A Helicopter Pilots road to the Airlines!

by Allan Kelly

My life growing up was exciting. When I was away from home I loved combing the woods for adventure with friends out in the country; however, my home life was something less desirable and over time, my excitement swung to the other end of the spectrum. This home life led to my running away from home during my senior year in high school. I lived with different friends and at one point a girlfriend. For a high school senior, the latter was something to brag about with the other high school guys. My GPA had dropped down to around a C, and I had no drive to do anything about it. One of my close friends failed his senior year and I was afraid that I was on the cusp of doing the same.

After graduation, employment was anything but intriguing. I worked dead-end jobs that promised to take me nowhere. The economy in Michigan only added to the misery. In the early seventies, I remember a more comfortable life. Or maybe that was drawn from the innocence of a child who had not become aware of the harsher side of life. In any case, I knew that I needed to change something, as the life I was living out at that time, seemed bleak and dismal.

As many lower-income males did back then, I looked to the military as an escape. It had the promise of a much more stable life, better pay than I was making at the time, and a promising future for advancement. All the things I had no hope of in my civilian life. Basic Training was pretty straight forward for me and I didn’t find tech school any different. I did father a child during tech school but being young and lacking life experience, I really didn’t appreciate what impact that pivot point in life would have on me.

I flew to the military base where the mother of my son was stationed, to be there for the birth. For me, I knew after watching his birth that there was no way I could ever be away from my son, so I did what I thought to be the right thing at twenty-two years of age … I proposed. She accepted my proposal and a couple of years later we decided to have another child. The only one of my four sons that was planned. About four years later, after returning from an almost six-month TDY, things took a turn for the worse in our marriage. Less than a year from that point we separated and finally divorced.

No one has ever expressed this to me, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I am a seriously slow learner. While separated, I met another woman who I loved dearly. After dating for some time, we were expecting our first child. This young child would be my third child and third son. A few years later we would welcome our second son, my fourth. This change in relationship and number of children was happening around the same time that I changed from the Air Force to the Army to become a Warrant Officer and attend the Army’s Rotary Wing flight school. I can hear your thoughts, what absolutely bad timing. Apparently, Irish heritage and the mythology of good luck was causing me to question my own Irish heritage.

My second wife insisted we get married about a week after my first divorce was final. I wanted to wait so we could have a big wedding with family and friends. She was young and I suppose the idea of marriage offered something much more stable than we had at the time. As you’ve read so far, there were many opportunities to make better decisions in my life and it seems like I chose poorly most of the time.

I wanted to give this background so that anyone else pursuing an airline career would be encouraged as to their odds of succeeding.

My aviation career started while enlisted in the Air Force. My AFSC (Air Force Specialty Code) was a military photographer. During my time at Vandenberg AFB, I stumbled upon an opportunity to become an aerial photographer. I happened to be standing by when I overheard two NCO’s (Non-Commissioned Officer) talking about an empty SERE-C (Air Force Ground Survival Course) slot opening up and our unit losing that slot due to the original candidate suffering a death in the family. I walked up and stated that I’d be willing to go knowing I’d have to leave in two days for Fairchild AFB. They were in a bind and said, “OK”. I’d later go to the altitude chamber at Edwards AFB in California and then back to water survival training at Fairchild AFB.

Having the flying identifier opened up more TDY opportunities for me and I took full advantage of them when I could. While at Vandenberg, a couple of MSGTs took a liking to me and looked out for me. I was definitely a roughly cut individual and having ranking individuals in specific positions worked well to offset my undesirable personality traits. One of those individuals happened to be the flight NCOIC for our unit. He decided to make me his assistant. I really don’t know why he went out of his way for me but I’m eternally grateful. It was a good experience.

During this time a TDY to Sarajevo came up and we were scrambling to find someone to fill the slot. It was a high visibility slot, as it would be following around a four-star general, William Crouch. So I took the job of what really was to be his personal photographer, so he’d have a history of his work there in that part of the country. The job was ridiculously easy and the Air Force basically gave me blanket orders. I could get a rental car, have two rental properties in different countries if I felt it was necessary, I was getting full rate perdiem, and too much free time for an E-4 around the age of twenty-five. How I didn’t get arrested is beyond me. I soon became the tour guide for all the individuals that worked for the general. Whenever he was away, I would take a load of individuals out on a four- or five-hour trip to see all the sites. They very much appreciated it as most of them were working sixteen-hour days, seven days a week.

