Piyush Gandhi, 47, is vice president of flight operations for Sunwing Airlines, based out of Ontario. Until November 2017, he was Porter Airlines’ vice president of flight operations.
As a very young boy I wanted to be a pilot. I was interested in mechanical things and spent a lot of time building, tinkering – looking upward.
High school is such an uncertain time; I had an advantage knowing exactly what I wanted to do. Being a pilot is a great career, so fulfilling. I speak at graduation ceremonies at colleges and universities, public schools; you name it.
One thing that makes me love the work? Every day is different, guaranteed. A pilot shortage has been looming for years, baby boomers hitting a retirement bubble. In Canada, flight schools only produce [approximately] 250 commercial pilots per year, instructors are also being scooped up.
I was born in Toronto, grew up in North York in a middle-class family. I still have the same friends I had in public school. I wanted a university degree, my parents didn’t say I had to. I was accepted, but turned down Seneca College’s Aviation and Flight Technology program. I spent the summer travelling with friends.
In Jasper, I came down the mountain, got in the van and drove back without even going home, went to Seneca saying, ‘I made a terrible mistake.’ That was the first year they accepted 121 people into that wonderful, grueling, intense program.
I had just started as an instructor with Flight Safety Canada in Toronto. The general manager said, “I shouldn’t do this. They’re looking for a pilot at Bombardier; I think you’re the right personality.” He literally walked me across the street. Two days later, Bombardier offered me a job. I was chief pilot/customer liaison pilot with three hats: a test pilot in a fireproof suit doing things you wouldn’t ever imagine; marketing, taking airplanes around the world to sell; and training, helping an airline get started, then go to the next country. It kept me very busy. I loved the job, the people, everything.
I was 36 years old, 10 years into the company, on the team trying to sell Bob Deluce airplanes. He asked if I wanted to be chief pilot, help start Porter; it took him three months to convince me.
We built Porter from scratch, 15 of us. I flew – (HM) Queen Elizabeth II, definitely a career highlight.
Bob wanted me to get an MBA. It was fantastic, one of the most rewarding, awakening experiences in my life. I was in a classroom with 65 other accomplished professionals. I was a sponge. It allowed me to make more informed decisions. A week before I graduated, sure enough, Porter promoted me.
Leaving was one of my most difficult career decisions. I feel really proud of what we did – that will always stay with me. I wasn’t looking – I got a call from a recruiting firm; I liked the opportunity Sunwing presented, a new opportunity flying larger airplanes and being part of a large complex organization.
You don’t find mentors, mentors find you. They’re attracted to some quality, think highly of you and want to help guide you. People were very helpful in my career. I feel strongly I have to give back, have a few people I guide.
In my MBA, I sat next to a guy who said, “Let’s buy a race car.” We stripped it down, [worked on it with others], put it in a roll cage and put it on the racetrack. We’ve raced the Chump Car series for three seasons. It’s exhilarating. My wife calls it my mid-life crisis. My mother wrote a letter begging me not to do it, saying, “You have two kids, it’s not okay to be doing this anymore.” She said she’d never come to see me, but, of course, the first race she came and loved it. That’s a mother.
I’m a closet Grateful Dead Head, Been to 55 shows [before Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995]. Pictures of me with long hair were all over Porter, people saying, “This is our vice president.” On my goodbye cake, a beautiful contrast, me in my hippie days imprinted next to an elegant picture in my uniform. Often, I’m the stuffy suit guy in meetings, but I carry that picture with my long hair to remind me who I really am.
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