In this episode, Jess Ames and Maddy Beck chat with volunteer pilot Earl Burkholder, who bought a plane a couple of years after his retirement. He shares his deep love of passenger interactions that captivated him to work in Angel Flight East. Earl also talks about his previous job as a nuclear engineer and how he underwent commercial training to improve his flying.
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Earl, can you tell us a little bit about your journey as 1) A pilot and 2) A pilot with Angel Flight?
I learned to fly in the early '80s. I tried the 172 and then the 182. I was in the Navy. In one year, we ended up flying that 182, five hours the entire year. That was a very expensive five hours as you can imagine. We saw a decline, and then career, kids, and college, everything got away. I was a couple of years from retirement. I looked at my wife and said, “I want to buy another airplane.”
She looked at me and shook her head, but I bought another airplane, a little Cherokee 182. One of the first ones off the line, serial number 1250. It is in a beautiful condition. I put a lot of work into it, nice avionics, and just enjoy flying, taking people up and letting them see what it's like up in the air and seeing the ants on the ground.
Why do you volunteer your time with Angel Flight?
It is something that is amazing. I was talking to one woman on a flight. She told me that she has probably saved $200,000 in airline tickets because of Angel Flight pilots volunteering. I learned about Angel Flight because I was looking for something to do with the plane other than going to breakfast or lunch or buying a $100 hamburger. I had been flying in Texas where we had lived at the time, and we moved to Pennsylvania and there was nothing around. I saw an Angel Flight flyer and said, “This is for me.”
I have been doing it now for several years. I'm up in the 60-hour range for Angel Flights. I try to do at least 2 to 3 a month, depending on the schedule and everything. It's awesome. You meet people that you fall in love with. There was one flight where a little girl, who was about five, had brain surgery. The flight was long. It just so happened I could stop at my home airport, let her get out, and run around, and everybody at the home airport fell in love with this little girl. It's amazing, the people you meet and the things you can do.
On another flight, I was flying a couple. We were in the clouds, one of those showery days. I opened the side window on the plane and let them stick their hands out and fill the cloud. They loved it. We were cloud surfing. It turns out he was a surfer when he lived in California. We had a great time flying them back and to from the appointment that they were in. This is a worthwhile charity. It gives me an excuse to fly. It helps people. It lets me do something that I wouldn't do on my own, which is to let strangers on that plane.
All the ears of parents telling us not to go with strangers and here we are.
Even when the little boys get sick on the plane, you look at it, you shake your head, and you clean it up.
That's a good attitude.
I asked one time why pilots do it and how they build such great bonds. It is like you are on a plane with them for hours at a time, so you have to find something to talk about. We love the relationships that form with patients and pilots. That's always our favorite thing to talk about.
I do have some favorite passengers because we hit it off and they are very comfortable in the plane. Turbulence and clouds don't bother them. We had a great time on the plane.
What's your real job when you are not flying?
I retired back in 2019. I was a nuclear engineer for the Navy for twenty years. I then worked for the Department of Energy as a nuclear engineer, overseeing the safety aspects of nuclear bombs, warheads, and stuff like that. It was a great career. I loved it. I retired in 2019 and planned to fly. I can't pass a medical anymore.
Nuclear engineer, I can't even imagine what that's like because we have two brain cells together. It is incredible that you did that for so long. Engineering was not my specialty in knowledge.
Math and Science in general wasn't my specialty at any point in life.
I'm very lucky with all that time. I call our four dippers. I got my Navy retirement. I got my Department of Energy retirement. We both have Social Security. Except for me spending money on the plane and her spending money on clothes, we hardly spend anything. Even with being retired, we were doing very well. Being able to be very well gives me a chance to help others who don't have the things that I have. I love it.
Do you fly with any other organizations or just Angel Flight?
Just Angel Flight. I have interacted with some of the organizations on some of my flights, but I only fly with Angel Flight. The one thing I do because of flying with Angel Flight, even though I'm very new, I do an instrument proficiency check every six months. I do a flight review every twelve months even though that's way more than required because I'm flying passengers and I want to make sure I'm up to speed all the time.
