Net Effect #1: Captain Alan Zwick — Lessons Learned in the Air

This Friday we’re sitting down (zooming!) with Alan Zwick, a Captain with Southwest Airlines (SWA) and a Certified Flight Instructor. Learn how Captain Zwick’s lessons in the air are relatable and transferable to your career ‘ground game.’

A life-long Christian Scientist, Alan Zwick grew up on his family’s farm in Central Kansas. He attended the US Air Force Academy graduating in 1986 with a BS in Management. Alan served in the USAF as a pilot, instructor, and evaluator flying the KC-135, T-37, T-38, and U-2. He continued his military career in the USAF Reserves as a Subject Matter Expert overseeing U-2 training and courseware. He retired in 2008 attaining the rank of Lt Col. Alan is currently a Boeing 737 Captain. He has been flying for Southwest Airlines since 2000. When Alan isn’t flying, he enjoys hiking, bicycling, sailing, and off-roading in his Jeep.

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Episode Transcript

Special thanks to DiscoveryBound NLC intern Brenna Erickson who volunteered to transcribe this episode.

Robin: “What are some important issues that you’ve been addressing today?”

Alan: “Well Robin it is a little disconcerting when you show up at the airport now and the airline employees outnumber the passengers in the terminal and where we used to only have four or five seats open on a flight now many times that’s the total number of passengers on board and so that’s kind of the normal now and we’re all considering what’s going to be the next normal and that’s as from career and I know many other careers have had a similar impact a sort of turbulence so to speak and that was where I was thinking about the Bible verse from Romans where it talks about that, “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: By whom also we have access, by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only so, but we glory in tribulation also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.” (Romans 3: 1-5)

And so I when I was reading this and thinking about the current turbulence tribulation kind of going on both in my world and throughout the world I was thinking of that patience as we go forward, and also how that leads to reflecting on the experiences that I’ve had throughout my career. And this isn’t the first time we’ve hit some turbulence, and I imagine that it won’t be the last time that I do get hope and faith from looking at the past and seeing how I was protected and cared for there. And not that I always knew how the outcome was going to be, and that’s not always ours to know at the time, but it is to have that faith, and look around and see the blessings we have today, and to kind of see how day by day the manna falls” [Start 8:09][End 9:49]

Robin: *says he’s trying to apply some of the inspiration to the things he sees and feels while walking through the terminals now*

Alan: “Yeah and that’s what we’re doing and something else that we have to counter. And this is a verse in Science and Health that was in a recent Sunday lesson… where Mrs. Eddy talks about “Human sense may well marvel at discord, while to a diviner sense, harmony is the real and discord the unreal. We may well be astonished at sin sickness and death. We may well be perplexed at human fear; and still more astounded at hatred, which lifts its hydra head, showing its horns and the many intentions of evil. But why should we stand aghast at nothingness? The great red dragon symbolizes a lie,–the belief that substance, life, and intelligence can be material.” (Science and Health 563:1-9) So that’s where I think back to what is my true employment, what is my true source of supply, and try to see the spiritual side of that and be grateful for the mana that has fallen today and trust that there will be more tomorrow.” [Start 10:25][End 11:21]

Robin: *says you’re a poster child of challenges*

Alan: “Well it could look that way. I really didn’t realize that. So Robin, you and I started talking about putting this webinar together and so I thought well let’s look back and see when the last recession hit and…what I was doing at that point, and pretty much, yep, I had a fork in the road career-wise every time we seemed to have some challenges within our economy…first off was when I came out of high school in ‘82 we were in the middle of the recession. You can see pretty high unemployment and that’s where I was fortunate to have the opportunity to go to the US Air Force Academy, and that was a great demonstration and story I can tell another time how that all worked out. Then, my first opportunity to get out of the service was in ’92, and once again to some it appeared to be kind of bleak. And at that crossroads, the Air Force provided me an incentive to stay in. And that was when I was able to get that U2 assignment and do some very interesting things that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do otherwise.

I got out of the Air Force in 2000…and then about 18 months later I’m getting ready to push off the gate in Seattle and we get a call that there’s a nationwide ground stop. So I’m the at the bottom of the seniority list, just separated from the Air Force–and talk about kind of some uncharted territory! Yeah that was definitely, for the airline industry, something that we’d never experienced.

