From NCB to the cockpit, via Wall Street: Sky's the limit
10 p.m. EST on a Sunday. The apartment is quiet. I set up shop on my kitchen table. A dozen sheets of lined paper. A pen. I'm doing this old school. My shorthand is rusty; I haven't used it since 2001. I'll be taking my notes in cursive. The file containing my questions is open on my cell phone. I use the home phone to place the call. I'm a bit nervous. Aside from a few exchanges on Facebook I don't think I've ever spoken to Patrick Monfiston-Désir before. He was 3 or 4 years my junior in high school—we both attended Nouveau Collège Bird (NCB). My mom and Hubs were probably already asleep when I phoned him. Scheduling this conversation was pretty straight forward. I asked. He said yes. And despite the 12-hour difference between Gatineau and Manila, where he was spending some time with family, I'm right on time. He answers after the second ring. Punctuality is one of the values they instilled in us at NCB—the others: altruism, work (travail, in French), courage and honour. PATCH. Values that I try to live by until today.
Two years ago, Patrick Monfiston-Désir’s post on Facebook about how he followed his dreams and became an airline pilot caught my eye. The post had the right amount of petty and just the right dose of shade. The teacher he names in the post was also my teacher. The post made me think about young people who are constantly getting their dreams crushed by people who should be motivating them.
Born in New York City in the early 1980s from a Haitian mother and a father of Martinican origin, Patrick spent his summers in the US of A, like many children of the Haitian middle class. He was 7 years old when he entered a cockpit for the first time; that's when he decided to be a pilot when he grew up. This sparked his interest in aviation. He started to ask for books on aviation and air planes. Soon most of his toys were related to the topic. He recalls asking to see the cockpit every time he got on a plane as a child. The pilots never grew tired of his questions, he had plenty of them, and he never felt rushed. Being on a plane felt like home.
The Wall Street years
When he was 16, he moved to NYC, where he finished high school. He mentions being bored in class, both in Haiti and in the US of A. He obtained good grades, but nothing really stimulated him. So much so, that his counsellor at his high school in NYC noticed and suggested an internship on Wall Street in lieu of the last class he needed to complete prior to graduation. Little did he know that this internship would steer him away from his dream and launch an unexpected career.
The average Haitian family doesn't really understand what happens on Wall Street. Stock broker isn't on the list of culturally acceptable careers. If you're not a doctor, an engineer or a lawyer, you have some explaining to do. He gambles with other people’s money was the general consensus within his family. But his 6-figure salary meant financial stability, and that they fully comprehended.
He spent about a decade on Wall Street, working for very well-known firms and for boutique investment banking firms. His job was interesting and fun, but it wasn't what he wanted to do. While working downtown, he'd often see air planes fly by. "One day!", he would think. At some point, waking up in the morning to head down to Wall Street became a chore. "You know it's time to look for another job when you don't want to get up in the morning." But he knew that another job wasn't what he wanted. What would give him purpose and fulfil him would be a whole other career. He needed to find the courage to quit.
Around 2010-2011, he was in between jobs. And he knew it was time for him to at least consider going for his dream.
If not now, when?
He discussed his plan with his grand-mother, the only person's approval he really needed. She told him to go for it: "si w pa fè l kounye a, ou pa p janm fè l" (If you don't do it now, you'll never do it.). And his grand-mother knew about going for a dream that may look unattainable. She had become a nurse at a time when most women in Haiti weren't expected to finish high school.
But the rest of the family had gotten used to his unusual career (by Haitian standards) as a stock broker. This change of career wasn’t welcomed. In typical Haitian family fashion, the family questioned his decision. They didn’t fully approve of Wall Street, but his new endeavour was even more unorthodox.
He decided to go for it anyways. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Becoming a pilot
The road to become an airline pilot isn't as straightforward as one may think. And for Patrick, it was a very humbling journey.
The first aeronautical school he applied to rejected his application. This made him question the viability of his dream and his own abilities. A friend then suggested that he apply to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, one of the best aeronautical schools in the US. He doubted that he would get accepted due to the prior rejection. The friend insisted. And, four years later (in 2015), he graduated Magna Cum Laude from Embry-Riddle. He notes that all the books he read as a kid gave him the foundation he needed to succeed. When he walked away with that degree, he also walked out with over $100,000 worth of student loans (the school was about $30,000 to $40,000 per year).
