, but there are so many different types that it’s hard to pin one down. I enjoyed them all!
- Margrit – the DC-10!
- Your least favorite plane:
- Joe – Any airplane where I don’t fit into the seats!
- Margrit – One where the pressurization doesn’t work well and makes my ears hurt!
- Your favorite airport:
- Joe – I always thought Amsterdam’s Schipol airport was run very well, but I’ll claim JFK as the favorite because it was my base, and the people working there are fantastic.
- Margrit – Put me down for Honolulu! If I’m heading there, I’m guaranteed a good layover!
- The most chaotic airport: – Paris LFPG or Atlanta KATL
- The highest number of planes in front of you before takeoff at JFK – I’ve heard someone get told they were number 58 for takeoff. We’ve been in a long line at times, other times we’ve gotten to the front remarkably fast.
- Your longest flight:
- Joe – 15+ hours, Minneapolis to Hong Kong when I flew the 747. (Shortest: 9 minutes! Hill AFB in Salt Lake City to Salt Lake City International)
- Margrit – How about when I left Rome on Tuesday, and landed in Detroit about a week later…we diverted back to Amsterdam because it was 9/11.
- Your biggest delay:
- Joe – I was delayed about 12 hours once, and the flight finally operated. We were heading to Japan and then on to Sydney, and none of us wanted to be replaced due to the (maintenance) delay. We got our legal rest but then departed.
- A plane that you would have liked to fly but for which there was no possibility:
- Joe- Concorde, Lockheed Constellation, Boeing 377 Stratocruiser.
- Margrit – 747
- A plane you never wanted to fly: I’d give any of them a try!
- The phrase you say most to ATC: “light chop”….just kidding. “Can we have a direct clearance?”
- Your favorite route: New York JFK to Athens Greece
Last but not least. What is your favorite place where you two had a “meanwhile-working-date”: All of our layovers are “working dates” but we were once scheduled to deadhead to Athens and fly the plane back to NY. We flew over a week early and spent a week in the Greek Islands!
“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life”. How true is that for you?
We have quoted that line several times and tie it to the idea that it’s best to have a passion for flying in order to be happy in this career. How lucky are we that we “retired” together;)
It’s not always a “walk in the park” – the studying, the checkrides, bad weather, maintenance issues, the fact that everything you do in the airplane must be correct and can be scrutinized by others, the missed holidays, missed family events, lousy layovers, crazy hours…all part of the job.
But after 40+ years of flying professionally, we can look back and say it was the greatest job in the world – and have zero regrets for taking this path. We got to live our dream.
And that’s absolutely true. We are at the end of our interview. Margrit, Joe, is there anyone you want to say hi to?
We’d like to say hi to all of our friends we met through Instagram all over the world, and all of our colleagues we worked with for years!
Margrit, Joe, I really want to say thank you to both for your time, for your patience, and for the effort you have put into this interview. I am pretty sure that anyone reading this will find it enlightening, funny, and interesting.
Thanks to our readers as well! See you soon with the next episode of Airways Profile! Take care of yourself, and each other!
Featured and all images courtesy: Joe and Magrit Fahan