The Soaring Sunday Tale of La Verne’s High Flyer

June 20, 2009
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kevinyorkeditedIn his sophomore year at Cal Poly Pomona, engineering student Kevin York, a Bonita High School 2002 graduate, was heading straight for the 9-to-5 workaday world. The thought of conforming to such a rigid routine started to make him anxious.

“I’ve always known that wasn’t for me,” said York, now 24. “But that’s what was coming, that’s what was in the cards.”

Until he looked skyward.

“You look up. You see these things flying across the sky, and you wonder, ‘Can I do that?’ I guess it’s a boyhood thing. I think all boys are attracted to things that go fast,” Kevin said.

Reversing career paths, however, would not be as easy as an apple falling from a tree. His father had died when York was an infant and his mother has been bedridden for more than a decade battling multiple sclerosis. Perhaps, he was better off grounding his flights of fancy for more worldly concerns.

“I thought you got to do what you got to do,” York said. “I didn’t want to have any regrets. About the financial burden, I figured I’d worry about that later. I realized that if I wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer, that would be costly, too.”

So, York started googling, jumping on forums to learn how to become a pilot. One particular site,, hosted by a current Delta Airlines pilot, convinced him that with training and determination there might be room for him in the cockpit someday.

Still delivering pizza around La Verne, carrying a full-time academic load and helping care for his housebound mother, York got his first leg-up on his career from an unlikely source, his barber Danny Lopez at JML haircutting in La Verne. One of his customers was a flight instructor Emmett Hoolihan ouut of Cable Airport in Upland, and Lopez encouraged York to call him. After speaking on the phone with Hoolihan for about two hours, York accepted his invitation to take a $60 “discovery” flight, “just to see if you like it.”

“My ears perked up,” York said. “I thought, ‘Boy, that sounds like a blast.’”

No more than a week later, York was cruising over Upland in a Cessna 172 Skyhawk. “Up above the 210, at a couple thousand feet, I was just mesmerized by the sight,” he said. “Just the perspective, the mountains, and then you look off to the coast, and, if it’s clear enough, you can see Catalina.”

When he touched ground, he could also see his career coming into focus, and quickly scheduled his second lesson. He also had the wind at his back, knowing his grandmother, Jody Haley, with whom he lived, fully supported his dream. “She told me, ‘If this is what you really want to do, I’ll help finance it.’ That was another hurdle I had to clear, but I cleared it because of her generosity.”

He still had to deliver pizza and carry his full academic load, but after four months of taking flying lessons three times a week, he earned his private pilot’s license. “Here I am walking out of Cable that last day, the ink still wet on my certificate, thinking ‘What’s next? What’s next?’” He had put in his 40 hours of flight time, but he needed 250 hours to earn a commercial license and 1,000 hours in the air to qualify for consideration by the airlines. Despite these obstacles, York wasn’t about to let them stall out his career goal of becoming an airline pilot.

His Cable airline instructor pointed him toward the Airline Transport Professionals (ATP) flight academy in Riverside, Calif., which helps aspiring pilots earn their advanced ratings in the shortest time possible. Not even the challenge of logging 1,000 hours of air time, a cost-prohibitive endeavor, could ground him.

“To rent an airplane and fly around for 1,000 hours would ruin you financially, so you tow banners and drop sky divers,” York said. “Every minute you spend behind the yoke, you log that flight time.”

York learned that the best way to log flight time, however, is to instruct, an activity prospective airline employers like to see on resumes. ATP was so impressed with York’s skills, it offered him a flight instructor job after he had earned his advanced ratings with the outfit. But York longed for the shorter commute to nearby Brackett Airport, closer to both his La Verne home and Cal Poly classes.

“I went down there with my shirt and tie, and got a chance to speak to the owner of Air Desert Pacific,” York recalled. “We made eye contact, shook hands and all that stuff you  do to try to get a job.” He was called back for a second, more in-depth interview and landed the job. “I came home that day, excited beyond belief. I was getting paid to fly airplanes.”

His trainees included middle-aged men in midlife crises wanting to see if they still had the right stuff, inexperienced Taiwanese pilots hired in China but sent to the states to earn their Federal Aviation Administration credentials, U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter pilots seeking their fixed-wing aircraft licenses so they can fly airplanes after rejoining civilian life, and high school kids taking to the air, as he had, simply to see if they like it. While York was helping them, they were helping him rack up flying hours.

About this same time York heard about an aviation science program at Utah Valley University, where he could transfer some of his Cal Poly credits and flying hours he had already logged, plus he could complete the course curriculum online. The appeal of being a laptop pilot made perfect sense. “It freed me up to really get serious about instructing, building my time and not having to worry about physically being in class each day,” York reasoned.

