Remember those grade-school field trips where kids have a chance to explore career options. Waste of time, right?
Not for Brett Been, destined to be a 2019 alumnus of the Western Michigan University College of Aviation with a degree in aviation flight science.
While his experience wasn't exactly a replica of an eighth-grade visitation, it was similar enough for him to charter a flight plan toward an upcoming destination -- a first officer for SkyWest Airlines.
Here's his route: Raised in Orland Park, Ill., and destined to be among the squadron of students from his home state who annually flock to Kalamazoo for their aviation training, Been as a youngster did a lot of traveling with his parents.
"We took some awesome trips," he recalls, "and I'd be lying to you if I said the airplane ride was as exciting as the places we were visiting."
That all changed on one trip heading back to his Chicago-area home, way before he graduated from Carl Sandburg High School.
"For some reason," he says, "I asked if I could go into the cockpit and talk to the Southwest Airlines pilots after we landed. My mom came with me and took photos of me sitting in the first officer's seat.
"The captain showed me all of the different bells and whistles on the aircraft," Been says. "That was it for me. I was hooked on flying. I still have that level of excitement to this day. I am lucky to be having that kind of career."
Helping his passion become his vocation was the College of Aviation.
Been and many of his fellow Illinoisans chose WMU because of its decades-old reputation in the aviation industry and its "amazing" training resources. He mentioned the fleet of aircraft available to log flying hours and the FTDs (Flight Training Device), which "in my opinion sets Western apart from other universities."
Plus, he says, "the fleet maintenance is top tier," something he noticed both as a student and in his first official job in aviation -- one of the college's flight instructors.
In the latter capacity, he believes he learned "a lot of great skills while observing and teaching my students." At the top of that list is "the importance of situational awareness and staying ahead of the aircraft." That could be called a proactive, anticipated approach to the task.
"I emphasized that," he says, "and showed the importance of that perspective by taking them to the busy airports that serve Detroit and Chicago." All of which helps Been as well because he's been training to become a flight officer for SkyWest. As of January 2020, he'll be based out of Chicago O'Hare.
SkyWest was founded in 1972 and still calls St. George, Utah, its home headquarters. Once promoting itself by offering penny-a-pound airplane rides, SkyWest now employs 16,000 folks who are responsible for 2,400 daily flights to 287 destinations across North America. With a fleet of 495 aircraft, it also partners with Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, American Airlines and Alaska Airlines.
Been also chalks up his good fortune to the quality of instructors available at the College of Aviation. In particular was the class in instrument ground school taught by lead flight instructor Jim Whittles. "Each session was always very exciting and I relished learning about all of the different procedures associated with instrument flying. It was my favorite class."
In the team photo of favorite instructors with Whittles is Marty Coaker and another lead flight instructor Ryan Seiler. Because Coaker ranks among the funniest people Been has ever encountered, the course in aviation safety rated as a can't-miss experience. But jokes aside, Coaker's entertaining messages came with real-world flying lessons and carried high-altitude influence in the life of a young pilot.
"To me," Been says, "Mr. Coaker embodies the character and dedication required to be successful and well-respected in the industry. He spent so much of his time assisting and giving back to the university. Not only myself, but many others are thankful for that."
Seiler and Coaker, in Been's three years at WMU, co-coached the Sky Broncos Precision Flight Team. Both alumni of the national-championship-winning organization, they urged Been to become a Sky Bronco, which he called the best decision of his college life.
"Joining the team elevated my flying skills and knowledge," he says, "all thanks to my coaches and senior members." The experience polished his work ethic, enabling him to be the best he could be for the team. Been says he also benefited from competing with the best young pilots in the land from the best universities.
"The Sky Broncos team was extremely dedicated to the tasks at hand," Been says, adding that "we certainly had our fun when it was time to relax. I don't think I have laughed harder in my life than I did at some of the team dinners on the road. Those experiences and friendships will stick with me for the rest of my life."
Folks like Whittles, Coaker and Seiler weren't the only ones influencing Been's approach to his future. Nothing like a little peer pressure from a contemporary. He's talking about Luke Ostrom, whom he met playing golf in high school.
In addition to helping Been hit a fade on a drive and stick a pitch near the cup, Ostrom played a big role in steering Been toward Western and its aviation program. Ostrom had already made the move to Michigan and even served as one of Been's first instructors. They eventually joined forces on the the Sky Broncos as well. Their connection has continued. Ostrom is now a captain for SkyWest and -- guess what -- a pilot recruiter for the enterprise. Who says networking doesn't work and who knows -- a future SkyWest flight may have two Bronco grads as captain and first officer.
Been says the best thing about his job is that he has the opportunity to do it. He says not enough people get paid for doing something they absolutely love. Football fanatics think they can live the game by playing "Madden." Been says he doesn't need that kind of electronic technology to feel what it's like to be a pilot. That's a daily occurrence.
He acknowledges a minor drawback to his lust for life as a pilot. There is the time away from friends and family -- and even his dog Teddy. While he may miss birthdays and holidays, the other side of the coin is that he's part of the enterprise that takes people to their loved ones for birthdays, holidays and anniversaries. In his case, a loving family understands that part of the sacrifice and offer the support needed to help Been cope.
Flashing back to the day when Southwest Airlines pilots took the time to inspire a boy, Been knows the value of giving back to his industry. "Those who you may have instructed or had classes with may be those responsible for the lives of people you care for," he says. "You want them to have the ultimate in skills and knowledge, just like what you demand of yourself." He wants those who follow him to have the same commitment. It's aviation's version of The Golden Rule.
"I always enjoyed mentoring students at WMU as an instructor and colleague," he says. "I try to remember what it was like to be in their shoes, which makes me willing to help whenever I can."
Part of his giving-back perspective has roots as a Sky Bronco. He has started to serve as a judge for the National Intercollegiate Flying Association's tournaments in which he competed while at Western. Those events will always be on his calendar.
When it comes to being a commercial pilot, Brett is not a "Has-Been." He is a "Will-Be," thanks to the WMU College of Aviation.