An FAA-certified [Federal Aviation Administration of the United States] flight instructor, Dan is set to begin teaching his own classroom-based aviation course here in Fukuoka. We met the Californian to discuss the time he spent in Indonesia as a child, the interesting turns his career has taken over the years and what brought him to Fukuoka.
Let’s go through your background story.
I was born and raised in Indonesia. My dad was a pilot there with an organisation that provided transportation for missionaries – maybe over 100 families who had no access to food or medical help or any of a variety of needs. They had eight or nine airplanes that flew eight hours a day, six days a week to very remote and rugged airstrips in New Guinea. So, that was my childhood until I was about 11.
And that’s what ignited your love of flight?
Yes. My earliest memories are of flying. My dad enjoyed doing it so he sort of transmitted his enthusiasm to me and it was very easy for me to latch on to.
Was it strange returning to the States after spending your childhood in Asia?
Yes, that was a difficult transition because I was at junior high and, you know, that’s a hard time anyway. To switch cultures like that, even though I had gone to an American boarding school in Indonesia, was difficult.
And what did you do after high school?
I studied electrical engineering at Cal Poly [California Polytechnic State University]. That was because I had tried to get into the air force academy but was rejected because of my eyesight. So I decided to be an engineer – which was a very rewarding career. I got out of college and worked at a variety of jobs. The first was for a company that, among other things, developed early GPS receivers. That was a lot of fun. From there, I went on to flight test instrumentation. I was involved in the B-2 (a very famous stealth bomber) programme for Northrop-Grumman. Any time they design a new aircraft they have to test it under all anticipated conditions that it might encounter in flight and see if it’s conforming to the original design constraints. I did that for 11 years. I also got to spend some time on the C-130J flight test programme. That’s the big four-engine transport turboprop plane that Lockheed builds. After that, I moved to Orbital, which is a very diversified company. They have their origins in the commercial space industry and so they worked very closely with NASA in developing some of the early technology that they used. An example of this was the Pegasus rocket. The unique feature of Pegasus was that it was air-launched, which eliminated the need for that first rocket phase. We put it on an L-1011 plane which took the rocket up to 39,000 feet and launched it from there. So my role was to manage the airplane that launched these rockets.
So, you were putting satellites in space?
Yes. Just to give you an example, we had a university in the States who wanted to measure and characterize gamma ray bursts that occur in space for an experiment – that sort of thing.
Do satellites go up frequently?
For the United States as a whole, I couldn’t really say but in our peak year at Orbital, we saw four rockets launched and in some of the leaner years, it might only have been one.
How expensive was it?
I recall it cost up to US$20 million for a launch.
You first took flying lessons in high school. While you were working, then, did you continue to fly in your own free time?
Because of my interest in military flying, I took advantage of the opportunity to take lessons in high school. But the realities of life after college – getting married, having kids, buying a house – meant I couldn’t afford to fly. So I went for a long time where I hardly touched an airplane. That was hard to do because I loved the hobby. It wasn’t until some years after that I ran into a guy, whose wife worked with my wife at a bank in California. He said to me, “You know, I’m a flight instructor and it’s a wonderful thing. I get to teach, I get to fly and I can afford to do it because it’s actually making me money.” He told me there was quite a demand for lessons, which I found to be true. I got my flight instructor’s license soon after and from then on I had as many students as my schedule would allow. Then that opened doors to other opportunities, like corporate flying. There was a corporation in Bakersfield, California that had a small business jet. The president and his assistant would fly all over the western United States to check out their operations. It was unscheduled, so I would just get a call asking me to fly out to Washington or Montana or somewhere like that and I would take them out. My job at Orbital was quite flexible at the time and allowed me to do that.
What airplane have you enjoyed flying the most?
I think it was the one I flew for that corporation – the Cessna Citation. It was just really nice and the guy I fly with was a very good pilot. But I have enjoyed every plane I’ve flown.
So you came to Japan in 2006, then.
Yes, my wife and I came to Sapporo to begin language study. I had a number of things going on at the same time. My family lived in a very small town called Tehachapi in Southern California from 1990 to 2006. While we lived there, my wife and I were involved with a Baptist church in town and I was the missions’ director. Through that, I met missionaries who were working in Japan and I got interested in being a part of that. It must have been a huge change. Yes it was. I’m more of a technically-oriented person and missions work is a lot more social than technical, which has been a huge adjustment to make. It’s been an expansion of my own horizons. I suspect I’m still in the transition but it has not been a bad one at all – I’m enjoying it.
And what brought you down to Fukuoka?
Our organisation is starting a team here in Fukuoka, so I came to be a part of that. We got here in August, so we’re still finding our way around.
Tell me more about the class you’re about to begin teaching.
It’s going to be a course of 20 classes, once a week for about an hour and a half per class. I’m targeting a wide audience. From people who have aviation as a hobby to folks who, when their time is over in Japan, want to go home and pursue flying. Particularly for those from the United States, this course will give them most of the material they need in order to pass their first written exam. And I would imagine that it would be similarly useful to students from just about any other country. My materials will be from the FAA, but the principles of flight are universal and the things you learn apply everywhere. In the classes, there will training videos, lectures and text book work. I want to make it interesting and also entertaining. I also want to provide time for students to ask questions – things they’ve always wondered but were afraid to ask. The class starts April 6 and will take place every Tuesday, from 8 to 9.30 pm.
The course is in English – do you intend to conduct classes in Japanese at any point?
I thought about that and decided to initially advertise to foreigners, to get the ball rolling. Then once I get my first few lessons done, I would like to offer it to Japanese students, because there’s bound to be many who are interested.
Any last words?
I’m looking forward to teaching class and to seeing what opportunities there are for aviation in Fukuoka and Kyushu both for teaching and flying. And if I get a chance to fly, I’ll definitely take it.
For more information, contact Dan at 092-555-7222 or email@example.com
Hometown: Tehachapi, Califormia
In Japan: 4 years
Identity: Missionary, Aviation Instructor
Originally published in Fukuoka Now magazine (fn136, Apr. 2010)