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‘They pay us to do this, really?’

Man lives childhood dream career in aviation

By Bill Vossler

Are airline pilots born, or nurtured? When Chuck Nielsen of St. Cloud was five, he and his mother were headed to Orlando to visit his Grandpa. He walked up the stairway into a Lockheed Super G Constellation airplane, and looked into the open cockpit. “It had several hundred dials and switches,” Chuck says. “The pilots were in their seats and I said, ‘That’s what I want to do when I grow up.’ She said, ‘Ok Chipper Lamb, maybe someday you will.’”

After his mother died 10 years later, Chuck lived with his uncle and aunt, who managed a school bookstore, and for whom studying came first.

The last airplane Chuck flew regularly, and was his favorite, is this Boeing 747-400, which held 403 passengers, and weighed, fully-laden, 870,000 pounds. Chuck said, “How can an airplane that big get off the ground?” Photo by Bill Vossler

“She was stricter than my mom, who hadn’t enforced academics,” he said. “So she kept after me to study and do well. But I didn’t do as well as she thought I could. So, when I told her I wanted to take flying lessons and be a pilot, she said, ‘Charles, stick with the books. You’ll never get anywhere with that flying.’

Chuck did well in courses he liked... like drafting and architecture.

“I designed a summer cottage, made a blueprint, cut boards to size, and built the house.”

Though only one corner of the 18 x 18 inch house was finished--plasterboard, painting, carpeting--his instructor gave him an A and an Outstanding Achievement Award.

“That showed that I had the ability to really concentrate and excel, if necessary, so I thought I would be an architect,” he said.

But Chuck’s desire to be a pilot never waned. So at age 20 he applied to the Marines to get the flying experience required to become a commercial airline pilot.

“I took a battery of aptitude tests, covering my mentality, personality, intelligence, people skills, mathematics and problem solving, to name just a few.”

He scored well, and passed the Marine’s stringent flight physical--except for his vision. “I didn’t have 20-20 vision without glasses, so that meant I couldn’t become a Marine Aviator.”

So he attended Southern Illinois University, and participated in swimming and track--and parties and girls... “So I ended up on academic probation, and no sports.”

Mentor Help

Luckily, an airline pilot took Chuck under his wing, and advised him to take private flying lessons, which would be much cheaper than a flight school.

“Captain Jack was my first aviation mentor. He said I would have to do all the studying on my own, which would require diligence on my part, as there was a lot to learn.”

Then Chuck joined the Parson College Flying Club in Fairfield, Iowa.

“I began what would become a lifetime of reading, studying and learning, something some people thought would be too daunting for me. The second day at Parsons, I took my first flying lesson. It was everything I thought it would be when I was five--and much more. I was hooked! Gary, my second aviation mentor, had me taxi, take off, fly, maneuver, land and taxi to a stop. He never touched the controls.”

Moving On Up

Little did Chuck know he was beginning six long years of a demanding venture to become a commercial airline pilot.

To reach the top of his profession, Chuck needed to secure all manner of licenses, earning them by flying and studying for one at a time: first solo, first solo cross-country flight, Private License, Commercial License, Instructor License, Instrument License, and others; and multiple aircraft ratings; Convair-580, DC- 9, Airbus-320, Boeing-727, DC-10, Boeing 747-100, Boeing 747-400, along with instructor licenses to teach others how to fly certain airplanes.

After six years of flying and studying, in 1972, after more than five thousand hours of flying time, Chuck was hired by North Central Airlines, one of only 10 pilots accepted out of two thousand applicants, to fly a Convair-580, a two pilot, forty-eight passenger with two 4,000 horse power Allison 501-D3 turbo prop engines. “Wow! That was a big jump from flight instructor and a fifteen seat two-pilot Beech 99 to the Convair 580.”

Each airplane that Chuck flew, from the Cessna 150, which held only two people, on up to the 747-400 which carried 403 passengers, flew pretty much the same.

“The bigger airplanes were the easiest to fly. They were more stable. All those little dials were combined into six large computer screens, and some no longer had controls linked by cables, but run by computers. “That was very interesting to learn.”


Normal airplanes fly because of the pilot maneuvering it, the engines providing enough thrust with enough air flowing over and under the wing to provide lift.

Chuck standing near the engine of a Boeing 747-400, which is about nine feet high. Contributed photo

“In brief, headwinds and tailwinds affect the performance of the plane on takeoff and landing and in the air. Headwinds shorten the takeoff and landing distance, while tailwinds increase the takeoff and landing distance.” he said.

With a commercial aircraft, Chuck said, the runway must be long enough for the airplane to take off, or for it to abort and come to a stop safely before the end of the runway. “We receive the takeoff weight and allowable flight weight of the plane we’re flying while at the gate, along with a complete flight plan.”