But the same thing–I was protected and guided through that situation. And then in 2008…that was when they changed the retirement age in the airline industry; so that deferred some retirements and could have put a damper on my career. But fortunately, I was in a situation where even though that…was followed by an economic downturn, I was at a company that was well prepared to handle that, and we pressed on, and once again that didn’t affect my career.

And now here we are, seemingly in a situation that in some ways can feel a little out of control, and helpless, and decisions being made by others that can dramatically impact us and our careers our lives. And that’s where I think of the story of Shadrach Meshach and Abednego. Those were three individuals who had some rules made that didn’t go along with their beliefs. And by sticking to their guns, and living up to their highest sense of right, they were protected. And it’s easy for us, when we’re reading that story… to go well, you know, I know how it ends, so it was easy for them at the time. They didn’t know how it ended! And they were able to walk through that fire and come out the other side without even the smell of smoke. And I know the same can be for us in this situation.” [Start 14:10][End 15:16]

Robin: *asks if he thinks it is important to have conversations with people outside of your lane*

Alan: “Look yeah, I think times like this it’s easy to kind of withdraw and go on the defense. But I think this is a good time to reach out, if you’re in a situation where you’re not working as much. We’ve cut our flying schedule by over 50% at this point, so I’m definitely not working as much but it is a time for me to… reach out to folks, connect with people I haven’t talked to in a while, rekindle those relationships. And also take a step back and evaluate where I am…this is a good time to express gratitude for the experiences we’ve had to get ourselves to this point and to draw faith from that, and see where we want to go. And look at how our next normal can start to shape up, without getting too specific because we don’t want to restrict ourselves, but to see what opportunities present themselves, and be prepared to accept those challenges.” [Start 16:02][End 16:58]

Robin: *asks how much time he spends/ recommends reaching out to people*

Alan: “Well I don’t have a specific amount of time that I set aside. My schedule is a little more fluid than some, but I know some people [will] set aside a specific time…maybe a couple days a week when they’ll push their normal business aside…send some emails or texts or give somebody a phone call… And as we’re seeing now, we’ve got some valuable tools with Zoom and Facetime and … you may not be there physically, but connect with them … and see what everybody’s up to, what their plan is for working through this situation, and how you can be part of that solution.”

Robin: *asks about the hiring process and criteria to become a pilot today*

Alan: “Well prior to recent events…we were in the middle of a pilot shortage and my personal feeling is that we’ll probably see…the hiring will pick back up once we get to the next normal. But currently our training center is shut down and we have put that on hold due to the uncertainty in the future. But…if that’s something you are considering this is one of those times to start putting those feelers out, figure out what you need to do…to do some of that learning remotely, and start working on those things. Also do some research and figure out what part of the aviation industry interests you, and there’s parallels with whatever your industry is; it isn’t just specific to flying airplanes”

Robin: *asks if there’s an age requirement or transferable skills/what someone who is interested [in the airline industry] should be thinking about*

Alan: “Well of course there’s the flying side of it, which is obvious, and there are certain things, if your goal is to fly in a scheduled commercial carrier, you’re going to need to be 23 years old and have 1500 hours of flying time … just to get the minimum certifications. But there are other opportunities within aviation that don’t require that. You can start flying airplanes when you’re 16 … and you can sit for your check ride when you’re 17. And then … once you have your commercial tickets you can get your instructor license and start instructing. There’s also charters. You can be doing those kind of things… there is a mandatory retirement age within the commercial airline industry, but that doesn’t apply to instructing and charters and private aviation”

Robin: *asks if he has a metaphysical pre-flight that he follows*

Alan: “Yeah I do, and it’s not always the exact same one. I mean it’s the same way with airplanes, depending on the phase of flight we have different checklists, and also if things are going abnormally we have a different checklist that we run. But what I go to just starts with being still, because many times when things present themselves, or when I begin my day or I’m beginning a flight, I need to just take a step back and get quiet and centered and feel the presence of Mind and listen. And then sometimes that then leads to action. Other times it just leads to reflection and where do we take it from there. And then also checking my motives, and when I’m in a situation that could be confrontational, or something uncomfortable, or those kind of things it’s, what are my motives here?…and then understanding that there can be a harmonious solution for everyone, and everything involved, and then just seeing how I can put that into practice and what I can do to bring harmony to that situation. Or what I can do to help out and see a peaceful solution” [Start 22:19][End 23:39]

