Q&A with Jackson Dalton, Pilot, Class of 2016

MV: What was your first introduction to flight?

When I was probably eight or nine years old I was really into trains, and wanted a train simulator game for my birthday. Boring in retrospect, but what did I know. I wrote to my dad that I really wanted a train simulator. My handwriting was pretty bad, and my dad ended up getting me a flight simulator instead. He says it was on purpose but I swear it was because my handwriting was/is so bad! And here we are.

MV: What conditions were set for you to pursue your passion?

After playing around for quite some years, I got serious about flight training in eighth grade. I started going to Aviation Career Enrichment, which is a ground school program aimed at young African-Americans interested in aviation. ACE takes place every Saturday at the Fulton County Airport, and was incredibly helpful and supportive of me, even though I was a bit of an odd man out. I then started flying with Centennial Aviation Academy at PDK, and got my initial private pilot’s license with them. I love CAA, and still work there part-time today. This is my shoutout to them (haha!).

In regards to “bigger picture” conditions, the aviation industry is facing a massive shortage of pilots. Thousands of pilots are “aging out”, as airline pilots face mandatory retirement at 65 years old. The industry has known for years this is coming, but it is finally real now. Airlines and everyone are begging qualified pilots to come on board, and are offering much more livable salaries than the poverty-line salaries that new airline pilots made no less than 10 years ago. Another thing is the lack of young people in aviation. With the exception of military, the civilian sector has quite an old demographic. I highly urge any students who are interested to look into young aviator’s scholarships, as there are plenty that cover parts of your aviation training, or even more.

MV: Who and/or what were the major influences in your life to direct you down your flight path?

My parents of course are one of the biggest influences. They’ve been incredibly supportive and helpful, even though neither of them are in aviation. Even though I only flew with him a few times, my first flight instructor, whose name was Richard Grey, was key to just introducing me to flying, and proving that it was worth pursuing. Mr. Grey passed away last year due to Pancreatic Cancer. Rohan Bhatia, the owner of Centennial Aviation and my boss at the time, has always shown me how to keep the profession fun. Charlie Hansen, my first instructor at MTSU and now a lifelong friend, did almost all of my training at MTSU, and she truly helped me reach the next level of skill and professionalism in the air.

MV: How did your parents encourage you?

Besides fiscally (seriously, could never afford this without them), my dad always wanted to take some flying lessons, and showed more eagerness towards me flying. While they were hands-off in training, mostly due to neither being in the industry, they’ve been nothing but supportive when an FAA checkride or written test comes up.

MV: Who told you to dream big?

While I never got a “dream big” speech, I’ve gotten many veterans of the industry tell me just how impressive it is to see someone so young in aviation. They’ve told me that the (aviation) world is my oyster, and in a few short years I’ll be able to go wherever I want to go. Whenever I think I’m in a rut flying-wise I always remember some of the conversations I’ve had, which usually kicks me right back into gear.

MV: Did Mount Vernon play a part in preparing you to get where you are today? If so how?

Yes! Big shoutout to Mrs. McCubbin for helping me along with college. I really only knew I wanted to be a pilot, and knew some big collegiate names, but she truly helped me start narrowing down the process. To current juniors/seniors, the process works! Going to a college where you know you will succeed is more than worth getting up early for Senior Breakfast. I still really enjoy coming back and talking to Mr. Baroody about traveling, as he’s incredibly knowledgeable about everything for someone not directly into aviation. Mr. Boden as well has been supportive of me doing what I love, and I have to shoutout the Innovation Diploma team (Mrs. Cureton, Mr. Adams, Mr. Edwards) for putting up with me, and still supporting me after high school.

MV: Why did you select the school you attend today?

When it was time for me to make my college decision, I had five major choices. Middle Tennessee State University, Middle Georgia State University, Auburn, Embry-Riddle, and University of North Dakota. MGSU was too rural, Riddle was too beach-y, UND way too cold, and Auburn was going to be too expensive. I took a bit of a gamble on MTSU, and it paid off in droves. I’ve made friends I’ll have for life, and sparked many different connections.

MV: How did you get your CURRENT job?

Aviation, like many industries, is all about who you know! My mom grew up in a small town in Western Massachusetts called Pittsfield. We still have family there, and in 2016 my cousin introduced me to the owner of an aircraft charter company called Lyon Aviation. We only texted a bit, but it was really cool having someone tell you to keep working towards becoming a professional pilot. Fast forward to late November 2018, when I was on the phone with my mom. We were idly talking about future jobs when she brought up Lyon Aviation again and said I should see if they were hiring. I was a bit skeptical, but they were. I sent an email to my cousin in hopes he could get a resumé across the owner’s desk in Massachusetts. He did, and the process began. I took a Skype interview, and an in-person interview in Massachusetts. The rest is history and now I’m in class for the Hawker 800.

Now a private pilot, Jackson’s rotating schedule is 14 days with the plane, with 7 days off. He estimates he will fly 500-600 hours in a year to destinations all around the country that include Aspen or Vail, Colorado and the Caribbean islands during the winter season.

MV: How do you feel when you are in the air?

The pure sensation of flying is incredible enough by itself. The perspective you’ve had on houses, buildings, and distances begins to shrink as low as a hundred feet off the ground. Flying around in a fabric-covered Piper Cub on a warm summer evening, with the door open and your feet hanging out is incredible. On the other side of the spectrum, flying in bad weather, dealing with Air Traffic Control, and precisely navigating the airplane to a safe landing in thick cloud cover is an equal thrill, and more of a puzzle or a brain game. I love all aspects of aviation, whether it’s the flying, the community, or just the fact that I get paid to do something I love.