Captain Paris Michaels, IWP student (as well as 2006 alumnus) already had a successful career as a Captain, Instructor, and Supervisory Pilot for US Airways by the time he came to the Institute. In addition, Paris serves as an expert witness for the US Department of Justice, a consulting system designer for Northrop Grumman, and as a consulting pilot-expert for Dombroff and Gilmore, a prestigious Washington-based firm specializing in aviation law.
In 2003, he set a record for flying a landplane over a commercial route – from Philadelphia to Rome – at an average speed of 990.57 kilometers per hour. This feat was accomplished not simply through pushing the throttle, but by ambitious flight planning and precision coordination.
An Unorthodox Start
After working as an Assistant Chief Flight Instructor of the 400-student and 65-aircraft University Flight Training Operation at Florida Institute of Technology, Paris was accepted into the Navy Flight Program. Commercial airline pilots like Paris need many hours of flying experience with complex aircraft before they are qualified to fly major commercial planes, and many pilots gain this experience through the military. At the time that Paris’s career was taking off, though, the demand for military pilots was rapidly decreasing.
Paris instead gained his major flight experience by flying Muslim pilgrims from all over the Islamic world to Mecca using elderly 200-passenger DC-8 aircraft. He lived in Sri Lanka, and flew to Mecca from places like Singapore and Indonesia. He learned about the vastness of the Muslim faith, and the extreme devotion to their faith that he saw in so many of these people.
He would fly full airplanes to Mecca, and usually return with the plane only three-quarters full – many of the travelers died of heat, dehydration, and old age on the journey. Many pilgrims with whom he interacted had nothing but their faith, and Paris began to see how powerful an exploited and radicalized version of this religion could be. He began to understand how it would be possible for terrorists to motivate their base.
Preparing for New Challenges at IWP
After 9/11, he was upset that such a thing had been allowed to happen. He knew that many pilots and flight attendants for a long time had been fearful of such an attack in the air, but no official effective action had been taken on a large scale to prevent it.
Paris came to IWP partly because he was outraged about 9/11, and wanted to learn more about how the defense and foreign policy systems worked in America (and why they had not been well enough coordinated to prevent the recent terrorist attacks). He was also drawn to IWP as a result of the natural curiosity he had developed while learning about other cultures during his travels.
At IWP, he found a program that is “realistic, ambitious, and diligent,” with “a high level of academic competency.” He found that, often, “the student sitting at the left or right of you is somebody who is already in intelligence or public service.” Paris even made valuable connections within the aviation industry itself while at IWP.
He says of his courses at the Institute: “You don’t show up to a class unprepared. In the small classes, almost every professor I’ve had toys with you, challenges you, and defies you… in a way that is fair to both perspectives.”
Paris also appreciates the emphasis put on history in the curriculum. He even feels that, “You couldn’t be a patriot if you don’t understand [IWP’s] curriculum… And you don’t understand the curriculum without an appreciation for the history of the nation and the history of the world.”
Putting Education into Practice
Paris’ latest adventures involve working as a security analyst for GHS Aviation, and helping airlines around the world prepare for organizational safety audits for the UN’s International Air Transport Association. GHS is one of only eight companies worldwide qualified and authorized to conduct such audits. Over 320 of the world’s largest passenger and cargo airlines go through evaluations every two years.
In April, he went over to the Congo to help AirServ International prepare for an audit. AirServ is “the world’s leading not-for-profit provider of humanitarian air support to move critical personnel and cargo into the most isolated areas affected by humanitarian emergencies.” Congo also has more airplane crashes than any other nation in the world. (To learn what National Geographic has to say about these Congo bush pilots, click here, and to order a video about their work, click here.)
While hoping that the active volcano – one that was eight miles from his room, was glowing orange, and had covered the a third of the airport in lava in 2006 – would not erupt, Paris conducted his safety inspections, and met pilots who faced death on a daily basis, and who had even learned how to diagnose diseases in the villages they visited.
Paris says that “Every day that I was in the Congo, I was drawn back to what I learned at IWP.” For instance, he had learned how insurgencies work, and was able to witness and recognize signs of impending chaos. In Goma, there was a threatened food supply, rebels from three factions were roaming the streets, and there was apparently no law and order. Because of his IWP education, Paris knew how to behave in these situations, and what to do when a threat was near. His course in strategic geography even came in handy when he was flying over Rwanda – the nation that was the escape plan target if the Congo became even more tumultuous.
Paris says that he feels “privileged to have a background in these things without ever having served in the military,” and that his IWP experience will certainly be of use again when he returns to do more work – hopefully soon – in Baghdad, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Above: Captain Michaels pauses for a photo at Entebbe Airport near the scene of the famous 1976 hostage-rescue operation by Israeli commandos.
-published June 25, 2009