Dreams Taking Flight

There are a few clichés about pilots A.J. Mitchell would like to set straight. “A lot of people think [we] make a lot of money, but like every other profession, you start out at the low end,” Mitchell said, and he is far more humble than Maverick or Ice-Man.

The rest of the clichés, however, he admits are pretty true. Pilots get together, make fun of each other, wingman for each other and talk about flying. “We talk about flying a lot, like too much a lot,” Mitchell said. The pilots are fun to listen to until they start using the NATO phonetic alphabet and referencing airplanes you’ve never heard of with slang you can’t begin to understand.

Over a carefully timed beer, his employer requires 12 hours of sobriety before take-off, Mitchell agreed to explain his life in laymen’s terms.

He is a senior mechanical engineering and technology student at MSU and a flight instructor for Summit Aviation. He graduated from MSU with an associate’s degree in aviation technology, offered through Gallatin College, in the spring of 2012. He was promptly offered a job with Summit, the flight school that taught him to fly. He now splits his time between flight instruction and his part-time engineering course load.

“The nice thing about [instructing] is that you kinda set your own schedule,” Mitchell explained. He usually spends about 30 hours a week teaching, which leaves enough time for his classes, labs, fly fishing, skiing and listening to air traffic control communication for fun.

He likes the challenge of tailoring his lessons to his individual students. “Out of the book doesn’t work for most people,” Mitchell said. “I allow students to make mistakes, to a point. You learn the most that way, but that’s why they have controls on both sides of the airplane.”

“It takes a tremendous amount of patience,” he said. “The coolest part is when the light bulb goes off and they finally get it.”

They teach mostly in small, efficient single propeller planes called DA20s, which Mitchell explained “are based off gliders. We cruise at about 120 miles per hour, burning about 25 miles per gallon. [We can] catch updrafts along the Bridger ridge, let the plane idle and just go.”

“[Flying] is exciting. It’s challenging. It’s something I guess you could get bored of, but there’s always exciting moments,” Mitchell said. “I couldn’t spend all day at a computer, in a cubicle. That’s kinda why I went for mechanical engineering and technology instead of regular Mechanical Engineering. It’s more hands on.”

Mitchell has been interested in engineering since high school and spent his first two semesters at Montana State as an engineering student, before dedicating himself to aviation.

“If I had to chose between what I’m studying [and being a pilot], I would choose to be a pilot,” he said. “But it’d be really cool to combine the two.”

Mitchell expects to graduate in the fall of 2015. “I’ll see what’s out there when I do [graduate]. I want to take flying jobs that sound fun. There are a lot of jobs I would love to do, that school is keeping me from pursuing,” Mitchell said.

He has flirted with flying bush planes in Alaska, the mythical land of milk, honey and adventure for many young Montana pilots. He wants to get his seaplane endorsement. This past summer he almost flew to Europe for an air race. He and some fellow Summit instructors are talking about teaching in Texas for the summer.

However, Mitchell readily admits, “The real goal is to not grow up.”