Published by Tom Thinnes on Fri, Apr 28, 2017
"Hey Patrick! Apply for this internship. If you get it, drop your classes and push your graduation date by seven months." This was, essentially, what my uncle said to me when he tried to “sell” me on the United Airlines internship. He is a first officer on the 737 for United Airlines and has been my mentor ever since I showed an interest in aviation. During his “sales pitch,” he droned on and on about the internship’s benefits – eventually, his words of wisdom convinced me and I applied. I decided the networking and experience gained from this position would be something I couldn't pass up. So, I put a pause on instructing and building flight hours back at Western Michigan University and threw my hat into the ring. I went through the interview process and received my top choice of a base: The chief pilot's office at O'Hare International Airport. I finished up my summer of teaching at WMU, packed my bags, and moved back home with Mom and Dad ... time to take the garbage out again!
My first day finally arrives in Chicago O’Hare. I'm escorted through security and shown to my desk. The office looks like the set of Mad Men just without the cigarette smoke and bottles of booze. Probably a good idea considering this is a major airline ... but then again landings do get scary and pilots need to calm their nerves somehow. I'm on a tangent, back to the story.
To my surprise, my desk is directly outside the chief pilot's office. This was made worse by the fact my desk’s placement was in such a spot that he couldn't go in or out of his office without both of us making awkward eye contact. Soon, I'm introduced to Bo, the chief pilot, and all the other flight managers and staff throughout the office. For the most part, I was working with captains and first officers who have years of experience at United and thousands of hours in the air. Needless to say it was intimidating. Did I mention the last plane I flew before leaving WMU was a Cessna 150?
Everyone working in the office was welcoming and interested in where I went to school. It genuinely felt they wanted to get to know me. Unbeknownst to me at the time, these day-to-day interactions with the pilots would provide me the biggest lesson I learned at United Airlines: Pilots, regardless of their experience, are just people. They enjoy talking about recent flights, how they started flying, and what they did last weekend, just as much as everyone else. Throughout the internship, one particular employee, who I encountered constantly, really drove that lesson home. His name? Oscar Munoz. The actual CEO of United Airlines in the flesh!
During my first encounter with him, I was star-struck. All interns were invited downtown Chicago to the United Airlines World Headquarters. On the 27th floor of the Willis Tower (which all true Chicagoans know as the Sears Tower), we had the privilege of sitting in on a ceremony where first officers were being promoted to captains. I remember thinking, "I cannot wait to be in their shoes one day." Never have I been so clear on where I wanted to be in life.
Mr. Munoz came in, addressed the “new” captains, and even said some words to us lowly interns. Having done my homework, I knew his reputation and what he had done for United. However, the one thing in particular that stood out to me about him: he was amazingly humble. Munoz arrived at United Airlines about a year ago, and in that time he flipped the company culture, had a heart attack, then returned to work motivated as ever to make United Airlines the best airline in the world.
After that first meeting, I crossed paths numerously with the CEO. Some involved him stopping in Flight Ops at O'Hare as he traveled for business. Other “meetings” occurred while traveling with his family. My favorite run-in was just before Thanksgiving. He stopped in the office before boarding his flight and said “Hi” to the pilots and staff. He even took the time to shake my hand and ask what I was doing for Thanksgiving. As he walked away, I said, "Have a nice trip." He immediately responded, "You too!" This caused him to stop in his tracks, turn around, and laugh out loud, "You aren't traveling ... have good holiday!" Even CEOs have those awkward moments we're all afraid to have with baristas, movie-ticket takers, or in his case, interns.
I could dive into detail about how I was able to sit in, and be heavily involved, on a company-wide, emergency-crash-simulation exercise. Or the times I walked up to gates with flight managers to discuss with the crew if an airplane should be accepted or not because of maintenance issues. I could explain the projects I worked on, and the real nitty-gritty of my day-to-day tasks. And yes, the stereotype of interns making coffee runs is true. I could share how all interns took trips and toured both GE Aviation and the Boeing factory – with both offering incredible hands-on learning. All of those moments and experiences led to an overall amazing internship and accumulating a vast amount of knowledge.
However, there are two stories in particular that I would like to share that relate to my career aspirations. Ever since I wanted to fly, I knew it had to be for a major airline. These trips I'm about to describe solidified that fact in my mind and made me so excited to see what the future holds for me.
One of the biggest perks for being an intern at United Airlines is the ability to jumpseat. We are allowed two jump seats during our time at United: one domestic and one international. As I mentioned earlier, my uncle flies the 737, so of course I wanted one of my “rides” to be with him. When he received his November schedule, he recommended I come along on the DCA turn he had one Thursday morning.
I arrived to O’Hare Airport around 5:30 a.m. just as the Chicago Cubs were pulling away. It seemed as if every airport emergency-response vehicle was spraying the buses with water, blasting their sirens and waking up the entire airport. Go Cubbies! Thinking how could my day get better, I met my uncle in flight planning and he introduced me to the captain for our trip. Roger was an experienced captain with a calm, laid-back personality. The three of us walked to the airplane and the two pilots starting talking me through the procedures to get the airplane ready for flight. My uncle's hands danced over the endless amount of buttons necessary to complete the long list of tasks: starting the APUs, programming the FMS, and tuning the radios, just to name a few.
