Robert Fenrick was just a year old when he took his first flight on board United Flight 391 on February 9, 1972. At that moment, it was written in the stars—and on a “Future Flight Crew” certificate signed by a United crew member—that he’d be flying the biggest aircraft in United’s fleet one day.
This certificate was given to kids on United flights (similar to how pilots may give wings or cockpit tours today) to get them excited about aviation and interested in traveling and flying—and it definitely worked for Fenrick.
“We are amazed that some 50 years later, he is a United Airlines pilot,” say his parents, Joseph and Angeloyd Fenrick. “Dreams still do come true.”
Now 53 years old, Fenrick is a Boeing 777 First Officer based out of San Francisco, where he flies United passengers to Beijing, Auckland, Tokyo, Washington, D.C., and many more destinations. “Flying this aircraft is freeing, and it’s something that most of us pilots have wanted to do since we were kids,” Fenrick says. “United pilots are not just proud of what we do, but we also love what we do.”
While his destiny as a United pilot may have been determined long before he developed a love for airplanes, Fenrick remembers growing up right along the flight path of Andrews Air Force base, the airfield of Joint Base Andrews, outside of Washington, D.C. “I would see military airplanes fly by my house all the time,” he says. “That crystallized my interest in aviation at a young age, around 5. But when we traveled on commercial airliners, it just took off from there.”
At Hampton University, Fenrick enrolled in the aviation program and began taking flying lessons. Once he graduated, he joined the Navy as an electronic counter-measures officer, defeating enemy radar systems, and spent four years at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station and was deployed overseas multiple times. He then went back to Pensacola, Florida, where he originally completed flight school, to be an instructor.
After nine years in the Navy, Fenrick left active duty and joined the California Air National Guard, where he spent 20 years flying search and rescue missions domestically and overseas before becoming a commercial pilot. He joined United as a 737 First Officer in 2013.
Becoming a commercial pilot is the next step for many military pilots. In fact, six others from Fenrick’s unit have also become United pilots in recent years. United has developed initiatives, such as the United Military Pilot Program, that are designed to offer active-duty U.S. military pilots the opportunity to secure conditional job offers as United First Officers.
United welcomes military aviators with open arms,” Fenrick says. “After you join United, you can still serve in the guard or the reserves. It can be challenging to have two jobs and a family, but United is very accommodating and supportive when you have to take time off for military service.”
As Fenrick settled into flying Boeing 737 aircraft for United, he set his sights on a new goal: flying the largest aircraft in United’s fleet. “Triple, as we like to call it, is a great airplane,” he says.
Fenrick’s decade at United has fulfilled his greatest childhood dreams, with each flight honoring his curiosity and love for aviation. The journey to becoming a pilot can be challenging, however, especially for marginalized groups.
“It’s easy to get discouraged when you’re first starting out, because it’s not easy,” Fenrick says of his journey as a Black pilot. “If you’re an aviator from an underrepresented demographic, you’ll need some perseverance and a little bit of grit. Finding a mentor in this industry is the key to perseverance, though. That’s why I think some of the programs United has in place are a positive sign, because the cockpit is for everybody. It shouldn’t matter what you look like or where you came from.”