Speaking of weight, a fully-loaded 747-400 can weigh 870,000 pounds at takeoff. Once time, after Chuck took off with a 747-400 out of Detroit to Tokyo, the nose gear indication said it was not up and not down.

Pilots plan for emergencies before they take off, Chuck says. While taxiing, pilots brief each other on responsibilities if a problem develops. “We do that for every single takeoff, so we’re not surprised if something happens, and everybody knows their role.”

So by the time they rotate (or take off)... “As captain I’ve said ‘If we have a problem, I’ll fly the airplane and the copilot will handle procedures and find the manuals necessary.’ So there’s a big division of who is doing what, instead of having both pilots working on the problem and nobody flying the airplane--the most important part.”

So as captain flying out of Detroit with questionable nose landing gear indication, Chuck handled the flying, and the co-pilot and the second flying crew (two pilots) handled communications.

The pilots needed to remove 230,000 pounds of fuel by dumping it into the air to vaporize during 46 minutes of circling to reach the safe landing limitation weight of 630,000 pounds. If the airplane landed any heavier, the landing stress would require an extensive examination, removing the airplane from service.

In this case, a faulty circuit board was the problem.

Flying Through the Clouds

Flying by instruments can be a challenge. “In flying on instruments, let’s say it’s cloudy out and the ceiling is 1,000 feet, meaning that’s the bottom of the clouds above the base. For the first 1,000 feet you can see the ground, road, towers, and have good perspective of where you are. In the clouds all perspective of where you are is gone. So you use your instruments to make sure that you’re going straight, that the airspeed and power are correct. The biggest problem is disorientation. Your sense of balance tells you one thing and your instruments tell you another. So you have to forget your vertigo and rely on what the instruments are telling you.”

Chuck said engine failure happens rarely, with only a single air engine failure in 375,000 hours of commercial airline flight.

“It’s a mechanical thing, like a car. The only difference is, you just drive the car to the side of the road and deal with problem or get a tow truck. Pilots must deal with the problem in the air, they can’t just step outside to check ‘stuff.’ They must continue to fly. This is why commercial airplanes are checked by mechanics at every stop. In my 25,000 hours of flying, I have encountered only one engine failure on the ground when the engine on a Convair 580 overheated. We shut down the engine and returned to the gate. The other engine problem was during a flight test with an empty airplane. We had an engine fire immediately after takeoff, but it wasn’t really an engine fire, but a pneumatic line rupture that set off the alarm. We shut down the engine and returned and landed.”

Over the years Chuck had some interesting experiences while flying. One time flying from Detroit to LaGuardia in New York the Temptations singing group boarded. “I didn’t see the Temptations board, but later a flight attendant came up and told me.”

The flight took a while to get up through long pillows of clouds, and once they leveled out at 35,000 feet into a bright sky, Chuck flicked on the microphone and sang, “I’ve got sunshine, on a cloudy day,” as he has sung in choirs for 25 years.

Afterwards, the bass singer asked if Chuck had done the singing. “I said I had, he thanked me and said, ‘You can sing with us any time, brother.’”

Chuck in the cockpit after finishing his last flight, in a Boeing 747-400. Contributed photo

Some of the most beautiful places to fly into were the warm ones, Chuck said, like Hawaii. “Bangkok, Thailand, was beautiful to fly out of. It’s just south of Vietnam and when you take off to the east and fly north, the whole way your climbing you can see all the beaches in both countries.”

He adds that LaGuardia in New York was enjoyable and a pretty sight. “You just have to follow the Hudson River at 2,000 feet and turn left to LaGuardia.”

Despite his years of success as a pilot, Chuck’s aunt still wasn’t so sure that was what he should do.

“At times when I would see her later on, she would ask me, ’Are you still doing that flying thing, (being a pilot)?’ and I’d say I was. She wanted to know what I actually did. I explained that there is a Captain and a Co-pilot and we fly the airplane. ‘Who is in charge?’ she asked. ‘I am,’ I replied and she just looked at me for a few seconds… ’Uh huh,’ she replied.” She later told how proud she was of Chuck and his accomplishments.

The Lone Flier

A few days after Sept. 11, 2001, Chuck ferried a DC-10 to Detroit for positioning. On Sept. 25, he took off on his first passenger flight since Sept. 11, with a partly filled airplane.

“We flew from Minneapolis, bound for Honolulu. Once airborne and in contact with Minneapolis center control, we asked if we could go direct to Denver then on course, and the controller said, ‘You can go straight to anywhere you want. You are the only airplane within several hundred miles.” Off into the blue we went.

“Flying commercial aircraft was the greatest job I ever had. Every time we’d go on a flight, the other pilots and I would look at each other and say, ‘They pay us to do this, really?

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