03/29/2013 07:50 am ET

Philip Donlay, Former Pilot Turned Author: 'I Wanted My Swagger Back'

Most people who have heard of 56-year-old Philip Donlay know him as an author of action-packed thrillers. Yet before Donlay was an author, he was a pilot, logging more than 14,000 hours of flying that have taken him to six continents and 40 countries. Flying was Donlay's ultimate passion, one he would've continued enjoying if it weren't for a diagnosis that stripped him of his livelihood after 28 years. Donlay spoke with Huff/Post50 associate editor Anthonia Akitunde about how writing saved his life.

I was raised in Wichita, Kansas, which is the air capital of the world. I was bitten early by the flying bug. My grandfather was a private pilot. When I was 4 years old he would take me up, I would sit on his lap and he would let me steer. It would scare me to death, but I couldn't wait to get back up.

I continued on and learned to fly in high school. I got my private license when I was 17 and I just kept going. I kept accumulating ratings and ... I was on the path to become a professional pilot at 19. Like most careers, you start at the bottom. I was a flight instructor [but] just through being at the right place at the right time, I was introduced to a gentleman who was looking for a young co-pilot to pilot a plane that was just purchased by a Saudi sheik. At the age of 20, I went to Saudia Arabia to fly [the Sheik's] plane for three months.

I lived in Jeddah and flew all over Europe. It was quite the experience in a lot of different ways. Kansas to the Middle East? Even today that's a cultural jump. For a 20-year-old ... it was quite an eye opener. Career wise it was huge. I went from instructing single-engine airplanes to being a co-pilot on a corporate jet.

My initial contract was for 90 days. The conditions were pretty attrocious. I was living in this primitive hotel in Jeddah -- wasn't quite the place for a 20-year-old kid. There's no bars, there's no women, there's nothing. I took the opportunity to come back to the States. I started working on my career [but now] with some jet hours [under my belt].

When I first came back from Saudi, I did a few odd jobs just to get acclimated to being back in the States. I delivered some airplanes for [Pepsi] factories and then I got a corporate job in 1980. It ends up being the job until I retired [after 28 years].

I started experiencing pains and having trouble sleeping in my late 20s. Some of the things I could write off as age, [as I got older] but something told me there was probably something else happening here [when I got to my 40s]. To be a captain on any kind of jet, you have to take a physical every six months to maintain your status. It finally got to the point where I had to find the answers. I didn't want to hear them -- in my mind, jeaopardizing my career and not being able to fly would be the absolute worst thing that could happen to me. As it turned out I did have medical issues. It took my career away from me.

I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease called ankylosing spondylitis at 52 -- it's an automimmune arthritic condition. It's hard to tell, it manifests itself as just chronic pain: pain in my neck and in my back and in my hips. There's even an offshoot of it [where] I would get an arthritic outbreak in my eyes -- your immune system for whatever reason attacks [your] eyes so it got inflamed, kind of swelled up and then locked up, so the iris wouldn't work.

As my back and hips became more arthritic, I was starting to have physical limitations that were affecitng my ability to fly the airplane at the professional level. I flew internationally so you sat in the cockpit for hours at a time, and that's what I can't do. Even today, when I drive, I can drive for about an hour before I have to get out and stretch. [There are] not really conducive conditions to do that as a pilot.

So that was the problem, the quality of life without drugs was just almost unberable. I went to the Mayo Clinic to get a second opinion on this just to salvage my career. They uncovered some cardiac issues. I had artirial blockage. I had a triple bypass heart surgery [in 2008 and] that was the end of my career at that point.


It was horrible. I don't like change. I loved my job, I loved doing it and I still miss it. It was the worst thing that had ever happened to me at that time. I was a wreck. It took me a while to try to find my purpose again. I think we all need that, and men are even worse at -- we are what we do. One day I was a senior jet captain, the next day I'm just a guy living on the 4th floor.

I tried all the therapies that would provide relief from pain and I really didn't respond to any of them. My world shrank considerably. I wake up in the morning and I'm stiff, I hurt, it takes awhile to get going. And then I have a window -- I have a six-hour window if I'm lucky to actually be to a point where I can focus and I could write. I wouldn't think about the pain, I would be in my head. It was an escape from my world -- which isn't always that much fun -- into a world I could create. I had to stop taking a bunch of the narcotics they were giving me to combat the pain. I rarely take a vicodin these days and the writing is my escape. It saved my life.

I turned my passion for airplanes into a passion about writing novels with airplanes. I really had to dust off the writing career, which had always been a hobby. I self-published my first novel, then [I] was picked up by a publisher for my second novel and then it went bankrupt... I didn't really tend to [writing] like a professional novelist would because flying airplanes took precedence over selling books.

When I couldn't fly anymore I really did need a purpose. I was really lost. I needed something that would give me some focus and some drive. I wanted my swagger back. I wanted the swagger that I had as a jet pilot. Writing gave me that. It gives me a reason to get up in the morning; I have to use my brain, I have to be useful, I have a purpose now. I have goals and I set them for myself. Everything was rescaled from flying around the world in a private jet -- including the salary. Once all of those issues that I thought were the worst things in the world settled down, it turned out to be the best thing.

I've seen the world at 600 miles an hour and now i get to see it at 60 -- so it appeals to me. As a novelist I can write anywhere. It's a better world now than it was 10 years ago, and I would never have guessed that. I'm healthier and happier now than when I thought I was at the top of the world and where I wanted to be.

Philip Donlay