Tue. Jul 23rd, 2024

The first time he traveled by airplane was an experience Justin Mutawassim could never forget. Five years old at the time, he was invited to explore the cockpit “and I was just absolutely enamored,” he told The Washington Post. “I remember sitting there and being fascinated by all the buttons. From there, I just caught the bug.” By the time he turned 6, Mutawassim had decided that he would become a pilot when he grew up. Over the years, this dream grew stronger, but he couldn’t find a clear path toward making this life goal come true. At 19, Mutawassim began working as a ramp agent, so he could at least be close to the planes he loved.

This spring, however, his dedication and love for aviation bore fruit as he finally became a Delta Air Lines pilot. “It feels incredibly surreal still,” said Mutawassim, who is now 26 and based in New York City. His journey to realizing this dream was far from easy. Mutawassim, who wears glasses, was crushed when his middle school teacher—who was in the United States Air Force—wrongly informed him that perfect vision was a requirement to become a pilot. “When I heard that, I was really defeated,” he said. “I didn’t really have the ability to fact-check that.”

After graduating from high school in 2014, Mutawassim pursued a career in broadcasting while working part-time as a technical director for a few minor league sports teams. Although he enjoyed broadcasting, he explained, it didn’t fulfill him the way he knew aviation would. About a year into his studies, in December 2014, Mutawassim decided to drop out. “I didn’t want to waste my time or my money on something I wasn’t truly invested in,” he said. He took a semester off school and got a job as a ramp agent hauling bags for Delta Air Lines. “Next thing you know, it turned into a year and a half of an awesome job,” Mutawassim said, revealing that he quickly progressed from agent to supervisor, and later, instructor. “I just absolutely fell in love with the technical aspect of aviation.”

“It was physically the hardest job I’ve ever done,” he admitted. “Manual labor is no joke.” Although his desire to pursue a career in aviation grew stronger during this time, he didn’t have the confidence to make it happen, Mutawassim shared. But in 2016 his life took a turn when he met Ivor Martin, a pilot for Virgin America at the time and now a captain for Alaska Airlines, who became his mentor. Mutawassim struck up a conversation with Martin while riding an employee bus that transported staff from the parking lot to Dallas Love Field Airport and told him about his hope to one day become a pilot.

“Justin, come over to my house. We’re going to sit down and talk about it,” Martin told him at the time. When they did, the experienced pilot sketched out a path Mutawassim could take to become a pilot. “I set out everything that he had to do, and he followed it to a T,” Martin shared, adding that it was difficult to find relatable role models in the industry as a Black person. “I didn’t really have anyone to mentor me when I was going through the process. When I was coming up, I didn’t see hardly anybody that looked like me.” Martin helped Mutawassim prepare for written tests and apply for flight school, and he discussed the financial aspect of it with Mutawassim’s parents and urged his mother to co-sign a loan so her son could pay for the degree.

Mutawassim breezed through the curriculum at ATP Flight School in Dallas and was able to complete the necessary licenses in 11 months. He earned the 1,500 hours of flight time required to become a commercial pilot by working as a flight instructor and was also able to co-pilot some private flights. In 2018, he was hired as a pilot for a regional airline, Republic Airways, where he worked for three years. Last year, Mutawassim moved to the start-up airline Breeze Airways and spent six months as a pilot there. In spring 2022, after learning that Delta dropped the college degree requirement for pilots, he eagerly applied for a position and was offered the job.

Mutawassim is now paying Martin’s kindness forward by volunteering as a mentor for Professional Pilots of Tomorrow, which offers networking and mentorship opportunities for pilots. “It’s been really rewarding for me to start giving back to the community, and educating people about the profession,” he said.