Waukesha County

Flight Path: Commercial Airline Pilot

Gary Johnson in Boeing

The impending global pilot shortage has captured the attention of the aviation industry and encouraging companies to explore different avenues to efficiently and effectively recruit and train future pilots. We recently sat down with Milwaukee-area native, Gary Johnson, a long-time Captain with American Airlines to find out what inspired him to become a commercial airline pilot, what concerns and excited him about the future of aviation and his words of wisdom to anyone looking at a career in aviation.

When you were young, did you always want to be a pilot, or was that something that evolved for you over time?

When I was 14-years-old, a man by the name of Gunter Voltz, a German who flew in World War II, came to our school to talk about flying. He was an accountant by trade, but worked with an explorer group at the West Bend airport and gave glider lessons on weekends.

I joined the group and helped him push gliders around the airfield and took lessons on how to fly gliders at a reduced rate. It was in March of 1972, and only the second time I had been in an aircraft. The first time I flew, I was with one of my grade school teachers who was a pilot in the Army Reserve. I was afraid of flying when I was younger, but my first flight in a glider was an experience I will never forget and after that I absolutely loved flying.

How did you start your journey to become a pilot?

I soloed a glider at 14, before I was even legal to drive. I continued my training through high school, receiving my pilot’s license when I was 16, earned my Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) for gliders at 17 and began teaching others to fly gliders immediately after. Upon graduating from high school, I took classes at Gateway Technical College in Kenosha and received other certifications through my local Fixed Base Operator (FBO) in West Bend. I began instructing in single- and multi-engine aircraft, as well as gliders, at Rainbow Airport in Franklin, which is no longer there, as well as West Bend.

In 1978, I had the opportunity to talk with a chief pilot who flew for a local corporation, and I began flying corporate aircraft – a Cessna Citation, domestic and internationally – for them until 1984. Then, in 1984, People Express – a discount carrier in New Jersey – was looking to hire commercial pilots and I interviewed for a position. I was initially turned down for the position because I was a civilian pilot and the commercial airlines preferred to hire military pilots, but they eventually hired me.

After working with People Express for a couple of years, I got a call from a friend of mine that worked for American Airlines. They were looking to hire 1,000 experienced pilots annually over the next few years, and I instantly began the hiring and flight training process with them, which included an interview, a physical and flight simulation training. Because of my experience, I helped my classmates through their training which was great. We shared a great deal of camaraderie and fostered lasting relationships.

Which airport is your “home base?”

Since beginning my career with American Airlines, I’ve been based out of Chicago-O’Hare International Airport. However, I began flying in and out of O’Hare when I was flying corporately. I remember being nervous my first time flying in, but my chief pilot shared some incredible advice and perspective, “Regardless of what you fly, you can only do one approach and land on one runway at any time. Just listen to the controllers and do what they tell you.” I never forgot that.

Honestly, the most challenging aspect of flying into and out of O’Hare was not getting lost on the ground. Chicago has the best Air Traffic Control (ATC) of any airport I’ve ever flown into. They are just amazing people that do a fabulous job at keeping everything straight. They’re able to move the traffic efficiently and treat pilots with a great deal of respect.

How did your early career look at American Airlines?

When I joined American Airlines, I got into the Boeing 727 as a co-pilot and the airline was hiring approximately one thousand pilots each year. Not long after, I began flying DC-9-80s and flew them for a few years. Then, I received training on the DC-10s and started flying internationally. I flew to Hawaii, the Caribbean and to Europe and loved every minute of it, because the DCs are a beautiful flying airplane.

After six years at American, I received notification that I was going to be sent to school to become a Captain and I instantly jumped at the opportunity. I was one of those pilots that moved up whenever I could. Some guys didn’t move up because they commuted in, those pilots would stay in the airplane they were in and become senior. They could pick their flights because they had seniority. Since I drove to work and flew three- to four-day trips, I didn’t care when I flew out and flew in. Because of that, I was able to move up as soon as I could and I did. That’s one of many advantages I experienced being a local guy.

Anyway, at that time, American Airlines was going great guns. It was unheard of that in five to six years you could become a pilot, so my progression was very fast. In 2003, like many other airlines, American hit stagnation, where people sat in the same stations for several years. However, this never really affected me. I got great trips because I was a more senior.

How long have you been a Captain for American Airlines?

I became a Captain for American Airlines in 1992, when I was just 35 years old. I was lucky because I was hired in the middle of a huge upswing for the company. It’s funny how much difference having seniority makes, and I’ve been fortunate to have pretty good seniority my entire commercial career. We have guys that have been sitting in the co-pilot seat for 20 years now, and a lot of that has to do with the timing of their careers.

Is there anything that surprised you throughout your training to become a pilot?

No. I don’t think there’s anything that was a big surprise. The thing about flying airplanes is that when you do something that you really love, the training doesn’t seem so bad because you’re highly motivated. The problem about training is that if someone doesn’t really want to do it, they’re not going to excel at it. Training to become a pilot is incredibly hard and you have to want to do it in order to be successful. If not, you won’t tolerate the rigors of training.

Pilots often say that they learned a great deal about themselves throughout their training and career. Is this true for you? If so, are you willing to share?

I think you learn more about yourself as you get older and experience life. I’ve served on American’s committee for professional standards, and people are trained well, but sometimes lack experience in working with others. In general, that comes simply from time in the seat and working over time with a variety of people.

Honestly, being a co-pilot is the hardest job to do because you have to adjust for each Captain you fly with. In my career as a co-pilot, six years at American, getting the opportunity to learn from their experience was so important to me. It’s also important to the co-pilots I have the pleasure of flying with.

Do you have a great story or two about your aviation career that you could share with us?

I recently became a Captain on the 787 aircraft and started flying to China. On one of my first trips there, we went straight up over the top of the North Pole. It’s amazing to be looking at your map and seeing the North Pole marked and then looking over out the windows and seeing the North Pole and the polar ice caps.

On the way back from that very same trip, we flew through the Northern Lights. That was an incredible experience because the beautiful green and blue lights in the sky were literally draping down over our aircraft.

When you look ahead at the aviation industry, what concerns you most?

With all of the retirements coming up in the next 15 years, this is the time to get in. The biggest threat I see are companies from other countries that are coming to the U.S. (rail, shipping) Flights of convenience are becoming super-competitive because these companies are taking advantage of labor laws and where they base the company. Another big threat is whether or not the government going to regulate or de-regulate the industry and which airlines are going to make it.

On the flip side, what excites you about the future of aviation?

The unbelievable leaps forward in technology with the airplanes is mind-blowing. The 787 Dreamliner, 777-X, etc. – there is some really nice equipment coming out. In addition, I feel as though the industry has stabilized. I don’t think you’re going to see the drastic highs and lows that we’ve seen in the past.

What is the best piece of advice you received during your aviation career?

I can remember being frustrated trying to get into the airlines after I was flying corporately and no one was hiring commercially at the time. I met someone near my airport, and her father was a pilot for North Central. I was looking for some advice, so I called him. He told me, “I know everything looks bad and it seems like your goal is so far away, but I’m only going to say two words: Don’t Quit. If you keep moving forward you will get there.”

To be honest, any time anyone asks me for advice and insight on how to catch their break in this exciting industry, I tell them the very same thing.