I just made a very serious, long-term commitment.
I decided to join a book club. But really. If you’re a busy person and you’ve ever been in a book club, you know the struggle of completing one whole book every month is real. But I am determined to read more, so I shall persevere!
Anyway, at my new book club, I met Stephanie Hlavacek. And Stephanie is an aviator.
Stephanie flies private. She works in the aviation department of JD Norman Industries, an auto parts manufacturing company headquartered in Addison, Ill. Mostly, she flies the CEO and other executives in their private Hawker 800 XP aircraft to their various plant locations around the Midwest, and she also occasionally transports them to Canada, Mexico and England, too. But the road to becoming a pilot is long and can be turbulent (see what I did there? But Steph advises not to worry about turbulence—the planes and pilots can handle it. Really.).
Steph’s journey to the sky began when she was 10 years old. One day, out of the blue, she told her parents: “I want to be a pilot.” In high school, when it was time to think about college, she was still dreaming about aviation, so they sent her to a single flight lesson to make sure she really loved it. Of course, she was hooked and wanted to begin training immediately. She attended the University of Illinois’ aviation program in Champaign, Ill., where she did all of her flight training. After graduation, she worked at the university as a flight instructor for two years, then moved to Chicago and got a job at the Aurora airport—instructing and flying charters and eventually a private jet. A few years later, she was offered the position as one of JD Norman’s first private pilots.
The licensing process is long and complex, so here’s the jist: You start training and get a private pilot’s license—the most basic license you can get—that allows you to do nothing but fly a small, single-engine plane on a sunny day. Then you get an instrument rating, which lets you fly in the clouds. Then you can get a commercial license, but the name is misleading—it allows you to get paid to fly but doesn’t necessarily qualify you for a job. After that, you need to build up hours—one option is to get certified as a flight instructor like Steph—and eventually you can get an ATP (Airline Transport Pilot). The hours and ATP are basically what you need to get a job.
People with Panache: What’s it like to be doing exactly what you said you always wanted to do when you grew up? Not many people can claim that!
Stephanie Hlavacek: I’m very happy that I did it and I’m proud that I accomplished something in that sense. I also thought for a long time that I would be working at an airline, but I’m happy I found the business aviation side of things. It’s a really nice, small community, and I’ve met a lot of great people through it.
PWP: Do you remember what made you want to be a pilot at 10 years old?
SH: My family traveled a lot when I was young. I always enjoyed flying and thought it was a neat part of the vacation to get to go on the plane and go somewhere.
PWP: That’s funny; a lot of people dread that part of a trip. What do you love about your job?
SH: I still really enjoy the act of flying—getting in, starting up the engine, taxiing out, taking off and, of course, landing. Landing is the hardest part to master. There’s always a sense of accomplishment in a good landing. Flying is my favorite part of what I do; that doesn’t really get old.
PWP: Do you consider this to be your dream job?
SH: There are parts of it that are my dream job, but I’m still not exactly sure what my “dream job” is. Our job is still a job. Even though I love the flying part, there are things that aren’t so great that I didn’t think about when I was 10—like that my normal schedule is being away from home Tuesday to Thursday every week. But as far as a flying job goes, it’s hard to find one where you don’t do a lot of that.
PWP: I can see how that would be tiring! What’s a typical day like flying a private plane?
SH: So in charter, you’re just sitting at the airport waiting for your passengers to show up. They say we’re going to leave at 4 p.m., and sometimes 6 p.m. rolls around, and you’re still waiting with no heads up. At my company, our CEO says he’s going to leave at 4 p.m., and he’s pretty much there at 4. Usually we get a text around 3:45 p.m. saying “I’m on my way!” just to confirm. It makes things really nice.
PWP: What has it been like working in a male-dominated industry?
SH: I get mistaken a lot for a flight attendant and things like that. When I did charter, it happened a lot more often because they didn’t know. They’d see me at the airport standing by the plane and ask “Oh, are you coming with us today?” I’d say, “Yep, I’m going to fly you today.” There’s definitely a generational thing I’ve noticed. It doesn’t bother me; I don’t take it to heart or anything. It happens, and it’s usually nothing too offensive, just a lack of understanding I guess.
PWP: What has been your favorite trip ever?
SH: My biggest accomplishment flight was my first trip to England. It’s a very long trip, but there are also a lot of interesting, unique procedures crossing the Atlantic because you don’t have radar or anything like that. You’re out in no man’s land basically. Also, flying in Europe is pretty different than flying here. Our air traffic control in the U.S. makes it really easy and is more flexible with our flight plans. In Europe, it’s a lot more complicated and structured so you have to be more aware.
PWP: What advice do you have for other people wanting to get into aviation?
SH: Stick with it. There are so many ups and downs in aviation as far as the economy goes, but it’s been worth it. When I was in high school, I’d meet pilots and I’d say, “Oh my gosh, it’s so cool you’re a pilot; I want to be a pilot.” And they would say, “Don’t do it, it’s too tough.” That’s a pet peeve of mine when people say things like that. I would never tell anybody that. I think we need pilots. It’s a unique job, it’s a fun job, and I would absolutely tell anybody to do it and stick with it.
PWP: I like that. Just because someone thinks it’s hard, doesn’t mean you’re not going to love it or be passionate about it. What makes you happiest?
SH: When it comes down to it, family and friends… and my dog. But she’s family, too.
[Photos by Kate.]