For those considering a career in aviation, the story of Max Klassen serves as an inspiring example of how dedication and passion can lead to success in the skies. Max’s journey from IT professional to Boeing 767 first officer is a testament to the possibilities that await those willing to pursue their dreams relentlessly. In this interview, Max shares his experiences, challenges, and insights, offering valuable advice for aspiring pilots looking to transition into the world of aviation.

Flying Instructor Max Klassen

Let’s start with the basics, Max. How old are you, and when did you start your aviation journey?

My aviation journey began in May 2021, when I was 33 years old, about three years ago and I’m now flying as a first officer on the Boeing 767, transporting cargo primarily for Amazon. It’s been an incredible journey, and I’m grateful for every step that led me here.

 

Did you have any flying experience before?

No, I had never flown before. In fact, no one in my family flew either. However, all my closest friends are pilots. I have three childhood friends, and they all fly. My interest dates back to my childhood, ignited by an air show in Kazan and a TV series about helicopters that captured my imagination. Later, I was obsessed with a TV series called “Airwolf,” which was about helicopters. That eventually evolved into a fascination with airplanes. But growing up in a poor family, becoming a pilot seemed like an impossible dream. I never even dared to dream about it seriously because I knew I couldn’t pass the Russian medical exams for pilots due to their strict standards.

So, you pursued a career in IT instead. Why not a technical job closer to aviation?

I did consider becoming a flight engineer at one point, thinking I could still be part of aviation. But for me, it’s always been all or nothing. Sitting next to an airplane without actually flying it wasn’t an option for me. I realized I’d be torturing myself if I pursued something less than what I truly wanted. So, I let go of that idea and focused on IT. I started working in IT when I was 17, which seemed like a more realistic path.

How did your friends’ careers influence you over time?

One of my best friends, Ivan, had a father who was a pilot. Ivan always wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. His determination was inspiring. He eventually went to an aviation school after a couple of tries, while I continued my IT career. His stories about aviation and the high salaries pilots could earn sounded like fairy tales to me. But when Ivan started earning significantly more as a pilot than I did in IT, it made me question my career choices.

When did you start to seriously consider a career in aviation?

The turning point came when I moved to the United States in 2016. My IT job provided the opportunity to relocate. Working in IT in the States was great, but my fascination with aviation never went away. Meeting my future wife, who became a flight attendant with American Airlines, intensified my interest. Our conversations about aviation reignited my passion.

So, what was the trigger that made you finally decide to pursue flying?

It was during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. We had a lot of time to talk about our dreams and future plans. My wife encouraged me to consider flying seriously. Then, after a frustrating attempt to paraglide in Santa Barbara, where I spent days waiting for the right wind conditions, I realized I needed a more structured way to experience flight. In May 2021, I took my first flight lesson in Santa Barbara, and it was a transformative experience.

Can you describe your first flying experience?

My first flight in Santa Barbara was overwhelming due to my lack of preparation. I realized the importance of understanding the basics before stepping into the cockpit, which transformed my approach to learning to fly.

How did your training progress after your initial flights?

After realizing the importance of preparation, I dedicated myself to understanding the mechanics and theory behind flying. This commitment helped me overcome early challenges, particularly in landings.

What were some personal challenges you faced during your training?

The transition from IT to aviation was not straightforward. The rigorous demands of flight training, combined with maintaining a personal and professional balance, tested my resolve. However, the support from my instructors and my passion for aviation spurred me on.

What did your family think about your decision?

My family in Russia had mixed reactions. My brother thought it was a crazy idea since I had a good job and a stable life. My mother thought I was just looking for a challenge because everything seemed to be going too smoothly for me. But my wife was my biggest supporter and she saw job opportunities at American Airlines. She encouraged me to try flying, saying that even if it didn’t work out, I would still gain skills and a Private Pilot License.

How was the transition from IT to aviation for you?

It wasn’t easy. Balancing my IT job with flight training was challenging, and the financial burden was significant. But my background in IT helped me understand the technical aspects of aviation quickly. I completed my training during the pandemic. Every flight reminded me of why I was doing this, and it kept me motivated.

So, you did your first introductory flight. How did that go? Did you immediately feel like it was the right fit for you?

