Fourteen-year-old Stephanie Gulley hadn’t paid much attention to the prizes in her high school geography bee, mainly because it was being held on a Saturday.
“My friends and I planned to drop out in the first round and spend the day at the mall, but they made the entire class stay until it was over.”
So, Stephanie kept winning, conquering continents and tackling tributaries all the way to the final round. Victory was in sight with just one person left to beat. And then, she threw the whole contest. Why?
“They read off the prizes, and second place was a free flying lesson,” she recalls. “Turns out, that lesson became the cornerstone for my career.”
Call it an unconventional path, but the impulse that led American Airlines First Officer Gulley to lose that geography bee on purpose is a common one among pilots—a wanderlust gene, a love of travel, a curiosity about flight and, ultimately, a pull to be at the controls.
“Some people are motivated by the mechanics of it,” Gulley, an Atlanta native, notes. “I’m motivated by the feeling of it. I left a traffic-congested area and could fly wherever I wanted to go. That feeling of control and freedom—it was incredible, and it’s why I chose to pursue a career in aviation through the U.S. Navy.”
For First Officer Brian Broshears, it was as much instinct as it was a feeling. “My dad was one of the first pilots hired at America West Airlines [which eventually merged with US Airways, and, ultimately, American]. I grew up in the industry. I was flying in the back of big airplanes since I was four,” he remembers. “I never thought of another vocation.”
To fund his flight training, Brian fixed cars in an off-road shop. His supportive parents chipped in, too. They were also there the first time he heard the words that are a watershed for every pilot-in-training: “You have control.” It means the aircraft is in their hands and their hands only, with no instructor on board. Broshears remembers the first day he soloed vividly. “After a few takeoffs and landings with the instructor, he pulled his headset off and stepped out of the airplane. I looked over and saw the empty seat next to me. I got nervous, then excited, and then I became super focused. I remember thinking, ‘I cannot screw this up.’”
There’s lots of hard work in becoming an American Airlines pilot, but there’s also something else: an ability to remain calm and focused under pressure. This comes with experience. Applicants for a first officer position at a commercial airline must have at least 1,500 flying hours, but the average American new hire has more than 3,000. About half come from American’s regional partners— Envoy, Piedmont and PSA—through a program that essentially guarantees them a chance to fly for American one day, while others are hired externally. Most, like First Officer Gulley, have military flight training. The rest, like First Officer Broshears, bring a wealth of civilian flight experience. Last year when American started accepting pilot applications for the first time since 9/11, 8,000 people applied in the first 24 hours.
“Just a fraction made the cut,” says Captain Kimball Stone, the airline’s Vice President of Flight. “Candidates go through a rigorous process that ends with face-to-face interviews with current American pilots from all bases, along with non-pilot managers. Only the most qualified are ultimately chosen by the Pilot Selection Board,” notes Stone, who also chairs that Board.
Training is a gradual process. New American pilots receive highly personalized, intensive instruction (one instructor for every two students) for approximately two months at the company’s flight academy in Fort Worth, Texas, where they master both Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and American Airlines standards. They learn the ins and outs of the specific aircraft they’ll fly and spend time behind the controls of a sophisticated simulator.
Before taking the controls of an actual aircraft, pilots must successfully complete an FAA-conducted “check ride” in that simulator. It is only when they achieve the highest levels of safety and skill that new pilots are allowed to fly an actual aircraft with customers on board. A specially qualified captain known as a check airman flies with a new hire to fine-tune their skills during a pair of three-day trips before he or she is released to fly with a regularly scheduled “line” captain.
Scrutiny doesn’t end with training. There are strict rules to being a pilot, including FAA regulations and international flight and customs regulations, as well as thorough and ongoing medical exams and skills evaluations. To stay sharp, every American Airlines pilot completes at least three days of training every nine months at the company’s training facilities—home to 50 advanced full-motion simulators—under the guidance of a check airman.
Captain Bill Ausley, a licensed pilot since the age of 16, has served as a check airman at American for 31 years, a position that’s allowed him to share his passion for flight with his fellow pilots. “My very first childhood memory was at four years of age sitting on my dad’s lap as he test-ran the engine on an A-4 Skyhawk Marine fighter jet,” Ausley remembers. “I can recall the first simulator I was in and the pilots I was with.”
