Alumnus surfs the turbulence to success

Contact: Tom Thinnes
Steve Denomme

Delta pilot Steve Denomme, BS '00

DETROIT—Steve Denomme’s movie script for his storied aviation career could be “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” But the first of the three adjectives would be the star of the show.

Denomme, BS ‘00, has weathered the impacts of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, recession and pandemic on the airline industry to thrive as a captain. His career has taken him all over the United States, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. He thrived in Western’s aviation program despite knowing very little about the field when he began as a student.

“I knew that I wanted to fly, but where that would take me I didn't know. I just jumped in with both feet, working my way to what interested me,” Denomme says.

He says he was “instantly sold” on Western’s aviation program during his first tour of campus, when he learned the program was opening a new facility at Kellogg Field in Battle Creek, Michigan.

“I immediately loved the campus, its vibrations and the people I encountered,” says Demomme, who grew up in Metro Detroit's Waterford Township.

As a Bronco majoring in aviation flight science with minors in business management and geography, Denomme worked at the College of Aviation moving planes in and out of hangars.

"It was a great and fun job because it kept me at the airport where I wanted to be after my classes were finished for the day. It continued my learning of all things aviation."

By his senior year, Denomme was tapped to be a certified flight instructor.

"That's where I honed my flying skills," he says. "I had amazing students, some of whom I currently work with. Others are throughout the world with major and national airlines or as medical flight operators. I'm proud of all of them."

In August 2001, he began his career as a first officer at Mesaba Airlines, a regional operation based in Minnesota. But during his pilot training, he watched New York's Twin Towers come down during the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“I was on a week off between my Mesaba ground school training and prior to going to simulator training when I watched live coverage, like so many others, of the second tower getting hit and then both of the towers falling,” Denomme says. “This completely changed the course of aviation for the next few years and took everyone’s aviation career from advancing rather quickly to completely slowing our advancement to the next step: a major airline.”

The next few years were bumpy for the industry, as well as Denomme. Although he was called back to finish training, he was furloughed by Mesaba that October. He worked as an instructor at Western until being called back as a first officer with Mesaba in March 2002, which lasted until fall when the industry saw a drop in travel demand due to the nationwide recession. In June 2003, he put on a Mesaba uniform once again.

When the energy blackout gripped the East Coast and Midwest in August 2003,  Denomme and his Mesaba crew in Detroit were about to start their flight "when everything went dark." After the emergency generators kicked on, he joined fellow pilots and first officers in the terminal to assist passengers stuck in stairwells, at the gates and wherever needed. Denomme eventually boarded a plane and for the next eight hours played "communications guy."

"I became the radio relay between our landing and flying aircraft and dispatch," he says, "while sitting in a Saab 340 (aircraft) plugged into a ground power unit with the hose of a ground air cart running up the stairs into the cockpit cooling me down. Saabs are notoriously hot, especially in August. Leaving the airport that night was very eerie as the airport grounds were the only light source in the area. All of Metro Detroit was in total blackout."

Denomme went on to fly for eight years as a first officer before earning his captain's bars. Before 9/11, it would have only taken him about two years.

But once he reached his goal as captain, he continued to climb. He moved into management as Mesaba's domicile chief pilot, managing the day-to-day flight operations at its Detroit hub. A year later, he became chief pilot for all Mesaba operations. And it wasn't long before Delta Air Lines hired him in 2014 to fly out of Atlanta.

"It was an amazing part of my life and being part of Delta was an absolute dream,” he says. "Almost all the captains I flew with had been on the aircraft for at least a decade. They were some of the best people I ever worked with. The knowledge I gained is still invaluable."

When he returned to Detroit with Delta, he became an assistant chief pilot. But in February 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the industry again suffered. Once aviation began to recover, he earned his Delta captain's wings in August 2021.

Denomme has been a role model as the first pilot in the family, now that a cousin and a niece who are Broncos have also earned their wings. He says he “loves sharing my experiences.”

“I would not be where I am today without Western and its mentors. I spread that message whenever and wherever I can."

For Denomme, it hasn't been an easy ride.  But despite the ups and downs—the turbulence—it's all been worth the ride.■