When you have a passion for flying, the dream is worth the sacrifice
Author A. AVERYL RE
DONALD TURNER just naturally stands out. Thanks to his uniform and the fact that he’s six and a half feet tall, the Houston-based first officer draws a fair amount of attention when he walks through the airport, which is a good thing for bewildered passengers trying to make their way around the terminal.
“I hate rushing, and I’m normally early, so if I see someone who needs some help, I’ll say, ‘I’m going that way, I’ll show you,’” Turner says. “We’re in the service industry. We forget sometimes that people don’t fly every day. This may be the first time they’ve been to the airport in five years. Imagine if that’s your mother. Somebody on earth loves them dearly, and I try to remember that.”
In a journey that took him from his boyhood in New Orleans, where he watched Navy planes fly overhead, to the flight deck of the Boeing 757s and 767s he flies today, Turner has stood out in another way: in the tenacity and hard work it took him to get there. He sums up these qualities by saying, “This is what I wanted to do. There was no Plan B, except that Plan B was to make Plan A work.”
Turner and his wife, Tacanesha, worked their way through Texas Southern University, where Donald pursued a degree in aviation management. In his second year, he met Continental Captain Roscoe Edwards, who volunteered to teach him how to fly.
Full-time school, full-time work and a growing family didn’t keep Turner from earning his degree and furthering his training at Western Michigan University. Although he finished training in 2002 in the wake of 9/11, he was determined to “do something with planes” until he accumulated enough hours to try for a position as a pilot.
Looking back on the long road to his dream, Turner says he wouldn’t change anything because the struggle made him who he is. “Going through it, you get discouraged. When things don’t go your way, it can be heartbreaking,” Turner says. “I hear statistics that only 6 percent of the population is doing what they really love. I fit in with the 6 percent, but I can relate to the 94 percent. Sometimes you have to do a lot of what you don’t want to do to get to do what you want to do.”
That perspective is one reason Turner believes he is good at his job, and it stands as a constant reminder of the value of the people who choose to fly with the airline.
“People aren’t paying for a jet ride. They’re paying for an experience,” he says. “As much as I can, I try to make flying a good experience. I try to make it a smooth ride. I want to treat my passengers like gold because I appreciate every single one of them. Without them,” he adds with a smile, “I would have to get a real job.”
Along with the joys of doing something he really loves, Turner says one thing he has had to adjust to is standing out simply because of the uniform he puts on.
“I had this one lady come up to me and grab my hand. She had to be in her mid-80s. She said, ‘Baby, I’m sorry, but I just had to grab your hand. I’ve never seen a black pilot before.’” Turner pauses when he tells this story, before he goes on. “Things like that humble you because they let you know that you are always being watched. I always try to put my best foot forward.”
Turner uses his visibility as a pilot as much as he can by reaching out to young people who are now where he once was — in school and needing encouragement to pursue their dreams. He volunteered for two years at Sterling, the Houston Independent School District aviation magnet high school. He also travels around the country on his own time to speak at schools and universities.
“How can I refuse?” he asks. “So many people helped me along the way. I don’t consider it work. This is what I’m supposed to do.”