Philip Kroll's life experiences fly in the face of author Thomas Wolfe's premise in his novel "You Can't Go Home Again."
In Wolfe's book, the main character, who has written a successful novel about his family and hometown, is greeted by outrage and hatred when he returns. That drives him away because he realizes that childhood, dreams, and old traditions are gone forever.
Not so for Kroll, a 2010 graduate of the WMU College of Aviation with a degree in aviation management and operations. He has -- in effect -- come "home" as the assistant director of the Battle Creek Executive Airport at Kellogg Field, which is also the home base of the College of Aviation. And he returned to his career's genesis with some impressive credentials.
Read what the Battle Creek interviewers saw on his resume regarding work experience:
- Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport
- Chicago's O'Hare International Airport
- Aspen/Pitkin County Airport (also known as Sardy Field) in Aspen, Colo.
- Northern Jet Management, which operates in conjunction with Gerald R. Ford International Airport serving the Grand Rapids market in Kroll's home state of Michigan
Examining these positioning chronologically, Kroll interned at the Grand Rapids company that, in addition to being a fixed-base operator (FBO) at the airport, charters jets for business and personal purposes, sells and maintains aircraft, and offers fractional-ownership opportunities.
For Kroll, who was raised in the Oakland County community of Wixom, Mich., 20 miles northwest of Detroit, Northern Jet exposed him to previously unknown aspects of aviation -- topics such as accounting, human relations, inventorying parts, and customer service that might not have been covered in his coursework in practicality. By gaining that experience "with an open mind," he says, "that helped me take on challenges that I would see later in my career. The internship showed me the business aspect of aviation and what it was like to be a tenant at an airport. Since then, I have been working FOR airports. This experience gave me a different perspective."
Which he was able to apply as an operations officer out in Ski Country where he became acquainted with the day-to-day operations required to run an airport -- along with gaining two particular skills: one that was unique to his environment and other that would apply to future employment. He learned to drive heavy-duty snow-plowing equipment and became a certified aircraft rescue firefighter.
"I never thought I'd be trained to fight fires or drive a truck with a 22-foot plow," he says. "Having first-hand experience with ARFF (Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting) and snow removal helped me understand an airport's limits and capabilities."
In the fall of 2012, the city of Chicago hired him as an airport operations supervisor at O'Hare at a time when the famed terminal complex was undergoing a modernizing program -- something that was included in a College of Aviation course. "Maintaining normal operations during year-round construction," he says, "while also dealing with snow and other problems, forces you to be flexible and look outside the box. O'Hare is one of the busiest airports in the world. Working there schooled me and equipped me with the confidence to make decisions in high-pressure situations."
At Reagan, Kroll could look across the Potomac River and see many of the capital's cherished monuments. Within a year, he was in a supervisory role that capped off his post-degree education. "If you are willing to be flexible and work in areas you may not be familiar with," he says, "you will see more personal and professional growth than you ever thought possible. If you're willing to learn, people are willing to teach you." This is Kroll's career version of "No pain, no gain." It is what he believes made him the perfect choice for his still-new duties "back home" at the Battle Creek airport, which is the third busiest in the state.
The College of Aviation and its Battle Creek base started to become "home" for Kroll during his 2007 senior year at Walled Lake Western High School when he toured Western's operations and met Dean Dave Powell. "He was extremely welcoming and set me up for a discovery flight. I was hooked. I visited Purdue and other colleges, but only Western felt like home."
Kroll was not all that tough a catch for Powell and the college. Some of the credit goes to Kroll's grandfather, who worked as an engineer for General Motors and the state of Michigan. As an instrument-rated pilot, he took his grandson on many rides. "I went to air shows with my dad. I always liked the look and feel of aviation. Initially, I wanted to be a commercial pilot, but after my first year at Western, I liked the possibilities of working in the administrative sector of the industry. I did obtain my private-pilot license, but still switched from aviation flight science to administration at the start of my sophomore year."
Possibly a factor in the switch of majors for Kroll was a first-semester-first-year class in aircraft systems. "Even though I had a passion for aviation," he recalls, "I had zero knowledge of basic principles, such as how does a plane fly or how does a reciprocating engine work. It was challenging but extremely satisfying to see how much I had learned. I worked really hard in that class, and it prepared me for many of my future academics."
The switch wasn't an easy decision. "Even though I only flew for one semester," he says, "I'll never forget flying over campus, up and down the lake shore, and to different airports. It was amazing. You can't describe flying by yourself."
Kroll enjoyed interacting with Western instructors who have citizenship and cultural ties to Great Britain. He learned that their English language spelled some words differently, such as "tyre" and "colour." There was a dialect gap as well. "Aluminum" comes out as "al-you-min-yum."