I was drawn to the personal pilots of the general. These pilots are known as the infamous “Warrant Officers”. They are an extremely unique group, even in the military. Once they found out that I had an interest in aviation, they no longer gave me an option of learning about it. These difficult individuals forced an aerodynamics manual on me and sent me back to my room every night with daily questions. I am eternally in their debt for doing so. They’d come looking for me the next day wanting answers to their questions and then reassign new questions for the following day. “Tenacious Buggers” would be putting it lightly. They talked with their CW5 and got letters of recommendation from both the CW5 and the general for me to apply to the Army’s flight school. I got in on my first application submission.

While at Fort Rucker, the home of Army aviation, CW3 Perry Alliman (Warrant Officer flight school IERW Chief) took notice of me and made me his casual duty officer whenever I had a break between blocks of instruction. Literally, the night after finishing a block of instruction, CW3 Alliman would call me at home and remind me where I needed to be the following morning after PT. The job was not pleasant as I was the one assigning students casual duty jobs. Anyone who knows Warrant Officers knows that they are some of the most tenacious and bartering people God ever created. That just made my job that much more difficult. Initially, I tried to work with the Warrants to give them the assigned casual duty jobs they wanted but after a while, I just started sticking students with jobs and not changing my mind unless they had a doctor show up personally or had a death certificate in hand.

What I didn’t get at the time was that CW3 Alliman was doing me a favor. Part of getting the aircraft you wanted in the later stages of flight school is earning the old “OML” points (Order of Merit). Working for the Warrant Officer flight school IERW Chief, it can have some rewards … after all the work. The position got me a few extra OML points. Add those to the points I got for my academic test scores and my check ride points, I ended up about number 13 out of 48 students. Not too bad a position, especially when you’re surrounded by some really talented individuals.

My second divorce, I was about two and a half years from retirement; however, having gone through one divorce already and knowing how adversely that impacted my relationship with my two oldest sons, I wasn’t going through that again so I ETS’d (left active duty). I had a four-year break in service and was cold contacted by a Minnesota Army Guard recruiter. Once she found out about my background, she had me swearing in down in Minneapolis less than a year later. I finished my twenty. I don’t get to collect my retirement until I’m sixty, but I get a retirement.

Read more about the RTP here

While back in school, I started my last semester to graduate and I had just submitted my application for the masters (MSW) program. I was looking to become a psychotherapist or clinical counselor. The day after that submission, A Lieutenant I served with right out of flight school, contacted me and asked if I had been tracking what was going on with the airlines. I hadn’t. I promised myself that watching the news was something I would stop doing after retirement. I started checking into it but was already committed to finishing the semester to get my BA. Once I graduated, I started the leg work to see if I could trick one of the airlines into hiring someone who hadn’t flown for over eleven years.

It took a couple of weeks to get a passport and gather all the information I needed to fill out an application on airlineapps.com. Once that was completed, I submitted my online app to nine different airlines hoping to utilize the new RTP (Rotary wing Transition Program) that many of the regionals have begun to utilize to draw in more pilots. I was contacted by three initially.

I interviewed with one, which went well. The gentleman who interviewed me said that he was going to recommend that the company hire me. That was encouraging. I then interviewed the following week with ExpressJet. The best Interview, by a huge margin, I’ve ever experienced. I was pretty certain that they were not going to hire me as they seemed like an amazing company and there were probably thousands of applicants that had more experience, flown more recently, and were much younger offering a longer shelf life than I would. They took a fifteen-minute break after the interview and then came back to render their judgment. They announced that they were going to give me a position with their company. I was shocked …. I responded as any professional would and asked, “Why?”

Airbus airplane at the airport
The Airline pilot shortage has led to the development of the RTP

I’m forty-eight and will turn forty-nine later this year. I’ve not flown in over eleven years. The last time was in Baghdad, in December of 2007. I’ve been through two divorces. I almost didn’t graduate from high school. There are a couple of other life-altering events in my life that I chose not to include in this blog post. I’m telling you, if I can have this happen to me, I’ve got to believe that almost everyone out there has a shot at this.

Airline pilot, Helicopter pilot, Corporate pilot, all of these are feasible for you. If you make the choice to accept the fear and anxiety and take a stab at this, I offer best wishes and hope.

One last thing: No one gets anywhere on their own. I’ve covered a couple of people in this blog but it doesn’t come close to giving an accurate picture of the number of people that I owe for where I am. Remember where you come from and remember those who helped you get where you are, it’s the best advice I can offer anyone.

About the author: From, in his words, “almost failing high school” to military life and now, starting a new career as an Airline pilot. Allan Kelly shares his experience to inspire those considering the Rotorcraft Transition Program.

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