The Best of the Best
The large man with rimmed glasses is standing before me and is awaiting my answer. It’s my first day of pilot training at Delta Air Lines and there are thirty of us sitting here, thirty hand-picked from thousands of applicants.
The class is a sea of navy blue suits, red ties, short hair and square jaws--we all look alike. A huge US flag hangs from the wall alongside posters of Delta commercial jets. We all share the same passion for flying. We are young and hungry.
By a show of hands we notice that 80% of us come from the military, flying fighter jets, stealth bombers, or heavy cargo aircraft. I’m not one of them. I’m just an immigrant who left his family, friends, and the only life he knew for a shot at the American Dream. And with some hard work and a lot of luck, I am sitting here among the best of the best -- and feeling inadequate.
What Delta sees in me, I’m still trying to find out. The hardest part of the interview was to believe in myself--to believe that I was as good as those American born, military bred applicants. The day before the interview I told Gina that start-up airlines like MAXjet were maybe as far as I’d ever go in my career--and for an immigrant, that’s not so bad. Maybe our kids would have better opportunities. Tommy could be a quarterback in high school, join the Naval Academy, and fly F-18 before pursuing an airline career with the majors.
Gina sensed my doubts. After listening carefully she said something I’ll never forget : "You’re Danny Fucking [Last Name]. You can do anything." At that moment I realized what I liked most about her : When I looked into her eyes and she looked back at me, she had this way of making me feel strong and weak at the same time. Two months later I’m sitting in Delta pilot school and I feel like a Prometheus who has stolen Fire from the Gods.
Delta is every pilot’s first choice. Pilots here are paid better and treated better than at any other major airline. Delta flies to more countries than any airline in the world and its large fleet and route structure are envied by many managers. Delta counts Salt Lake City as one of its crew bases and this is a big draw for me.
Salt Lake City is considered a senior base and a tough one to get into when you are a new-hire pilot. There are three slots available for a class of thirty and all three are associated with the MD-90, one of the smallest and oldest jet types in the fleet.
If you are willing to be based in New York, however, you can have your pick of aircraft. While it takes 12 to 15 years for a new pilot to fly international at other airlines, Delta has no less than 11 slots open for us.
Choosing to fly the Boeing 767 Luxury Liner out of John F. Kennedy Airport is extremely tempting. The pilots' schedules on that aircraft is filled with layovers in France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and even Africa since Delta is the only US carrier to fly there. There are rumors that the hotel in Paris is near the Eiffel Tower. I could even zip over to my folks with the new, high-speed 'bullet train.' More importantly, I could fly in the French airspace, the very same airspace my country prohibited me to fly in.
And I could thumb my nose at a government that tried to shatter my dreams.
For a pilot flying the B-767 for a major airline means the pinnacle of a career. For me it means going further than anyone I know back home, anyone who once told me to stay in France because I wasn’t good enough for America’s fast paced and competitive way of life. Maybe like many an immigrant, I catch myself seeking approval from those I’ve left behind, wanting to show that I’ve been right all along--and good enough.
The aircraft and base request is done in seniority order. I am number 17 on the list. My plan has been to grab Salt Lake City but that chip on my shoulder is pushing me to claim the Luxury Liner and fly to France. I think about Gina who told me I should fly the 767 if I felt that’s what I needed to do. Salt Lake and the MD-90 could always wait.
Or could it ? There is no telling when I’ll have another opportunity to be based in Utah. My company is merging with Northwest Airlines and thousands of pilots are about to join our ranks. So I am torn between France and Salt Lake--my past and my future. I am torn between reaching a potential untouched by all those non-sayers and just letting go.
The man with rimmed glasses waits patiently for my answer. Salt Lake City, I say loud enough for everyone to hear. And just like that, the last 'SLC' slot is mine. There will be no prestigious wide-body aircraft to fly across the ocean on, no dinner by the Eiffel Tower, and no thumbing my nose at La Republique Francaise. But I’ve finally let go. I’ve moved on from trying to prove something and set myself free from an unhealthy complex.
France has wasted enough of my time, I decide. I don’t want the chip on my shoulder to impact my future. I don’t want to delay moving my family to Salt Lake City to chase a ghost or seek for an approval that might never come.
And honestly, I didn’t need approval anymore : I’m sitting in a class full of fighter pilots for less than a day and I’m already feeling their egos rubbing off on me. Could it be ? Me ? Among the best of the best ?