Pilots: Juan Serrano

October 1, 2009

On April Fool’s Day 1995, Juan Serrano thought his wife was playing a cruel joke. Over the phone, she told him of two letters for him in the day’s mail: a much-anticipated invitation to interview with United Airlines and an acceptance to law school.

“I scheduled my interview with United and sent my seat deposit to law school,” says Serrano. He would let fate decide.

Years earlier, when Serrano was a rebellious high school student, his grandfather, a pilot, paid for a private pilot ground school and told Serrano, “It’s up to you whether you make me lose my deposit.”

“I absolutely fell in love with flying from day one. I did a complete course reversal, and often think of what my life would have been like had I continued on my previous course,” Serrano said.

He earned his private certificate and instrument rating in high school, adding commercial and multiengine shortly after. In the world of Miami’s “corrosion corner” he landed a job as a Boeing 707 first officer flying freight.

He aimed for the airlines and attended college while flying heavy jets. An upgrade opportunity to 707 captain came, but he was too young to be issued an airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate. He passed the 707 type-rating check anyway and was issued a letter of competency.

At 6:30 a.m. on his twenty-third birthday, Serrano traded the letter for an ATP certificate and took off on his first initial operating experience flight as a 707 captain. “I was probably one of the youngest pilots to captain a 707—23 years and eight hours, roughly.”

At his United Airlines interview, a human resources interviewer zeroed in on driver’s-license suspensions he earned in high school and said, “If we can’t trust you with a car, how can we trust you with an airplane full of people?” Despite a squeaky clean driving record since, United declined to offer employment.

So, off to law school he went. Serrano paid his tuition by instructing in heavy-jet simulators in Miami and eventually became an FAA-designated 707 examiner.

After law school, he put his technical knowledge and experience to use by working for a large law firm specializing in airplane crash litigation. And he continued to instruct in simulators. One of his 707 clients was actor John Travolta. Eventually, Travolta’s chief pilot moved to the airlines, and Serrano accepted that position on a part-time basis.

Now Serrano has the best of both worlds—a thriving aviation law practice and chief pilot of one of the world’s most recognized heavy jets. Serrano uses his Mooney 201 to commute from his Fort Lauderdale base to Travolta’s home on a private airstrip near Ocala, Florida.

Serrano says the Mooney serves one other purpose: “To cleanse.”

“Being a trial lawyer has its stressful moments and sometimes the only way to relieve that is to drive to the general aviation airport, do a quiet and meticulous preflight, start her up, and just go fly.”

Bill Kight, AOPA 658477, of Goshen, Kentucky, is an airline pilot and instructor.