I didn’t get much out of it initially because I made a huge mistake. I hadn’t done any research or preparation. I just called, paid the fee, and showed up to fly. Once I was in the plane, I realized how much there was to know and prepare for. If I had watched some videos or read up a bit, I think I would have enjoyed it more. Instead, I sat in the plane, clueless about what was happening. The instructor was pressing buttons, talking on the radio—there was just so much going on, and it was overwhelming.

What did you do next after that first flight?

Well, I thought, “I’ve already spent some money, so I might as well give it another shot to really understand if this is for me.” I signed up at the school and went through the process to get TSA approval, which took some time. I attended a few classes, but the school had issues with scheduling and administration, so it didn’t work out there. Then I started looking for another school and found one in Santa Paula, about 70-80 miles north of Los Angeles. It’s a small airport, great for learning, without the pressure of a busy towered environment.

How was your experience at the new school?

It was fantastic. I met a great instructor who gave me an incredible discovery flight. After that, I knew I wanted to train there. The school was small, with a personal touch, and the prices were lower than in Santa Barbara. It felt like a good fit for me, and I got my private pilot certificate with that same instructor.

How did you manage your training with such a busy work schedule?

It was tough. I worked five or six days a week, usually from eight to five. After work, I’d drive about 40 minutes to the airport, and then fly for about an hour and a half. In the summer, I could fly until around 8:40 or 9 PM. I aimed to fly two or three times a week, and if I wasn’t flying, I was studying at home. Weekends were mostly reserved for flying too. Weather wasn’t much of an issue in California, so that helped.

Did you ever feel anxious or overwhelmed during your training?

Absolutely. Especially with landings—I struggled a lot. I remember riding my motorcycle to the airport, thinking about how I was going to mess up again. And on the way back, I’d be frustrated about my performance. It felt like everyone else could land the Cessna perfectly, but I kept having rough landings. 

How many hours did you log before your first solo flight?

I logged almost 30 hours before my first solo. I could have soloed sooner, around 20 hours, but I wanted to build more confidence. My instructor and I agreed to focus more on cross-country flights and other aspects before soloing. When I finally did it, it was a memorable experience. I have a photo on my fridge of that day in the Cessna, with the T-shirt tradition of cutting the tail number. It was a significant milestone for me.

What kept you motivated through the tough times in your flight training?

The idea that I was finally pursuing my childhood dream kept me going. Also, the support from my wife was very important. She encouraged me to keep at it, reminding me that it’s a learning process and that I was making progress, even if it didn’t feel like it sometimes. And every successful flight, no matter how small the achievement, gave me a boost of confidence.

What were your feelings during your first solo flight? What was the most significant experience for you?

I remember coming in, and the weather was perfect. The wind was always aligned with runway 22, around 5 to 8 knots, so there were no issues with crosswinds. We did a few circuits with the instructor, and then he stepped out and told me to go. My heart was pounding as I taxied back to the runway. Taking off was no problem, but during that first circuit, on final approach, I realized there was no one to help me. I was really nervous on that first landing, but I nailed it perfectly. Then I did a “touch and go” out of habit, even though my instructor had specifically said not to do it.

How did your instructor react to that?

He yelled at me over the radio, and the school owner, who was also the DPE (Designated Pilot Examiner), saw me doing it. She didn’t say anything at the time, but my instructor was not happy. There were times I misunderstood instructions because of the language barrier, but I learned from those mistakes. After that first solo landing, though, the euphoria was incredible. It was a mix of fear and exhilaration.

How long did it take you to get your Private Pilot in terms of time and flight hours?

I started flying seriously in June at that school and got my PPL in October. It could have been sooner, but moving back to Florida took some time. I logged about 75 hours.

Did you immediately pursue further ratings like Instrument or Commercial, knowing you wanted a career in aviation?

Yes, I knew I wanted to continue even before my PPL checkride. We moved back to Miami, but I flew back to California for my checkride. I felt super prepared but failed on the slow flight. It was a heart-stopping moment when the examiner said I had failed.

That must have been tough. What happened during the checkride?

The examiner asked me to fly at a speed I had never practiced with my instructor. We usually did a slow flight at around 55 knots, but she asked for 45 knots. I lost altitude trying to slow down and didn’t manage it properly. It was a harsh lesson, but I didn’t give up. We completed the rest of the checkride, and I nailed all the other maneuvers. I went back to Florida, practiced slow flight intensively, and returned to California to pass the checkride on the second attempt.

Did you fail any other checkrides after that?

