Herald and Journal, Oct. 1, 2001

Local pilot anxious to keep flying

By Lynda Jensen

Afraid of flying?

"Absolutely not!" says commercial pilot and Howard Lake resident Mathew Simmons, 26, son of Mike and Cherie.

In fact, Simmons could hardly wait to get back into the skies following the terrorist attacks Sept. 11 - to prove to the terrorists that their efforts to scare the American people were lost, Simmons said.

This fear of flying, which is crippling the airline and tourist industries, is fulfilling the wildest dreams of the terrorists, and not a fair assessment of the situation, Simmons said.

The terrorists had surprise - and a whole new way to strike at a nation, using airplanes as human weapons - but the element of surprise is over, and this will not work again without a fight, Simmons said.

Airlines are being vigilant for the same signs, unlike before when they didn't know or could have suspected what might happen, he said. Pilots are also trained for this new kind of warfare, he added.

There are approximately 7,000 flights that crisscross the states every day, he said. Right now, his airline is running at 70 percent capacity.

The scenario before and after the attacks is a completely different deal, he said.

"We were told to cooperate before (with hijackers)," he said. Now, pilots and travelers are being told to get control of the plane, he said.

"Now we know what the problem is and we can deal with it," he said. "It's a whole different ball game," he said.

"The longer we wait (to fly as usual), the longer that terrorists have done their job," he said.

Simmons is a commercial pilot for United Express Airlines.

He flew every day for 18 days straight, except three from Sept. 6 to 18, he said. He was only grounded Sept. 11, 12, and 13, in Richmond, he said.

In fact, Simmons has been working out of Washington Dulles International Airport, which is where terrorists were found on two different flights.

One flight was the one which hit the Pentagon, killing hundreds of people. The other was a flight grounded where terrorists were later discovered on board, as reported by CNN, Simmons said.

The Washington National Airstrip is located in this area as well, also known as the Reagan airport.

The grass from the White House lawn is practically off the end of the runway at Reagan airport, Simmons said. This makes it impossible to intercept before planes pass over the White House, which probably means this airport will remain closed forever.

When he first heard of the attacks, he was sleeping in a hotel at Richmond, Va, he said.

"I woke up to the same horror, shock, and disbelief," he said.

What was going through the pilots minds on the hijacked planes?

The morning of the flights was just gorgeous, Simmons said. It was 66 degrees and not a cloud in the sky in Washington, D.C., he said. "They were probably enjoying a morning of beautiful weather," he said. He surmised they were busy checking on safety procedures.

Action was taken so swiftly, in such a new way, that the pilots didn't have a chance, he added.

Simmons is tentatively in favor of having Congress allow pilots to keep guns, in order to protect themselves and their passengers.

If there is one good thing to come out of the terrorist attacks, it is the banding together of Americans, he said.

"People are extremely patient now," he said, whereas before it seemed like they forgot how to be patient sometimes, he said.

"It puts everything in check," he said. "Unfortunately, it takes something like this to do it," he said.

It all started on a grassy airstrip

The grassy airstrip in Winsted is where Mathew Simmons fell in love with flying.

He graduated from Howard Lake-Waverly in 1994.

From there, he went to flight school at the ComAir Aviation Academy in Orlando, Fla, armed only with his high school diploma.

He did not receive military training, which is the long way to learn how to fly; although flight school is expensive, he said.

He has his parents to thank for this, as well as his fiancee, Ana Miller, of Montrose. Miller has been with him for eight years. They expect to wed next year, he said.

She worked diligently, helping him through flight school, he said.

He received his certificates for private and commercial single and multi engine licenses, as well as for instrument reading, he said.

His first job at the tender age of 22 was flying around the Florida Keys, Bahamas, and other places for Continental Connection. Miami and Tampa were the airports that he regularly flew out of, he said.

In fact, Simmons flew twice to Cuba, taking dignitaries to and from the States during the Elian Gonzalas situation, he said.

The flight to Cuba, 90 miles off the coast of Florida, is only three hours, he said. "It was a short trip," he said.

He landed his job with United more than a year ago, and commands flights all over the eastern seaboard, he said.

"I love it - it's a very stable company," he said. There are no cuts on the horizon, he said. "The aircraft is wonderfully maintained," he said.

Right now, he is attending a private flight training offered by United Express to be promoted from first officer to captain rank, he said.

His shifts rotate so that he is home, in Howard Lake, for a few days or so, and then gone for the rest of the week, jet setting.

He just recently bought a 34 foot Luhrs Tournament boat, complete with a bedroom and galley, to use as his "crash pad," he said.

Previously, he shared an apartment with nine other men, who had alternating schedules and used it on a part-time basis, he said.

Room and board is expensive in Washington, D.C., and this cost $200 per month, he said. He hopes the boat will be just as comfortable and cheaper.

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