Captain Alex Lin immigrated from Hong Kong to the US at 10 years old, without being able to speak a word of English. He is now one of a handful Asian captains at United Airlines. He has flown the Boeing 727, 747, 757, 767, 777 and 787 with United, including 21 years on the Boeing 747 (Classic and -400) with over 1,500 Transpacific crossings.

1. Tell us more about your background.

My family immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong when I was 10 years old, when I first landed in the United States I didn’t speak a word of English.  

As an immigrant family pursuing the American dream of new opportunities, we knew we had to work hard for those opportunities. This meant my parents worked extremely hard to provide a roof over our heads and enough to eat, but never had extra money for nice clothes or travel. Travel was something I could only dream of.

In first and second grade, I daydreamed in class a lot. Instead of listening to the teachers, I would draw the silhouettes of the Boeing 707 and DC-8 planes I’d seen in the sky. Sadly, due to my lack of academic focus, I was held back in 3rd grade.

When I stumbled into my high school years, I had the choice of attending a conventional high school or a vocational high school. I opted to attend the vocational high school because I figured that if for whatever reason I couldn’t attend college, I could still make a living as an aircraft mechanic. After years of early mornings and long bus rides across the city, I finally earned an FAA Powerplant Mechanic Certificate.

In the following years I worked as a janitor and restaurant busboy, I started taking flying lessons with the money I earned from my odd jobs. I always kept my eyes on the next accomplishment that would get me out and up into the sky, the place that I loved most.

And so my flying journey began. I started flying lessons at age 14, soloed a Cessna 150 on my 16th birthday; then I received the Private Pilot Certificate 4 days after my 17th birthday. I then took seaplane lessons and received a seaplane and instrument rating. At 18, I received the Commercial Pilot Certificate and Flight Instructor Certificate; I also earned my Instrument Flight Instructor Rating and Multi-Engine Instructor Rating.

In college, I juggled earning a degree in Psychology while serving as a flight instructor on the weekends. I became a full-time flight instructor and occasional Part 135 Air Taxi pilot at a local Piper dealership. Though I was building up my flight time money was still tight, but I kept on marching. After building approximately 1,200 hours as a flight instructor, with a total time of 1700 hours, I was eventually hired by WestAir Airlines (a United Express carrier) and flew for WestAir for about 14 months, logging 1,000 hours of turbine time.

In 1988, everything fell into place, and I was hired by United Airlines. It felt like the years of preparation, and thousands of hours in flight time logged, had led me to this moment. I was ready to begin the real journey. My very first assignment at United was as a flight engineer on the 727. Since that day over 32 years ago, I’ve never looked back.

2.  What made you choose to learn to fly and become a pilot?

For as long as I could remember, I’ve always been intrigued by airplanes even as a young boy. I guess you could say my love for flying and airplanes was in my blood.  Even to this day, I still look up in wonder and amazement whenever an airplane flies over my head.

I should clarify that even though I took flying lessons at a young age, I never really dreamed of becoming an airline pilot; I didn’t think I had what it took to become an airline pilot. In the mid-to-late 1970s, the airlines might hire one pilot out of 100 applicants. With my academic background and being an immigrant kid, I really didn’t think that I had a chance. The idea of becoming an airline pilot didn’t really sink in until after I became a full-time flight instructor. After flying for WestAir, I knew that I had a shot at the major airlines; even though nothing was guaranteed, especially when it came to landing a job with a major airline.

One piece of advice I would like to share is to take the journey one step at a time. In my case, I trained for and earned my pilot certificates one certificate or rating at a time; not expecting to go from zero hours to earning a Commercial Certificate and CFI within one-year, like some of the schools are currently offering. I took lessons whenever I had the money to do so and I never gave up on myself, that’s my secret. There actually wasn’t an exact moment in time at which I knew I wanted to be a pilot. Rather, it was a culmination of curiosity, exploration, perseverance and a whole lot of optimism.

3.  Tell me about the early struggle and challenges you faced, as a student pilot or junior pilot.

When I was 15 years old and learning to fly, the biggest challenge for me was simply getting to and from the airport; this was 40 miles away and the trip was made by public bus, because we didn’t own a car. Through a series of bus transfers and walking, it was a 2.5 hour journey each way.

When I turned 16, I earned enough money as a busboy to buy a brand new 2-door, stick shift, stripped-down Toyota Corolla. After I purchased the car, I was able to drive down to Reid-Hillview Airport in San Jose to continue my flight training.

