Departing The Pattern: Dan’s Story
This is my journey from discovering aviation to writing this blog. Not everyone may share my interests, but I believe many will relate to my story.
Ever since I was a young kid, I wanted to be a pilot.
I have fond memories of going with my grandparents to O’Hare Airport when I was younger. We would often go to pick up my uncle when he would come to town. I remember walking back to the gate (pre 9/11) and waiting for his plane to arrive. As soon as I saw that plane taxiing in to park, I’d be up against the window, waving at the pilots.
It wasn’t until I was 13 when I took my first flight on a commercial airliner, but if there was ever any doubt left that I wanted to fly, it was surely gone after that trip. I spent the next 5 years taking some discovery flights and researching how to make a career out of flying. I was thrilled to see my dad’s alma mater, Purdue University, offered a 4 year degree in professional flight. What an awesome way to combine flight training with the Big-10 atmosphere I wanted out of college, AND I’d have a chance to carry on the Boilermaker family legacy!
Cleared For Takeoff
My short, four years at Purdue were some of the best years of my life. I met lifelong friends and was pursuing my dream career. I started flying my very first week of classes, and that’s not an experience every college flight program can offer. I had a number of “pinch myself” moments while flying over campus in a small Piper Warrior. Is this really my classroom??
After completing my first two years in the flight program, earning my Commercial Pilot’s license and a few other endorsements, it became time to focus more on the career of an airline pilot. I took classes in jet airplane systems, advanced navigation and weather, and spent many hours in a full-cockpit, Boeing 727 simulator. Life was still pretty good, although there were some storms developing.
I had never really questioned my passion for aviation or my airline pilot career choice, but something started changing my last two years at school. Was a commercial pilot really the right job for me? I know something like 75-80% of college students change their majors at least once, but this situation was a bit different. The professional flight program at Purdue was very structured and specialized; changing majors right in the middle would mean a lot of money and time down the toilet.
So what changed? As I started studying the life and career of an airline pilot, I realized that maybe this career isn’t what I had imagined. I loved actually flying the airplane, but most pilots nowadays turn the autopilot on the moment they leave the ground and it doesn’t shut off until touchdown. I get it…the ride is much smoother when someone isn’t hand flying the plane, but I felt it took away from the magic a bit.
Now called the Great Recession, our country was also heading into some of the worst economic times since the Great Depression. Multiple airlines were filing for bankruptcy protection and many pilots found themselves furloughed and out of work. Needless to say, the job outlook was grim.
Despite the tough job market for pilots, I decided to complete the program and graduated from Purdue in May of 2009. Even though I decided an airline pilot wasn’t the right fit for me, I still had a burning passion for aviation. For a short while, I was applying to law enforcement agencies (another childhood dream) with the thought of eventually joining an aviation unit where I could practice my skills and love of flying.
In the mean time, I found myself working in sales for a local wholesale distributor. Not exactly where I expected to end up after college, but it was a job and it paid the bills. This may come as a shock to most people, but new pilots starting their careers don’t make much money. Like teachers, pilots don’t go flying for the money. A new pilot might expect to earn an average of $21,000-23,000 a year.
At this point in my journey, I was dealing with some frustration over the lack of direction in my career, and my student loan grace period was coming to an end. There was a point during school where I decided that I should have some more skin in the game, so I started taking out student loans to pay for my schooling and lodging.
Turns out, it was WAY too easy to get student loans. 1. Fill out a form 2. Money is deposited 3. Spend as you please. I never really learned how to properly manage money growing up, and I hated asking my parents for money. Combined with ease of getting loan money, this was a dangerous combo.
I quickly accumulated over $100,000 in student debt while at Purdue. I maxed out my Stafford loans each semester and used private student loans to cover the remaining tuition, apartment rent, airplane rental, food, and, of course…beer (shh!).
Like many college students who use student loans, I didn’t think about the negative consequences to taking out this much debt. I had no concept of how much it would cost me each month, or for how long I’d be paying them off. It actually makes me sick to my stomach to see, after making regular payments for over 7 years, I still owe more than the original balance on some of my loans due to all the interest costs.
All of this for a degree I’m not even using. Sound familiar to anyone?
Departing The Pattern
There came a point where I ended up letting go of my aviation dream job. I started to excel at the company I was working for, and my income started to grow. Although I was starting to accept a new reality, I still wasn’t happy. I accumulated more consumer debt on top of the crippling student loans I already owed. I started wondering where my paycheck was going each month, and it was to all my bills. I realized I had to “depart the pattern.”
In aviation, a pattern is basically a big loop around a runway or point on the ground. Pilots can fly around the pattern until they decide to depart, land, or the controller tells you to continue on your way.
Have you ever been stuck in a holding pattern while taking a flight into a busy airport? Constantly flying in circles, burning up costly fuel along the way…
For awhile, I was stuck in the pattern of living paycheck-to-paycheck. I had to make a conscious decision that I did not want to keep losing sleep over my money and being held hostage to lenders. Just learning how to budget changed the course of my life for good.
Once I got serious about my finances, things started to feel like they were finally falling back into place. I ended up meeting my wife Tracy during this phase of my life, and could not have asked for a better blessing. Tracy had a similar struggle with money, so I helped get her on board with planning out a budget. We used our upcoming wedding as motivation to pay off debt for good.
By our wedding, we were completely consumer debt free and saved enough to pay for our wedding and honeymoon in cash. If you want to read more about our debt pay-off story, we were featured on the company blog of the budget software we use, YNAB.
My journey to financial freedom after college is what has inspired me to pursue a career in helping others find the same freedom. I also have a great opportunity to return to an industry I love so much, aviation. I may not be flying professionally, but I love working with other pilots and staying involved in aviation.
Departing YOUR Pattern
What pattern are you stuck in right now? Maybe it’s living paycheck-to-paycheck like I was, or maybe you’re stuck in a job you hate. I always encourage others to think about goals for their lives. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you set your mind to something. In regards to your finances, I believe everyone can set themselves on a journey to a fresh start or to new heights. It’s never too late to take control!
If you related to my story at all, or if you have questions about your finances, or even how an airplane works, I’d love to hear from you!
About the Author
After graduating from Purdue University in 2009 with a pilot’s license and a degree in Aviation, Dan Kellermeyer had over $100,000 in student loans and faced a virtually non-existent job market for new pilots. Today, Dan is free of consumer debt and is passionate about helping others finding the best way out of debt and planning for the future.