DANBURY — Tim Salaika remembers pedaling his bicycle to a small airport near his house and being fascinated with the aircraft shooting off into the sky. That childhood admiration led to a career in aviation spanning more than a half-century.
“I started out flying model airplanes when I was a little kid and then radio-control airplanes,” he said. “It is all I ever wanted to do. I couldn’t ever think of doing anything else. It was just something I always wanted to do.”
Salaika recently received the Federal Aviation Administration’s highest honor, The Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, for having worked more than 50 successful years in the aviation field.
“It is a pretty prestigious award,” he said. “Fifty years I have been in the business. Here I am. It is nice. It is nice to be recognized.”
Salaika joined the army flight school and served in Vietnam as a Cobra helicopter pilot. He has been a test pilot in Ohio, worked for a small helicopter company, owned a part-time fixed-wing flight school, flown for Houston Helicopters Inc. and was an FAA designated pilot examiner before buying about 30 acres of land and opening an airfield, flight school and maintenance facility in Danbury.
Salaika has enjoyed something about every step of his aviation journey, he said.
“A little bit of everything,” he said. “I like my little business here.”
Salaika also received the Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star and Combat Air Medal for his time in Vietnam and his excellent track record in the military, going above and beyond, he said.
“I never had a crash over there but I was shot at a few times,” he said.
Nowadays, Salaika is largely focused on his Brazoria County company, teaching a new generation of pilots, he said.
Teaching people to properly fly is not an easy business and not everyone who comes through the flight school passes, however, Salaika said.
“I would say, graduates, maybe 12 a year,” he said. “People starting, probably 50 a year. I think you have to really be born with it. You have to really want to do this. To get a pilot’s license, you got to put in a lot of effort.”
Students will come to him, wanting the climactic, adrenaline-filled rush of being in the sky, but many are not prepared to work hard for it, Salaika said.
“The vast majority don’t finish,” he said. “Those are the ones we call starters. It is not an easy ride.”
His son eventually will take over as teacher, training the next generation who want to be in command of aircraft, Salaika said.
“He is kind of moving into the flight training end of it,” he said. “He is eventually going to take it over.”
His father has amassed a resume many could only dream of, TJ Salaika said.
“It is a blessing, to see someone in your family accomplish so much,” he said. “It is surreal. I have big shoes to fill.”
Like his father, being high in the sky has just always been a passion living inside of him, TJ Salaika said.
“Every day it is something different; the scenery is always beautiful,” he said. “It is a great job.”
Winning the the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award is the finish line for him in a sense, the cap to a highly ambitious career, the elder Salaika said.
“Of course, that was always my dream to get this far,” he said. “This is the pinnacle I think, for me.”
If anyone wants to follow his path and work in a career field with many opportunities, he has a simple piece of advice, the elder Salaika said.
“Get after it,” he said. “It is a good field. There is always a pilot shortage. Sign up and start doing it.”