A conversation with Capt. Don Pierson


Apparently a "terse" writer
Staff member
Today, I met one of my heroes.

In the Dallas pilot crew lounge, there is a small board in the corner of the room where the chief pilot’s secretary posts announcements (usually dead retired captains) and relevant industry news printed from the internet.

Slightly below the board is a picture of a captain, some personal notes and various pictures. I’ve read them over the years, including the semi-regular updates on what he’s up to.

Don Pierson was a DFW 767 captain, former navy pilot, with the world at his feet several years ago. Flying long-haul transcontinental flights, loving life, seeing the world with ambitions of flying international widebody aircraft until retirement.

Then one day several years ago, Don’s car lost a tire, the car rolled several times and his resulting injuries left him without the use of his legs and slightly limited use of his upper body.


We tend to think of our lives in terms of the bulletproof years when you’re in the 20’s and early 30’s. Play all day, play all night, nothing can go wrong. I guess reading Don’s progress after his fateful accident throughout the years always gave me pause to think about the things you really can’t plan for. I guess that’s where a lot of my fury behind the “Always try to have a ‘Plan B’ by getting a valuable education” came from.

But Don stayed in the game and is in training now to be an aircraft accident investigator. His spirits are good and we spent a little time waiting for the hotel shuttle just talking about our love of the Arizona mountain/desert region, his friends in the Dallas/Ft. Worth pilot base and things he has planned for the future.

We shook hands and I helped load Don onto the hotel shuttle and he left me with a warm invitation to give him a call in Mesa when I have some time to share some old stories. Don’s seen the best and the worst in aviation. The best physical conditions, then the trauma of tragic injury, but then the accomplishment of being self-sufficient and getting “back in the game” at the first opportunity.

I guess when things are bad, they can always be worse. However when things are terrible, there is also an opportunity for self-improvement and drive to do the best you can do given your abilities.

So now, more than ever, if I speak or reply to a young aviator with ambitions of becoming a pilot, but doesn’t see the need to form a good “Plan B” with a good college degree and tries to somehow rely on the assumption that he’ll always be able to maintain a medical and continue flying, when I scream “GET A DEGREE!”, don’t be so surprised if I’m threateningly waving a baseball bat in frustration.
Any automobile’s tire can rupture. It doesn’t matter if they’re the el cheapo variety you bought at a dusty service station outside of Gallup, NM or down at the Pirelli factory show room. How’s your tire pressure today in particular?

Any airline can fail. It doesn’t matter if you’re working for Cape Air, flying as a senior RJ captain at Skywest, or a senior 777 captain at American. How’s your management team today?

Any person’s health can fail. It doesn’t matter if you’re a former “Iron Man” champion, what is your blood pressure and cholesterol today?

You’ve learned (or will learn) that you’re absolute nuts if you fly to an airport under IFR conditions with a legal, practical and useable alternate. In my personal opinion, launching off for an aviation career without a solid “Plan B” is even worse.

Thanks for the insight, Captain Pierson.
I think it is vital for everyone (not just people who want to become a pilot) have a plan b. But what I think is the most important point your friend proves, is that when life throws a curve ball, with a positive attitude you can still follow your passions and enjoy life.
Very True

Doug, I too have met an individual that had an excellent career lined up ahead, until he had a devastating automobile accident. My old A&P teacher back in high school was a flight engineer (back in the 70's?). He was training to get his pilot certificates and move into the right seat. Unfortunately the accident left him with serious back issues(he spoke about numerous back operations) That was in high school and I really never paid any mind to that sort of stuff ("iron man" like you said). Now i am 22 and have lost my dad to kidney failure at 57 (10/26/02) and a friend 21 in an airplane accident (12/02). Since then I have REALLY been paying close attention to, not only my health, but to the fact that $#!* happens to anyone at anytime. I was at one time thinking about dropping college and just instruct, built time (desperate i guess)....Now I am determined to finish up college (currently a junior) and continue instructing as I go. I am 22 and been laid off twice (as a tech) since I was 18 (thanks a lot Delta! LGA sucks
, kiddin). I know first hand the volatility of the Aviation Industry. Also If for some unfortunate reason, (i get goosebumps just thinking about it) I am unable to fly, I will have a Bachelors to fall back on. I also have my A&P and experience working the line + my pilot certificates. Moral of the story... Always have a plan B and C if possible.
Re: Very True

Wow. Great message for everyone. Well written and is sure to help all appreciate life more.
You’ve learned (or will learn) that you’re absolute nuts if you fly to an airport under IFR conditions with a legal, practical and useable alternate. In my personal opinion, launching off for an aviation career without a solid “Plan B” is even worse.

