The fire department fundraiser in LaPorte, Indiana, seemed just as ordinary-Midwestern as the rest of Nancy Barteczko’s childhood had been.
The then-15-year-old had shown her horse in 4-H and played bassoon in the band that day. Later, her dad was taking her for pancakes to support the local firefighters. But there was a bonus: For a few extra dollars, she could take a plane ride in a four-seater Cessna
Barteczko climbed aboard, and flight instructor Rob Paul lifted the plane into the air. The Indiana countryside, gridded into fields, spread into a green marble floor below. Snug LaPorte appeared to be constructed from Monopoly pieces. The town’s lakes, and then oceanic Lake Michigan, shimmered like sequins. Barteczko glimpsed Chicago’s skyline and jets gliding out from O’Hare. Every place she looked took on a sudden glamour.
Adrenaline surged through her. Paul offered to let her take the plane’s controls for a moment. She steadied herself. “Seeing the world — the lake, our home, the factory where my mom worked — from that viewpoint was so awe-inspiring,” she remembers. “I couldn’t believe he passed the controls to me and for that few seconds I was flying. I felt very comfortable and wanted to explore this more.”
Yet it took years for Barteczko to believe a pilot’s life was truly within reach. The daughter of immigrants from Poland and Germany, she didn’t learn to speak English until she started kindergarten. Her father, Hubert, drove a truck. Her mom, Maria, worked in a medical-device factory. After that fundraiser, when Barteczko said she wanted to fly, Hubert dreamed out loud of buying a plane. She told him not to be ridiculous — they didn’t have that kind of money. Flight lessons alone could cost $150 per hour.
Just over 20 years later, this first-generation American and college grad has found a way to become a commercial pilot with United Airlines. Barteczko has flown to Europe regularly as a first officer. Now she’s set to become a jet captain in mid-2017. By then, at 36, she will be one of the airline’s youngest captains — an especially impressive accomplishment in a field were female pilots make up between just 4-7 percent of the labor force.
Barteczko also is completing the Notre Dame Executive MBA program. Her longer-range goal is to become a business leader, bringing a pilot’s perspective to her airline’s senior management. The girl from LaPorte is now living her teenage dream of flying — and she hasn’t hit her highest altitude yet.
After graduating from high school, Barteczko made practical choices: public school at Purdue University, a versatile political science major. Her freshman year, however, she found herself doing her poli-sci homework at Hangar Six, where the aviation students flew. Rob Paul, the same pilot who had taken her up in that first Cessna, encouraged her to apply to the aviation degree program, where he was an instructor.
Once Barteczko worked up the nerve to apply, she realized financial aid could make becoming a pilot possible. Her dad, who’d worked as an aviation mechanic in the German military when he was young, encouraged the new plan. Then, one week before her private pilot’s license exam at Purdue, Hubert Barteczko died of a heart attack at age 61.
Her father had championed her flying dreams. He had planned to drive from LaPorte to West Lafayette in Indiana to watch her check flight, the flying-demonstration portion of the exam. Barteczko despaired: Could she do this without him?
Then she felt clarity. Her dad would want her to succeed. That certainty gave her purpose. She told her instructors about the loss, but when they asked if she wanted to postpone her exam, she said no. “I knew he wouldn’t want me to step back or step away,” she says. “My coping mechanism for that grief was to immerse myself into aviation.”
Barteczko left school for the funeral, and to her surprise, several of her instructors turned up for support. Her family had a small plane engraved on Hubert’s headstone. Once she returned to school, she steeled herself, and conquered her first check flight without telling the FAA examiner she’d lost her dad just a few days before.
Over the next several years, the honors floated in. Barteczko was chosen to fly Purdue’s president and trustees in a BeechJet 400A. She landed a summer internship at Continental Airlines. By the time she graduated, she’d logged nearly 1,000 hours of flight time.
There would be more. After a couple of years flying the Midwest for TransStates Airlines, steering 50-seat regional jets, she got a call from Continental for a full-time job. At 25, she was flying transatlantic in a Boeing 757/767 co-pilot’s seat. She and the captain would fly through the night, land in the morning, then grab a few hours of sleep. She’d explore cities like Barcelona, Copenhagen, Edinburgh, Athens, Munich, or Milan — at least until she hit the wall and needed more sleep.
Certainly a dream come true; but still, the pressure was constant and intense. Once, flying between Austin and Chicago for TransStates, she experienced a fire onboard and had to make an emergency landing in Missouri. After that, she was even more conscious of safety. If anything happened to the captain, she had to be comfortable and ready to fly the jet. She also had to be ready for endless testing on security, mechanical, interpersonal, and emergency issues and procedures, knowing that if she didn’t pass even one, her job would be in jeopardy for the rest of her career.
When Continental and United airlines merged in 2010, Barteczko got a call from management. The two airlines needed to work from a single FAA operating certificate. That meant combining their IT, training, maintenance and a host of other areas into one system. She was invited to represent pilots on one of the United-Continental “harmonization” teams — this one charged with creating a new flight operations manual for the merged company.
The manual ran more than 450 pages. Every change had to correspond with those of the flight training and flight standards teams, and then be approved by the FAA. The project took 17 months. “That became a ton of work, and that was my first taste of how important collaboration is,” she says. “I wish I had the skill sets I’ve gotten from Notre Dame back then.”
Barteczko’s first exposure to management opened up a whole new world of considerations. She learned that from dispatchers to mechanics to HR representatives, it takes 750 people to move one airplane. The number fascinated her, and she wanted to know more about the different sides of the industry. People she respected recommended an MBA. One colleague, a Notre Dame alum, talked up the University. The Executive MBA program felt like a fit.
Training to become an Airbus 320 captain, which she’ll undertake after graduating with her EMBA in May 2017, will be Barteczko’s next challenge. But she’s already achieved a few satisfying accomplishments. For one, she was able to call and offer pilot Rob Paul a job at United Airlines.
And the world still looks as beautiful and promising from above as it did on her first flight. Barteczko wants to make her father proud, and to make a difference for others, too — both fellow pilots and beyond.
““I love being a pilot. I’m happy in that seat,” Barteczko says. “But to be able to effect change and drive policy for the benefit of my colleagues and peers — that’s even greater motivation.”