Chart your flight path: Insider tips from aspiring and legendary pilots at Alaska Airlines

Video by Karina Matias & Ingrid Barrentine

Mohammed Hakeem always had a deep passion for aviation.  

As a child, he would often make the trek from Los Angeles to Fiji aboard a Boeing 747-400. Those trips with his family led him to fall in love with flying, and he quickly knew it was something he wanted to do for the rest of his life.  

In 2017, Mohammed took his first step into the realm of air travel and joined Alaska Airlines as a customer service agent (CSA) at San Francisco International Airport. Following a quick promotion, he became a lead CSA across the bay in Oakland, then eventually transitioned to a flight attendant in 2019.  

But even after attaining two different roles in the airline industry, he still dreamed of becoming a pilot. He wanted to recognize his parents’ sacrifices and make them proud by achieving his ambition. 

As a Fijian American, he also recognized the importance of seeing skilled individuals who looked like him in the captain’s chair and wanted to be a part of that change.

I have always dreamt of becoming a pilot. Growing up, I was told by adults that my dream was too ambitious and that it wasn’t practical. But I held onto that dream, and it eventually became a reality for me,” said Mohammed. “Being a part of the industry which I’ve loved all my life helped me realize that my dream was indeed attainable.” 

Following some research and a push from a friend, in early 2023, Mohammed applied to Alaska Airlines’ Ascend Academy, a multi-year program with Hillsboro Aero Academy in Hillsboro, Oregon, that takes prospective pilots from zero experience to commercial flight. He is now working toward graduation, where he will transition into working as a pilot for Horizon Air.  

“Trust the process, move at your own pace, and always believe in yourself! You will make mistakes, but you will learn and grow from them. Trusting the process can be grueling especially when we compare our progress amongst our peers. It is not a race but a journey–one we cannot complete if we do not truly believe in ourselves the entire way.”  

– Mohammed Hakeem

Meet some of our legendary pilots 

Last year, Alaska Air Group recognized the careers of some pilots, naming them “Alaska Legends” and “Horizon Air Pathfinders,” an honor for those who always look up, push higher, put others first, and have been doing so for over a decade.  

Captain Julie Thiele was an art major before switching to aviation and had to overcome severe motion sickness in her journey to becoming a pilot. Today, she is the director base chief pilot at Anchorage International Airport. 

Captain Geoff Nelson’s first flight was in Juneau, Alaska for a glacier tour. He immediately knew he was hooked. With a tenure of more than 20 years, he has worn multiple hats including flying guests, teaching in the classroom, and performing duties as a technical pilot. 

Captain Rich Loudon came to the airline following a full Navy career; in addition to his role in the flight deck, he has built essential training courses for Alaska pilots and is a revered expert in the industry for his work on Human Factors.  

Captain Rich Loudon | Photos by Joe Nicholson

You literally have the best office in the world, with ever-changing breath-taking view. Feeling the exhilaration of climbing away from the earth on every takeoff has never failed to keep me smiling. What a privilege. In addition to that, the aviation career is filled with high performing people that make it safe, fun and highly rewarding.” 

– Captain Rich Loudon

Along with the rest of their cohort, these individuals exemplify the care and expertise our pilots aspire to. As Rich celebrates 32 years as an Alaska pilot and Mohammed is just starting his journey to the flight deck, it remains as important as ever to provide and recognize expertise, hire pilots from various backgrounds, and ensure that our employees have opportunities to pursue their dreams.  

Pathways to a pilot career 

Interested in becoming a pilot yourself? While we participate in recruitment events at select universities, military bases, and industry events, we also have designed a pipeline to carry prospective pilots from their first step to the first officer’s chair at Horizon Air and Alaska Airlines. Here are some of the ways you could end up at Alaska Air Group: 

Ascend Pilot Academy  

 If you have no experience as a pilot or have some flight experience but have yet to obtain your private pilot license, check out Alaska’s Ascend Pilot Academy. Over the course of 13-18 months, students in the program train to become commercial pilots and flight instructors, obtaining private pilot licenses, instrument ratings, commercial pilot licenses, and eventually certified flight instructor certificates and CFIIs. Over the following two years, they log hours toward the FAA’s 1500-hour requirement to fly for Horizon Air.  

Horizon Air Pilot Development Program 

If you already have a private pilot license, the Horizon Air Pilot Development Program is another way to pursue your career goals. We recognize that when you’re a student pilot, finding the right support and guidance for your job can be challenging. By enrolling in our Pilot Development Program, you can receive a $12,500 stipend, get mentoring from a professional pilot, and join special events. After completing the program and meeting all qualifications, graduates are assigned a class date with Horizon Air.  

True North 

True North is a recruitment program aimed at hiring BIPOC pilots at Horizon Air. The program includes reimbursement for up to 80% of all flight lab fees, ongoing mentorship, and apprenticeship or direct hire placement into an entry-level position. Like Ascend and Pilot Development Program, True North places hires on the fastest path to employment at Alaska Airlines. 

The Alaska Airlines Pilot Pathways Program 

While Ascend, the Pilot Development Program and True North each seek to prepare prospective pilots for work at Horizon, the Alaska Airlines Pilot Pathways Program aims to provide the most direct flight path for Horizon pilots seeking to become pilots for Alaska Airlines. Horizon and Alaska Airlines share a goal to create a rewarding career at the Air Group family of airlines and to make the move from regional to a major airline, if desired, as simple as possible. Following a successful Pilot Pathways Program interview, Horizon pilots are placed onto the “Pathways List” in order of their Horizon seniority number and are then in line to be directly hired to Alaska Airlines.  

Join our talent community to stay updated on application dates and job openings. 


  1. Great article! Very enlightening!

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