Ryan Marcotte

Every time Ryan Marcotte walks through an airport, through the jetway and steps into the cockpit, he remembers — usually, with a smile — his first flying experience.

He was 10 years old.

And thrust into a situation where most first-time airplane passengers would feel nervous and uneasy,

Marcotte was instead calm and comfortable.

Flying wasn’t the part of that trip that concerned him, though, as he recalls.

No, Marcotte — now a 51-year-old commercial airplane pilot, with family ties to Yankton — was leaving his relatives and the only life he’d known in his native Minnesota and moving to St. Louis.

“And I wasn’t tremendously happy about it,” Marcotte said, during a phone interview from California.

Marcotte’s parents had separated and he was moving to Missouri, but to get there, he was sent out on an Ozark Airlines flight as an unaccompanied minor.

“I felt like I was leaving everything I loved,” he said. “It was a pretty sad and upsetting moment for me to be thrown on an airplane by myself.”

Yes, Marcotte had never flown before, but was feeling more heartbroken and worried about a “scary new place.”

All of those concerns soon subsided, however.

“When I got on the airplane, I forgot all about my troubles and fell in love,” he said.

By the time Marcotte arrived in St. Louis; just a few short hours after leaving behind his comfort zone, he realized what he wanted to do with his life: He wanted to become a pilot.

“From that point forward, that’s when I knew for sure,” he said.

In short order, Marcotte began pursuing that dream.

He earned his first private pilot license at age 17 (or maybe 18, he can’t quite remember), and by the age of 19, Marcotte had earned all of his ratings to become a flight instructor — a role he held through college.

After college, in addition to his duties as a flight instructor he served as a part time charter pilot. He worked for several companies and would fly corporate jets around the country — an experience he recalls fondly.

It was at age 29 that Marcotte transitioned out of piloting corporate jets and into the airline world. It was a relatively young age to become a commercial pilot, he said.

Now living in Arizona, Marcotte works as a pilot for American Airlines — “a real fortunate and lucky position,” he said — and flies a Boeing 787 Dreamliner on the company’s Asian routes, as well as flights to New Zealand, Australia and Argentina.

Marcotte flies three flights per month, all out of Los Angeles, California. He said he usually knows his flight schedule a month ahead of time.

“If I want to get aggressive, I can squeeze in a fourth trip,” he joked.

The flights over the Pacific Ocean last anywhere between 13-15 hours, according to Marcotte. On those long trips, airlines use four-person crews and the crews work in shifts.

“We’ll divide up the flight so each crew gets equal breaks,” he said.

And those breaks are vital, he added.

When he’s not in the cockpit, Marcotte can either rest in the small bedroom, or sit back in a first-class seat to read, watch a movie or relax.

The overseas flights can often take planes literally over the top of the world. A trans-Pacific route from Los Angeles west to China, for instance, might take a jet far north over Alaska and eastern Russia.

The method used is called a great circle route, Marcotte said.

“(This is) the shortest course between two points on the surface of a sphere. It lies in a plane that intersects the sphere’s center and was known by mathematicians before the time of Columbus,” he said.

“Until the 19th century, ships generally sailed along rhumb lines, which made use of prevailing winds and fixed compass headings.

The development of steamships in the 19th century allowed complete independence from the winds, removing the major uncertainty for sailors trying to follow a geometrically prescribed route.”

A “rhumb line” is defined by as “an imaginary line on the earth’s surface cutting all meridians at the same angle, used as the standard method of plotting a ship’s course on a chart.”

Marcotte added that great circle routes require constant changes in heading.

“They are most useful beyond the equatorial regions and for distances greater than several hundred miles,” he explained. “Longdistance air traffic uses great circle routes routinely, saving time and fuel. Navigational radio signals also follow great circle paths.”

By this point in his career, Marcotte said he is extremely familiar and comfortable with the flights to China and Sydney, Australia. Of the two, the journey to China is “kind a piece of cake,” he said.

How so?

Just like passengers experience jet lag on those international flights, pilots feel the same effects, Marcotte said. On the flights to China, he will leave Los Angeles at 10 a.m. and get back at 4 p.m. on the third day.

“It’s easier on your body clock,” he said. On the flight to Sydney, conversely, Marcotte will leave at 11 a.m. and arrive in the morning, and then leave at 4 p.m. the next day and return at 7 a.m.

“You get beat up on those trips,” Marcotte added.

Marcotte is now at the point in his life where he’s pondering the next step, after nearly 40 years as a pilot.

What would he like to do?

“Ultimately I’d love to retire in Yankton,” he said. “It’s such a nice town.”

Marcotte said he is rather familiar with the Yankton area: His father (now deceased) lived in Yankton, as does an uncle and two cousins.

“I didn’t get out there often enough in the past, but now I’m actually in the house-hunting process out there,” Marcotte said.

From what he remembers about Yankton and the surrounding area, it feels more laid-back and comfortable, he added.

“I remember it was such a nice area, and I fell in love with it,” Marcotte said. “Flying and working out of busy cities has worn on me.

“I just miss the real USA, if you will.”

And that’s what Yankton offers, he added.

“It’s definitely a different vibe than where I live,” Marcotte said. “In a larger city like out here, it seems more dog-eat-dog and people maybe don’t care for each other as much.

“But in Yankton, everyone cares for each other.”