“This is the coolest thing ever …” Chris Belbeck thought as a youngster as he surveyed all the gauges and switches in the cockpit of an airplane.
Belbeck has been in and around airplanes all his life since his father was a professional pilot. He received his flight training to become a private pilot, commercial pilot and flight instructor from MN Aviation, a small flight school in Albert Lea.
Belbeck, a first officer for Spirit Airlines and flight instructor at Great Lakes Airlines, was invariably fascinated by airplanes.
“I guess you could say I caught the aviation bug at a very young age,” he said.
The moment Belbeck’s mere fascination for airplanes really turned into a tangible career was when he took a tour of the Minneapolis FedEx sorting facility and was able to go into the cockpit of a MD-11. It was “like scratching an itch,” Belbeck said — all he could think about was flying airplanes.
The next day, he started looking at flight schools, and about a month later he was pursuing his dream of becoming a pilot.
“The views we have up front in the cockpit are some of the most amazing things I have ever seen,” Belbeck said. “There is no better office in the world.”
Pat Rugloski, a co-pilot for United Airlines, also knows this office well.
After receiving his private license at 17, Rugloski flies a staggering 80 hours a month at 52. Rugloski is away from home 300 to 320 hours a month, roughly twice as much as a person working a regular 9-to-5 job. It’s not the easiest lifestyle to adapt to — especially with a family. You miss a lot of holidays, Rugloski said.
THE DAILY GRIND
That’s why pilots have to love the day-to-day thrill of being in control of an airplane.
Upon arriving at the airport, there is no check-in or supervision for pilots. They have limited interaction with anyone except fellow pilots. Once they’re on the plane, Rugloski said, pilots turn equipment on and give it time to warm up. A pre-flight walk around is then conducted before every flight.
“We are basically orchestrating a bunch of small tasks to get the airplane up on time,” he said. “And on time performance is key.”
The pilots of a commercial plane are merely one small piece of a big puzzle. There are people loading bags, fueling, doing mechanical work, cleaning and, of course, flight attendants doing their jobs prior to takeoff.
“We are just hosts in charge of the airplane and everyone on it. If we do our job as trained – by following procedure – then the job is pretty routine. It’s almost like driving a car to school,” Rugloski said.
Safety is first — no matter what — for commercial pilots. They know what a plane can, cannot and should not do. If they have questions, pilots dig deeper by consulting the airline company, Rugloski said, and there are people available with more knowledge if needed before takeoff.
Flying a public airplane is a combination of staying sharp while acting and maintaining a professional demeanor.
“Much of the fun and casual nature the we used to have is gone after 9/11,” Rugloski said. “The government is more involved and now it’s a much more rigid and professional occupation.”
Rugloski’s primary obstacle over time has been keeping a positive attitude about the industry. Jobs have been thin over the last decade. Airlines have resized and outsourced flying, which along with seniority, has limited his ability to secure bigger planes, better pay and more days off.
LEARNING TO FLY
To get to where these two professionals are took time and a great deal of patience. Charles (Chuck) Bausch is playing the same waiting game.
He aspires to be a corporate pilot and is starting the challenging University of North Dakota (UND) program – the top flight school program in the nation – at the University of Minnesota-Crookston this fall.
Pilots have the mentality of “learning by doing,” Bausch said. Most people get in-the-air flight lessons from an instructor before any classroom training.
One of the biggest challenges while instructing anything, Belbeck said, is that not everyone learns the same way.
“You have to be able to tailor the way you teach your material to the student. More importantly, you have to really know what you’re teaching to be able to present it in different ways,” he said.
They are flying planes here – not making pizza – and there isn’t much margin for error. Complacency and fatigue are important to keep in check while flying, Rugloski said, even as a professional.
“I have found over the years that through continuing to review our manuals, limitations and memory items weekly, especially right before I go out on trips, I am able to control complacency,” Belbeck said. “I make it a priority to be well rested before I go to work every morning, trying to get eight hours of rest before I step into the cockpit.”
Bausch is looking forward to the next four years and acknowledges the challenges ahead.
The typical first year of flight school consists of earning a private pilot license. This entails learning basic maneuvers and how to operate the aircraft, including takeoff and landing. Year two goes more in depth with Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), which is essentially learning to fly without your eyes. While flying in clouds, for example, pilots must rely on instruments and connections with the control tower.
Junior year is commercial flight training — teaching flight in a controlled, professional and safe manner — like a commercial pilot. Senior year is the most fun, Bausch said, because pilots learn to fly with twin engines and twice as much of everything.
“There is nothing better than the feeling you get when a student passes their checkride and they come and give you a handshake or a hug and thank you for all of your help in preparing them to succeed,” Belbeck said.
A CAREER WITHOUT A DEGREE?
Both Belbeck and Rugloski agree that the overall future in aviation is bright.
Technology has allowed pilots a better and more efficient platform to fly in. More sophisticated technology in airplanes should also continue to grow, Rugloski said, as pilots rely more and more on automation and computers.
“The next ten years will be better than the last ten. Get flying time right away and start college later. The industry is short on pilots and they will pick people whether they have degrees or not,” Rugloski said.
Yet, there are certain minimums to becoming a pilot. Commercial pilots typically need 1,500 hours of flying time and four years of flight school.
“Due to the increase in the required hours to become an airline pilot, I truly believe you need to be hard working — you need to log a considerably larger amount of hours before you are able to become an airline pilot,” Belbeck said.
“Additionally, you need to be safe, dependable, honest and have the ability to lead. (If) you are going to be an airline captain someday, you are going to be the person that everyone in the crew is looking at to make the decisions.”
It’s helpful to teach or gain experience with regional or charter flights as well. Experience is key, Rugloski said, and the younger you get in the door, the better your life as a pilot will be.
While at Crookston, Bausch said he’ll continue to have fun. Not only does he love flying, but he’s embracing the challenge of it.
“The weather is rough there and flying in perfect weather is boring,” he said with a smile.