Former Hardin residents rise above the clouds as United Airlines pilots
Thursday, April 11, 2019

Photo courtesy of Mark Butorac

Mark Butorac takes to the skies as a pilot for United Airlines, where he has worked for more than 27 years. Because many pilots from the Baby Boomer generation are retiring, he said, “now’s the time” to pursue a career in aviation.

Photo courtesy of Jarret Stricker

Jarret Stricker maintains altitude during his last military flight over Clearwater Beach, Fla. in a Lockheed C-130 Hercules. At 43, Stricker is training in Denver to become a pilot for United Airlines after flying more than 50 combat missions for the U.S. Marine Corps and multiple search-and-rescue missions for the Coast Guard.

Photo courtesy of Jim Stoltz

Jim Stoltz sits in the cockpit of a plane he flies for United Airlines. The late Bob Boles of Hardin, he said, set him on the path to become a pilot after hiring him to work for Boles Flying Service in 1973.

Photo courtesy of Gale Nayematsu

Gale Nayematsu poses for a photo in his United Airlines aircraft. According to Nayematsu, he “just kind of lucked into” becoming a part of the company after he began training for his pilot’s license on his 28th birthday.

In 1986, “at the ripe, old age of 11,” Jarret Stricker watched the Navy pilot action drama “Top Gun” and it changed his life.

At the time, his family owned a farm and ranch about 15 miles south of Hardin – his only exposure to aviation until then was a local crop duster. Seeing Maverick and Iceman (played by Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer respectively) take to the skies in F-14 Tomcats, Stricker realized his dream.

“When I saw that movie, it lit a fire in me,” he said. “From that day forward, all I wanted to do was be a military pilot.”

Stricker, now 43, has moved on from the U.S. Marine Corps and Coast Guard, and is opening a new chapter in his aviation career. Within the next month, he is set to join three other former Hardin area residents as they transport civilians both nationally and internationally for United Airlines. He currently is training toward this goal at United Airlines Flight Training Center in Denver, Colorado using simulators and classroom instruction.

Stricker is the youngest of the United pilots who also include Mark Butorac, Jim Stoltz and Gale Nayematsu. That all four made it to United, Butorac said, is “a pretty cool statistic.”

To become airborne, both Stricker and Butorac, 58, followed military routes – the Marine Corps and U.S. Air Force respectively – while Stoltz, 62, and Nayematsu, 59, took civilian paths.

United currently employs an estimated 11,700 active pilots – about 1.2 percent of the nearly 610,000 nationwide. Hardin, for reference, has a population of about 3,840 people.

“Four of us; that’s pretty unheard of for a little, tiny town,” said Butorac, who flies primarily from the West Coast to Asia. “It’s a small world.”

For those looking to earn their wings, he continued, “now’s the time to do it.”

“The Baby Boomers are retiring, and all the airlines are hiring between 50-80 pilots a month,” Butorac said. “We’re going to retire 450-500 pilots just this year alone.”

Federal Aviation Administration guidelines state that U.S. airline pilots must retire by age 65. This means Butorac, Stoltz and Nayematsu likely will be leaving United within the next seven years.

You’ve got to be the best’

While growing up, Stricker told his father, “I want to be an aviator.”

“If you’re going to be an aviator,” his father responded, “you’ve got to be the best.”

Taking that advice, Stricker joined the Marine Corps, where in 1998 he earned the rank of officer. The following year, he trained at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida, which he said probably was “one of the most difficult schools a person could get into.”

“Not only do you have a huge, rigorous academic load,” he said, “now you have to [recall that information while] flying in an aircraft at fairly high speeds.”

Showing grit under pressure, Stricker mastered his ground-attack aircraft – informally known as the Harrier Jump Jet – and used the airborne weapon starting in 2002 to fight Taliban forces in the deserts of Afghanistan. In all, he flew 52 combat missions from Bagram Air Base, the largest U.S. military installation in Afghanistan, as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.

From 2004-05, he also served as forward air controller with the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, directing strikes against Al Qaeda forces during the Iraq War.

“The tight-knit bond between the aviator and the ground folks was something I really took away from it,” he said. “In numerous missions, infantry folks were taking fire, and we’d come in and drop a bomb or two and save the day.”

He then transitioned to the Coast Guard in 2009, where he mounted search-andrescue operations in a fourengine transport craft called the Lockheed C-130 Hercules. There, Stricker was involved in rescue operations aimed at helping people trapped in 2015’s Hurricane Joaquin near the Bahamas and 2017’s Hurricane Harvey near Texas, among many others.

“The rescue missions that I flew – into the hurricanes – and the combat missions, those stand out as the absolute best [experiences],” he said. “At the end of the day, somebody came home safe because of the actions I took.”

From Air Force to airlines

Like Stricker, Butorac also heeded encouragement from his father, who “was big on” him “joining the military and serving our country.” Rather than aid from the ground with the U.S. Army, however, he thought, “Why not go to the Air Force and get paid to fly airplanes?”

“I thought it would be pretty cool to be a pilot,” said Butorac, currently based out of San Francisco.

He joined the Air Force ROTC while in Bozeman at Montana State University from 1979-83, then moved onto to pilot training in Del Rio, Texas the following year. Upon graduation in 1985, he transitioned to McChord Air Force Base in Tocoma, Washington and flew Lockheed C-141 Starlifters.

“When I was a young guy, every aspect had its own challenge,” Butorac said. “Back when I was flying C-141s, those were big cargo airplanes. At 23, I was flying them all over the world.”

He progressed from learning to fly to training others as an instructor pilot from 1987-91 at Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas. There, amid the clouds and contrails, he taught fellow pilots to fly twoship and four-ship formations in two-seat supersonic jets called Northrop T-38 Talons. His trainees weren’t quite the Blue Angels, he said, but they got the job done.