Then, of course, came bragging rights regarding flying skills -- American pilots versus the Royal Air Force. That's a throwback to World War II when the Brits flew Spitfires and the Yanks were in the cockpits of P-51 Mustangs. Which was better in an aerial dogfight with Messerschmitts fueled many a good-natured debate at English pubs located near allied air bases. Three-quarters of a century later, the "competition" remains. "They are great guys with a sense of humor who made learning enjoyable," Kroll says.
About halfway through his Western days, Kroll almost took a different career path -- that of being an air-traffic controller, which was the occupation of one of his Western instructors. Kroll even took a personal tour of the tower at the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport. "I took the ATC test in Pittsburgh, Pa., my senior year and was hoping for placement in the academy in Oklahoma City in the spring. That would have been prior to my WMU graduation. I decided to take a few summer courses before so that I would be ready to go if accepted. That was the reason I was able to graduate early." That became a moot point when the airport in Aspen hired Kroll before the Federal Aviation Administration could issue its invitation.
Another reason Kroll didn't take Wolfe's advice to stay away from "home" are the friendships he forged during his Western years, starting with the social connections tied to Bronco athletic events. "I've been to tailgates all over the country," he says, "and WMU is up there with the best. Every student should experience these."
There may be another factor for his glowing opinion. He and wife Emma, a 2011 WMU graduate, met at a 2012 homecoming tailgate. "While we never met during our student days," he says, "we love sharing stories about our Western lives." There is something more to share these days -- daughter Eliza. The parents are looking forward to marking her second birthday.
Two extra-curricular activities also expanded Kroll's circle of friends. From the start of his sophomore year through graduation, he refereed football games for Western's intramural department, a regimen that allowed him to meet different people across campus and create warm memories -- even if there might have been a few "kill the referee" chants along the way.
When he wasn't regulating the games, Kroll was involved in them. Roommates and about half a dozen females took the field "as the greatest co-ed football team in the history of WMU. Even though we never won the championship, we had a blast. We were out to have a good time instead of worrying about winning every game."
He also pledged the WMU social fraternity chapter Delta Sigma Phi. "Some of my best friends to this day are fraternity members," he says. "I have been introduced to other people in the aviation industry because of my brothers. Without that connection, I would have never met them."
In addition to meeting aviation-related folks during his sojourns in Colorado, Illinois and Virginia, Kroll credits his career for generating a fond relationship with Salt Lake City (not too many folks place that Utah stop high on their must-travel-to list), for a honeymoon cruise on the Mediterranean, for sampling Germany's Oktoberfest in Munich, and for becoming something of a wine connoisseur after sampling the products of vineyards at several places on the planet. Next on the Kroll's' bucket list are the South Pacific nations of Australia and New Zealand -- both home to some excellent wineries.
Now that he is "home," Kroll wants to rekindle his connection to the WMU College of Aviation because of his appreciation for what the university has done for him. "Aviation is a small world and professionals within the industry can probably relate to what a person is going through at any particular time," he says. "It doesn't matter what your profession is -- or if you are a student or you have 20 years of experience -- reach out to others and ask questions. I love when pilots ask me questions about the airfield, or someone from another airport asks how we do things. You would be surprised at how much people in the industry want to help."
And he wants WMU to be "the gold standard for aviation training" if it is not already. He says he's chatted about what Western has to offer with colleagues at conventions around the country. "We are already regarded as a great program. I want to help make it the best in the industry."
He plans to continue that quest right here in his new home community. "I want to offer opportunities here to students and community members who might not know what the airport has to offer. I'm excited to see what the future holds for an asset that means so much to the university and the entire area." Nationally and globally, he says, "I want companies and agencies to know how valuable WMU graduates can be to their enterprises."
In a career that so far has involved aircraft charter and management, FBO tasks, airport operations and administration, Kroll has come in contact with all of the industry's elements -- pilots, the control tower, students, maintenance, airlines, charter companies, terminals and their facilities, state and federal agencies, the military, and residents impacted by aviation -- almost all of these have been positive. But there are challenges -- like "changing a process from what it has always been to what it should be.
"If you've ever worked at more than one place," he says, "you have probably experienced this. You ask why they do it this way or offer advice on how to do something better, and you get this response -- 'Well that's the way we've always done things.' I hate that answer. Even when you change a policy that makes something safer or more efficient, you can still run into resistance from employees who don't want to change what they've done for years."
That's the thing about "change." It is consistent. Which is why Kroll has no concrete answer to the question of what his long-term goal in aviation is. There is nothing specific -- "only to continue to learn, grow as a person and professional, and help as many people as I can. I don't know where I'll be in five years or 25 years, and I like not knowing that. I think that's the fun part of the journey because a career in aviation can take you anywhere in the world."
What is also consistent is that Kroll has come "home" to practice what he has been preaching in previous chapters of his life. Phil Kroll is proof one should not stop learning once "out of school," and that a person's career Ph.D. really starts after the diploma is on the den's wall.