When asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, Jake Nelson always had an answer: a professional airline pilot. He was just 9 when he flew his first airplane, and the rest is history! With help from an encouraging mom and dad as well as many supportive mentors along the way, Jake was able to achieve his dream. Read on for his story of becoming SkyWest Captain Jake Nelson.
Hello everyone! My name is Jake Nelson. I am honored to fly for SkyWest Airlines. I recently accepted the upgrade to CRJ Captain in our new Atlanta domicile, and I couldn’t be happier. Everyone’s path to the airline world is different – that’s what makes this such an exciting industry. This is my story.
I knew I wanted to fly since I was a very little guy. I grew up in the high desert of Los Angeles County, near Edwards Air Force Base. I can remember my parents taking me out to sit near the end of the runway at USAF Plant 42 (also known as Palmdale Regional Airport – KPMD for you fellow AvGeeks!) to watch the airplanes practice in the pattern. I’ve known since then that I belonged in the sky.
My path to learning to fly was nothing short of magical, and I am honored to have come in contact with some amazing mentors and cheerleaders throughout my journey.
When I was 9 years old, I was given the opportunity to take part in the EAA Young Eagles program. I was taken up in a Cessna 172 and allowed to fly the airplane around my hometown. I circled over my school, my house and around the neighborhood I grew up in. I knew that day that I was born to be a pilot. I never felt more sure of anything in my life. I was encouraged by my family (shout out to Mom and Dad for “letting me do my thing”) and mentors to study hard and chase my dreams of flight. I worked tirelessly through school and spent every spare moment soaking in everything there was to learn about airplanes.
My junior year of high school, I was invited to attend the UND Aerospace summer camp in Grand Forks, North Dakota. I spent a week flying small airplanes, attending aviation seminars and living in the dorms. I knew I wanted to pursue a degree in aviation when I graduated high school.
My senior year, I applied for and was accepted to Arizona State University’s professional flight program. I spent three and a half years in Mesa, Arizona, learning how to fly and become a well-rounded professional airline pilot. I was honored to be “First to Solo” amongst my class and eventually earned my Private Pilot license at 18 years old. When I left Arizona State, I was a Multi-Engine Commercial Pilot as well as a Multi-Engine Instrument Certified Flight Instructor.
My “Path to 1500 hours” was an amazing and exciting time in my young life. I flight instructed in the daytime at the Edwards Air Force Base Aero Club, where my first flight as an instructor pilot at the Aero Club was in the very same airplane I had my Young Eagles flight in 13 years earlier! And by night, I flew on behalf of the city of Lancaster for Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The days were long, but I reveled in every moment. I think I spent more time in the air than on the ground during that time!
In October of 2013, I applied to become a SkyWest Airlines pilot. There were many factors in my decision to join the SkyWest family, and I was drawn to SkyWest for many reasons. Being a “West Coast guy” I knew that I wanted to join a company that had a large West Coast presence. I also knew that I wanted to join a company with stability and a proven track record of growth and opportunity. While in college, I worked as an intern/instructor for another regional airline. Although I learned a lot from that company, it solidified my decision to join the SkyWest team when I earned the required flight hours.
I was fortunate to receive an offer for First Officer with SkyWest and began ground school in December of 2013. Our ground school class was pretty amazing. It was hard work, but it was incredibly rewarding. I spent nearly a month in Salt Lake City working alongside my classmates and instructors. I made lifelong friends – I have a group text with my classmates that we still talk in every day, nearly five years later!
What really impressed me about SkyWest was how they strive to build “the next generation of professional aviators.” Enter: Captain Brian Swift. Captain Brian has been with SkyWest for nearly 30 years. He serves as a Check Airman and is responsible for training new pilots “on the line.” When Captain Brian was introduced to our class, we immediately connected. He would make sure that my study buddies and I were on track during ground school. He even hosted us at his home in Salt Lake for dinner and a review session before our big Systems Validation Test.
After we completed our ground school and proceeded to simulator training, Brian kept tabs on us to make sure we were progressing and made himself available to answer any questions along the way. Captain Brian made it a point to take me on my first flights “on the line.”
I will never forget the excitement and magic of lifting off of runway 16 Left in Salt Lake City for the first time. As I called for “gear up” I remember a huge smile flashing across my face and the soft chuckle Brian let out. “Roger. Gear up. This is pretty amazing, isn’t it partner?”
After Initial Operating Experience (IOE) with Brian, I was based in Minneapolis and after a month in MSP, I was able to transfer to Los Angeles. Life was pretty amazing – I was an airline pilot flying around the West Coast. Nothing made me smile bigger than being cleared to descend via the SADDE6 arrival into Los Angeles (now the IRNMN1 arrival for those AvGeeks following along at home). On a clear Los Angeles night, you could see the whole LA Basin, turning toward the runways right over downtown Los Angeles.
During my time as a First Officer, I had the opportunity to work with some incredibly talented and experienced crews. Many captains and flight attendants in our Los Angeles domicile have over 20 years of experience with the company. It is always an honor to share stories and lessons learned from their time in the industry.
I remember sitting at home when the email announcement came about SkyWest opening a new domicile in Atlanta. I had been considering taking the plunge into “captainhood” for a while, but something really seemed right when I saw the email. I knew that when I upgraded I did not want to commute to work. I wanted to live near the airport where I would be working out of. I thought, “It would be pretty easy to fly home to Los Angeles on my days off from Atlanta!”
So I clicked “submit standing bid” for Atlanta CRJ Captain. A few days later, I received the email confirming I was awarded the position. I was over the moon. After jumping up and down with Mom and Dad in excitement, I knew who I had to tell first: Captain Brian! Brian was ecstatic and immediately offered to help with training. I once again accepted his offer for help and guidance. I returned to Salt Lake City for ground school and simulator training, and I was sent to our Fresno and San Francisco domiciles to complete IOE training on the CRJ 200.
This is where this story gets super awesome. Captain Brian called me one night and told me to “go check SkedPlus!” I was delighted to see that my CRJ 700/900 differences training was scheduled and that Captain Brian would be serving as my Check Airman. When I showed up to the first day of our trip, Brian met me with a huge smile and a hug. “I am so stinkin’ proud of you, Bub!”
Brian presented his Captain Epaulettes that he wore during my initial IOE to me—it was a huge moment for me. The hard work, sweat and, yes, even some tears I put in have finally paid off. I may have let a little tear fall when Wendy, our forward flight attendant, tapped me on the shoulder and asked me, “Captain, are we good to close the door?” In that moment, I realized, “Oh my gosh. That’s me!” Brian beamed and nodded at me. “Whaddya say Captain Jake?! Let’s go fly airplanes.”
Have you been considering flying for becoming a pilot at SkyWest? Check out our pilot career guide to learn more and to apply.