Flight and friendship story comes full circle
UND aviation senior meets again with UND grad — a United Airlines captain — who inspired him a decade ago
At 11 years old, Aidan Lally was more excited about the plane rides than he was about the scenery when he and his family visited Cozumel, Mexico, in 2012.
He recorded the takeoffs and landings from his window seat. Time spent waiting in the terminal was equally a chance to watch the airport work its magic, guiding pilots and passengers wherever they needed to go.
Then on the return flight, young Aidan met a kindred spirit: a United Airlines captain, who welcomed Aidan and his parents into the cockpit of the Boeing airliner.
At that moment, the captain, too, spotted in Aidan the soul of a fellow aviator. Who else would ask, as young Aidan did, a question as sophisticated as, “Where did you go to earn your airline transport pilot certificate?”
That’s when Capt. Jill Kost gave the young man the answer that would change his life.
“The University of North Dakota,” Kost replied.
Flash forward to April of this year, which is when the next chapter of this unique story of inspiration and mentorship begins. That’s when Kost returned to her alma mater, UND.
There she met young Aidan Lally again – except that Lally is not quite as young anymore, given that he’s now a senior in UND’s Commercial Aviation program, having chosen UND expressly because of that chance encounter with Capt. Kost 10 years ago.
“Seeing her again made me realize how a journey can be influenced by incredible people like Capt. Kost,” Lally said. “This has all been about inspiration, because people like her are the reason I fly.
“What inspires me is the thought and potential to give back to others, to be that person who’s able to say ‘congratulations’ to someone when they’ve earned something, or similarly inspire.”
Capt. Kost was equally moved. Earlier, Lally had emailed her about his choice to undergo pilot training at UND, and how their short interaction in Cozumel had changed his trajectory in the years since. And despite her hundreds of flights and thousands of chance meetings with others since that day in 2012, Kost knew exactly who had reached out when Lally’s email appeared in her inbox.
“I remember opening the email, and it literally made me cry,” she said.
Today, Kost vividly remembers her encounter with the Lally family in Cozumel.
“I saw them coming up the stairs and I knew exactly what I needed to do,” she recalled.
‘You took me in’
Somewhere, on a hard drive, Lally – now 21 – still has the window-seat footage from those flights to and from Cozumel.
“I can send you that footage if you need it,” Lally laughed. “I always enjoyed flying. A lot of times, it was just as fun as the vacation.”
With his face pressed up against the window of the terminal, Lally watched his family’s flight roll up to the gate at Cozumel International Airport. To no one in his family’s surprise, Lally knew exactly what he was looking at: a Boeing 737-800.
“Cozumel was an interesting airport, because it was just air stairs there,” Lally recalled. “There weren’t any jet bridges, at least during the time we were there.”
So, Lally and his parents got to watch the flight’s crew do a walk-around of the 737. Seeing Kost as one of the two pilots, Lally’s mother remarked how wonderful it was to have a female captain on their flight.
Then when they were boarding, Lally’s mother waved to Kost and said that her son wanted to be a pilot. From there, they received an invitation to the flight deck.
“You came out and took me in, and I remember sitting in your seat,” Lally said to Kost. “And we had a talk.”
While her first officer went about the checklist, Kost gave Lally a brief but realistic look at what it’s like to be a pilot. They talked about the pre-flight communications coming over the radio, how she personally prepared for takeoff in the 737 and how Lally could take steps to make his aviation dreams come true.
So when Kost told him she’d trained at the University of North Dakota’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, it resonated with the 11-year-old.
“As a kid, it really had an impact on me because I knew there were so many decisions that had to be made in training to be a pilot,” Lally said. “We talked for a little longer, took a picture, and she told me to stop by at the end of the flight to pick up her business card.”
Souvenirs of adventures past
Years later, as Lally packed his bags to move across the country from Olympia, Wash., to Grand Forks to pursue his passion, he cleaned out the drawers of his desk.
Among the strewn-about trinkets and papers – souvenirs of adventures past – Lally found Kost’s business card. And his mother, it turned out, remembered the meeting with Kost just as well as he did.
“I said to her, ‘I wonder if she’s still at United,’ because when I looked at the card, I realized that Capt. Kost was the reason why I was going to UND and already earned my private pilot’s license,” Lally said.
His mother encouraged him to send an email, even if it meant potentially getting an automatic “undelivered” message if the address no longer existed.
To both Lally and Kost’s delight, the message went through.
Reconnecting with an old friend
Beyond the information and guidance that Kost offered Lally in his youth, the experience was so powerful because of the altruism and kindness that Kost showed, Lally said.
It was a special moment: having someone in uniform, in the cockpit, tell him that he could be an airline pilot, too.
“That’s what made it all super memorable to me, and even more powerful when I rediscovered that business card,” Lally said. “I’m thankful for sending that email, and especially thankful that she responded, because otherwise this never would have come full-circle.”
And by that, Lally is referring to the fact that Kost made a special trip to UND this spring with staff from United Airlines’ Aviate Program – the airline’s pilot career pathway program. Members of United Airlines regularly make visits to college campuses to recruit, and Kost has taken part in other aspects of it in the past, such as volunteering as a mentor for pilots enrolled in the program.
Though a 1990 graduate of UND, Kost has rarely had chances to return to her old flying grounds. Today, she lives in the Florida Keys with her husband, who’s also a pilot and UND graduate.
“This is the first time I’ve gone to a campus for this sort of visit, and it was really exciting and fun to visit with students and answer their questions,” Kost said. “I know exactly where they are in their education, so it was a great opportunity to talk to them and connect.”
But, ultimately, Kost’s return to campus represented a chance to reunite with Lally – to smile at how far he’s come in his journey, as he’s already a senior in UND’s commercial aviation program. Lally said he worked with UND’s connections within the Aviate Program to bring Kost to campus.
Lally wasn’t sure what to expect when he was walking into Robin Hall to meet her. They had kept in touch over the past few years, but only by email. Soon enough, though, it all felt like reconnecting with an old friend, he said.