Financially, I made enough money as a busboy to pay for the flying lessons.  I would translate every dollar I earned into flying hours. I didn’t tell myself that I had $X dollars to spend but instead, I told myself that the money I had was worth 2 hours of flight time. I had difficulty spending 25 cents on a can of Coke, but I did not blink an eye at writing a check for $100 to pay for an hour of multi-engine lesson in a Cessna 310.

4.  How many airplane types have you flown?

Compared to many other pilots, I actually haven’t flown that many different types of airplanes; especially when it comes to general aviation aircraft. For example, I’ve flown the Cessna 150/152, C-172, C-177, C-182RG, C-210 and C-310. For Piper, I’ve flown the Tomahawk, Cherokee, Cherokee Six, Seminole and Seneca. Also, the aircraft upholstery shop owner used to take occasional lessons from me; he owned a top-of-the-line pristine Navion, with a 285 HP engine on it and a new instruments panel. At WestAir (United Express) I flew the EMB-110. It was a 19-seat Turboprop made in Brazil and the turbine engines were made in Canada.

At United, I’ve flown the Boeing 727 as a flight engineer only. I was also a fully qualified 747 classic (100,200 & SP) flight engineer. As a first officer, I’ve flown the Boeing 757, 767, 747-100, 747-200, 747SP and 747-400. As a captain, I’ve flown the Boeing 777-200, 777-300ER, 787-8, 787-9 and 787-10.

5.  Walk me through your career at United.

I started as a flight engineer on the 727, I flew in that position for almost a year. After the 727, I had a chance to bid a somewhat unique position called International Relief Pilot (IRP). The IRP is a pilot who can occupy all three seats during cruise for flights over 12 hours, while the crew members take their break one at a time on the 747-100, 747-200 or 747SP. The IRP was also a fully qualified flight engineer; so when the company ran out of regular flight engineers to fly trips, they would call the IRP to cover a regular flight engineer trip.

I flew the IRP position for one year, then I submitted my bid for the 757 and 767 first officer positions; I then served in that role for 2.5 years. After the 757 and 767 days I submitted a bid for the 747 classic first officer position, I flew that for another 2.5 years. After the 747 classic, I bid over to the 747-400 and stayed on for 21 years!

In total, I’ve logged 18,000 flight hours on all 747 models; 2000 hours on the classic and 16,000 hours on the -400. I understood that the life of the 747-400 was numbered, so I moved on as a 777 captain; I flew that for 2.5 years, then submitted my bid for the 787. This was an important transition because I saw that United was biased towards the 787, due its efficiency, and the good routes were all being allocated to the Dreamliner.

6.  Are you one of the first Asian American pilots at US Airlines?  Why are there just a handful of them?

I’m not one of the first Asian American pilots at US airlines, probably far from it. There were brave souls who paved the way for pilots like me, I’m grateful for what they’ve done.

I’ve heard from the old Pan Am pilots, who came over to United with the 1986 Pacific route purchase, that Pan Am had a Chinese captain by the name of Captain Wan. He had quite the story! Captain Wan flew for the US military in World War II and got on with Pan Am after the war. Then there’s Captain Bob who is a proud Japanese-American, he flew for the US Navy.  Bob was hired by United in 1968 and I called him a gentleman-captain, because he was truly a very nice person. 

In 1978 United hired two pilots of Chinese descent, Captains Kwok and Quon, both of which are retired now. Subsequently, a few Asian pilots were hired in 1985 through 1988. When I arrived at United in 1988, I counted probably less than 25 Asian pilots out of the 6000 pilots at United. The merger with Continental Airlines in 2010 brought in a few more Asian pilots, though the number is still relatively small.

So why is there such a small number of Asian pilots?  I believe that historically, Asian families have viewed flying as a dangerous profession or endeavour; Asian parents have traditionally steered their children away from such “dangerous” jobs. Additionally, many Asians just didn’t have the luxury of any connections to the piloting profession. I, for example, was one of those without any connections or lineage. I have flown with many first officers whose fathers were airline pilots, these pilots have the advantage of someone to steer them in the right direction.

7.  What is the difference between flying the B747 classic and B747-400?

The major differences between the B747 Classic and the B747-400, is the navigational system and the auto throttle. The B747 Classic had an inertial navigation system (INS) and it held only 9 waypoints. An airplane navigates through the sky along a route composed of beacons and waypoints, where Waypoints are defined by geographic coordinates. It was an absolute pain in the neck to program the INS; this was because the pilot has to link all three INSs together, in an action called triple-mixing. The pilot then had to manually input the coordinates of each waypoint.

