The first time I was in an airplane, I was 20 years old. I was traveling to Long Beach, CA for a summer-long project through a campus ministry I was involved in during college. My parents dropped me off at O’Hare Airport in Chicago early on a Saturday morning for my roughly four-hour flight to LAX, marking the beginning of the first of my many solo travels since.
Having never flown before, on this first solo trip, I had no idea what I was doing nor had anyone to ask for help. I declined all the flight attendants’ snack offerings during the first flight because I thought I had to pay. After seeing the other passengers enjoy their coffee and Biscoff cookies, I realized my mistake and made sure it didn’t happen the second time. I also remember during the entire flight, a young couple’s lap child cried next to me nearly the entire time–not just crying but screams. Blood curdling, arms flailing, spit-up on my shorts screams. To aggravate me more, the dad was a Cubs fan and let me know it several times (Sox fan here), and I let him know the recent triumph of the South Side’s World Series title. To limit other details, my first flight experience wasn’t great.
When we landed, I was ready to explore my new world. It was mid-May and already over 90 degrees, and despite the long flight, I was excited to meet the people I would be staying with for the summer. After getting my bags, I realized another mistake: I brought three large suitcases. One was so large that I could have fit inside it. I also didn’t have the money for a taxi or rental car, so I decided to take the Amtrak from LAX to Long Beach. I found a map and saw that I had to switch train stations about halfway through. Lugging my baggage through the airport was a bit awkward but it helped when I discovered that each suitcase had a strap that I could connect to the other. I took my smallest bag and connected it with the largest and used both arms to get to the train station. The ticket for the train cost less than $10, and I was proud of myself for getting such a good deal on travel. I loaded up on the train and started the second leg of my journey.
The train was hot, sticky and had a smell I still can’t seem to describe to others. The ride was jerky and stopped what seemed like every 30 seconds. I looked at the map and thought, “I am only going about 20 miles, so it should take about 20 minutes”. Wow, was I clueless. The first leg alone took over 30 minutes, and my small-town upbringing was beginning to show, if it hadn’t already the minute I checked in at O’Hare.
I was so happy to get off the first stop as I could easily switch tracks to begin the last leg of my Amtrak journey. When I got off after bumbling around and saying my Midwestern “Ope” about 100 times, I walked to the elevator to discover it was broken. If anyone has ever been to the Willowbrook/Rosa Parks station in Los Angeles, you will know that there is a massive, concrete stairway from the top to the bottom. How in the world was I going to bring three suitcases down all by myself?
I strapped the two suitcases back together and started to walk down backwards facing my bags. Each step was cautious yet nerve-racking. I couldn’t hide that I was from out of town and had no idea what I was doing. I had only gone down a few steps when the small bag flung off the side. It was still attached to the larger suitcase, but my instinct was to grab it with both hands. Upon doing so, I let go of the large suitcase and the laws of gravity set in. The large suitcase, which I paid extra for on my flight because it weighed more than 50 lbs., started its own journey to the bottom of the stairs. To my horror a large man who looked like he could have been an NFL Offensive lineman was walking up, looking down, with headphones on and was in the direct line of fire of my suitcase. Each tumble seemed to happen in slow motion; the suitcase was rolling end over end and the strap broke midway down allowing the zipper to start moving, opening the bag.
After the third roll I yelled “Watch out,” and maybe the man heard me or maybe he saw movement from the corner of his eye, but somehow he got out of the way in time for the suitcase to completely unzip at the bottom. Clothing was flung was everywhere, and I couldn’t hide my embarrassment. I was still only halfway down with my other bags, covered in sweat when I saw the gentleman walking back towards my now opened suitcase. I didn’t know if he was angry and wanted to fight or worse, so I hollered from above that I was sorry and that I’d be down in a bit. The man got to the bottom and lowered his headphones and responded with “I got you” and kindly started grabbing my clothes and putting them in my suitcase. By the time I got to the bottom of the stairs, he had collected all my clothes and was zipping up my suitcase for me.
“Hey, you didn’t have to do that,” was the first thing I said to him when I was at the bottom. Family and friends forewarned me that people in Southern California were not kind and that I needed to pay attention to my stuff so that nothing would get taken. In my experience, the opposite was true. The man told me it was no big deal for him to help and offered to carry my extra bag for me to the next stop. I never learned his name, but I never forgot the grace he showed 20-year-old me. He kindly carried my large suitcase to the next train and wished me luck.
I was so happy to end my travel when I got picked up Long Beach. My drive from Indiana to O’Hare included, I had been traveling for nearly 9 hours. Exhausted, I remember meeting my roommates and passing out on the couch in the hotel I stayed at for over 10 weeks.
That summer was one of the best in my life, and I learned several new skills, made lifelong friends and grew spiritually. Even though my journey to Long Beach was challenging, I still look back and am thankful I did it. My first flight brought me to a destination and to people that I love, and I now often wonder where I can go to find and do things I’ve never done before.
My first experience traveling solo inspired several more trips over the years and still today. Each one has had its share of experiences from police intervention at my Fourth of July fireworks display on the beaches of Pusan, South Korea to eating Haggis and blood pudding in Edinburgh, Scotland to tent camping in the eastern fjords of Iceland. Flying opened a whole new world. It made hard-to-reach destinations tangible. It inspired me to learn about other cultures, traditions and food and gave me an appreciation for those who help bridge communities.
Airline pilots really are modern-day explorers. Pilots have the opportunity to meet hundreds of new people in several destinations in just one day. Few, if any, other careers allow you to eat lunch in St. Louis and dinner in Boston as part of your workday. You can see and visit places most people only dream of going. It makes traveling the norm, and once you start, you’ll always desire to see and experience new places. Air travel allows you to stay in touch with long-time friends and family and make new ones. It gives you an appreciation for the beauty of the world around us. It gives you a desire for adventure.
At LIFT, our hope is to find the next generation of explorers. Many of you don’t want the standard 9-5 office job and don’t want to be stuck in a monotonous “punch in, punch out” career. Rather, you desire new experiences and new challenges. You want to journey to unknown and faraway places. You want to tell stories about people you have met, not just read about or seen on TV or social media. You value a career that has purpose and meaning, and you get satisfaction knowing that you get to help people travel to their wedding location, attend their first sporting event or see their grandchild for the first time.
Aviation will open doors for you that you didn’t know existed. It has provided me with numerous “home away from home” destinations and a satisfying career. If the life of an explorer is on your radar, consider giving LIFT a call or schedule a virtual meeting to learn more about how you can start your journey into aviation.
Matt Chupp is the Manager of Admissions and Recruitment at LIFT Academy. If you are considering starting your career as a pilot, Matt and the recruitment team would be happy to connect with you. You can reach out to him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 317-471-2408.