The career of a 'Lost Generation' pilot

Writen by: David W. Thornton
Aviation Examiner

My career is somewhat typical of the Lost Generation of pilots.After flying and flight instructing for fun for several years, I decided to change careers soon after getting married. I took a job at a large aviation training academy in Florida that had a reputation for providing pilots to the airlines.It was late June 2001.

Scarcely two months into my new job, I watched the recorded crashes of American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 into the two towers of the World Trade Center. The FAA ordered all civilian airplanes grounded for several days after the four hijackings on September 11. Since I didn’t get paid unless I flew, I felt the effects of the attacks almost immediately in my paycheck.

After we started flying again, things never returned to normal. Some students were already at the school and midway through their training, but we quickly realized that fewer and fewer new students were starting the program. With fewer students, there were too many instructors to earn a living. My paychecks stayed small and I realized that it would take years of work to satisfy my training contract with the school.

A ray of sunshine burst through the clouds when Atlantic Coast Airlines, a regional airline that operated United Express and Delta Connection flights, came to the school to look for qualified pilots. Since ACA was about the only airline hiring at the time, I interviewed and was given a start date only a week later. I was on my way to becoming an airline pilot.

On July 5, 2002, ten months after the terrorist attacks, I was in class as an ACA pilot. I started my airline career flying the British Aerospace Jetstream 41 turboprop under the banner of United Express. Six months later, United Airlines declared bankruptcy.

We didn’t feel the effects of the bankruptcy immediately. For a year I flew from Washington Dulles airport around the northeast corridor, the most congested and demanding airspace in the United States. Many of the ACA pilots were optimistic that United’s bankruptcy would be good for us. We cost less than United’s highly paid pilots so we would be doing more flying, right?

After a year with ACA, a bid opened up for several first officers to transition to the Delta side of the company and fly the Fairchild Dornier 328 Jet. By this time it was apparent that ACA was not going to see many benefits from the United bankruptcy and a furlough, layoff in normal speak, looked possible. I put in for the transfer since the DoJet, as it was called, paid more and, I reasoned, if I got laid off I could at least say that I had flown a jet. I was awarded one of the slots and, after training, moved with my wife to “Cincitucky,” our nickname for the area around the Cincinnati, Ohio airport which is paradoxically located in northern Kentucky.

Check out the rest of the David W. Thornton’s story here!