Dan Hall, a professional pilot senior in the OU College of Professional and Continuing Studies, embodies what it means to be distinguished. His dedication to his own education—and the education of the pilots he trains as a Certified Flight Instructor for OU’s Department of Aviation—earned him recognition from his future employer when he was recently named an American Airlines Distinguished Cadet.
Capt. David Tatum, American Airlines Director of Pilot Recruiting and Development, hosted Hall and other top-performing students at a special luncheon in Dallas, Texas, during which he and nine other cadet students in the American Airlines and Envoy Airlines Pipeline Programs were recognized for their excellence as both students and flight instructors.
“Receiving the Distinguished Cadet award was like someone saying ‘I’m going to take time and let you know how good of a job you did,’” he said, “and that was very emotional. It feels really good.”
Originally from Memphis, Tennessee, Hall first caught the “bug” to fly at 15, following a Discovery Flight that his dad had arranged.
“Flying is the most freedom of movement you’ve ever felt in your life,” Hall said. “When you get your hands on the yoke, and it’s your decision, it’s not just left or right—it’s up and down, or over yonder. It becomes this ultimate independence, and it’s an amazing rush. I love it. Anybody who has an aspiration for that type of movement, they would love it."
Despite taking some initial flight training classes after graduating from high school, the prohibitive cost of earning a pilot’s license led Hall to join the Air Force in order to stay involved with aviation. For the next 10 years, he worked as a mechanic in Aircraft Structural Maintenance, doing everything from painting to replacing structural components on a wide array of aircraft—from the F-15 and the A-10, to the U-2 to the KC-135.
“Every single time I went out to the ramp, I was like, ‘I don’t want to work on this, I want to fly it,’” he said. “Every time a part would come in, every time I would work on an airplane, I couldn’t help but think about how amazing it would be to just have one flight in whatever I was working on.”
"This program isn't just about flying planes and getting a degree. This is a path to a new career."
After nearly a decade in maintenance, Hall had developed degenerative disc disease in his back. Then, following an accident that further damaged his back and foot, a career change became necessary. While stationed at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, he discovered OU’s Department of Aviation, and its pilot pipeline program with American and Envoy airlines, as part of his vocational rehabilitation program.
The long-dormant dream of becoming a pilot, which would not cause issues with his chronic back condition, was like an adrenaline shot to his latent bug to fly.
“The biggest thing about OU’s program was I had the ability to go from Private Pilot all the way to the major airlines through the pipeline program,” Hall said. “That caught my attention. This program isn't just about flying planes and getting a degree. This is a path to a new career."
After earning his credentials as a Certified Flight Instructor, Hall was hired by American Airlines as a Cadet Instructor to provide flight training to new pilots at OU while building his flight hours. It was in this capacity that he began to share his passion for flight to the next generation of potential pilots.
“Something I learned in the Air Force was ‘Flexibility is the key to air power,’” he said.
Hall applies that same flexibility to how he trains his students.
“There are a lot of times where my students get behind, or they’re doing great, and then we hit a brick wall,” he said. “I would come in at night or on the weekends, and I would be at the whiteboard, or I would have a model. Anything to help my students get whatever they’re having trouble with.
“CFI’s don’t get paid for all the extra whiteboard time, all the time at night or on weekends when the students need help. We don’t make a lot of money as a CFI anyway. I’m not concerned about the money. They have to get this. In my opinion, these guys are the pilots of the future. They have to be set up for success. They need all the tools that I can give them to be the best pilots that they can be. If that means I have to come in and spend extra time with them, that’s what I have to do. It’s a big responsibility.”
“It wasn’t just me coming to this school and doing it myself. I had a whole army of people supporting me, and I am so grateful to every single one of them for the gift that I have now.”
It was this sense of drive and dedication to help his students succeed that caught the attention of those in the Department of Aviation, so when American Airlines inquired if any of their cadets at OU were going above and beyond, Hall was an easy choice.
“Apparently, my chief pilot wrote them a letter about me,” Hall said. “I had no idea any of this was going on. I’m just trying to get my own classes done and help my students. I’m just doing the job.
“No one knew anything about why they were there,” he said about his experience in Dallas leading up to the awards ceremony. “No one knew how they got picked or why. Then, at the luncheon, they get up in front of everyone and read the letters that each cadet got from their schools, and that’s when it all made sense.”
A sense of the awe he felt at that moment, when he heard what his colleagues at OU thought of him, came through in his voice as he continued.
“There were very specific details about what I had done with my students,” he said. “The weekends I had spent here. The nights I had spent here. How the students performed on their check rides. I had no idea they even thought that about me. It was very emotional and very humbling.
“I knew exactly the moments they were talking about. As far as I knew, I was just here working with my students. I didn’t know anyone even knew about all that. We were just getting done what had to get done, but apparently, they were watching everything.”
Hall is currently on track to join American’s regional airline, Envoy Airlines, as a first officer in 2019 and complete a journey that seemed improbable to him just a few years ago.
“I am grateful every day that God gave me the opportunity to be at this school,” he said. “I am grateful for every step of the way. My gratitude extends to so many people. It starts with the VA and OU and the advisors here, with everyone who’s had a part in putting me where I am. It wasn’t just me coming to this school and doing it myself. I had a whole army of people supporting me, and I am so grateful to every single one of them for the gift that I have now.”