All in the Family

Capt. Richard Thompson (United), left, welcomes his son, Capt. Richard Thompson II (Envoy Air), to the rank of captain.

Does the love of flying run in your family? Many ALPA members have inspiring stories to share about the generations of airline pilots that run in their immediate family.

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Changing of the Guard

By Capt. Richard Thompson II (Envoy Air)

I was lucky enough to upgrade to captain at Envoy this year, and for the captain’s upgrade dinner for my class I brought my father, my mentor, my best friend, my flight instructor, and an airline icon—and only one chair was needed. My father is currently the oldest Newark Liberty International Airport-based Airbus pilot at United Airlines, although for only a little more time. He turns 65 this December, so this year will be a changing of the guard for our family.

Flying is in my genetics, and it started with my grandfather, who joined the Navy during World War II. He flew in the Pacific, serving on the last ship that was hit by a Japanese kamikaze. He saved a man’s life that day, treading water holding onto an injured sailor until a rescue ship came hours later. After the war, my grandfather was hired by TWA, retiring as a captain on the B-747.

My dad’s brother went to the Naval Academy, became the head commander on the F-14, and has close to 20 years at Delta Air Lines. His son, my cousin Robby, is finishing his time in the military flying E-2s and is dreaming about a career with Delta. Rob and I have always been very competitive. I beat him to the left seat of an airliner, but he most likely will beat me to a major airline. We’re also taking bets on whose kid will be the family’s first fourth-generation airline pilot. My mother earned her wings, too, working for Aeromec (later Wright Air), an Allegany Commuter.

I can still remember all the nonrev trips we went on when I was a kid. I was so excited the night before that I couldn’t sleep. I was excited about what airplanes we would be on, and I could tell you numerous facts about every airplane in United’s fleet. The B-727 didn’t have any audio entertainment while the -737 did. The -757 and later A320s were my favorites because of the TVs. And when they put the -777 on the Newark–Denver route, I felt like I won the lottery.

It was clear to everyone what I wanted to be when I grew up, and my father gave me that gift. He took me out weekly when I was 14 years old. He soloed me on my 16th birthday, signed off for my private pilot’s license on my 17th birthday, and gave me every solid piece of advice he could.

We both have lived the ups and downs of this industry. My father earned a battle star on the picket line during the Eastern strike, and at three years old I was by his side with a sign saying, “Frank Lorenzo stole my toys.” He was there to give me advice and guidance during the bankruptcy proceedings when I was just starting out at American Eagle, because he, too, earned the Chapter 11 merit badge. He also was there to guide me when my patience paid off and I upgraded to captain. He probably would have been able to retire a few years earlier if he just charged me $1 per phone call every time I called for advice.

It’s hard for me to imagine my father no longer a line pilot for United Airlines. It’s all I’ve ever known, so this will be bittersweet. But he’s excited to retire—excited to go skiing at Snowbasin in Utah all winter, excited to spend time on the water in the summer, and, most of all, excited to finally have the extra time to spend with me and be the world’s best grandpa to my daughter, Kylie.

We plan on exchanging some final jumpseat rides before the clock strikes midnight, and I will be there with Kylie for his retirement flight. It’s going to be hard seeing Dad turn in his wings. I can’t remember a single moment of my life when he wasn’t a pilot for United Airlines. But for the first time in my life, my father won’t have to tell me, “I can’t. I’m out on a trip that day.” That’s something I’ll be able to get used to.

Giving Dreams a Second Chance

By F/O Janet Elliott (Frontier)

Capt. Eugene Vaughn (Pan Am) left behind a legacy that includes three pilots and a former flight attendant.

My father was a Pan Am pilot for 37 years, retiring in 1977 as a B-747 captain, and my mother was a Pan Am stewardess on the DC-4. They met while flying together for Pan Am and eventually married. He had called her to the cockpit and asked her to marry him during a moonlit night over the Andes. In 1972, my dad thwarted the hijacking of his -747 (but that’s another story for another time). With a family background like that, it wasn’t surprising that I was attracted to aviation.

F/O Janet Elliott (Frontier) left her career in IT at 35 to pursue her dream job of flying for an airline.

It wasn’t common for women to become pilots when I was growing up, but when I turned 16, I asked my dad for flying lessons. Of course, he was thrilled to set them up for me. I breezed through my private license at 17 followed by a commercial license and instrument rating by the time I was 18. After my first year of college, I fell in love with an Air Force C-130 pilot at the nearby base, and we were married that next summer. We actually met at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, sitting next to each other at the gate while waiting for the same flight.

After marriage, I put my aviation dreams on hold to raise two children. Later, I finished my college degree in information systems, which led to a successful career in IT. In the meantime, my older brother became interested in aviation. After years of training, flight instructing, and flying for the regionals, he was hired by Northwest Airlines.

Even with a successful personal and professional life, the flying bug never left me, and with my office overlooking a local general aviation airport, I couldn’t take my mind off my original passion. Finally, at age 35, and the kids older, I decided to give my dreams another chance and walked into the local flight school, explaining that I wanted to become an airline pilot. I left my IT career behind and worked feverishly to get current by working on my CFI and CFII. Once those were completed, I began flight instructing while working on my ME and MEI and after a few years my ATP. With the ATP, I was hired by a local charter outfit flying Learjets. In less than a year, I was hired by Air Wisconsin flying the Dornier 328 and the CRJ200. After almost four years, I left Air Wisconsin as an RJ captain and began flying for Frontier Airlines. I’ve been with Frontier for nearly 14 years.

Both of my kids have their private pilot licenses (my daughter also earned her instrument rating). When my daughter graduated from college, she was hired as a flight attendant at Frontier and met her future husband, an F9 ramp agent at the time who was working on his flying career, there. It was love at first sight. During their early married years, her husband was hired as a pilot at Great Lakes and then progressed to a check airman and finally a designated examiner. He moved on to United more than four years ago, giving us four ALPA members in the family (past and present): my dad, me, my brother, and my son-in-law. My daughter left Frontier four years ago to attend physician assistant (PA) school and is now a practicing PA.

My dad left a legacy of six pilots in the family, but sadly he never saw my return to flying or how much we carried on his legacy. He passed away in 1984 only four years into retirement from Pan Am. But I know he looks down on his family with a big grin. He was my mentor and always will be our family’s hero. 

This article was originally published in the November 2017 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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