|Written by Jon Reed|
Things are continuing to go great! I am a few short hours away from the 500 hour mark and have had a few days close to 8 hours of dual given! It has been a great experience and I have never felt this fulfilled as far as doing something that I love and helping others fulfill their dreams as well. I still can't believe sometimes that I get to live the dream of flying for a living!
I had the privilege of sitting down with Brannon Riceci, a former flight instructor who is now a full time pilot on a Rockwell Turbo Commander 690A with Aero Air, as part of their air ambulance operation.
What was your first experience in airplanes?
When I was in my mid-twenties I started taking lessons in a Taylorcraft, I didn't know any better at the time, but it was a tail-dragger, and before I knew it I was hand-propping with the instructor was yelling out 'Contact!'
So you started flying from then?
Actually, I got delayed a bit, but always had flying in the back of my mind. I was a raft guide for almost 8 years and really found that fulfilling, but between guiding in the summer and bartending in the winter, by the time I was 28 I knew that I needed to do something that did more meaningful than a job that just let me 'hang out' when I wasn't working.
Had you always wanted to be a pilot?
Well, when I was around 10, I either wanted to be a pilot, a fireman, or garbageman, you know so I could drive the big truck.
So what attracted you to a pilot career?
My love of video games. (laughs) Actually though I had no interest in a 9 to 5 position, and it seemed like a great combination of blue and white collar, I got to be around people and have the social aspect but still have a technically focused job, basically a perfect fit for everything that I enjoy. I was really sold after I started instrument flying and it was like playing one huge complex video game. That is by the way, one thing I noticed about a lot of the pilots I work with, they love to play Vids. (laughs again)
So at 28 with a few hours in a hand-propped tail-dragger, you decide to commit to a career in flying. What was your first step?
Well, I started researching where I wanted to go for my training and had talked to enough people to know that it is best to train where you want to work. I spent about 6 months researching my options and since I was paying my own way, quickly ruled out schools like Embry Riddle and Sierra since I needed to work while I was training. I had a great job as a bartender and really wanted to stay in the Portland, Oregon area so I chose to go to Hillsboro Aviation. I had seen the Mom and Pop aspect from my time in a Taylorcraft, and wasn't really interested in that kind of training. As well, I saw how busy the instructors were at Hillsboro. It seemed like a great place to train and instruct and I really loved my time as a student as well as working there.
Then you were able to keep working the whole time while you were training?
Yes and when I got hired as a CFI I managed to keep my night job. I have a mortgage and it wasn't really an option for me not to keep working that job as well.
Do you think that hurt you at all as far as your career progress?
Not really, because I was willing to make the sacrifices that I had to, like no days off at first.It was pretty rough at times, and I was basically tired a lot but I knew I was doing what I loved, and still do.
So what helped you through the rough times?
Just faith and patience that in time everything would work out. I was never in a big rush to get done with everything. I enjoy where I am, look towards the future definitely but loved what I was doing and am doing.
Back to being a CFI, did you get your CFII and MEI right away?
That is pretty funny actually because I was planning to wait quite a while until I could save up a bit of money, when I got called into the school administrators office and they said 'Can you get your CFII?' They had an accelerated student from Europe who wanted to convert all his licenses. We finished his private in five days and I was 15 minutes late to our first instrument lesson from finishing my CFII check ride! I basically had to suck it up, put down the credit card and get it done. It was definitely worth it though.I ended up doing the same thing with my MEI because I had a few students who wanted me to instruct them in the Seminole.
So at about 350 hours you had all your instructor ratings and a good student load.you must have been feeling pretty good.
It was great. I was working hard at both jobs, flying a ton and learning an amazing amount. Until of course that faithful day and my unfortunate encounter with wake turbulence.
Would you mind talking about the accident Brannon?
Not at all. I was in the pattern with a student in a 152 teaching landings and talking through operations in the traffic pattern. Two Life Flight Helicopters passed across the approach end of the runway as we were wing up turning base. There was a shift change in the control tower, so there was no advisory of wake turbulence and as we rolled out on final I only saw two helicopters holding short of the runway.