Yes, I failed my CFII (Certified Flight Instructor – Instrument) checkride. It was supposed to be easier than the CFI (Certified Flight Instructor) checkride, but everything went wrong. The plane I trained on went into maintenance, so I had to use a different one. The oral exam was grueling and lasted 5.5 hours, much longer than expected. During the flight portion, the examiner gave me instructions that conflicted with ATC (Air Traffic Control), leading to confusion and mistakes.

What was your CFII checkride experience like?

During my CFII checkride, everything went wrong. I underestimated the exam, thinking it would be easy. The day before, my training aircraft went into maintenance, forcing me to switch planes. The oral exam lasted 5.5 hours, which was unusually long and stressful. During the flight portion, I received conflicting instructions from the examiner and ATC, and the different avionics setup in the new plane added to the confusion. Instead, I pushed through, leading to more errors.  I made a critical mistake by not opting for a discontinuance. This experience taught me the importance of knowing when to pause instead of pushing through unprepared. 

Just to jump ahead a bit, did those two failed checkrides impact your career or affect your job prospects with airlines?

Not at all. I think failing the PPL checkride isn’t considered a big deal in the industry. It’s quite common and seen as part of the learning process. Failing the instructor checkride also didn’t have any significant impact. What’s important is being honest about your mistakes.

So airlines did ask about your failed checkrides?

Yes, every application and interview I’ve had included questions about any failures. You need to be upfront about it. They want to hear what went wrong and, more importantly, what you learned from it. It’s crucial to own your mistakes and explain how you’ve grown from those experiences. Blaming others never works in your favor.

How long did it take you to go from PPL to CPL ME and then to CFI?

I got my PPL in October 2021 and my CPL ME (Commercial Multi-Engine) in September 2022. I could have completed it faster, but I wasn’t in a rush. I did some time-building and enjoyed flying different aircraft. I was aiming to get 500 hours before looking for charter jobs. I wasn’t keen on becoming an instructor initially because the checkride for the CFI intimidated me.

I heard you had an interesting experience getting your seaplane rating. Can you tell us about that?

Absolutely! I had this idea to fly a Cessna Caravan on floats. At that time, Tropical Ocean Airways was hiring. A friend of mine got a job offer there, and I immediately headed to Louisiana to get my seaplane rating because the schedule was fully booked here in Florida at Jack Brown’s. You couldn’t just walk in and get it done. So, I flew to Louisiana and completed my seaplane rating in three days. It was the most fun I’ve ever had in an airplane.

Did you get a Commercial rating as well?

Yes, I received my CPL SE Sea rating (Commercial Single Engine Sea).

How did that process go?

The owner of the flight school in Louisiana gave me the phone number of a friend of his who helped me get my tailwind endorsement. I did it all in one trip. After that, I came back and waited for the examiner. In September 2022, if I remember correctly, I passed my Multi-Engine (ME) rating. I had to fly an additional seven hours on the plane because, over two months, I had forgotten almost everything about flying a twin-engine aircraft. From getting my seaplane rating to obtaining my commercial single-engine sea and commercial multi-engine land ratings, it took about a year. 

What happened with your seaplane rating? Did it not lead to a job with Tropic Air?

I got my Commercial SE Sea rating hoping to work with Tropic Air, but they never called me back. Later, when I started training for my instructor rating, I received a job offer to fly right seat on a Pilatus PC-12 with Surf Air, which is part of Southern Airways Express. However, the contract required me to move back to Santa Barbara, which I didn’t want to do.

Even with low time, you were able to get job offers?

Yes, my first job offer came when I had about 340 hours. I flew to New Mexico for an aerial photography job with a company flying Cessna 206s. They were surprised at my skills, despite my limited experience with that aircraft. I also got an offer at 500 hours to fly the PC-12 but decided not to take it. Once I had my CFII, I got an offer to tow banners but decided flight instructing would be more beneficial for me. 

SkyEagle Aviation Academy Flight Instructor Max Klassen

Today, we learned about Maxim’s journey from zero to becoming a Сommercial pilot. This is a true and real story told by SkyEagle instructor. We will continue this conversation with a description of his path to becoming an airline pilot in the next article. Stay tuned for updates.

CFI SkyEagle Aviation Academy Max Klassen

Author

Andrey Borisevich
CEO, Training and Development manager of Academy, responsible for new training programs, emerging markets, marketing and business strategy

Private Social:

Other posts