While working towards his degree, he also took flight training. (I was surprised to learn that flight training wasn't a part of the degree and that it came with its own hefty price tag: over $82,000.) He breezed through the program, never retaking a test. While it takes an average of 2.5 to 3 years to obtain all the required licenses, he received his in less than 6 months. "Failure was not an option." During his first flight, he failed to close the door properly and the door opened mid-flight. But that didn't stop him from giving it his all. He was in his 30s, without a house to his name. He had swapped a successful and lucrative career for close to a quarter million dollars in student debt. Success was the only option. He attributes his determination to his Haitian upbringing.
At this point of the conversation, we went on a bit of a tangent. We talked about how the cost of training may be one of the reasons why we don't see more black pilots.
What came next
With no one in his family with a background in aeronautics, he had to make his own way. There he was a licensed pilot with a degree in aeronautics with no job in line. He waited two years for his dream to come true.
In true Haitian fashion, during a barbecue, a friend of the family mentioned knowing the owner of a flight school. He became a flight instructor. "A very frustrating experience", he says. Teaching wasn't at all what his dream was about. But he was grateful for the job which he says he obtained partly due to prayer, tears and luck.
He took one step closer to his dream when a friend and fellow pilot mentioned that his company, a private jet charter company, was hiring. Patrick said yes. And for two years, he flew actors, athletes and politicians—he is not allowed to name them, because confidentiality, but you'd recognize their name. I wondered whether or not he felt more nervous because he was responsible for the life of celebrities. He didn't even have to think about it; his answer was no. What he thinks about when he flies is making it home safely, regardless of who his passengers are. Of course, he knows that he is responsible for other people's lives. But, at the same time, he can't afford to let their celebrity distract him.
His ability not to fanboy when a celebrity is just a few meters away from him is a testament to the overall calmness and poise I think pilots demonstrate on a regular basis. He explains that growing up in Haiti and facing difficult situations on a regular basis helped forge his character. He doesn't scare easy. In a tough situation, "You go through your checklist and find a solution".
Fast forward to 2017... He became an airline pilot.
Life as an airline pilot
Breakfast in Atlanta. Lunch in the Bahamas. Dinner in Toronto. This is not an unusual workday for him. It's also not unusual to be unsure about the city in which he's waking up.
Patrick opts to be a "reserve" pilot based in NYC. He's basically on call. He flies more or less 10 days per month (and yet gets paid for the entire month). Thirteen hours before departure, he gets a call, and has to report to the airport 45 minutes before the flight. Unlike pilots who "fly the line" he does not receive his full schedule a month in advance. He only knows the days on which he will be on call. He also isn't privy of his hotel arrangements and who his crew is ahead of time. A pilot who flies the line works 14 to 18 days (on average).
His life is not as glamourous as we would think. The divorce rate for pilots is higher than that of the general population—flight attendants are among the top 10 jobs with a high divorce rate. "You miss milestones", he says. Unless a pilot has enough seniority to fly back home every night, they spend a lot of time away from home.
He gets to meet a lot of people, but he finds it challenging to nurture and maintain relationships. Being on the road as often as he is can also get lonely. He sometimes ends up working with a new crew with which he doesn't really vibe.
For a pilot, the ideal significant other is independent. They must also be secure in their relationship, as there is a lot of room for jealousy. At the same time, they have the ability to create amazing memories with that special someone. How many people can afford to take Bae to Paris for a weekend a few times a year?
Regardless of the pros and cons of his career choice, once he is cleared for take off nothing else matters. "You should see me. I have a big smile. I'm truly happy." And I believed him, for I could hear the utter joy in his voice. When you do what you love...
Words of wisdom
I asked for tips on how to cope with fear of flying. "You're not afraid to fly; you're just afraid to relinquish control." I knew that. But it's very hard to tell people: I'm a control freak who panics a bit in the air because there's nothing I can do to help myself if things don't go according to plan.
He also likened turbulence to a boat hitting waves. This is a game changer for me, I had never thought about it in this way. Let's hope that I remember that the next time I'm on a plane.
He also confirmed that the science is sound. Most mishaps—I noted that he didn't say crash—are due to human error.
Next time I'm in NYC, we plan on linking up. He offered to take me on a plane. I said yes. Which is code for "I'll think about it" for all of us control freaks who are afraid of flying.
Follow Patrick's adventures on IG: @PatTheAirlinePilot