Do you have a favorite place to fly to?
Not really. I like going to different airports. I like figuring them out. What I have figured out is I get close to Philadelphia here, the Class Bravo. I get close to New York City at Caldwell with the Class Bravo. I ended up sitting 15 to 20 minutes after I had my clearance trying to get a release out of those airports because of the traffic. I look at the engine and start heating up. Other than that, I don't have a favorite airport. I like them all. People are all different. Everybody with Angel Flight except for one place has given me great discounts on gas, fees, and everything. That is hard to imagine in this financial environment and they support it.
I remember I called you to fly into JFK and you politely said, “No.” I was like, “This is why I'm not allowed to be the flight coordinator because I try to fly people into very big airports.” What made you want to become a pilot?
I was bored. I was based in Idaho Falls at the nuclear power training unit there. We had a strange shift. We would work a shift and then we'd have one day off. We then work a swing shift and we'd have two days off. We then work a mid-shift and we'd have four days off. You could only go camping and hiking and so much even as a young person. Even in those beautiful mountains, I was bored. I went and did an intro flight and loved it.
You then got hooked. I feel like Jess and I are not that adventurous when we get bored.
I never wanted to be an airline pilot. I don't have a commercial license, but I did commercial training to improve my flying, and I love it. It's gorgeous up there.
I feel like it's probably a stress reliever, too, because it's so quiet up there. It is just you and the clouds.
Like I showed you that rainbow, a picture of 4,000 feet, I have got pictures on here of sunsets at 6,000 feet where you can watch the progression. It's gorgeous.
It is way better than seeing it on the ground, I bet.
If you could say one thing about being a volunteer pilot, what do you think it would be?
Fulfilling. It gives me something to help people instead of flying twice a week for breakfast, flying in a pattern, and doing touch-and-go. I have been to places that I would never go on my own, like that little girl I was talking about.
"Being a volunteer pilot is absolutely fulfilling. It allows you to fly to places you would never go on your own."
This little girl with brown ringlets, I forget what her name is. I remember the picture because she was wearing a mask. She was so cute.
I know exactly who you are talking about. I have to think about this one now.
She was awesome. She was a great passenger and fun to be with and everything. Her mom was so appreciative. It's like many of the pilots, the mission I'm doing now. The parents are so appreciative of what you are able to do to help them out. That plane would get awful expensive if all I was doing was going to breakfast a couple of times a week. As I said, I have probably flown 50 or 60 hours for Angel Flight this 2023 so far. I try to fly 2 to 3 missions a month when the schedule works out.
We know where to find you now.
She's been there.
I know that airport is. I have driven there.
She supports us at our open house. I have met her with the pilot for her.
We were on a radio interview there last 2022. Do more than fly for us. You are part of our outreach team.
Not so retired after all there.
I always say that patients have such a positive outlook on life. They are going through such a hard time, but they have such an interesting perspective. Our bad days are in no way compared to what they are going through.
You can't imagine. I was supposed to pick this mother up and another two boys at 10:00. Last-minute schedule change, they wanted to do some more tests. I have learned over the years that schedule changes happen. I keep a book in my plane exactly for cases like this. I will let my wife know that my schedule has changed and when I'm going to be home, so she won't worry when I'm late.
That's true. Also, you got to hang out with us for two hours and do an episode, which worked out even better.
I have been thinking about it.
That’s even better. We have never done a lot. This might be our best one yet. Don't tell anybody else we said that.
It's okay. They can keep that part. We won't edit it out.
If I could say one thing, I would suggest that any pilot out there, even if you are a renter, volunteer for Angel Flight. It is an amazing thing. These people do an amazing job coordinating, scheduling, and working with you to be able to support people who need our help. I can't say enough about it.
You are hired.
I know what that pay scale is.
We appreciate everything you do for Angel Flight. We couldn't do without you.
I love it.
You are welcome.
Thank you to all of our audience for reading another episode of the show. We will see you guys again next episode.