He started his career as a ramp agent. Now he’s a Delta pilot.

Justin Mutawassim was 5 the first time he flew. The Delta pilots on board invited him to explore the cockpit, “and I was absolutely in love,” he said.

“I remember sitting there and being mesmerized by all the buttons,” Mutawassim said. “From there, I just caught the bug.”

At 6, he had decided: “I wanted to be a pilot.

His attraction to aviation intensified over the years, but he saw no clear path to becoming a pilot, so at 19 he found himself working as a ramp agent. He wanted to be close to the planes he loved.

This spring, however, he fulfilled his long-held dream: he became a Delta Air Lines pilot.

“It still feels incredibly surreal,” said New York-based Mutawassim, 26.

His journey to becoming a pilot was less linear than he had imagined as a child.

Mutawassim’s college professor – who was in the United States Air Force – wrongly informed him that perfect vision was a requirement for becoming a pilot.

“When I heard that, I was really defeated,” said Mutawassim, who wears glasses. “I didn’t really have the ability to check the facts.”

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He graduated from high school in 2014 and decided to pursue a career in broadcasting. Mutawassim worked part-time as a technical director for a few minor league sports teams and applied for a communications degree at a community college in Dallas. He loved broadcasting, he said, but it didn’t satisfy him the way he knew aviation would.

In December 2014, about a year into his studies, Mutawassim decided to drop out.

“I didn’t want to waste my time or my money on something I wasn’t really invested in,” he said.

Mutawassim took a semester off from school and got a job as a ramp agent carrying bags for Delta Air Lines.

“Then it turned into a year and a half of great work,” he said, adding that he quickly went from agent to supervisor to instructor. “I absolutely fell in love with the technical aspect of aviation.”

“It was physically the hardest job I have ever done,” continued Mutawassim. “Handwork is no joke.”

During his time as a ramp agent, Mutawassim’s desire to pursue a career in aviation grew stronger, but he said he lacked the confidence to make it happen.

That changed when he met his mentor, Ivor Martin, in 2016. Martin was then a pilot for Virgin America, and now a captain for Alaska Airlines.

While driving an employee bus — which carried parking lot staff at Dallas’ Love Field airport — Mutawassim struck up a conversation with Martin. He told her of his hope of one day becoming a pilot.

Martin’s response: “Justin, come to my house. We’ll sit down and talk about it. »

They did, and Martin sketched out a path Mutawassim could take to become a pilot.

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“I defined everything he had to do and he followed it through,” said Martin, 54.

As a black person, Martin said, it was hard to find role models in the industry.

“I really didn’t have anyone to guide me through the process,” he said.

According to 2021 data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 3.9% of people in the “pilots and aeronautical engineers” category identify as black.

“When I was going up, I hardly saw anyone who looked like me,” Martin said.

He helped Mutawassim prepare for written tests and eventually applied for flight school. He sat down with Mutawassim’s parents to discuss financing and urged his mother to co-sign a loan so that Mutawassim could pay for the degree.

While at the ATP Flight School in Dallas, Mutawassim soared – literally and figuratively. He went through the program in the blink of an eye and was able to obtain the necessary licenses in 11 months.

Mutawassim earned the 1,500 flight hours needed to become a commercial pilot by working as a flight instructor, and he was also able to co-pilot some private flights. He was hired as a pilot for a regional airline, Republic Airways, in 2018, and worked there for three years.

In the summer of 2021, Mutawassim joined Breeze Airways, a start-up airline, and spent six months there as a pilot. In the spring of 2022, after learning that Delta had dropped the college degree requirement for pilots, Mutawassim enthusiastically applied for a position.

A few days after submitting his application, he received a call from the airline asking him to schedule an interview.

“I was absolutely shocked,” Mutawassim said.

Much to his delight, he was offered the job and started the position in May. He has undergone several months of training and has just completed his last qualification flight on October 1st.

It was a surreal moment, Mutawassim said. He reflected on how far he had come in just six years, from carrying luggage to piloting a Boeing 767.

His story parallels somewhat that of Patrick Burns, vice president of flight operations and chief system pilot at Delta.

“My path to the cockpit of a Delta jet was similar to Justin’s,” Burns said in an email to The Washington Post. “I also got my start on the bag loading ramp on our flights, and after college I worked hard to accumulate flight hours and experience with other airlines before returning. at Delta as a pilot.”

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Mutawassim shared a Tweeter September 29 showing his progress: “This one took 6 long years to make.” He added ‘how it started’ and ‘how it’s going’ photos – one of him as a Delta ramp agent in August 2016 and the second as a Delta pilot in September 2022.

The position “completely exploded out of nowhere,” said Mutawassim, who takes college classes in his spare time and is working on a degree in aviation science.

Comments poured in, including from strangers share similar success stories.

Mutawassim said he was “stunned” by the response to his post, which he initially expected only a handful of friends to see. He encouraged those affected by his story to consider donating to the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP) – for which he and Martin have volunteered. Delta has also been an OBAP partner for more than two decades.

“Delta works hard to make all pathways fair and eliminate barriers for qualified applicants,” Burns said.

In addition to his work with OBAP, Mutawassim volunteers as a mentor for Professional Pilots of Tomorrow, which provides networking and mentoring opportunities for pilots. He works as a mentor for both organizations.

“It’s been really rewarding for me to start giving back to the community and educating people about the profession,” he said.

Martin, who has mentored several potential pilots, said the only thing he asks in return is that his mentees “pay it forward”.

“He does that,” Martin said of Mutawassim. “I’m beyond proud of him.”

Mutawassim, for his part, said being a pilot for a major airline is “even better than I imagined”. He is already looking ahead and working towards his next goal of becoming a captain.

One recent morning, as he walked through the airport terminal in his Delta uniform, he saw a little boy pointing at him and saying, “Look, there’s a pilot!”

At that point, Mutawassim said, “it came full circle.”

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