Fred Pollino’s devastating medical discharge from the U.S. Army left him unsure of his future.
By Hilary Reeves
Fred Pollino grew up the youngest of five children in Billerica, Massachusetts, a blue-collar suburb of Boston. The first time he boarded a plane, he knew he wanted to be a pilot.
“I lost one of my brothers, my best friend, to a tragic motorcycle accident when I was nine years old,” said Pollino. “My other brother joined the Navy shortly after that, and it was on our trip to San Diego for his boot camp graduation that I discovered airplanes. The crew treated me so well that I promised my parents I would do whatever it took to fly professionally one day.”
A year later, Pollino was proudly working two paper routes, delivering the Boston Globe and the Lowell Sun. By high school, his excellent grades and position as Captain of the football team earned him a spot at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.
“It was so expensive,” he said. “My GPA suffered because I had to work three jobs and attend school full time. I worked from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. as a box sorter for UPS. In between classes, I answered phones at the Financial Aid office. At night, I worked as a baggage handler for American Airlines. I would study and do homework in between flights. I would fly on the weekends to attain my flight ratings.”
‘Where do I sign?’
Even after working three jobs, Pollino owed so much student loan money after college he couldn’t afford to repay them.
“I was driving home one day and heard about the Army’s student loan repayment program,” he said. “I contacted a recruiter and said, ‘If you can get me an aviation-related job and pay off all of my student loans, then I will join.’ He replied, ‘What about Air Traffic Control?’ I said, ‘Done. Where do I sign?’”
With only one job to focus on, Pollino was first in his class and became an Air Traffic Control Instructor for the U.S. Army. He flew skydivers on the weekends to build flight time. After all of his student loans were paid off, he applied to Warrant Officer Flight School. “I got to choose my assignment when I finished training,” he said. “I chose to fly the CH-47D “Chinook” because, at that time, it was the only helicopter for which you could receive an aircraft Type Rating.”
No longer able to fly
On the morning of 9/11, Pollino was working as a Unit Trainer Standardization Pilot with the 101st Airborne Division in Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
“We were the first to deploy to Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom,” he said. “On January 28, 2002, my helicopter went down behind enemy lines on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Luckily, we all made it home alive.”
Pollino’s injuries, which included frequent bouts of debilitating dizzy spells, rendered him unable to fly. He was soon medically retired from the Army.
“I went from flying combat missions to cutting grass for a living when I returned home because everything that I’d ever done up until that point was aviation-related. I went from hero to zero.”
In 2003, a large international union elevator company hired Pollino as a Service Manager. He managed more than 100 union employees, learning about the business from scratch. Three years later, he woke up and his dizzy spells were gone.
“I immediately contacted the FAA,” he said. “They told me that if I could pass a ‘dizzy test,’ I could start flying again.”
‘The world is vast’
“Fast-forward 16 years,” Pollino laughed, and he’s a Boeing 767 Line Check Airman for Northern Air Cargo (NAC) out of Miami.
“I learn through teaching,” he said. “Flying internationally is challenging – there are a lot of ‘gotchas’ out there. I love challenging questions and embrace change. I’ve been working since I was 10 years old for this. Going to work for me doesn’t feel like work. It feels like fun.”
Pollino is quick to credit his wife, Kelly, for supporting the ups and downs of his career.
“She’s always had my back – even when my salary was so low that, at times, I couldn’t pay my rent,” he said. “And she’s always ‘handled’ everything at home when I was away flying. Being a pilot’s wife is tough for sure.”
Looking back, Pollino said he wishes his mother could have seen him achieve his dreams.
“My Mom passed away one month before I graduated college,” he said. “I wish that I could wave a magic wand and have her see me today. I wish that she could have met my wife and children. I’m most proud of my family. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for my family’s support.”
Pollino said NAC is starting to feel like family as well.
“I love the close-knit feel here,” he said. “I loved that there were deep roots and history. I’m excited about the growth opportunities and want to be a part of it. I’m where I want to be, and life is good.”
When Pollino reflects on his career, he said he’s most surprised at how long it took him to finally get to where he is today.
“Most young folks today would probably not stand for the amount of effort it takes to become an airline pilot,” he said. “Mostly, I want them to know that the world is vast. We can all find our little place to live in peace. Having survived war, I have such profound respect for people who don’t agree with me. Closed minds create conflict. Folks who don’t agree with me love their children the same way that I love mine.”