By Jesse Drake
Author Douglas Adams quipped that the art of flying is “learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss” — and in Utah, that also means missing mountains.
Though statistically safer than driving, there's no such thing as a fender-bender in the sky.
“We're not really designed to be a few thousand feet off the ground as a species. And we don't make good contact with the ground when we fall," said Piotr Pawlikowski, a private pilot and senior IT project manager in UIT’s Project Management Office (PMO). “Every pilot I've ever met takes it very seriously. If you want to fly, you have to fly as often as you can. It's not like a bicycle — you do forget.”
Pawlikowski talks about how aircraft perform differently in high-density altitude, and in heat, wind, and other weather phenomena distinct to the west, before pausing to sip from a mug that reads, “I never dreamed I would be a super cool pilot but here I am killing it.”
Growing up in Warsaw, Poland, Pawlikowski didn't dream of becoming a super cool pilot. At university, he studied “some very fuzzy things” like sociology and political science — “everything that will get you a job immediately,” he laughed. A year of compulsory military service didn’t excite career aspirations either, so in 1988, he immigrated to the U.S. to seek out new opportunities.
After bouncing from Texas to northern California, he settled in San Francisco. There he worked odd jobs and became a “not phenomenally good surfer, but good enough to surf some pretty big waves.” Pawlikowski was also into motorcycling. One day at a coffee shop where “artisan motorcycle people on the bohemian side” hung out, he met a man who owned an airplane. He asked Pawlikowski if he'd like to go up sometime.
“I didn’t know then what I know now, [that] pilots are always hunting for people to risk their lives with,” Pawlikowski said.
They circled the Bay area, and a week later, flew to Pine Mountain Lake on the footsteps of the Sierra Nevada mountains to view some property.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I want to do this.’ But though I was really interested, I wasn't in a place where I could afford it,” he said.
In the ensuing years, Pawlikowski swapped board surfing for wind surfing, but never gave up on the idea of flying. After practicing on a flight simulator, he started getting serious about it and received his private pilot license in 2018.
Becoming a pilot isn't cheap or easy. You have to master a lot of information and skills on the ground — aircraft operational procedures and systems, aeronautical knowledge, flight planning, and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, among other things — long before ever lifting off with an instructor or flying solo.
His license puts Pawlikowski's in a pretty exclusive club. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) placed the number of certified civil pilots in the U.S. at 163,695 in 2018, or about half a percent of the total population. Utah ranks 31st nationally in total number of private aircraft.
Pawlikowski belongs to a flying club and has an affordable rental arrangement with a member who owns several planes. While Pawlikowski enjoys flying Cessnas, he prefers Pipers like the Archer model he trained on at South Valley Regional Airport (U42) in West Jordan.
Pawlikowski is considering becoming a certified flight instructor in retirement but concedes "it's a long road." He hasn't flown long distances yet, so for now his dream is to fly to California.
"It's definitely a passion project," he said. "The world looks decidedly different from that vantage point."