By Jennifer Cairns 21 Oct 2022 7 min read

My journey from Ground Crew to Delta Airline Pilot

Like many, my journey to the flight deck was not linear in any way. One of the facets I most enjoy about
the job is meeting others and hearing their journey to the flight deck. We all bring our own uniqueness
to this profession.

My story begins at 5 years old, visiting the flight deck on a trip to Disney World. Little did I know it would
be the trip that changed my life. I knew I wanted to be a pilot and be in the very best pilot jobs. Growing up, my parents had been
separated, and I spent my summers travelling between Texas and New York. It was the highlight of every
year… not seeing my parents, but boarding that MD-80, no matter how hot that cabin may have been in
the summer. At age 12, my father gifted me a copy of Flight Simulator X. I remember being so excited,
only to be followed by the sheer frustration of realizing I had no idea how to fly an airplane. I gave up, for many years.

Fast forward to age 16 and one day while cleaning out a drawer, I found that same copy of FSX. I
decided to give it another try. Wow… things were clicking, and I was starting to understand things like
instrument flying and the national airspace system. But at the time it was nothing more than a hobby
and some farfetched dream.

On the career front, I had gone off the deep end into what I thought would be my lifelong profession,
broadcast television. I gravitated to broadcast television because I was once wrongly informed that I
would not be able to fly aircraft for a living due to wearing glasses several years back. I had done quite
well in the broadcast field and by age 18 I was serving as a technical director for several minor league
sports teams in my area. I began college, pursuing a communications degree with the goal of someday
working for a large broadcast company, such as ESPN. But, after just one semester I wasn’t happy. Plain
and simple, I wasn’t happy with where I had gone with my life.

I quit again, but this time it was college.

I was lost, in the deep end and sinking without a life jacket on. I made the promise to myself that I would
take a one semester break to discover what I wanted to do and would find work in the interim. After
some searching, I had remembered that old dream of airplanes and working around them. After
rejections from several companies, I was hired by a subsidiary Delta Air Lines to load baggage onto
aircraft. I immediately fell in love with it all. 3 am wake ups, working in the extremes and manual labor
didn’t matter, I was doing what I loved. I very quickly progressed to shift lead, instructor, and lead
deicer. Truthfully, I got comfortable. That 1 semester off turned into 3, as I was having the time of my
life. I told myself I would just work in ground services for the rest of my life. I was content. I am so glad I
had some co-workers snap me out of that spell. They told me that at age 19, I had so much more
potential than even I knew.

“That’s it”, I finally said. It was time to figure out how to get into flying. During my breaks in the airport, I
kept seeing one pilot in passing. Everyone gravitated to him, he exuded confidence and personality
every time. I knew he was the guy who could crack the code. I mustered up the confidence and asked
him how he enjoyed being a pilot. We spent what felt like an eternity talking about the lifestyle. I owe
Christian H. the world, he took the time to talk to me, a “lowly” ramp agent with nothing but
compassion and encouragement on a human level.


He put me in touch with the right people who could help me find the path to the flight deck. Soon after,
with the little bit of savings in my name and my parents helping me sign up for a loan, I was off to ATP
flight school.

This was it; this was my shot at the dream. The first big examination to tackle, the Private Pilot certificate was coming up fast.

Guess who failed on the first attempt? This guy.

A simple misunderstanding would put this blemish onto my record for life. Would I pass the second try?
Would my school kick me out? Will anyone EVER hire such a failure as myself? There were many failures
throughout this entire journey. I cannot emphasize that enough. You are going to endure many
challenges, whether they may be rejections, furloughs, finances or even failed examinations in this

I passed without any issue the second try, as well as the next 7 licenses in the following 5 months. In
fact, I started to learn that I was half decent at this flying thing. 11 months after beginning my first
lesson, I was now a flying instructor, teaching students what I was most passionate about. During the
next 13 months, I flew 1200 both as an instructor and corporate pilot to achieve the necessary 1500
hours to qualify for my first airline job.

I was incredibly blessed to begin flying the Embraer 170 for a regional operator starting at age 22. I saw
the many ups and downs of the airline world, including the drastic hit the industry saw during covid. I
was even issued a furlough notice. Without a degree and being new in the airline industry, I knew my
chances were slim on finding another job and I prepared to find work outside of the industry.
Luckily my job was spared and I was able to accumulate 2000 hours as an airline pilot jobs at a total of three
airlines, flying the Embraer 170, Embraer 190 and Airbus 320 over the next few years.

In January of 2022, my world was turned upside down when Delta dropped their requirement to have a
college degree. I had been enrolled back in college, but had many semesters left to a 4 year degree. I
applied on a whim and much to my surprise, I was offered an interview and eventually a job position.
Today I find myself, at age 26, just 6 years from the start of my first flying lesson as a first officer on the
Boeing 757 and 767 at the very airline that provided me the opportunity to get started in aviation.


My biggest piece of advice to you is to ignore the societal norms and chase the things that you truly
want to do, however you have to. With a good network of people to support you and some grit, so much
is possible.


Best of luck and I’m personally rooting for all of you,