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From Max Westheimer to Retirement, and All 29,000 Hours In Between

From Max Westheimer to Retirement, and All 29,000 Hours In Between

Like many students at the beginning of their college careers, Robert LeBlanc found himself at the University of Oklahoma going through classes without knowing what his end goal was. Almost two years into his time at the university as a business major in the 1970s, LeBlanc was taken up into the traffic pattern at Max Westheimer Airport by his roommate, who was receiving a rental checkout with an instructor up front.

“I just sat in the back seat and observed it all, and a lightbulb went off and I said to myself ‘this is it,’” LeBlanc said. “Something that requires a little mental activity, but isn’t going to put me in a cubicle in an office… this was a lightbulb moment for me.”

LeBlanc then began a journey that mirrors the experiences many aviation students have at OU today. He received his private pilot certificate before moving on to time-building courses that got him the hours he needed to obtain his instrument rating, commercial and flight instructor certificates.

LeBlanc and airplane“We worked out of the same [terminal] building [Aviation students] are in today. Two floors. We taught ground school upstairs,” he said. “You’d walk into the front [dispatch] room downstairs and sign out your airplane, and then go brief with your instructor before going out south of the river to what I bet is the same practice areas still used.”

At the time, the Department of Aviation (renamed the School of Aviation Studies in 2018) had six flight instructors, a small fleet of Cherokee 140’s, an Arrow and a Seneca. LeBlanc worked out of the same hangar where OU flight instructors have offices today as an instructor for AeroFlight, the fixed-base operator that owned the building at the time.

The schedule LeBlanc had as a flight instructor is another thing that hasn’t really changed over the years. “You lived out there,” he recalled. “I remember long days, being at the airport from 7 or 8 in the morning and then teaching ground school at night.” LeBlanc also remembers taxiing with the doors open, drenched with sweat in the summer heat on the ramp, and flying Barry Switzer to Arkansas for recruiting trips – sights not uncommon at Westheimer in 2020.

There are some things, however, that an aviation student today will never be able to relate to. After receiving his private pilot certificate, LeBlanc and a classmate were paired together to go on cross-country trips to build time.

“That was some of the most fun flying we did. Group-planned cross-country trips with overnights. There might be four or six airplanes, two people in each, and we’d fly from Norman to Des Moines, Iowa… spend the night… next day, fly to Nashville… spend the night… next day, fly home. The whole course was four or five trips like that.” Today, airplane demand keeps the fleet closer to home, and any overnights are likely caused by unexpected maintenance issues on a cross country late at night.

LeBlanc instructed for about 2,000 flight hours during a downturn in the industry.

“You’re paid to be on a vacation. You go have dinner and drinks, wake up the next day and head back and you’re done. And working 12 or 15 days a month would be a tough month.”

“There was nobody hiring. All of the majors had hundreds of pilots on furlough and it had been years since they had hired… A lot of us began to second-guess our career choices,” LeBlanc said. “In fact, I took the LSAT and was admitted to law school. Fortunately, about that time, the dam broke and the airlines started hiring again. It all worked out, but it was touch and go for a while.”

LeBlanc then went to Puerto Rico, where he flew Britten-Norman Islanders on trips to and from neighboring islands.

“It was a blast,” he said. “You’re living on the beach, flying into the Virgin Islands, flying low over the water.” LeBlanc recalls power outages on the island that would cause the runway lights to go out periodically. “To get the planes back to base at night they’d park a pickup truck at the approach and departure ends of the runway, and you just pointed it at that black patch between the headlights and got it on the ground that way.”

This job got him enough multi-engine time to get a job flying Fairchild Metroliners and YS-11s for Trans Central Airlines out of Oklahoma City, and then YS-11s and DC-9s for Airborne Express. These regional experiences allowed LeBlanc to land a job with Piedmont Airlines, which would later merge with U.S. Airways, which merged again in 2015 with American Airlines.

LeBlanc retired as an American Airlines A-320 Captain earlier this year, after 40 years in the industry and some 29,000 flight hours flying the 727, 737, 757, and A-320 domestically, as well as the 767 and A-330 internationally.

LeBlanc aircraftOut of all of those type ratings, Captain LeBlanc considers the A-330 to be his favorite aircraft. “The international wide-body is what it’s all about. Every flight feels like a moon launch… Instead of two or four legs a day with 30 or 40 minutes between flights, you’ve got one leg a day… and when you land somewhere, you’ve really gone somewhere. After a short nap and a cup of coffee, it’s 2 in the afternoon and I’m in Rome. What do I want to do? As a pilot flying international, you’re paid to be on a vacation. You go have dinner and drinks, wake up the next day and head back and you’re done. And working 12 or 15 days a month would be a tough month.”

“Every layover in a good city was an adventure. Especially in the earlier years, the crews always got together and it was fun, you were excited to be challenged by your new position… getting proficient and comfortable in a new jet. Every new city you can go find a new restaurant or a new part of town you haven’t been in… there was a lot of social community and shared experiences and excitement going on. That was the best part.”

Unlike many with his resume, LeBlanc was never furloughed, though he has witnessed firsthand his fair share of industry ups and downs.

LeBlanc recalls watching coverage of the 9/11 attacks and realizing his entire world had changed.

“All of my security training just got dumped in the trash,” he said.

Shortly after 9/11, Captain LeBlanc and his seniority number lost the left seat of the 737 and returned to the right seat of international wide-bodies. “A lot of great people got furloughed. And just about everybody that was left was a captain,” he said. “They didn’t make us give up our stripes, but all of the copilots were ex-captains and the captains were just guys that had been there longer.”

“I was very fortunate because I never lost a paycheck and never got furloughed. But out of a 33-year career I was only a captain for nine years.”

“Enjoy the moment. So I’ve been here 12 years and I’m back in the right seat, but I’ve got a 24-hour layover in Aruba on the beach with a beer in my hand, and I’m getting paid to be here.”

With the industry facing uncertainty in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, LeBlanc says it’s most important that pilots and those moving into the industry don’t lose sight of their goals. “Don’t become complacent with something that’s not what you wanted…[if] the temptation is to stay there just because it’s easy,” he says. “Enjoy the moment.”

“So I’ve been here 12 years and I’m back in the right seat, but I’ve got a 24-hour layover in Aruba on the beach with a beer in my hand, and I’m getting paid to be here.”

LeBlanc recently offered advice to the graduating seniors from the class of 2020 in a video for the school, where he referred to COVID-19 as a flight-deck caution item in the careers of the graduates.

“You’ve got altitude and airspeed,” he said, referring to the amount of time graduating students have ahead of them to see the industry recover. “Don’t give up. This setback is temporary, and your skills and education are as valuable as ever.”

As for him, Captain LeBlanc says right now he’s just enjoying retirement. He is an excellent example of how hard work, dedication and perseverance through the tough times can help any OU graduate move from the Westheimer traffic pattern to a window-office at 30,000 feet.

Learn more about the OU Extended Campus School of Aviation Studies, or return to the Crimson Flyer Newsletter.

Brennan Jackson

Brennan Jackson, University of Oklahoma