By Daniel Linnert
There is no “correct path” that you take to get into aviation – and I am no exception. We all have a unique story, and I’m proud to share mine—hoping it inspires others to overcome what seems to be impossible. I had to push pause on my training after being diagnosed with testicular cancer shortly after obtaining my private pilot certificate. But I fought hard against and beat the cancer and was able to begin flight training at LIFT Academy again!
At 36, I can say that I have pursued a few different careers before finally finding one that fits – aviation. I pursued public safety in high school, but after graduating, I started nursing school. I soon figured out nursing school was not for me, and through my early 20s, I worked different trades and settled on working in oil and gas exploration. I enjoyed the job but did not see it as my forever career. Flying was always in the back of my head, a fantasy if you will.
Growing up, from time to time, my dad took me to work with him at the approach and departure runways for Pittsburgh International Airport, and I was immediately hooked. Until the summer of 2018, however, flight training seemed like an unattainable goal. What flipped the switch for me? I googled “careers in flight” and found LIFT Academy. After applying and taking the flight aptitude test, I was accepted! My dreams quickly became my reality in July 2019 when I started flight training at LIFT.
I had just obtained my private pilot certificate and was studying and training for my instrument rating while working the line at LIFT in their maintenance department. I felt like something was off – something just wasn’t right. So, I made a doctor’s appointment to see why I wasn’t feeling like I normally did. It is hard to explain what it feels like to find out you have cancer. I remember the doctor coming into the room and placing his hand on my shoulder, as he gently told me about my testicular cancer diagnosis. I was hit with a wave of emotions. It’s nothing. It can’t be true. This is the end of the world. Adrenaline flooded through me, and I knew I was going to take on this fight like David fought Goliath. I cried a few tears – followed by many expletives – my doctor encouraged it—let it out.
Strangely something that was on my mind quickly after my diagnosis was flight training. I was worried. I had given up my career, moved away from my family and friends in Pittsburgh to Indianapolis. I was afraid that all would end up being a waste. I had finally found something I loved doing, and I didn’t want to lose it, not any part of it.
My treatment plan included chemotherapy. I was initially a little hesitant, but I didn’t have another option and chemotherapy saved my life. I began my chemotherapy treatment in Indianapolis. I knew I would be in good hands with my doctor and IU Health, which is known for their pioneering treatment of testicular cancer. The first month wasn’t too hard on my body; I had taken to chemotherapy very well, initially. I decided to return home to Pittsburgh to finish my first round of chemotherapy so I could be closer to my family and friends. I ended up needing not just one round of chemotherapy but four rounds, and it really started to take a toll on my body. I was in for the fight for my life. By the end of my treatment, I was sleeping 17-18 hours a day, and I often felt like giving up. But I, as a true Pittsburgher, with the built-in DNA of a blue-collar steelworker, managed to push through with tenacity and strength. I saw the light at the end of the tunnel and knew I needed to get back to the sunny skies.
I was lucky to have an amazing support network, both through my treatment and my flight training. From my girlfriend to my mom to my brother and many other close family and friends – they supported me, took care of me and brightened my day, and I am forever grateful for their support. LIFT Academy and Republic Airways also had a huge impact in supporting me. I will always believe that you are only as strong as the people you have behind you.
I believe that my support system was integral to my treatment and beating cancer and also to getting me back to flight training and being successful. I have had an incredible show of support, and I am truly lucky to have these amazing people in my life. I want to give recognition to LIFT Academy for allowing me to stay enrolled and ultimately resuming my flight training after an extended period of time. I am truly thankful that they believed in me.
I also have to give special recognition to Mike Petrucci, a fellow LIFT student, aviator, dear friend and overall fantastic human being for his unwavering support during my treatment and my transition back to LIFT. He unselfishly took time out of his busy schedule to make sure I was back on track. With his help and that of LIFT’s management and instructors, upon my return to LIFT I completed my instrument rating and received my commercial certificate and am currently time building before I head to Hyannis, MA to fly as a Cape Air pilot in January, as part of the LIFT and Cape Air partnership!
Since flight training was a second career for me, I feel that I have the drive and motivation needed to make it as a commercial airline pilot. My diagnosis only added fuel to my fire. I know that for others, their diagnosis and outcomes aren’t always as positive as mine was. Therefore, I am taking this new lease on life and taking full advantage of it! Before I was able to come back to LIFT, I was chomping at the bit to be able to return to the skies.
Cancer doesn’t discriminate, no matter your gender, race, socioeconomic status. It’s a monster living inside of you. It sets your priorities straight, tests who you thought you were and ultimately shows you your resilience and limitations. If you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for it and let people be there for you. You don’t always have to be a warrior on your own. Bad days happen but maintain positivity in the long run. I feel like I am 100 times stronger after what I have gone through. If I can overcome this, I can do just about anything.
I am looking forward to obtaining my Air Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate and having a rewarding, long career in aviation. I am lucky enough to be on my way to my dream job, and I won’t take it for granted! I look forward to maintaining a healthy lifestyle and find my new normal. I also hope to be a patient advocate for anyone, especially in aviation that needs support fighting cancer. See you in the skies!