|Perspectives: Julie-ann Nydegger, JetCorp|
|Written by Julie-ann Nydegger|
My name is Julie-ann Nydegger and I fly for JetCorp, a charter/management company in St. Louis. I'm currently a captain on the Learjet 55/35, and our company flies Lear 60s as well. I've noticed that all people who become professional pilots share some aspects of their personal stories of how they became involved in aviation. However, at the same time no two stories or paths are the same. There are many many different ways to get to the destination, whether that means the airlines, corporate, charter, or simply getting your private license.
As a kid I never really looked twice at airplanes. I was more interested in horses, in fact. Aviation was in the family though. My grandfather was an engineer for Curtis-Wright, working in experimental design of the Wankel RC2-60 rotary engine in the 1940s. My dad spent four years in the Air Force in heavy maintenance, fixing T-37s and T-38s. There were no pilots in my family though, and I didn't have any relatives or friends who knew any pilots. I really didn't have many ways of getting information, or getting questions answered. The internet was not yet the resource that it is today either. Around age 16, a classmate who I competed with at horse shows got a flying lesson from her dad for her birthday. She went on and on about how great it was and how she wanted to get her pilot's license. For some reason that sparked something in me. Maybe it was the natural competition between us. I started taking notice when a traffic reporting Cessna flew over on it's rectangular circuit every afternoon. My high school was about a mile away from Tampa International airport, and I rode my horse at a stable under the final approach for MacDill Air Force Base. Suddenly, the F-16s screaming overhead seemed interesting instead of annoying.
I did manage to get a flying lesson out of my reluctant parents, and it was as great as I thought it would be. I felt really airsick, but still had fun. Unfortunately, time, money and school made more lessons impossible. The ambition was still there somewhere, but for a few years I nearly forgot it. I went to college at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. It is a small liberal arts school on a mountain in Tennessee. I planned to major in history. At Sewanee there is a small GA airport and one day while riding my motorcycle I took a turn down a different road and ended up in the airport parking lot. I gathered up the courage to go in the tiny FBO, and as luck (or fate) would have it, I discovered that they were holding a private pilot ground school, with 10 hours of flying included, to be credited as an elective through the University. I ended up taking that course, but not for another 3 years when I was a senior. Again, time, school and money got in the way. During my senior year I was doing an art project that involved drawing an airplane. My teacher referred me to a good friend of hers at the airport. Someone who would be able to help with some of the details. His name was William Kershner, and if you have ever read the Student Pilot Flight Manual (or the Instrument, Advanced, Instructor or Aerobatic manuals) then you know who he is. Coincidentally, my art teacher did all of the aerial photography work for his manuals.
So I visited with Mr. Kershner and he showed me his red white and blue Cessna 152 Aerobat. In fact he put me to work washing it with him. He encouraged me to take the ground school and said if i did he's take me up for a spin. I didn't realize how literally he meant that! I took the course, but at the end, Bill unfortunately was battling cancer and was fighting through the treatments. He gave me a stack of signed books and said to read them all and come back and fly with him when I was done.
I graduated, went back home to Florida and started training at Albert Whitted Airport in St. Petersburg in April of 1999. At this point I still never really considered a career in aviation. I was just intent on getting my license and going back up to Tennessee to fly with Bill. One year later I was working on my Flight Instructor Certificate. It was too expensive to fly for fun, but I justified the debt if I was working toward another rating. Plus, you can make money once you have your CFI, right? I applied for a scholarship through the Southeast Chapter of the Ninety-Nines and they graciously awarded me $1000 toward my CFI certificate. Before I took my checkride in August 2000, I went up to Sewanee for some spin training. Bill was feeling better so we went up and got very, very comfortable in spins. We spun left and right, power on and off until I could recover on a heading. Then we went up to 10,000 feet and did a 20 turn spin, with the engine stopping at number 13. We recovered at 4300 feet, and yelled "clear prop" and restarted. Since we were already wearing parachutes, we did some loops, rolls and split S's. I was worried about a student getting me into a scary spot during a botched stall recovery, and rather then be a stall-phobic instructor who produced stall-fearful students, I wanted to simulate all kinds of bad scenarios. We did and I relied upon those lessons frequently in the almost 2000 hours of dual given that was to follow in the next few years.
On September 11, 2001, I had my CFII and MEI. I had 1200 hours and around 75 multi. I had resumes out to every airline and cargo outfit around. Of course that day shut down hiring for quite a while, as thousands were on furlough and returning to compete for charter and even CFI jobs. In the next few years I taught at Albert Whitted (KSPG), St. Pete/Clearwater Int'l (KPIE) and at Clearwater Airpark (KCLW). I lived on Ramen and hot dog soup to pay the rent through the worst of it. I flew aerial photography, aerial manatee surveys for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, sightseeing flights, fish spotting, and I volunteered to fly Young Eagles. I also spent time before and after work walking in resumes to all of the local charter companies. The airlines were out of the picture, so I focused more on charter. I had only multi time in a Duchess, and a little right seat Navajo time flying with an old instructor friend who had a Part 91 corporate job. Everyone said it was all about "being in the right place at the right time." That is true, but the hardest thing is TRYING to be in the right place and the right time. You can't. All you can do is increase the likelihood that luck will find you. I made sure to tell people I met about my hopes of flying charter or corporate. I mentioned that I was looking for an opportunity to prove myself and break into the field. Using this strategy I did manage to get a flight as SIC on a part 91 operated Hawker 600 when the co-pilot was sick. I also picked up 25 hours in a Part 91 operated Lear 25D. That looked like a great opportunity, but then one day I got a call saying the airplane was sold. I was back to instructing, but I now had a few genuine turbine hours in the logbook.
