Vannakay Hurnevich became an avid fan of aviation at a very young age, flying in small planes with her father. Now, she is an airline captain for Delta Air lines, flying the MD-88 and MD-90 aircraft across the country. When she’s not in the skies, she likes to ride horses and go hiking with her dogs at her home in Newnan, Georgia.
Born in Bernardsville, New Jersey, Vannakay graduated from the Southern Methodist University (SMU) with her Bachelor’s in Economics. While at SMU, she began to take flying lessons in her sophomore year. Once she graduated, she quickly realized that her dream was out there in the skies, and not behind a desk. She loves to travel. But, after flying thousands of miles to cities across the country, her favorite place to go is home. There, she spends time with her family— her husband of thirteen years, David, and her dogs.
Sass Talks with Vannakay:
How did you become a commercial airline pilot? Tell me about that journey.
My love of aviation comes from my father and from an early age I remember flying with him in small airplanes. I didn’t actually learn to fly until my sophomore year of college where I started taking flying lessons at a local airfield near my school. My first job out of college was actually in aircraft sales and marketing. Not content to sit at a desk every day, I quickly set my sights on flying aircraft instead of selling them. Soon after, I set off to attend a flight training school to get all the required certifications to become a commercial airline pilot. After completing my training, I gained experience instructing for several years. From there, I flew for a few regional airlines until finally getting hired at US Airways in 1999.
Unfortunately, due to the economic impact of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 on the airline industry, I was furloughed from US Airways and unemployed for nine months. I then began flying for USA 3000 Airlines, a former Airbus A320 carrier owned by Apple Vacations, for almost ten years. USA 3000 Airlines flew scheduled service to Florida and the Caribbean focused mainly on the leisure travel market. During my tenure at USA 3000 Airlines, I flew as a Captain on the Airbus A320 and for the final year and a half, was the FAA-designated Chief Pilot for the airline, a position few women in the airline industry have held.
I joined the Delta family in 2011 as a simulator instructor on the Airbus A320 where I taught for almost four years. At the time, Delta Air Lines was not actively hiring pilots, but in 2015, soon after pilot hiring began, I was fortunate enough to be hired as a Delta Air Lines pilot. Since that time, I have flown the Boeing 757/767, the Airbus 319/320/321 and am currently a Captain on the McDonnell Douglas (MD) 88/90 aircraft.
What is a typical day like for you?
The one thing I love about my job is that there really is not a typical day. Every flight is potentially in a different city, with a different crew, airplane, weather and passengers. With that said, there are consistencies that are actually quite routine. I usually fly two to four-day trips with each day consisting of anywhere from two to four different flights per day, depending on length of flight.
As an airline captain for Delta Air Lines, my job has many different aspects. First and foremost, I am responsible for getting my passengers, crew and aircraft from one city to the next safely. Beyond that, I am a front-line leader working alongside my fellow employees to provide the best customer service possible to our customers every day. On any given day flying the MD-88 and MD-90 aircraft, I fly thousands of miles to cities across the country and have the opportunity to bring customers to their families and loved ones, business meetings and connect people on their travels around the globe.
The best part of my day however is when the skies are clear and I have the chance to see some of the most breathtaking views of sunsets, sunrises, mountains, lakes, seas, canyons, rivers, the Northern Lights, meteor showers, and so much more. Those views are not always a part of a typical day, but they definitely make the more challenging days worth it.
What has been the biggest challenge you have overcome to achieve your goals?
The 9/11 terrorist attacks were by far the biggest challenge. The nine months I was furloughed following the terrorist attacks were very difficult. It took time for the airline industry to recover and at the time I really did not know if I was going to be able to continue flying as a profession. But I’ve been so fortunate to have found opportunities since then that have kept me in the air and I’m excited for what the future holds.
What do you think has helped you the most with your success?
Perseverance and the support of my family.
Who do you look up to or admire?
I have been blessed with many great role modes throughout my life but the most important two are my parents. They have shown me how to cope with adversity and devastating loss with grace. I have learned to accept success with humility and have compassion for others. There is no shame in failure, provided you tried your best. They have shown me the importance of enjoying life no matter the day. Their love and support for me is never-ending and always with me.
What advice do you have to have to other women who may be interested in aviation?
Go for it! It is not always an easy road. It is time-consuming and flight training is expensive. But, there are so many aviation scholarships and mentoring programs available now.
Any aspiring pilot will tell you there will be disappointments and setbacks that may discourage you. You may even want to quit. But don’t be distracted by the noise; have a plan, keep your focus and press on. I can guarantee that you will find great joy, opportunity and satisfaction. You will gain a confidence and pride in yourself you didn’t even know you had.