For 20 years of his life, Errett “E.J.” Bozarth spent nearly as much time in a cockpit as he did on the ground. As a commissioned officer, tactical fighter pilot and flight instructor in the U.S. Marine Corps, he controlled some of the military’s most powerful aircraft. Later, as a Dallas-based pilot with American Airlines, passengers trusted Bozarth to fly them to nearly every country in the world.
Now, students at Indiana State University are trusting Bozarth, 60, to share those skills with them so they might build the sort of career he once had. “We old pilots that have some experience have an obligation to mentor the younger pilots that are coming along, to kind of pass the baton to the next generation of aviators,” Bozarth said.
Bozarth’s desire to mentor up and coming student pilots is not as straightforward as it might sound. That’s because he has spent the last 20 years of his life in a wheelchair.
Bozarth’s career as a professional pilot officially ended in 1989 after an automobile accident near his Dallas home left him paralyzed from the neck down with minimal control of his shoulder muscles. Even though the accident forced him out of aviation, he immediately set about the task of reinventing himself.
“I think within each of us there are varying degrees of innate drive to perform,” he said. “Through good fortune and no particular talent of my own I happen to have, I guess, a personality that does not readily accept defeat or challenges that I can’t deal with.”
He took part in a Dallas-based vocational rehabilitation program in which he studied computer science. The eight-month course helped him secure an internship with Southwestern Bell Telephone.
Now, after 17 years with the company that has become AT&T, Bozarth’s primary career is as a senior technical architect. Instead of piloting a 10-hour flight to England, Bozarth’s job involves morning conference calls with the London- or India-based application software developers who share the responsibility of troubleshooting AT&T’s systems problems worldwide.
The man who once lived a high-energy lifestyle flying airplanes anywhere in the world has become accustomed to traveling at a wheelchair’s pace and working from his home office.
“Pre-accident, because of the type of work that I was in and what I was doing for a living, I was not a particularly patient person,” Bozarth said. “It was a high-energy lifestyle and you didn’t sit around a lot waiting for things to get done. But when you become primarily dependent on other people, you either learn some patience or you drive yourself crazy.”
Bozarth says while his AT&T career is satisfying, he couldn’t refuse the opportunity to return to the field of aviation when ISU Aviation Technology Department Chair Harry Minniear asked him to teach one course on Turbine Aircraft Systems this semester. Minniear and Bozarth met when both were working with the Indiana Air National Guard and Bozarth was a senior command and instructor pilot. “He had a heck of a reputation,” Minniear said. “He was by far the guard unit’s best pilot, and he was destined for greatness.”
Bozarth’s class teaches students about the electrical, hydraulic and pneumatic systems of the aircraft and how to troubleshoot problems in the cockpit, Minniear said, and Bozarth’s thorough knowledge of the subject matter helps him challenge students to give their best. “It’s one thing to teach from a textbook,” Minniear said. “It’s quite another to draw from experience, and the students really do respond to that.”
“There’s a lot more to aviation than you might think,” Bozarth said. “You can teach just about anyone to do the eye-hand coordination mechanics of flying an airplane. It’s not a difficult task. Being a great pilot is about minimizing the time that you subject yourself, your airplane, or your passengers to circumstances where you’ve got to use every bit of aviating skill you have.”
Bozarth is finding teaching both rewarding and challenging. He said he spends quite a bit of time adapting teaching demands to suit his physical limitations. For example, he memorizes his lecture notes so that he doesn’t have to rely on cumbersome texts or notepads while addressing students. “Sometimes I think I need a set of President Obama’s teleprompters,” he said.
Bozarth plans to refresh his aviating skills when he gets inside a cockpit this summer. He’s recently purchased a Piper SportCruiser aircraft, and in it he will teach his son how to fly.
Not only is Bozarth looking forward to getting behind the controls of a plane again, he’s looking forward to seeing some of the views he’s missed during the last 20 years.
“There’s such a serenity that comes with lifting up off the ground. The panoramas are pretty spectacular,” he said. “I’ve flown commercially several times over the years since the accident, but it’s not the same looking out the passenger window in back as it is looking out the front.”
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