For as long as he can remember, Cody Downey has loved to fly. As a child, he traveled extensively by airplane with his father, a FEMA agent who didn’t want to be separated from his family on long assignments.
“We flew on big commercial jets to Ireland, to the Bahamas, all over the country,” Downey recalls. “We also had a big field in front of our house, and my Dad’s boss used to land his plane in it all the time. For a little kid, that was the coolest thing ever.”
By the time he was eight, Downey, who grew up in Inman, South Carolina, knew he wanted to be an airline pilot. He took his first flight lesson at age 14. On his 16th birthday – a day most high school students are excited about getting their driver’s license – Downey performed his first solo flight. And by age 17, he had his pilot’s license.
When it was time to choose a college, Downey looked first at schools with flight programs. There were good ones in the region, but cost was a factor. And time.
“Everything is about seniority when you work in the airline industry,” he said. “I realized going the traditional route to a degree would set me back a hundred grand and cost me three years.”
For months, says Downey, Bob Seawright – the pilot who landed in his front yard – encouraged him to consider SMC. “When I finally listened to him, I realized SMC offered me the fastest track to the airlines for the most affordable, debt-free price.”
Downey enrolled at SMC in 2014, determined to get an associate’s degree for credibility while completing pilot training on his own. He continued flight lessons in Hendersonville, North Carolina, earning a commercial pilot’s license for single and multi-engine airplanes and an instructor’s license.
To pay for lessons, he worked as a ramp agent for Delta Airlines in Greenville, South Carolina, and as a waiter. He also taught flight lessons and even started his own air tour business – all to earn the flight hours needed to be competitive for a job after graduation.
As much as he was driven to reach his goal of becoming a commercial pilot, Downey took time to enjoy life. He directed the choir for his church and sang in SMC’s Troubadours choral group. He continued following another passion: playing the guitar.
And Downey excelled academically. When he walks across the stage to receive his diploma at Saturday’s graduation ceremony, he’ll be in the top 5% of his class. He appreciated the close attention from SMC faculty and advisers during his two years at SMC. “People like Dr. Kris Pratt, they relate to you on a human level. It’s not just a job for them,” he said.
Pratt, who directs advising at SMC and teaches religion courses, says he was impressed by Downey’s determination to reach his career goals while balancing work, school and extra-curricular activities. “From the day he set foot on campus, Cody knew he wanted to be a pilot. He’s been an important part of the SMC community, and we’ll miss him.”
Downey’s years of hard work have paid off. On May 12, the 20-year-old leaves for Laredo, Texas, where he’s accepted a job as a first officer with a charter service. For a year, he’ll fly a Fairchild Metroliner to destinations in the Caribbean, Canada, Mexico and South America – as well as the United States. All the while, he’ll build additional flight hours and jet time, earning the seniority that should get him well on his way to a first officer position with a major airline – and well ahead of where he might be had he attempted a more traditional degree.
“l’ll finish my Bachelor’s degree online while I’m working,” Downey said. “I’ll have the degree and the job, and no debt.”
Looking back over the past two years, Downey acknowledges that at times it was tough. “That’s a lot of work for someone my age,” he said. “I was always told as a child to aim for the moon but shoot for the stars. To me, that means you can do anything you set your mind to. Just don’t expect it to be handed to you.”