Young pilot joins high-flying family tradition

Still in high school, Joseph Novak is well on his way to earning his pilot’s license.

With a mother who is a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines and a father who is a pilot for the same company, it’s not especially surprising that Joseph Novak has plans to earn a Bachelor’s in aviation and pursue a career as a commercial pilot himself. What is remarkable is that by the time he graduates high school in the spring, he’ll already have completed half of the degree and finished his private pilot license as well.

According to the flight logs his father, Rick, kept when taking the family on local sight-seeing flights, Joseph began going up in small planes around the age of 11. This helped instill in him a love of flying and  traveling. Since then he’s flown in all kinds of craft all over the world, thanks to the perks that come from having parents employed by a major airline. The only two continents he has yet to cross off his list are Africa and Antarctica, and he realized early on that becoming a commercial pilot, like his father, was a perfect way to see the world and make a decent living. He’s had his sights set on this goal ever since.

Fortunately for him, the field of aviation careers is booming, after having gone through a downswing due to 9/11 and the recession that followed. Add in the fact that a large number of current commercial pilots are fast approaching the mandatory retirement age of 65, and you have a high demand for people with the skills, training and desire to get paid to fly. These skills include innate abilities such as good hand-eye coordination, remaining calm under pressure, and learning and adapting quickly, as well as technical knowledge of radio frequencies, weather, airport locations and aviation principles. Thanks to his parents, Novak had most of these skills already and was able to hone them through his training at Hawk Aviation in Rush City.

He completed his ground school as part of a group of individuals that Mark Nelson, who owns the aviation company, described as energetic, positive and focused.  Even in this impressive group, Joseph stood out and soon completed the other training necessary for a private pilot license. “He was at the airport all the time and really pushed himself to get his air hours done,” Nelson shared. In fact, Novak completed his private pilot license requirements in two months. Even considering Hawk Aviation’s reputation for helping students progress faster than the national average, his pace is impressive, especially since he was working on high school and college at the same time. “I was in the airplane so much that when I was driving my car and wanted to go faster, I’d reach for airplane controls instead,” the young pilot joked.

“I don’t believe in dragging people out to the planes to fly,” Nelson said. “They have to want this, and Joey definitely wanted it.”

Nelson, who began flying in his thirties, founded Hawk Aviation in 1999. Since then, the school, which now has four other instructors, has trained somewhere around 900 students. Nelson said that when he first started out, only around 20% of those getting their licenses were interested in a commercial career. Now he estimates it at 50%. He also noted that of the last class of students completing ground school, 40% were women. “It’s a really good time to be a commercial pilot,” he stated. “Whether you go to work for a large commercial airline or for a smaller outfit doing cargo or charters or something like that, the jobs are out there.”

He added that a college degree in aviation isn’t a requirement for being hired, but that most of the larger commercial airlines look for it. “The degree doesn’t necessarily have to be in aviation, but they do want to see that you can learn and can complete what you set out to do. Joey’s got himself on a really good path for what he wants to do.”

At 17 years of age, Novak is one of the youngest in the state to earn a private pilot license, the requirements for which include completion of a cross-country solo flight. The thought of a teenager traveling hundreds of miles alone in a small aircraft may be unnerving to some, but it is a testament to Novak’s maturity and self-confidence as well as his parents’ belief in and support of him. “Joey has always been driven and motivated to obtain his goals,” his mom, Heidi said. “We were very impressed at how hard he worked and focused to obtain his private pilot goal in such a short amount of time.”

One of the reasons Novak was able to obtain his license so quickly was that his parents helped cover the costs. Considering that he has pushed himself to complete his AA degree at Pine Technical College through the Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program, which saved his parents a bundle in college costs, it seemed like a fair deal.

PSEO is a program that allows students to earn college credit while still in high school. Students may take PSEO courses on a full- or part-time basis, beginning in their 11th-grade year of high school. They typically work with an advisor to make sure that the classes they take are a good fit with their academic and career plans. As he often does, Novak took this opportunity and ran with it, completing forty credits in his first year in the program.

“Joseph Novak is a very hard working, determined individual,” shared Amanda Essen, senior high school counselor. “He has been proactive with finding out the requirements he needs for the aviation program and takes action to prepare in high school through taking PSEO classes to lighten his load for the future. His passion for the career and his focus are exactly what he needs to achieve his dreams of becoming a pilot.”

Once Novak graduates from high school, he will head down to Mankato State University, where his older sister, who also has her private pilot license, is pursuing a degree in aviation as well. His younger sister has plans to pursue a career in the field too, which makes it unanimous for this adventurous, high-flying family. 

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