United then picked him up as a pilot and he has continued with the company for more than 27 years. Moving from the military to his current company, he said, was “like going from the minor leagues to the big leagues.”

“You’re at the top of your career and you get to stay there,” he said of working for United. “If you come United, you have a chance at flying five or six different airplanes – we have Airbus carriers, we have [Boeing] 737s, ‘57s, ‘67s, ‘77s and ‘87s, and next year we’ve got new Airbus A350s coming.”

In Denver, Stricker currently is learning to fly the A350.

When Butorac started as a pilot, he said, the military “was a great place to go as they teach you to fly basically for free.”

“But it’s also about a 10-year commitment,” he added. “A lot of guys go the civilian route.”

Nickels for cigars, work for flight

As a teenager in the early 1970s, Stoltz stopped at the old Hardin Airport regularly and sold newspapers to the late Bob Boles, a crop duster and head of Boles Flying Service. He described Boles as “a nice guy – a little cheap, but a nice guy.”

“I’d go in every month to pay for my newspapers and he’d tip me a nickel,” Stoltz said. “Every time he’d tip me the nickel, he’d say, ‘Buy a cigar and when you turn 16, I’ve got a job for you.’

“On my 16th birthday (April 9), I walked in the door just assuming he actually had a job for me – and he did.”

Thus, in 1973, Boles gave Stoltz his first flying lesson on a two-seat Cessna 150. Stoltz, meanwhile, pumped gas for Boles Flying Service, did mechanic work in the airport hangars and cleaned the area. He never took anything home, Stolz said, as they had an agreement where “I would work for him and he would teach me how to fly.”

“During crop dusting season, I would go to work before school each day, and fill the truck with chemicals and gas, and drive off into a field and wait for him to land,” he said regarding his job in the spring. “Then, in the winter, I just hung out here by myself in case somebody needed gas.”

By the time he graduated from Hardin High School in 1975, Stoltz said, he had all the necessary “pilot ratings.” Boles, he continued, “unfortunately died of lung cancer” during his senior year.

Boles’ lessons, combined with a hobby of model airplane building, encouraged Stoltz to pursue aviation further, gaining a mechanics license in Helena, then working several jobs as a flight instructor. Coincidentally, he taught Butorac’s father how to fly.

“People that fly for a living tend to do it because they thought it would be fun and found out it was,” Stoltz said. “I was a motorcycle nut when I was a kid and airplanes seemed even more exciting than that – which they were and still are.”

Following some work with a small commuter airline in Minneapolis, Stoltz joined Continental Airlines in 1987 as an engineer for Boeing 727 airliners. By 2010, Continental merged with United. Now, he works as a first officer on the Boeing 787, which he uses to fly from Los Angeles Airport to Australia.

“As a kid, I didn’t expect to see much of the world other than Montana, and maybe Alberta or Idaho,” said Stoltz, who currently lives in Billings. “Now, with my career, I’ve gone some places that people spend their lives dreaming about seeing – and I go to them routinely.”

Stoltz feels “most privileged,” he said, to learn about different countries and cultures along his routes, often avoiding the more “touristy” locations. For years, he flew to Japan two to three times a month, and it became one of his favorite countries due to what he saw as its citizens’ discipline and honesty.

“The Japanese stick out prominently as having what I believe to be a nice, solid culture,” Stoltz said. “You could leave your wallet on a park bench in Tokyo and come back the next day to pick it up. It will still be there.”

Taking the fast route

Nayematsu, in his estimation, “just kind of lucked into” being a captain for United.

“I started late,” he said. “I did it on my 28th birthday.”

At the time he went for his pilot’s license – in December 1988 – the Hardin High School graduate was working nights at a restaurant in Billings while learning to fly in a two-seat Cessna 152, designed for general aviation. One of his chief instructors asked him if he, too, “would like to be an instructor for a while.”

Ten months later, Nayematsu said, he earned his flight instructor certificate and was hired. From that point, starting with single- and twinengine Cessnas at Lynch Flying Service in Billings, his rise through the piloting ranks occurred within about three years.

Nothing in his background helped him become a pilot, Nayematsu said. Among his fellow aviators from the Hardin area, this assertion proved to be a familiar refrain.

“Once I started doing that, I would just keep on getting hours,” he said. “I was a civilian pilot, flight instructor for my hours chartered, did the mail run, did the [Continental] Express carrier and then moved right into Continental Airlines.”

As with Stoltz, United added Nayematsu to its roster in 2010 during the merge.

Nayematsu said piloting hasn’t posed a major challenge for him thus far, but admitted the transition to a larger company – with updated procedures, checklists and training – required some adjustments.

Now flying a Boeing 737 airliner out of Houston, he echoed both Butorac and Stoltz in saying he enjoyed the perks allowed by his seniority within the company. Like Stoltz, he enjoyed discovering new cultures, he continued, though he nowadays sticks closer to the U.S. border.

His main draws toward particular countries, he continued, are whether they tend to have friendly people, tasty food and high-quality hotels. One of his favorite spots is Costa Rica, a tropical Central American country where he said, “They go above and beyond to make you feel welcome.”

“It’s definitely more relaxed now; the more senior you get, the better trips you get,” Nayematsu said, before joking, “I don’t think my wife likes it as much, but I do have more time at home.”

Many people may be considering taking up aviation as part of a four-year degree, but Nayematsu doesn’t believe this route is necessary.

“I did it from an FTO (Flight Training Organization) on my own and I think you can do it shorter,” he said. “[Train] more often, do it every day or every other day, but pursue it. It’s a great career.”