Michael Mainiero ’15: 747 Pilot to Youngest Captain in America

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This is the 57th article in Bears Doing Big Things, a weekly column celebrating the stories of notable M-A alumni.

Michael Mainiero ‘15 is a pilot and Boeing 777 captain for the cargo airline, Kalitta Air. Mainiero’s interest in aviation sparked at San Carlos Airport’s Hiller Aviation Museum, which he often visited while in elementary and middle school. At the museum, he discovered the Young Eagles program, which gives children between 8-17 a free ride in an airplane. After convincing his mother to allow him to participate in an Eagle flight, Mainiero found his love for flying, leading him to his career today. 

At M-A, Mainiero connected photography to his interest in aviation, specifically his hobby of planespotting, or taking photos of aircraft he saw at the airports he visited. “By taking Photography, I was able to join the two passions,” he said. 

Mainiero in front of a Cessna 152

Mainiero began training to become a pilot in his freshman year of high school, taking lessons at the San Carlos Flight Center, before switching to a private instructor on a Cessna 152 that he co-owned. On his 16th birthday, he received an endorsement that allowed him to temporarily fly his aircraft without an official license and without supervision to earn a certain number of required hours. He passed his Private Pilot License checkride a year later on his 17th birthday.

At the time, M-A did not have many other students interested in pursuing a career in aviation. “I was mostly on my own. When I was in junior year, there was a senior who was taking lessons out of Palo Alto Airport, and then in my senior year, there were one or two juniors who I heard were taking lessons. There just really wasn’t much exposure at M-A to this career, so it was me just doing my own thing and trying to make my school schedule work around it,” he said.

Growing up in a household without an Xbox or a PlayStation, Mainiero turned to the world of flight simulation for entertainment. “I installed Microsoft Flight Simulator X (FSX) and spent Lord knows how many hours on FSX growing up,” he said.

He continued, “After school, I would go straight home and hop on the simulator. At first, I was just fooling around, but after doing some research, I learned about the Virtual Air Traffic Simulation Network (VATSIM), which is an online air traffic community where I could fly with other virtual pilots and virtual air traffic controllers.”

Mainiero in a World War II era B-25 Mitchell Bomber.

Mainiero’s training put him in contact with hundreds of people interested in the same path as him. At his first airshow, he met Randy Howell, the owner of the Patriots Jet Team, a military aerobatic jet team based in Byron in the East Bay. 

He started helping the team and was consistently commuting to Byron to do work for them. “I was the annoying kid that they had trouble getting rid of. Randy Howell became a huge mentor and close friend of mine–––he’s like a second parent to me. When I graduated, I spent the whole summer living on a couch in the hangar. Even before I graduated, I’d fly back and forth from San Carlos to Byron, working on airplanes for six hours a day,” he said.

Mainiero eventually worked up the ranks in the team, getting certified to fly the Aero L-39 Albatros as the team’s videographer. 

While in his senior year at M-A, after he got his commercial pilot license, Mainiero got a job at CBS Radio flying traffic watch reporters around the Bay Area. “They used to fly two Cessna 172s around the Bay Area with traffic reporters who just look for accidents and make reports every 10 minutes on the radio,” he said. 

A Patriots Jet Team L-39 Albatros

After he graduated, he started flying as a corporate pilot. He first got certified as a first officer on the North American Sabreliner, before switching to a Cessna Citation X. In 2019, when he was 22, he got hired at his current company, Kalitta Air, a Michigan-based cargo freight airline.  

At Kalitta, Mainiero was able to travel all around the world, from Tokyo, Japan to Incheon, South Korea, and even Santiago in Chile. 

He first flew Boeing 767s at Kalitta for a year before becoming a first officer for the Boeing 777.

One of the many highlights in his career has been flying the Boeing 747 at Kalitta as a first officer. “Unfortunately I only got to spend a couple of months on it, it was a short stint,” he said. 

In December of 2023, Mainiero upgraded to a captain for the Boeing 777 at Kalitta, becoming one of the youngest captains on the Boeing 777 in the world.

Mainiero’s advice to students interested in becoming a pilot is to check out the Young Eagles program: “They have a lot of free training information on how to get into flying, and there’s still a chapter at San Carlos and two or three other ones in the Bay Area. It’s a great way to get on an airplane for the first time. There are also many flight schools in the Bay Area, between San Carlos Flight Center and Advantage Aviation at Palo Alto. You can call up and ask for information or go down and visit and for a discovery flight.” 

Ameya is a junior in his second year of journalism. He enjoys writing stories about education, sports, and local news and politics. In his free time he enjoys spending time with friends and watching movies.

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