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Park Hill Character: Life At 35,000 Feet

Pilot Guy Wroble’s View From The Office

Story and photos by Reid Neureiter

For the GPHN

Guy Wroble with his rented Cessna 172 at Rocky Mountain airport after a tour of Park Hill by air on Oct. 16. Aerial shots from the day are on pages 16-17.

United Airlines pilot Guy Wroble has flown commercial airliners for more than 30 years. Those days are coming to a close as Wroble approaches the FAA’s mandatory retirement age of 65. 

Wroble was born in Grand Junction, grew up in Oregon and attended Notre Dame University. He spent six years in the Air Force, flying both supersonic RF-4 Phantom jets as a tactical reconnaissance pilot and the T-37 trainer as a flight instructor. After the Air Force, single and wanting, he says, in some small way to help make the world a better place, Wroble joined the Peace Corps, where he taught math and science in Swaziland, Africa from 1984 to 1986. 

The newly painted mural next to Park Hill Elementary at the intersection of 19th Avenue and Elm Street. This, and another mural at Stedman Elementary at 30th and Dahlia Street, were installed in late September to inspire drivers to slow down, help create awareness for pedestrian safety and encourage community building.

He obtained a Master’s degree in politics from the University of Bristol in the U.K., and then started flying for Pan Am in 1989. He met his wife Susan during the Pan Am stint, at a holiday party in Washington, D.C. Wroble joined United Airlines in 1991, and he and his family moved to a house on Grape Street in Park Hill the following year. That’s when he began working as an instructor at the nearby United Airlines training center on Quebec Street next to the then-Stapleton Airport. 

Museum of Nature and Science and City Park, taken while flying over Park Hill on the morning of Oct. 16.

At dawn on Oct. 16, Wroble took the Greater Park Hill News up in a small Cessna propeller plane for a flyover to capture some aerial photographs of the ‘hood and the Denver skyline. 

Wroble also weighed in on his life as a pilot, including a few industry changes he’s witnessed through the years, his thoughts on the currently grounded 737 Max model jets, and the status of commercial aviation today. (Opinions expressed are Wroble’s alone, and do not represent the views of United Airlines).

GHPN: How was the transition from flying supersonic military planes to flying commercial airliners?

Guy and Susan Wroble and their two children in Olympia, Greece in March 2006, during one of their homeschooling adventures. Photo courtesy of Guy Wroble.

Wroble: Having been trained as a pilot by the Air Force and then been an instructor in the Air Force who trained people to fly airplanes, there was little difficulty in transitioning from military flying to civilian flying. In many ways it was easier because there is no “mission” associated with flying an airliner. 

GPHN: On what aircraft have you been certified to fly and which is your favorite?

Wroble: In my 30 years with Pan Am and then United, I have flown the ATR-42, De Havilland Canada (DASH)-7 (both turboprops), Boeing models 727, 737, 747, 757, 767 and the Airbus A320. My favorite airplane is the classic from the golden age of jet aviation – the Boeing 727. Because of its very basic auto-flight system, one still had to be a pilot in order to fly it well. It also had a three-pilot flight deck – captain, first officer and flight engineer – which made the handling of problems much easier. Unfortunately, it was a thirsty aircraft. The 737, which I now fly, carries almost as many people and burns about half as much fuel.

East High School from the air.

GPHN: Of all the routes you have flown commercially, which is the most interesting, and which is the most challenging airport at which to land? 

Wroble: The most interesting route that I flew was Hong Kong to New Delhi. One could see the Himalayas to the north, and on one leg we even were able to talk by radio with the Breitling Balloon as it was making the first successful global circumnavigation by a balloon in 1999. The most challenging airport on a regular basis was Kai Tak – the old Hong Kong airport. Because of airspace limitations and the placement of the runway, one had to make a sweeping descending turn over the city in order to be in a position to make a landing.

GPHN: You and your wife Susan home-schooled your two children (Ellie, now 25 and Vincent, now 22) until they attended and graduated from East High School (both are now CU Boulder graduates). As an airline employee, you had access to low-cost travel to supplement their home schooling. Where did you visit?

Wroble: Our vacations were a function of where our children were in [their] history syllabus. Our Ancient Greece field trip took us to Athens, Olympia and Delphi. Our Renaissance field trip was spent in Florence, Italy with a side trip to Pisa. Ancient Rome was a week in the Eternal City combined with a day trip to Pompeii. Colonial America included attending Patriots Day in Concord, Mass. to observe the annual reenactment of, “The shot heard around the world.” China, both ancient and modern, was explored, along with visiting museums that present a distinctly different interpretation of history than one gets in America.

GPHN: You were certified to fly, and did fly, the 737-Max 8 aircraft, produced beginning in 2014, before the deadly crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that resulted in that model jet being grounded. What is your opinion of that aircraft? How should the flying public feel about flying in that plane if it is permitted back in the air? 

