Hey everyone! My name is Salvatore, and I’d like to welcome you all to my story of how I ended up in the world of aviation! I was born in Brooklyn, New York, but I currently reside in Saint Johns, Florida. I am a first generation pilot and I hold a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU). I also obtained my private pilot’s license from Embry-Riddle. I obtained my instrument rating from Phoenix East Aviation, a flight school adjacent to Riddle. Currently, I am pursuing a Master of Science in Aeronautics with a dual specialization in Human Factors and Space Studies (I’ve always been fascinated with space). At the time of writing, I passed my in-house commercial single-engine check-ride, and now I’m just waiting to be scheduled for the FAA check-ride.
My path to aviation wasn’t the typical, “I looked up at the sky as a young child and found my passion sort of thing.” In fact, it was quite the opposite. I first started college back in 2012. I was majoring in Biology with a pre-med concentration at Saint Francis College in Downtown Brooklyn. At the time, I wanted to gain acceptance into medical school to become an anaesthesiologist. After my first semester of college, I decided to buy myself some time with my career decision (just to make sure it was the right one), so I transferred to a local community college where I completed all of my college core classes. I saved a lot of money as well! Completion of my core classes granted me an Associates in Liberal Arts in 2014. After that, I was still sure (or so I thought) that I still wanted to pursue a medical career.
My mom and I had moved down to Florida that summer to be closer to family. Two weeks later, I started classes at the University of North Florida (UNF), where I was a Chemistry major. I hated it. Like, really hated it. The classes were the same as if I declared Biology as my major, but it was honestly a miserable experience. In retrospect, I kind of just attribute that to having a difficult time assimilating into Floridian culture, and a new way of life in general. Moving out of New York City just before turning twenty-one took a toll on my mind, and it took a long time before I felt comfortable being in a new place. So as a result, in October of 2014, I was now a college dropout. I withdrew from UNF, and, I felt really crummy about that.
I took some time to think about what I wanted to do in life. My new plan was to pursue a career in nursing and attend graduate school to become a Certified Registered Nurse Anaesthetist (CRNA). I took pre-requisite courses for two semesters at Florida State College at Jacksonville (FSCJ). I had a great time taking those courses, and I was excited to continue this route! I ended up applying to Nova Southeastern University (NSU) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where I was due to start nursing school in the beginning of 2016. This is where the story takes a turn.
On Christmas Eve in 2015, my dad unexpectedly passed away. It still is the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through in my life. Losing a parent left me feeling very lost and alone at times. Safe to say, it changed my entire life! NSU was more than understanding of the situation, and graciously deferred my acceptance to the fall term of 2016. It wasn’t until around March or April that I felt compelled to get my life back on track. I decided to look for a temporary job, just to keep my mind occupied. I noticed that the post office was hiring mailmen, and I figured that was the perfect opportunity to stay busy until I started school again. I applied and got scheduled to take the exam at Naples Municipal Airport. I thought it was a little weird, taking a mailman test at an airport, but I didn’t question it.
I took the exam and left the building, only to find myself mesmerized by the airport environment; the planes, the pilots, the hustle and bustle. I felt very drawn to it. I had entertained becoming a pilot in my senior year of high school but ultimately decided to stay more grounded, literally. So anyway, I’m just standing there, staring, like a weirdo. The moment felt very cinematic cliché. That moment of empowerment. It overwhelmed my entire body, and at that point I audibly said “I’m going to be a pilot.” I got in my car and drove back to my dad’s house, which is where I was staying at the time with my mother and brother. I hopped on my laptop and applied to two schools; Jacksonville University, and ERAU. Although I applied to both schools, I only did a campus tour of Riddle. I had known it to be the crème de la crème! On the same day of the tour, I also took part in an observation flight. I sat in the backseat of a general aviation aircraft for the very first time and got a snippet of what it was like to be a flight student. With the supervision of his instructor, the student began his takeoff roll and climb, and that was it. I was hooked. I got the bug. It felt like the perfect fit! I also got to experience what a stall was for the very first time, and for someone that went into this blindly, it was very scary, but not enough to deter me. I was accepted to ERAU for the Fall 2016 semester, but I had that pushed up and actually started in May that year. Obviously, the rest is history.
This story is so, so personal to me. My shift in career prospects is bittersweet. If my dad was still with me here today, I would have never ended up in aviation. On the flip-side, I am so grateful that I get to study aviation. I found something that makes me so happy out of something that was absolutely devastating. I like to think that my dad led me to that airport. I like to think somehow, someway, he was showing me that “this is what you should be doing with your life.” Whenever I tell this story, I like to think that there are four main ideas. The first being, one door closes and another one opens. The second, everything happens for a reason. Third, the strength of perseverance and determination through personal hardship. Lastly, the idea of things coming full circle, and I think this one is worth the elaboration. When I was graduating eighth grade, we were thinking of what we all might be in the future to put in the yearbook. One of my classmates (and I do remember her name but I won’t name her out of privacy) approached me and said “you look like an airplane pilot.” I probably replied with a sarcastic “yeah right,” but that’s what it says next to my name. “Sal: Airplane Pilot.” In a weird way, it makes me feel as if I’m right where I’m supposed to be in this world.
Flight training is incredibly rewarding! Earning a new rating or certificate is exhilarating when you’ve been working on it for a prolonged period of time, but it does come with its challenges! I would say that my biggest challenge was not having enough confidence and letting my nerves hinder my ability to perform a flight, especially if I knew I was being evaluated. My first flight instructor at Riddle instilled a lot of confidence in me. I remember him telling me that I had a natural understanding of concepts that can takes months for other students to grasp. It was just my nerves. They would get in the way, and for a while I didn’t know how to fly unless it was with my instructor. The nerves are still a work in progress, but I’ve come a long way! What really helps me is visualizing that I’m the sole manipulator of the controls. If I’m the only one in the plane, what am I going to do first? How am I going to react? I’ve learned to not let external pressures hinder what I feel is correct. A lot of the time, check airmen will try to rush you, but it’s just a test to see what you do. Slow down, explain if you may need a second to think, and then continue on to the next task at hand. I guess my second biggest issue would be feeling tired from overtraining. If I didn’t do too hot on a training module, I would retrain until the task was up to par, and a lot of the time it would make me feel as if I’m just wasting money and completing an activity but not actually moving forward in training. Just keep the faith and give it your all because it will all “click.” Trust me.
As far as my dream goal and where I see myself in ten years? I just want to be happy, flying, doing what I love to do. I also want end up at an airline that grants me the opportunity to upgrade through numerous aircraft, providing me with different and longer routes. Ending up on a 787 would be sweet! I also wouldn’t mind getting my seaplane license, just for fun. As a more personal goal, I want to reach the South Pole on one of those Antarctic expeditions. That would be the thrill of a lifetime! Anyway, I really hope you all enjoyed reading through my story, and I hope it motivates future aviators. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me on social media. This is a small, tight-knit community of personal connections! It’s a great thing to be a part of!
Blue skies and tailwinds,