Reclaiming A Dream
By: Erin McWhirter
I knew what I wanted to do at a very young age. My first memory of knowing in my heart that I would fly airplanes was in elementary school. I don’t know exactly how it started, whether it was a passing interest of my brothers’ that I latched onto at some point, but as soon as I became aware that being a pilot was a career choice, I was laser-focused. There was nothing else I wanted to be but a pilot.
With the popularity of the movies, Iron Eagle and Top Gun, in the 80s, fighter jets became my obsession. I’m pretty sure I was the only 8th grade girl at my school whose prized Christmas present that year was a Hasbro Flying Fighters F-15 toy airplane that made jet noises when you angled it upward and had a red button to push for gun sounds. However, when I realized that women were not allowed in combat (at that time) and my chances of ever flying fighter jets were slim, I shifted my long-term goal to the airlines.
As I neared the end of high school, I started paying for my own flight lessons out of a tiny airport in southeastern PA. I was able to solo before leaving for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, FL. It was a huge investment, but I had promised my parents that I’d pay for half of my college tuition if they would help me pay for school. Once they saw that I was willing to use my measly, after-school, $5/hour job wages to pay for my own lessons, they happily agreed.
My time at Embry-Riddle was priceless: not only was I able to obtain all of my ratings and a world-class aviation education, but the friendships, connections and access to resources was unmatched. I secured an internship with Continental Airlines during my last semester at ERAU. The relationship and rapport that I built with my mentor at Continental helped me get my first post-college job with Continental Express upon graduation. I started as a ground school instructor with a 2-year commitment to the training department AND a pilot seniority number on my first day.
This was a fantastic way for me to get on with an airline very quickly after college and learn a ton – a dream! It didn’t come without challenges, but that’s a story for another day.
I fulfilled my 2-year commitment – plus a little more – to the training department and finally went to fly the line full time on the ATR-42. I was based in Newark, NJ and flew routes all over the northeast, giving me valuable winter operations experience, particularly on an airplane with an infamous reputation in icing conditions. I was scheduled to upgrade to captain on the ATR in November of 2001. However, September 11 of that year sparked a lot of change in the airline industry, including the expedition of ExpressJet moving to an all-jet fleet. While I had the seniority to transition to captain on the EMB-145, I chose to make one big move at a time and go to training on the jet as a first officer.
It was while I was in training for the EMB-145 that I found out I was pregnant! At the same time, ExpressJet was separating from Continental Airlines and becoming its own company. Continental put all pilots eligible for their flow-through agreement through the interview process, and since I was in the last new-hire class under that agreement, that included me. So with a rubber band around my ever-
tightening pants – I was about 3 month pregnant at the time of interview - I completed the panel interview and simulator ride and later received a letter from Continental Airlines congratulating me on passing the interview!
It was just a few months later, January 2003, that I flew my last trip. I was 7 months pregnant and no longer able to reach papers I dropped on the cockpit floor! I took a year leave of absence to be home with my daughter. I hadn’t figured out how I was going to make it all work, but tried my best to just focus on being a mom and learning my new normal.
The following January, when the airline called to inform me of my requalification training date, I still had a nursing baby and was torn over how my two worlds were colliding. Everything I had dreamed of my whole life was waiting for me to return. And yet, I had the most beautiful gift I didn’t even know I needed in my arms. Through tears and barely able to get the words out, I resigned from my airline job. When I walked away from my career that day, I thought it was forever. I tried to look at the positive: that I had fulfilled my dreams and I actually had wonderful experiences and memories I would treasure forever.
But in the years following, I continued to daydream about flying, and sometimes actually dreamed of being in the cockpit again. I went on to have 2 more beautiful daughters and they are the best gifts I could have ever asked for. Not for a second do I regret being home with them and not missing any of their lives. I would make the same decision over and over again. However, I have always felt like a part of me has been missing.
Today, my daughters are 18, 16 and 13. They are at a place in life where they don’t need me as much for the day in and day out parenting. We have the most wonderful relationships with one another and they are my biggest cheerleaders. I have started the process of returning to the cockpit and with my children, along with the most supportive husband that ever lived, I have an incredibly strong support system and cheering section! My return to the skies is as much for my children – to model grit, hard work, fighting for what you love, never giving up, etc – as it is for me.
It was just a few months ago that I was connected with Hera Aviation Group. I am deeply thankful that this resource exists for people like me. I always thought that returning to my aviation career would be impossible – too much to relearn, too expensive, too old to go back to the bottom of the seniority list, etc. However, with the resources available, I have been overwhelmed by not only how very possible it is, but how much easier it is than I ever thought. I am so excited to be working towards reclaiming my dream and so grateful for the people who are willing to help me do just that! I look forward to the day when I can be one of the helpers.
Note from HERA: Stay tuned to find out where Erin's flying journey takes her next in a future blog.