After earning his aviation science degree, York was ready to launch his airline pilot career in earnest, a rising goal that gained further altitude aftr an El Monte airport flight instructor tipped him that American Eagle, a full subsidiary of Dallas-based American Airlines, was hiring. He sent his resume and received a call back a few days later, with an interview offer and a roundtrip ticket waiting for him. “It would have been tough to come up with the airfare on my own,” York said.

Instead of taking in the Dallas sites, York holed up in his hotel room, poring over FAA oral exam guides and interview prep books. “I probably have never been so nervous in my life,” York admitted, “because I felt so much was at stake. I wanted to exceed their expectations. That was my mission.”

Houston may have had a problem, but Dallas didn’t with York’s high-flying, type-A personality. Each test, each interview, was like another leg in his journey. After passing a 50-question written test, he proceeded to technical and human resources interviews. At each stop, some of test colleagues were sent home packing. Still in the running, he was told to be back after lunch for a simulator evaluation, where for about an hour he would maneuver a full-blown mock-up of a 70-passenger ATR turbo prop to demonstrate his general flying proficiency. Only one problem, he had never flown that type of aircraft.

“It was bewildering looking around seeing all those buttons and switches and dials and flap settings,” York said. “When you’re talking about approach speeds in the neighborhood of 130, 140 knots, more than double what we’re approaching at in a Cessna, I admit it was a little scary.” Again, he again found the fortitude to hold his altitudes, maintain his headings, take directions and interact in a multi-pilot setting under the watchful eyes of his evaluator.
“I got through it,” said York, relying on his crosshairs-like instrument landing system to provide the lateral and vertical guidance to safely land the aircraft. And for his effort, he got a handshake and an invitation to be back the next day for his medical evaluation.

His NASA-style physical was more thorough than a Bonita football or Pop Warner medical check. He was scanned and probed from head to toe, inside and out. “They did everything from checking for perforated eardrums to monitoring my heart, breathing and blood pressure,” York said. In exchange for his clean bill of health, he received a conditional letter of employment.

“I’m on the way home with this letter in my hand that says I’ve been offered this job with an airline,” York recalled. “What a moment, to go from that discovery flight three and a half years ago, buzzing around Upland, to now coming back and learning how to fly airliners.”  With his feet not yet on the ground, he called home with the long-awaited  good news that he had made the grade.

After wrapping up his instructor duties at Brackett, York returned to the American Airlines flight academy in Fort Worth, Texas, a grueling six-week ground school. “It was kind of like drinking from a fire hose, because of all the information they throw at you and expect you to retain,” York said. At night, he and his air mates formed study groups, reviewing their books and notes. “It felt like being in college again.”

After successfully completing the academy, York chose Los Angeles International Airport as his base. His maiden trip was a short jaunt from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. “There was absolutely no fanfare, except for the smile on my face when we landed and a handshake from the captain,” York said.

Although he’s a confident “First Officer,” living his dream, he takes nothing for granted, especially his passengers’ safety.
“To some, we’re glorified bus drivers,” Kevin said, trying to capture the public perception of his profession. “When things go according to plan, when you don’t have systems failures, when you don’t have inclement weather, it’s an easy job. But when things go sour, they can go sour in a hurry, and a lot is on the line, obviously. They say, ‘aviation is hours and hours of absolute boredom, accentuated by seconds of sheer terror.’ As a result, we’re always planning for the worst and expecting the worst, and hoping for the best.

“Probably, the hardest part or the most involved aspect of flying is situational awareness,” he added. “You constantly ask, ‘Where am I at? Where am I going? What am I going to do if …”

In fact, in the wake of the recent heroics on the Hudson River, where Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger safely ditched his US Airways flight without losing any of the 155 passengers, York said, pilots in his brotherhood now ask, “What would Sully do?” in the event of an emergency.

Like Sully, York is unflappable, a proud flyer who has already come a long way in a short time. He’s tough, sturdy and stable. He is acclimated to sleeping in hotels. He strictly observes the FAA’s bottle-to-throttle rules (no drink within eight hours of flight duty and even stricter alcoholic under-the-influence regulations) and a host of other rules, regulations and restrictions in the interest of providing the flying public with the highest safety and confidence possible.

More than ever, he’s guided today by his exhaustively thorough training, a strong upbringing anchored by his incredible grandmother, and his own deep desire to excel.

“I’ve always thought you can do whatever it is you want to do, if you want it bad enough,” York said.
He has the wings to prove it!

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