In his role, he evaluates new and re-qualifying pilots in both a simulator environment and on actual aircraft , and takes a very matter-of-fact approach to teaching. “I try to impart perspective on how I would do something so that it’s easily understood and the information transfers,” Ausley says. Part of this training involves simulated scenarios most people don’t want to think about—preparation for anything and everything from diversions to mechanical issues to encounters with birds, severe weather and more. These can make headlines—Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s landing of US Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson River after a dual-engine bird strike is perhaps the most notable. But you never hear about most examples of these pilots’ professionalism, and that’s the goal. Thanks to the time invested in training, situations that may sound bad, like an engine shutdown or in-flight system failure, routinely end the same way as a flight during which everything works just like it should, even if it sometimes means an unexpected detour out of an abundance of caution.
“Training as a pilot is always about compartmentalizing,” says Captain Kathi Durst, a former Air Force fighter pilot who currently flies the Boeing 737. “It’s about handling the issue at hand without distraction or delay.”
Captain Durst’s story itself encapsulates the many traits of an American Airlines pilot—passion, dedication, perseverance and skill, just to name a few. She remembers her first solo flight on a clear morning as the sun began to rise: “I looked down at the highway 20,000 feet below me and had the thought, ‘I’m glad I’m not down there in that traffic jam headed to work.’ I then had the epiphany, ‘I’m at work!’ It was at that moment I knew I’d have a career as a pilot, no matter what.”
When she graduated from high school in 1977, it wasn’t legal for women to fly planes in the U.S. Air Force. And even after she became part of the second graduating class of women at the Air Force Academy in 1981, the path wasn’t easy. She spent her seven-year Air Force career flying the Northrop T-38 at Williams Air Force Base in Phoenix. In that time, she was an instructor, check section evaluator, academic officer and student squadron executive officer. While in Arizona, she also earned a master’s degree in aeronautical science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. But she would still need to find a new path.
“The Air Force didn’t actually provide FAA licenses to their pilots,” Durst recalls. “I knew I wasn’t going to be a career military pilot anyway because I’m gay [gays were not allowed in the military at the time], so I studied for and received my Airline Transport Pilot’s license in 1987 in order to apply with an airline.”
She joined American in 1988. Since then she has been a flight engineer on the Boeing 727 and DC-10, a first officer on the MD-80 and Boeing 767, a captain on the Boeing 727, 737, 767 and Airbus A300, and a check airman on both the A300 and 737. As Durst continues her rewarding career, she’s looking to help others blaze a trail, much like she did.
“I’m particularly hoping to spark an interest in flight with young girls and children in general. I want them to see a woman in this role, so I make a point of pulling them aside and showing them what they can do.”
Considering only 3 percent of pilots worldwide are women, there’s much work to be done. But Durst’s passion for flight, and sharing it, will ultimately attract talented people, like First Officer Gulley, to American cockpits. After leaving active duty in the Navy, Gulley used the financial backing of her family and the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, along with her military savings, to pursue her dream of flying. She eventually worked her way to ExpressJet, then applied to American. “I interviewed with American in November 2016, and on the Tuesday right before Christmas, I got an email from American’s recruiting department saying I was hired. It was the best Christmas present ever,” she says. “I would say flying planes for American is like hitting the lottery, but there was too much hard work involved to give luck any credit.”
Safe to say, it’s a good thing Gulley had the presence of mind to throw that geography bee at age 14.
THE RIGHT THING TO DO
By Capt. Jim Palmersheim, American Airlines Military and Veterans Initiatives
Giving back to our nation’s military community while conserving aviation fuel is the idea behind American’s Fuel Smart program. This innovative concept involves the entire American Airlines team in a systemwide effort to reduce fuel cost. An example of how we realize fuel savings is by transitioning to ground power as soon as possible when our planes reach the gate, thus reducing use of auxiliary power units (APUs), which provide air conditioning and electricity to the aircraft when engines are not running.
American donates a portion of each dollar saved from APU fuel reduction to the Gary Sinise Foundation for the transportation of wounded, ill or hospitalized service members, veterans and family members on a compassionate basis. Since its inception in 2010, the program has generated nearly $4 million, transporting more than 6,800 of our nation’s finest. At American Airlines, we’re committed to reducing our impact on the environment while serving those who serve our nation. Why do we do it? Because it’s the right thing to do. When you see an American Airlines pilot, let them know how you feel about the Fuel Smart program, and their support of our nation’s military personnel.
A LEGACY OF FIRSTS
In 1973, Bonnie Tiburzi Caputo was hired by American as the first female pilot at a major airline. In 1986, Beverley Bass became the first female captain for any major airline while working at American. And in 1987, under her leadership, American made history with the first all-female flight crew aboard flight 417; every pilot and flight attendant in the cabin was a woman. Brenda Robinson, the first African-American female pilot in the U.S. Navy, was also the first to fly for a major airline, at American.