Matt Phanco (’10) graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Air Traffic Management from the Daytona Beach campus. Matt is currently both a Captain in the US Army Reserve where he serves as a Forward Support Medical Platoon Leader/Pilot and a First Officer with PSA Airlines.
Your career path from student to airline pilot has been somewhat unconventional. Can you share your experience?
I applied to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (Daytona Beach) my senior year of high school and was thrilled when I received my acceptance letter, as ERAU was my first choice. My father then told me how proud he was of me, but addressed the elephant in the room of how I was going to pay for my education. I had always been interested in the military and began exploring ROTC Scholarships. Eventually I applied to and was awarded a 4-year Army ROTC scholarship. My end goal was to fly for the Army as an Apache Pilot and enrolled in the flight program at ERAU. It wasn’t until just prior to my Solo did I discover that the Army did not weigh FAA flight ratings in assessments of new Lieutenants. I never intended to join the airlines, figuring the Army was my destined career path.
I then switched majors to Air Traffic Management and in my senior year, I was thrown another curveball when I was informed I was not assessed in the Active Duty component. This was a double-edged sword, as I now had more control to choose what my branch within the Army would be, but I would not be a full-time soldier. Later, I was accepted into a MEDEVAC unit flying the UH-60 Blackhawk, and was awarded the slot partially due to my flight experience at ERAU.
I attended an Officer Leadership Course in Ft. Sam Houston, TX, and later my new wife and I moved to Fort Rucker, AL to attend Initial Entry Rotary Wing (IERW) flight training. Army flight school was vastly different than training at ERAU. I graduated IERW in 2013, and upon completion, was sent back home to Daytona Beach; newly trained, newly pinned and no full time job. I managed to obtain my Commercial Helicopter rating using Military Competency, but being such a low-time pilot, nobody would consider hiring me, so I pursued obtaining my helicopter CFI in Titusville, FL. I obtained my CFI and CFII in Helicopters and was hired as an instructor for a military training program teaching foreign cadets from the UAE. It was a contract job that lasted 2 years, of which I learned a lot about aviation, myself, and how important family is. During this time, I was selected to attend the UH 60 Instructor Pilot Course (IPC) and was also an acting Platoon Leader, responsible for 4 UH-60 helicopters, 30 Soldiers and other assorted equipment. Eventually the contract was cancelled and I found myself again out of work, and still too low on flight hours.
I made the decision then to pursue and obtain my fixed wing ratings and teach out of Daytona Beach. I obtained all my airplane ratings within a year and began applying to local flight schools, of which ERAU ultimately hired me. I worked as an IP for about two years and loved it, but at this point I was married with two amazing kids, and the flight instructor schedule/pay combo was not enough to sustain. This, combined with continued military service, was putting a strain on family life. After listening to and learning more about the airlines, my wife and I decided I would give them a try. I was picked up by PSA Airlines and have been flying with them for about a year.
What is your favorite thing about being a professional pilot?
It is a very rewarding career path with loads of perks to include great pay, travel opportunities, and room for growth. In the military, the ability to manage people, maintenance, resources, and make missions are all vital. Being forced to do it in your mid 20’s is a rare opportunity and comes with rewards and challenges. The reward of making a mission, or coordinating a complex movement of troops and gear with things going well is amazing. Similarly in the airlines, the feeling you get when you finally ‘get it’ is phenomenal. When you correlate all of your knowledge, and complete a flight quickly and safely, is a great feeling.
How did your Military experience impact your career?
Without a doubt, I would not be in the position I am in now without the help of the US Army. I have met and been impacted by some of the best pilots, mechanics, flight medics the US Army has to offer; their selfless service, professionalism and expertise have had a direct impact on me and made me who I am today. The high standard of professionalism, experience, and expertise is second to none, and to be successful all are required. This all started with my time in ROTC at ERAU.
One of the biggest wake ups I had was during IERW. An average work day would be in the range of 12 hours a day (not including time to study), and constantly being tested and assessed on aviation knowledge. I underwent underwater egress training, survival training, NVG training and more with high expectations and rigorous check rides regularly. Time management and ability to learn, apply and retain information is critical. If you began to fall behind, catching back up was a daunting task. It is incredibly difficult, but nonetheless possible with determination, and hard work.
What is the best career piece of advice you have ever received?
“Always plan for your crash”. At face value it may sound dark but it actually makes sense. Permission planning, paperwork, crew analysis, weather briefs, equipment checks are some of just a few things required, and not being thorough are reviewing these areas could be a contributing factor to a crash later. Even more so, what happens after the crash is just as, if not more important (and even harder to train for).
What advice do you have for students/ alumni who want to work in the aviation industry?
It’s a great career with plenty of perks, but it takes a special mindset to live out of a suitcase for a living. Living on the go comes with many downfalls and can get very old very quick. Additionally, I have made it a point to never forget those I leave behind. My family has been my rock that I rely on. My wife has been incredibly supportive, and I have not made a decision in my career without consulting her on how she thinks it will impact us as a family.