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Not Just a “Plane” Job

For those with aviation experience from their time in the service, you have a critical skillset that the commercial airline industry is looking for. Take Mark Rutledge, an Air Force veteran and commercial airline pilot who took his childhood love for flying and transformed it into service and a civilian career. U.S. Veterans Magazine sat down with Rutledge to discuss his origins, careers and how you can follow in his footsteps.

How and when did you realize you wanted to be a pilot?

Ironically, my parents told me I dreamt of flying well before I was old enough to have memories. As early as two years old, or thereabouts, I was enthralled with anything in the air…balloons, leaves, paper airplanes and airplanes flying. So, I credit the first vision given to me by my Creator.

At that time, I lived in South San Jose, California, and we often drove by San Francisco International Airport. Since car seatbelts were not required in those days, I remember standing up in the back seat, looking at all the airplanes taking off and landing. And I remember gazing at the emblazoned letters spelling one of the major airlines of today. I think I knew then. And the vision to fly for that airline was planted firmly.

What made you want to transition from the Air Force to work for commercial airlines as a pilot?

I need to start with what made me choose the Air Force in the first place. And that answer is pretty simple: my parents were self-employed, and we were a lower-middle-class family. The Northern California area I grew up in was extremely isolated compared to any metro area. If I wanted to fly jets, I needed a way to get the training and experience required to qualify for those jet jobs. And it was a miracle that my congressman at the time had started a flying school at my high school.

I decided to enroll at the United States Air Force Academy after high school, which at the time guaranteed entrance to the USAF Undergraduate Pilot Training upon graduation. In truth, I was a long shot to complete the Academy based on the level of academics available in that area at that time. Still, my congressman pushed extremely hard to give me a chance, and I’m blessed to have been able to make it through the Academy.

The Academy’s stated position was to inspire the graduates to a long military career. I accepted that message and, for a time, dropped the idea of an airline career. But eventually, life has a way of beginning to redirect you to where you need to be. At some point, I realized serving full-time in the active-duty Air Force could be converted to serving as a traditional reservist and pursuing my original airline career dream. There was only one airline I wanted, one to which I applied, one that interviewed me, and I spent over 24 years as an active pilot for that airline while finishing 15 years as a USAF Reservist.

How did the skills and experiences you acquired in the Air Force contribute to your success as a commercial pilot?

“Contribute” is not the correct “C” word; “critical” is the only work befitting the skill sets in my story. I knew I needed the military to give me the training and education I needed, but I didn’t really know what specific skills I would learn to allow the dream to become real.

It might be cliche to say, but the leadership lessons I learned were critical and could all be attributed to the military. But it’s more than just the generic leadership we pin to the uniform; it’s also specific scenarios within the military operation that give us the repetition—both from failure and from success—needed to stand in front of the mirror and become the accountable pilot and leader needed in the cockpit, civilian life or the military.

By no means do I limit these same skills developed in pilots without military training and background. However, because of the pace of the military operation versus most other civilian experiences, the ability to condense and learn the same level of skills tends to occur more quickly. Eventually, and this is important, every pilot—whether starting as a civilian or military—can attain the same level of aviator professionalism and skill.

What challenges did you face during your career transition, and how did you overcome them?

There is always the unknown as to whether the civilian job you desire will desire you. The biggest challenge I faced was my own self-talk to find excuses as to why that job—or, in my case, the airline I chose—may not choose me. So, without being arrogant and off-putting, the challenge to be confident starts and ends in the mind.

I’ve learned there is really only one thing we are allowed to control in our lives: thoughts. We have the right and responsibility to choose the thoughts we think. It sounds easy. But the next time you feel angry or anxious, fighting or fearful, ask yourself what thoughts you were just thinking. More than likely, they were the thoughts themselves that caused the feelings. And this is a huge challenge.

Why do you think aviation is a great career for veterans, especially those with piloting experience?

I’ve been fortunate to see several major sectors in aviation over the past 43-plus years: general aviation, military, airline, small jet business charter, and now I’m in the large jet business, corporate and international (Gulfstream G650). “All dogs have fleas” is a favorite saying of mine. In this case, there is no perfect job out there—they all have fleas.

Aviation offers a great mix of travel, pay, benefits and job satisfaction. But it also provides dangerous challenges. Nevertheless, I can’t think of any better “office view”…and in the cockpit, I have both a window and an aisle seat!

What inspired you to become a mentor for other veterans looking to become pilots? How do you plan to support and guide them in their journey?

As we begin to realize all the blessings and benefits we receive in life, and to the extent we agree most (if not all) of those came to us outside our pure control, it becomes even more of a blessing to pay it forward.

I hope one day to start a nonprofit to identify young people who dream of flying and partner with them as they pursue their dreams, whether civilian or military. But an arm of that nonprofit would be to identify those young enlisted members and guide them directly into aviation opportunities.

What advice would you give to veterans considering an aviation career?

I offer the same advice I offered a young airborne infantry Soldier about 10 years ago: you have experience and have seen combat. Be willing to build a resume and learn to tell the stories of your combat experience. Use the Post-9/11 GI Bill to finish school, preferably at an aviation university. While earning your bachelor’s degree, earn your pilot licenses (private, instrument, commercial, instructor, multi-engine).

Once you’ve done this, very few Air National Guard and flying Air Force/Naval Reserve units would pass on the chance to interview you. Why, you ask? Because most of these military aviation units only study what you may have already done. And for them to have you as part of their unit adds real-life experience, which most pilots only know through reading.

Explore more articles for the veteran community here.

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