Military, government, or law enforcement experience:
Hi! My name is Matt Szluka, and I am currently a First Officer on the Saab 340B for Chicago Express Airlines. Like many of you, I have always had a burning desire to become a pilot. My parents say they can remember me carrying around a toy helicopter everywhere while I was very young, and hardly knew how to speak yet. I guess maybe it started sometime around then, because I honestly cannot remember a specific time when I became interested in flying. It just has always been a part of my life.
As I became older, I started getting more serious about my path to become a pilot, and figured the best way to get there seemed to be the military. I joined the Civil Air Patrol, and became very involved in that organization. Through CAP, I was able to get up a few times in powered aircraft through orientation flights, and solo a glider at age 16. It was an experience I'd never forget. I believe that organization helped me develop myself into someone better suited to handle the challenges ahead in becoming a pilot.
As high school was ending, I began applying to colleges and for AFROTC (Air Force ROTC) scholarships. Every university I applied to had a flight program: ERAU (Embry Riddle Aeronautical University), University of Illinois, Saint Louis University, and the Air Force Academy. After receiving a senatorial nomination to the USAFA, and completing all the requirements for admission, I was very set on becoming a Cadet. But as many young people do, I changed my mind, and decided against the Academy; I now planned to attend Saint Louis University and be a part of the AFROTC program.
The summer after my high school graduation, I decided it was time for a job. So I headed to Midway Airport in Chicago, not far from my house, and went to various hangars and FBOs looking for work. I stumbled into Signature Flight Support, and the CSR (Customer Service Representative) there stated to head to the south side of the airport, since they were hiring. I did, and very soon after was hired as a ground handler for Signature Flight Support, contracted services to American Trans Air and Chicago Express Airlines. For that whole summer, I worked the morning shift, loading B-727s, B-757s, and JS-32s in the heat, and loved what I was doing! Again my mindset about my career started to shift, and I came home one day from work and said, "Mom, I'd like to go to the University of Illinois now." She just rolled her eyes, said "Ok", and at the last minute got everything in order for me to attend the U of I. It was a great decision.
I entered the flight program at U of I, and in my four years there remained very dedicated to always being one step ahead. After a few months in ROTC, I decided to leave the program and focus on civilian flying only. It just was much more fitting for me and my personality. I joined many of the organizations affiliated with our flight program, such as the Flying Team, Alpha Eta Rho, Women in Aviation, and others. I just wanted to stay involved with anything flying that would help me learn and gain a network of friends. I stayed the summers at U of I to keep flying, and eventually took every flight class offered at the school. I even worked with the administration to attempt to create a new class, utilizing a B-737 simulator we received.
While at U of I, I again decided it was time to work, and headed to the airline terminal with resume in hand. It ended up I was quickly hired by Trans States Airlines as a Customer Service Agent, where I worked for over 6 months. Working for TSA was a great experience, and I often tell stories relating to the fun times I had working there. I learned quite a bit about airline operations, and spent many nights after cleaning the planes seated in the cockpit of the JS-41s and ATR-42/72s looking around excitedly wishing I could be working in there.
My biggest break in aviation came when I applied for an internship with Chicago Express Airlines, my current employer. I remembered the airline and their JS-32s that I used to bring transfer bags to, and knew they were now operating Saab-340Bs, as I would see them fly over my house anytime I was visiting home. I kept bothering the folks in Human Resources about getting an internship, and was very excited at the opportunity. Since U of I didn't have an official program with them, I was worried it might scratch the chance of getting the internship, but in August of 2001 I was lucky enough to get a call from the Director of Operations offering me a position as an intern. Saying I was excited is an understatement. I would be working for five months at the exact airline I wanted to fly for someday.
The internship, to this day, was one of the best experiences of my life. I cannot explain all the things I was able to experience in my time at the company. Since I was the only intern, I was working for everyone in management, and was able to see all aspects of the regional airline operation from the front offices. I also spent much time in dispatch, and many hours belted into the jumpseat of the Saab 340. Since I was working on 9/11, I was able to see everything that occurred that day from the front lines of airline operations, something I will not easily forget.
After my internship was completed, I returned to U of I to finish getting my Bachelor of Science degree in Aviation Human Factors, and completed my instructor ratings. I also began working as a CFI, which is an experience I recommend to all pilots. It was a blast.
After graduation, I went out everywhere I could across the country with resumes in hand looking for CFI jobs, and was coming up empty handed. Luckily, in late June, I received an e-mail from the HR recruiter at Chicago Express to call her. The next morning, bright and early, I sprung up out of bed to call. I was elated to hear the words, "We would like to offer a conditional offer of employment to you for a position as a First Officer." I was on an emotional high for the next two weeks before training. Then, on July 2nd, 2003, I began the long training process on the Saab 340B to get where I am today... and I am loving it!
I hope my story can inspire and challenge you to set goals for yourself, and do what is needed to completely follow through with them. Don't allow people to discourage you, because trust me, someone will make an attempt. Also, should your goals change, don't be afraid of that change, but instead be excited about it and mold your plans to fit your new desires. But most of all, have fun! A pilot's career is more about the path to get there than the destination.
Favorite thing about flying:
I would have to say the people. I have had the fortunate opportunity to meet so many new friends and interesting people in aviation. Now, flying paying passengers, I even have more opportunities to talk and learn from all different kinds of people. I feel that with each new crewmember and passenger, comes a chance to grow myself from my interactions with them.
Disadvatages of being a pilot:
I would most likely say the schedule. It isn't too bad for someone like myself who enjoys working odd schedules off the 9-to-5 footprint. But for someone who needs schedule stability, it might create some issues. You learn to work around it though!
What you would have done different:
I really wouldn't change much, but if I had to change something, I would have slowed down. I always was working in such a way to learn as much as possible in a short period. I am very fortunate my hard work paid off to grant me the wonderful position I am in today. I would not trade it for anything! But sometimes I think back and imagine high school and college might have been more enjoyable if I "stopped to smell the roses" more often. What to learn from this? Be patient!
Advice to aspiring pilots:
ADVICE Be strong. Set goals, and never lose sight of them. Don't let others distract you from your goals. Learn about your profession, so you make educated decisions which will effect your entire career. Be patient. Don't let your career path disrupt the things which are more important, like family and friends. Stay confident, and always be willing to let go of your ego, suck it up, and learn.
Problems encounterd along the way:
I luckily haven't had an abundance of problems so far in reaching for my goals. The only way to keep things running smoothly is to make educated, well thought out decisions. Don't jump to an opportunity because it "seems" good. Think it out, talk to others, learn, and make a decision over time. Save the quick decisions for when they are needed in the cockpit.