Robin: *transition to final Q&A, asks to talk about the impact of losing the middle seats and the revenue they bring*

Alan: “…I haven’t heard any specific companies talking about this yet but that is one of the things that some of the groups within the industry are proposing, to have social-distancing on the airplane, to block off that middle seat. The first thing that comes to mind [is] wow, we just lost a third of our revenue…fortunately, now the price of fuel is low so that’s going to offset some of those costs … there’s the opportunity to carry more cargo because many times we are weight restricted when we’re flying, and right now the passengers are the priority so we would fill up with passengers and not always carry cargo… so there may be some opportunities there as the next normal presents itself. And there may be more people shopping at home…so there may be more of a demand for that cargo. As a pilot I can look at it and say, well, if the demand comes back up we’ve got the seats blocked off, but we still need the same number of seats. Well then there’s an opportunity for more flights. So that’s where we’ve just got to be willing to step back and see what the next challenge is that’s presented to us…it’s how do you fly a four airplane schedule with three airplanes, and it’s you turn them quicker. And that was what happened …when we were starting up the company. Long before I was there, they were trying to get things going and they built their schedule, and lo and behold, we’re only able to secure three airplanes when they planned on four. So they put their heads together and adapted to that challenge and that’s what we’re going to have to do going forward–see what’s presented and turn those challenges into opportunities.” [Start 27:14][End 27:57]

Robin: *asks what he would say to someone about how to find a career and go forward*

Alan: “Well, I think first off, don’t accept any limits or any boundaries, because for me, a Kansas farm boy sitting on my tractor out in the middle of nowhere it seemed like a pretty big stretch for me to be flying around over 35 years later in a commercial airliner. I’d been thinking I was going to be a farmer. I used to watch the F4’s come out of a nearby Air Force Base and fly over me and buzz my tractor. And I thought that looked pretty cool. As it turned out a couple of guys in my high school set up an Aviation Explorers post which was an offshoot of Boy Scouts. The club only stayed together for six months but during that six months the National fly-in was at the Air Force Academy, so we organized a motorcycle poker run to raise enough money so we could all pile in a station wagon and go out there. And that planted the seeds that it was possible for me to get into the Academy. So I started pursuing that, and had I limited myself and said, you know, I’m here and I’m gonna stay here because I didn’t even think that was an opportunity… I thought it was pretty cool. So…don’t outline where you think you have to be or need to be!” [Start 29:48][End 30:17]

Robin: *asks how to show you’re ready for more advanced work and leadership opportunities in an entry-level position without overstepping*

Alan: “Well I think the key there is, when you’re approaching your work, check your motives, and as long as your motives are to support that job and to take good care of your customers and do what your supervisor would like you to do, and as long as you’re approaching that from the highest sense of right, you’ll be doing the right thing. And I’d say, don’t be afraid to swerve a little out of your lane because that’s how we grow, and that’s how we get new opportunities. So when they present themselves, be ready to step up and do them. And until then, we run with patience the race that’s set before us…I always used to ponder that and think well, but if I’m running, am I really being patient? But the more I’ve thought about it, is that we can be putting a lot of energy into something… have that quiet calm, patience in the background to just be ready and receptive to when that next opportunity presents itself.” [Start 30:41][End 31:50]

Robin: *asks him to talk about the top 3 takeaways*

Alan: “Yeah, I think being patient. And that’s where, right now, it can be frustrating at times. We can feel kind of hemmed in, given the current restrictions placed upon us while we wait out this situation… that’s where we can reflect on what we’ve done in the past that’s got us to where we are, and be grateful for our successes, and see what we can do to build on those, and how we can be ready when that next normal presents itself, to move forward and seize the opportunities that are coming out of the situation. And also to use that time to stay connected and maybe get connected to people that you know, and haven’t talked to you for a while…and also maybe reach out to some folks that you haven’t talked to before. I know…there’s a lot of folks out there that are interested in a career in aviation, and you know, I’ll tell them, hey, just give me a call, we can talk, I’m happy to mentor you. But very few ever really return that call and take me up on that…most of us would love to share our experiences and what worked, what didn’t, and how we can help you out and get you headed down the path to have a successful career… and…looking at situations that are presented, not as problems that are unsolvable and we can’t get there from here? {But] how can we take this situation and turn it into an opportunity, and what can we do to come out of this wiser and stronger?” [Start 32:05][End 34:06]