I don't remember anything past that point, but we impacted the ground on my side as I was apparently recovering and I woke up in the Life Flight Helicopter with a really sore back. I was in and out of consciousness and then in a coma from that point on.
The doctors didn't think that I was going to be able to walk again, but obviously they were wrong. I spent 4 months in bed, crutches for four weeks a cane for a week or so and then I was back!
The school was amazing and really helped me out through everything. Some of the instructors would stop by now and then and would always drop off a little something to help pay the bills that workers comp didn't cover. It was really incredible to see how kind and caring everyone was, actually it was very overwhelming.
So what was the transition like coming back?
Well, I took my time and tagged along in the backseat on quite a few flights, did a few flights with the fellow instructors but the transition was really smooth. I think it would have been different if it would have been something that was some really reckless error on my part, and definitely the fact that I talked about it so much with fellow pilots really helped me move on. I really didn't have any nightmares or problems with it, and I always knew I wanted to keep flying. It was kind of weird but it didn't take long to get right back into it.
When you started instructing again full time did you do anything different?
I started taking one day off a week because I got so busy but was still bartending four nights a week. As far as actually flying I was definitely likely to do a go around if I got a advisory of wake turbulence, but no more so than normal. There was one time when they tried to clear me behind the Life Flight helicopter and I quickly fired back "I'm not falling for THAT again.we'll do a go around." (laughs)
What was the highlight of your instructing career?
Definitely instructing instrument students in the winter in actual. It is an amazing feeling to be totally focused on the job at hand and knowing that it is a pretty amazing skill to be able to develop and to help someone else do so as well. It always felt pretty special. That was definitely my favorite part.
So tell us about the turbo commander?
Oh, it is everything you need. Fast, big and heavy. It is incredible. It definitely kicked my butt for the first bit, and I felt like I was hanging on the rudders when I was flying it, but they give us a lot of time to transition and luckily now I feel like I am hanging on the flaps.
I feel really lucky because in our operation we share legs which means alternating sitting the left seat and doing all the flying during your leg. It is amazing experience and being part of an air ambulance operation really feels meaningful. It adds to the pressure knowing when we make the go/no go decision someone's well-being could be affected, but it feels incredible to do something that you love and help people in a really meaningful way in the process.
How about differences in operations from normal 135?
Basically because we are 'lifeguard', we get direct almost every time. Obviously it can't be abused, but ATC does a great job of helping us get in and out very quickly. The bottom line is no holding and cleared direct.
You have had a great career already Brandon and it is just getting started, what advice do you have to those of us who are following in your footsteps?
Be patient and keep the faith. The only way to be in the right place at the right time is to be in the right place.
Keep it in perspective. Remember that it is your choice to be here, and yes it is flying but it is also a job. If there weren't crappy things about it you wouldn't get paid. Focus on what you love about it and remember that five years down the road you will have a good job in aviation. Don't get too anxious and miss out on the opportunities and experiences along the way.
One of things I love about Aero Air is that you get a good job by doing a good job. You are not just a number. But remember that flying is unique in that it is technical but also a customer service job and you have to remember who pays us to fly. I really feel part of a team and I think in particular Aero Air is a great combination of technical and social aspects.
Would you do anything differently?
Not really surprisingly. I have been really lucky and I guess I always have just stayed open to moving up or even trying something different but also to just enjoy where I am. Work hard, do your best and things will work out.
How about any quotes?
Definitely, it is Latin, Semper Ubi Sub Ubi.
And what would that mean?
Always wear underwear. (laughs) Just kidding actually my favorite quote is from Buckaroo Banzai- "Wherever you go, there you are."
I know it sounds pretty cheesy but actually I think it is pretty deep. It is about being happy where you are and not always looking out the door to the next thing. Don't be so concerned with only looking at where you are going that you never stop to appreciate where you are and where you have been. Enjoy the journey, wherever that may lead.
Thank you for your time Brannon, congratulations on your current position and good luck in the future. It has been inspiring to hear your story and glad to see you living the life you want and making it happen.
Fly Safe and live the life.