Wroble: The best way to describe the 737 Max aircraft is that it is a juxtaposition. In normal operations the Boeing engineers did an excellent job of “tuning” the flight control with fly-by-wire spoilers. The aircraft is actually more stable and feels more solid than the previous generation of 737s. Unfortunately, Boeing also installed an automated flight control system, which made the aircraft unsafe to operate. The fact that the 737 MAX remains grounded seven months after it was initially deemed unsafe ought to be all the evidence anyone needs. Both Boeing and the FAA used to be able to have their pronouncements accepted unquestioned and at face value. Having thus been burned, the FAA will be very thorough in making sure the MAX is actually airworthy the next time around. But at a deeper level this is really about the dangers of allowing any business to self-certify. Profit always has and always will, in the absence of robust regulations and regulators, be put before people. I was pleased to see the 737 MAX grounded. The fact that it is still on the ground demonstrates that there are far deeper problems with the aircraft than either the FAA or Boeing originally admitted to. The issue with the MAX is that the pilots were never given detailed information on how the [automated flight control systems] worked. 

GPHN: What significant changes have you seen in the airline industry? As a passenger, it seems that air travel has become much more stressful, with security lines, crowded flights, and more delayed flights.

Wroble: There is no doubt that air travel is less pleasant and more stressful than it was in the past and there are two primary reasons why this is so. First, Americans have demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that, with a shrinking middle class, all that many of them can afford is a cheap airfare. Second is the ruling class no longer flies on airliners. In the 1960s and early 70s the airlines carried the power elite of society. These people insisted on safe, comfortable and efficient service and they got it. The airlines also generated much of their revenues from their first-class passengers, which in effect, acted as a subsidy for the other passengers. But when was the last time that you saw a billionaire or the CEO of an S&P 500 corporation on an airliner? Perhaps only if their private jet has broken down and they need to get somewhere quickly. The wealthy in America no longer have a vested interest in the airline system. They live in a parallel universe of on-demand luxury air transportation in small private jets. As a result, service in the airlines has suffered. The airlines have transformed themselves into the aerial buses of the skies. 

GPHN: Should air passengers be confident in the safety of the United States’ air transportation system? Are there things that could be done to improve it?

Wroble: The U.S. air transport system has the highest level of safety in the world. This should, however, not be allowed to breed complacency. The U.S. airline system will only remain as safe as it is so long as there are competent regulators who remain uncaptured by the industry that they regulate. In terms of comfort, the major airlines already segment their cabins to the demands of their customers. If one wants a cheap fare it is available, albeit at a higher level of discomfort than existed in the past. One has the option of paying for more legroom if that is desired. 

GPHN: Describe the differences between flying a small high-winged propeller plane and a large commercial airliner with hundreds of people on board.

Wroble: One could use the contrast between a small motorboat and a cruise ship. The conditions that would make navigation in a small boat hazardous could pass unnoticed on a larger vessel. Light aircraft are more dynamic in their response to environmental conditions, and the prudent pilot will always take this into account.

GPHN: With your upcoming mandatory retirement, the flying public loses many years of experience that could be useful in the event of an emergency situation. One thinks of Captain Sullenberger who was able to safely bring down his powerless plane on the Hudson River. What is you feeling about mandatory retirement?

Wroble: In late February, federal regulations will bring my airline career to an end at age 65. Some would consider this to be an arbitrary cut-off and, by definition, it is. I would prefer to use the analogy of a professional athlete instead. Both sport and aviation require a combination of skills and experience. In youth, one’s reflexes are superb, but experience is lacking. As one gains experience an optimum point is reached in the combination of the two. Thereafter, one depends more and more on experience to make up for any degradation of physical skills. But at some point, every athlete and every pilot has to look in the mirror and realize that they are not what they once were. Without a set date for retirement the pilots who would, most likely, stay on would be the ones who not did or could not recognize just how far their performance had deteriorated. In my view the current regulation is a reasonable compromise.

GPHN: Do you have any advice for a young person who would like to be a pilot some day?

Wroble: People starting out in aviation need to do so with open eyes. The first issue is cost. I have carried regional airline pilots on my jump seat who owe nearly a quarter of a million dollars in aviation-related student loans. If you are not going to be trained by the U.S. military (as I was), plan accordingly. The second is technology. Pilots starting now will see the single-piloted commercial transport during their flying careers. Be prepared for far slower career progression than you may have been led to believe. The third is that the demand for pilots works like a light switch. When the economy turns down it will not matter how qualified you are—there will simply be no airline jobs available. This does not mean young people should abandon the dream of a career as an airline pilot. There is no better office view in the world. Just realize that, like all careers, there are risks over which you will have no control. The important thing is that if you decide to become an airline pilot, do so because you love to fly.

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