[/ QUOTE ]

To reiterate what Doug said, here is an accident brief of someone who made a stupid choice when there were many other better ones. NTSB

I love reading these because you learn so much from them. Great learning tool!
Thanks for the message Doug. Just shows that even when you think you are having a bad day or that the whole world is on top of you that somebody is out there that has been through more and is making the best of their situation. Those are the true heroes in life. When the going gets tough just be thankful for all that you have and keep a positive outlook on life. Couldn't agree more about having the backup plan, a lot of people on these forums agree because everytime we have a newcomer ask about what route to take it's something that is always mentioned.

We also need to be thankful that Doug has created such a great site and forums. Countless people have receieved life changing advice and ideas - that is something that is truly amazing. We all joke about how addicting JC has become, but it's not necessarily the forums that are addicting, it's the will to help each other and keep the the up and coming aviators on the right track. It helps each of us individually and it helps the industry as a whole. I am incredibly glad to be able have somewhere to go to when I have that question I just can't seem to answer. Thanks to Doug and to everyone that goes out of their way to help another.
Great post Doug,

Another vivid story to remind us all that there are certainly no guarantees when it comes to our careers. I can appreciate this story because circumstances in my life have forced me to re-evaluate my aviation career plans.

Capt. Pierson has demonstrated the proper attitude in all of his problems by making the best of his situation and keeping a positive outlook.

You are right in that this story is a classic example of why one needs a plan "B" - AKA a good education. Thankfully, I did manage to get my Bachelor's degree.

The same naturally applies to flying. One of my instrument sim. instructors, a 10,000+ hour FAA pilot, told me many times....always leave yourself a way out.

Thanks again for the reminder,
Mark P.
unfortunate and a very sad story- the moral of the story is a very valuable information to any individual who wants to become an airline pilot. Well written Doug and excellent information!
Great Post Doug and PA44..

Sorry to hear about your loss PA44.

I hope the post Doug wrote get's through to others.

"Life is like a Box of Chocolate you never know what your gonna get" - Forest Gummp
I agree - great post!

And I can empathize. My family experienced something a lot like the above, only it wasn't accident related.

In 1972, my father was a 34 year old field engineer with Tampa Electric Co. and also a Captain in the United States Army National Guard. His job in the service was training artillary forward observers. He was climbing both the corporate ladder quite rapidly as well as moving up in rank.

One summer in Fort Sill, OK, he had what he thought was a back spasm. Then another that was alot worse that made him "lock up" and he had to sit down on the sidewalk for quite some time before he was able to get up.

He went to the base doctors, who sent him for testing. The testing results would not be revealed to him until later that year...

..Christmas to be exact:

On Christmas day of 1972, my father woke up and was paralyzed from the waste down. He could not feel a thing, could not move his legs and most certainly could not walk.

Christmas Eve, everything was normal. He could walk, run, jump, dance... everything a "normal" man could do. By 7:00 a.m. the next day, that all changed.

Fast forward to today:

My father is still paralyzed from the waste down and has been in a wheelchair for 30+ years now.

His diagnosis was Multiple Sclerosis.

BUT - that didn't stop him. He retired from TECO in 1991. He is has been the President of his serivce club, he has served as an officer in his Masonic Lodge and he continued to help raise our family.

He was discharged from the military in the early 1980's as a Major (although he does not received a pension or benefits, we are fighting that).

Moral of this long story: Things happen to good people every day. They happened to Captain Pierson as well as my father, but through both you can see PRIME examples of how setbacks are just that - setbacks... temporary in nature.

YOu cannot always count on tomorrow being like today. I know that's cliche, but that's the way things are.

Keep your eyes on your goals and no matter what happens, keep going.

Very few people are financially prepared to deal with sudden complete disability.

Even fewer people have prepared ICOD files that let their loved ones know their final wishes.

And not enough have savings to last through retirement.

It's possible, even on CFI wages.

Jedi Nein
Questions and thoughts of disasters on my aviation career path always pass through the back of my mind a couple times a week... Dark thoughts...

I am so greatful to be in the health that I am that allows me to take flight lessons and put me on the path to success...