Since the majority of my few turbine hours was in Learjets, I started concentrating on companies that flew Lears. Every night I faxed, emailed or sent "the old-fashioned way" around 7 resumes. I sent them in response to ads from every aviation job site on the internet. I applied for jobs I probably had no hope of getting, but I tried anyway. I got a call from a charter company in Cleveland and an invitation to interview. It was my very first interview. I talked with the Director of Ops, went to lunch with him and he showed me around the hangar. All in all, I was impressed, and I thought I did a good job on the interview. One thing he said though struck me. He said, "Do you REALLY think that you could make it through a FlightSafety Initial course for a the Lear 55 with your past experience. All I could say was I hoped I could. I had made it this far against the odds. My primary instructor went from C-172s to a Lear 60, so why couldn't I fly a Lear 55?
I followed up with a phone call after a week of not hearing anything, to let them know I was still very interested. They said they were still considering the candidates. After two more weeks and the same response, I began to send resumes out again. The next day I got a call from JetCorp in St. Louis. They asked if I could come up for and interview and of course I said yes. The interview went well, even better than the last one. I met with the Chief Pilot and Director of Operations and they gave me a tour of the facility. The next day I was offered a job as a First Officer, and told to report in two weeks. After years of agonizingly slow progress, things began to happen very quickly. I packed my 1991 Pathfinder with everything that would fit, and drove from Tampa to St. Louis. I had the bare minimums for the company at the time, 2500 hours, 500 multi, ATP, and a little jet time.
A few weeks later I found myself at Simuflite in Dallas. I was unlearning things from my piston flying days, while trying to grasp the way things were done in the turbine world. I was unfamiliar with departure/arrival procedures. I never had access to Jeppessen plates as a CFI. I had never used a flight director and the only pressurized airplane I'd flown was the Lear 25. I had a lot on my plate. But I refused to let go of this chance I had. This was the one I had waited for and I was determined to get through it. I was in school with four other new hires, with experience varying from new like me to already type rated. Leaning on my fellow classmates for study tips and help was invaluable. I got through the initial like thousands before me, but I felt like I needed to plant a flag somewhere on this mountain top. I couldn't wait to start flying real trips.
Our company flies everywhere the airlines go, and everywhere they don't go. My first year I saw interior Mexico, rural Saskatchewan, the Bahamas, and most of the lower 48 states. I also learned about ice and snow which were mysterious to me as a former Florida pilot. Our schedule has us working 11 days on , and 4 days off. A few of those 11 days can be on-call as well. We fly all kinds of people, from business people to families going on vacation. I like that we fly many of the same people so we get to know them. Many even know the pilots by name, and our company has over two dozen pilots. Before I got into the business/charter side of aviation, I had a perception of the stereotypical person who flies on a private jet. What I've learned is that while many are well off, they are just regular folks with the means to fly directly to their (often remote) destination instead of spending 2 days airlining and driving to get there. They are always grateful and some even come up front and ask if they can get US anything to eat or drink! One customer even sent every pilot a ham for Christmas. It makes you feel appreciated, even without the ham!
The nature of charter is "on-demand" service, and while many of our trips are scheduled, our plans can chance with the needs of the passengers. We may think we are spending the night in Teterboro, but a change of plan might have us go to Miami for the night instead so the passengers can meet with clients early the next morning. The pilots are responsible for the pre-flight planning, checking weather, NOTAMS and TFRs, filing flight plans, coordinating Customs on International trips, figuring out fuel loads and weight and balance. It required a flexible, "go with the flow" attitude, and if you are that kind of person, then this kind of job is fun and rewarding. Every flight, no matter how supposedly simple, has its unique challenges. Aspen is always a challenge, but so is a 5000' uncontrolled field at night on an island with no VASI. Sometimes the day is 6 legs that are 30 minutes each, sometimes it's a four day layover in Las Vagas, and sometimes its an ASAP 1.5 hour call out to do a pop up trip at 8PM and fly all night. It's rare, but it can happen.
Last February, at the height of the winter, I was upgraded to Captain, after 16 months as a First Officer. I was happy that I had made Captain before my 30th birthday which wasn't until May. Now it's August and I've been a Captain for over 6 months. I still enjoy the challenges of the job, and I see that everything I learned as a First Officer prepared me for my upgrade.
Along the way, after my initial training, my type rating a year later, and my upgrade in February, I have kept in touch with Bill Kershner. I called him a few weeks ago to tell him I was off my "new captain 6 month probation." He said he was proud of me and that he was going to be hanging up his spurs soon. He is 75 now and he passed the torch of his aerobatics school to a fellow Sewanee graduate who was a few years ahead of me. As for the little Cessna Aerobat that we spun for 20-turns with engine off, he says the Smithsonian wants it and it will be on display at the Udvar-Hazy Museum in Dulles. Hollywood couldn't have written a better ending to his legendary story. As for me, my story is still being written. As when I started working on my private license, I don't really know where the future will take me from here. I'm just happy flying Learjets for now, and if it's one thing I've discovered, it's that the road will take you where it should, as long as you stay on it to see where it goes.
For anyone who would like more information on flying for a jet charter/management company, I'd be happy to chat. My e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org