Flying over the Pacific Ocean with waypoint adjustments was not too bad, as they were 50 to 60 minutes apart. In Europe, however, the waypoints may only be several minutes apart, the pilot would have to reprogram the INS constantly. Also the 747-100 and 747-200 did not have an auto throttle, pilots would need to adjust the throttles every so often. The faster you fly, the less the adjustment. Flying the chart value EPR (say Mach .835) required throttle adjustment every few minutes. If the pilots just leave the speed at Mach .85 or .86, the plane flies very well by itself. The B747-400 is much easier to fly in terms of workload.

In terms of flying characteristics, the B747 classic and the B747-400 are very similar; both types are very docile and relatively easy to fly. I dare say that the B747 is one of few aircrafts that is capable of consistent smooth landings. I can’t say the same for the 787, because the 787 lands fairly flat and is a bit more difficult to achieve a smooth landing. Pilots perform very smooth landings on the 787 often, but I truly think the 747 lands smoothly on a very consistent basis.

8.  Did you do any Kai Tak landings?

Yes, I was privileged, and blessed, to have had opportunities to land at the old Hong Kong Kai Tak Airport. Most of my landings there were in 1996 and 1997. The new Hong Kong International Airport opened shortly after and Kai Tak was shut down by July 1998. The IGS approach to Runway 13 was a fun approach for pilots. It wasn’t particularly difficult, but pilots had to be mindful of the crosswind and take proper corrections to make it work. Needless to say, it kept you on your toes!

Also the pilots must force themselves to keep descending during the turn, because it’s not intuitive to descend into a very dense city. If there was one word for pilots to describe Kai Tak Airport, it would be “nostalgic.

9.  What’s your favorite route in the United Airlines system?

For me, it is San Francisco to Hong Kong!  Bar None. Of course, I am biased; I flew this route almost exclusively for 21 years, with the exception in 1998 when I attended school to earn my advanced law degree in taxation. 

For the San Francisco to Hong Kong route, I didn’t leave home until around 11:30 and was generally back at home 3 days later by 09:00; I did this route 3 times per month. I flew the Hong Kong weekend trips a lot when my kids were young, because I was more useful in helping my wife on weekdays while she worked.  

The dining scene in Hong Kong is phenomenal, particularly when compared to many other major cities. I ate well in Hong Kong due to a few beloved wine connoisseur friends I met from 2002 to 2016. In summary, the Hong Kong route offered me an ideal work report time and home arrival time. Sure, it was super tiring, trying to stay awake while on duty between E170 longitude and SFO, but the trade-off was worth it.

10.  If you had the chance to do it all over again, would you still choose to be a pilot?

Absolutely.  I have zero regrets about choosing my career as a pilot. Granted we had experienced many ups and downs in the past 32 years, at the end of the day I don’t have any regrets.

With the company bankruptcy in 2002, and salaries slashed over 50%, it hasn’t exactly been a smooth ride, much the same for any pilot in the US airline industry. However through it all, I am grateful for having had the opportunity to fulfil my childhood dream. If I were still in Hong Kong, and hadn't immigrated, I would not have the opportunity to become a pilot (or to become a lawyer).

My advice to any aspiring airline pilots is to pursue the dream because you love aviation; not for the perceived glamor associated with the profession, because there may not be any at the end of the day. It’s still a rewarding career when one approaches it with the right attitude.

11.  Please mention any special memories of yours related to aviation.

In August of 1982, I was with a missions team visiting Costa Rica and Panama for several weeks. While in Panama, the resident missionary in Panama was Pastor Paul Cheng; Pastor Cheng learned that I was a pilot and he connected me with a missionary pilot (essentially a jungle pilot).

This missionary pilot ended up taking me to the San Blas Islands in Panama, there I saw the Kuna Indian tribe and the Darien Indian tribe on two separate islands. On the way, from the Downtown Panama City Airport to the San Blas Island on a Cessna 185, Phill Smet put on an instrument hood to simulate flying in instrument condition, while I acted as the safety instructor pilot.

Phill Smet used “dead reckoning” in getting to the San Blas Islands because there was a low cloud layer over the water most of the way. We flew for approximately 40 minutes on a certain heading, then he announced "we’re here!" He then looked for a cloud opening and found one. He did a gentle spiral through the opening, all the time we were fairly close to tree tops below the cloud layer.  

He found the landing strip and landed the Cessna 185 a few knots above stall speed, with the stall warning horn beeping throughout the approach (this is common technique in jungle flying operating into short air strips).  Once landed, we were greeted by the local Indian tribe. Phill had to pump fuel into the Cessna 185 using a hand pump from a 50 gallon drum. To this day I always meet up with Pastor Cheng when in Hong Kong, I also support the Smets financially through their mission organization to this day. 

Do you know any other inspiring figures in aviation? I will be delighted to share their story on the blog. Please contact me.