The weather offered a quarter-mile visibility and 200-foot ceilings as we taxied to the runway on the grey fall morning. The plane rolled onto the runway and the thrust levers came forward. We were pushed back in our seats as the 737 accelerated down the runway. "V1, V2, Rotate." The plane leaped off the runway and climbed almost instantly into the low cloud deck. A few minutes later, we were up at cruise, sipping on coffee, and heading to Washington, D.C. With business taken care of, we settled into a little conversation. Of course, we talked about the Cubs win! But the two pilots also shared stories of their kids, and Roger inquired about WMU and my plan after graduation.
As we approached Reagan National Airport, the captain and first officer started receiving updated weather information and loading the approach they expected into the airport. As my uncle had hoped, we were told to do the river-visual approach. This approach requires the pilots to simply follow the Potomac River, turning on the final approach when the plane gets approximately a mile from the runway. The captain proceeded to tell me, "There is a prohibited area to the left of the river and another one to the right of the river. Fly into either one, and we get shot down! This should be fun."
As soon as we started the approach and descended, I quickly understood why the areas were prohibited. To the right was the Pentagon, while to the left was the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol Building. Both of those national treasures seemed no more than a mile or two from our flight path. I was soaking in the sights (and looking for missiles coming our way), but also intently listening and watching how the two pilots worked as a crew. The two were a well-oiled machine calling for flaps, gear, and anything else they needed to safely complete the flight. The captain rolled it onto the runway and we taxied to our gate. The passengers disembarked and we spent some more time getting to know each other before the flight home.
By the time we returned to Chicago, the low ceilings and fog had moved away and we had a gorgeous view of the city. I walked back into flight ops buzzing with energy: what an incredible morning! Being able to experience firsthand what I was working toward really confirmed, "This is what I want to do." The flight showed me the light at the end of the flight-training tunnel. It was at that moment I knew the path I was on would take me where my career was going to end up. It is exactly where I want to be.
All of the interns work Monday through Friday, but on the weekends the world became our backyard. For some crazy reason, United Airlines had decided interns deserve travel benefits. If there was an open seat on any flight, we could fill it. I was able to visit San Francisco, Chile, and Germany. These trips were short but did a good job simulating what layovers felt like. Of all the trips I took, Frankfurt stands out as the best.
On a certain Friday afternoon, I arrived at O’Hare a couple of hours before it was time to board. I went to Flight Ops, said “Hi” to those in the office, and burned some time before I needed to be at the gate. While in the office, I met the crew who would be flying us to Germany. The first officer was on his IOE so the captain for the flight was a line-check airman. This meant instead of the usual three, we had four pilots on board the flight. I was traveling with two interns who were based downtown at the world headquarters. Every Friday they raced to the airport to catch their flight after work and that day was no exception; they made it on the flight with three minutes to spare. We settled into our seats and tried to get as comfy as we could for our eight-hour journey.
We exited the big 777 around 9 a.m. Frankfurt time and hopped on the crew bus with the pilots. I had never visited Europe before, so my eyes were glued to the window staring at the “strange, other side of the world.” OK, it isn't that strange! They just have weird money and funny accents. The other interns and I checked into our room and spent the afternoon on the top floor of our hotel lounging by the indoor pool in the hotel spa. We all felt very fortunate to be there and kept joking that no college internship should come with the benefits we had.
We met the crew downstairs around 5 p.m. and they bought a few rounds of delicious German beer and took us out for dinner. In true German fashion, we had schnitzel and more beer (of course). Dinner was full of laughs with the “wise” old pilots giving us young interns sage advice. After a relaxing afternoon/evening in Germany, we headed back to hotel. The same crew that flew us there was flying us home bright and early the next morning. We exchanged phone numbers and I still see guys from that crew around Flight Ops. We always have a good laugh about the great time we had in Germany.
Experiences like the one I had in Germany are not something every intern gets. I consider myself very fortunate meeting the fantastic crew and being able to gain firsthand knowledge of a typical airline layover. As with the jump-seat experience, the international weekend trip showed me one of the potential places my career can take. The life of a pilot is more than just flying; it also included a combination of the people you work with and the places you'll visit.
Like most pilots, I have a very romanticized idea of the career I want. My aspirations have always been to be in control of a multi-ton machine, flying through the air to exotic destinations, while also gaining the opportunity to see the world. Seeing my uncle and Captain Roger work together like old friends provided me excellent role models on what good CRM looks like. The "exotic" destination in my story was Frankfurt, but still lived up to the fantasy in my head of what pilots do on trips. Even the small things like seeing the crews brief in the flight-planning area was something I coveted. I may sound like a broken record, but throughout my internship at United there were countless amount of times I thought to myself "I cannot wait to wear that uniform." After having this experience, I can confidently say this has been the best 16 weeks of "school," even though it’s not fair to call it that. I know in five years I'm going to be looking back and wishing to do it all over again. With the motivation to make it back to United, it's time to kick it into high gear, build my hours, and graduate.