He started his career as a ramp agent. Now he’s a pilot.


Justin Mutawassim was 5 years old the first time he took a flight. The Delta pilots on board invited him to explore the cockpit, “and I was just absolutely enamored,” he said.

“I remember sitting there and being fascinated by all the buttons,” said Mutawassim. “From there, I just caught the bug.”

By age 6, he had decided: “I wanted to be a pilot.”

His pull toward aviation intensified as the years passed, but he did not see a clear path to becoming a pilot, so at age 19 he found himself working as a ramp agent. He wanted to be close to the planes he loved.

This spring, though, he achieved his long-held dream: He became a Delta Air Lines pilot.

“It feels incredibly surreal still,” said Mutawassim, 26, who is based in New York City.

His road to becoming a pilot was less linear than he had envisioned as a child.

Mutawassim’s middle school teacher — who was in the United States Air Force — wrongly informed him that perfect vision was a requirement to become a pilot.

“When I heard that, I was really defeated,” said Mutawassim, who wears glasses. “I didn’t really have the ability to fact check that.”

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He graduated from high school in 2014 and decided to pursue a career in broadcasting. Mutawassim worked part-time as a technical director for a few minor league sports teams and applied for a communications degree at a community college in Dallas. He enjoyed broadcasting, he said, but it didn’t fulfill him the way he knew aviation would.

In December 2014, about a year into his studies, Mutawassim decided to drop out.

“I didn’t want to waste my time or my money on something I wasn’t truly invested in,” he said.

Mutawassim took a semester off school and got a job as a ramp agent hauling bags for Delta Air Lines.

Mutawassim servicing an aircraft on the ramp in 2016 while working as a Delta ramp agent. (Courtesy of Justin Mutawassim)

“Next thing you know, it turned into a year and a half of an awesome job,” he said, adding that he quickly progressed from agent to supervisor, and later, instructor. “I just absolutely fell in love with the technical aspect of aviation.”

“It was physically the hardest job I’ve ever done,” Mutawassim continued. “Manual labor is no joke.”

During his time as a ramp agent, Mutawassim’s desire to pursue a career in aviation became stronger, but he said he didn’t have the confidence to make it happen.

That changed when he met his mentor, Ivor Martin, in 2016. Martin was then a pilot for Virgin America, and is now a captain for Alaska Airlines.

While riding an employee bus — which transported staff from the parking lot to Dallas Love Field Airport — Mutawassim struck up a conversation with Martin. He told him about his hope to one day become a pilot.

Martin’s response: “Justin, come over to my house. We’re going to sit down and talk about it.”

So they did, and Martin sketched out a path Mutawassim could take to become a pilot.

“I set out everything that he had to do, and he followed it to a T,” said Martin, 54.

As a Black person, Martin said, it was difficult to find relatable role models in the industry.

“I didn’t really have anyone to mentor me when I was going through the process,” he said.

According to 2021 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 3.9 percent of people in the category of “pilots and aircraft engineers” identify as Black.

“When I was coming up, I didn’t see hardly anybody that looked like me,” Martin said.

He helped Mutawassim prepare for written tests and eventually apply for flight school. He sat down with Mutawassim’s parents to discuss financing and urged his mother to co-sign a loan so Mutawassim could pay for the degree.

While at ATP Flight School in Dallas, Mutawassim soared — both literally and figuratively. He breezed through the curriculum and was able to complete the necessary licenses in 11 months.

Mutawassim during the summer of 2018, while earning the required 1,500 flight hours to become a commercial pilot. (Courtesy of Justin Mutawassim)

Mutawassim earned the 1,500 hours of flight time required to become a commercial pilot by working as a flight instructor, and he was also able to co-pilot some private flights. He was hired as a pilot for a regional airline, Republic Airways, in 2018, and worked there for three years.

Mutawassim at his first pilot job with Republic Airways in June 2020. (Courtesy of Justin Mutawassim)

In the summer of 2021, Mutawassim moved to Breeze Airways, a start-up airline, and spent six months as a pilot there. In spring 2022, after he learned Delta dropped the college degree requirement for pilots, Mutawassim eagerly applied for a position.

A few days after he sent in his application, he received a call from the airline, asking to set up an interview time.

“I was absolutely shocked,” said Mutawassim.

To his delight, he was offered the job and started the position in May. He had several months of training and just finished his final qualification flight Oct. 1.

It was a surreal moment, Mutawassim said. He reflected on how far he had come in only six years, from carrying luggage to flying a Boeing 767.

Mutawassim after his first Atlantic Ocean crossing as a Delta pilot. (Photo courtesy of Justin Mutawassim)

His story is somewhat parallel to Patrick Burns’s — Delta’s vice president of flight operations and system chief pilot.

“My path to the flight deck of a Delta jet was similar to Justin’s,” Burns said in an email to The Washington Post. “I also got my start on the ramp loading bags onto our flights, and after college, I worked hard to build flight hours and experience with other airlines before returning to Delta as a pilot.”

Mutawassim shared a tweet on Sept. 29 showcasing his progress: “This one has been 6 long years in the making.” He added “how it started” and “how it’s going” photos — one of him as a Delta ramp agent in August 2016, and the second as a Delta pilot in September 2022.

The post “absolutely blew up out of nowhere,” said Mutawassim, who is completing college courses in his spare time, and is working toward a degree in aviation science.

Comments poured in, including from strangers sharing similar success stories.

Mutawassim said he is “dumbfounded” by the response to his post, which he initially expected only a handful of friends to see. He encouraged people who were touched by his story to consider donating to the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP) — which both he and Martin volunteer for. Delta has also partnered with OBAP for more than two decades.

“Delta is working hard to make all pathways equitable and to remove barriers for qualified candidates,” said Burns.

Mutawassim volunteering for Professional Pilots of Tomorrow at an OBAP convention with a fellow Delta pilot in summer 2022. (Photo courtesy of Justin Mutawassim)

In addition to his work with OBAP, Mutawassim volunteers as a mentor for Professional Pilots of Tomorrow, which offers networking and mentorship opportunities for pilots. He works as a mentor for both organizations.

“It’s been really rewarding for me to start giving back to the community, and educating people about the profession,” he said.

Martin, who has mentored several prospective pilots, said the one thing he asks in return is that his mentees “pay it forward.”

“He’s doing that,” Martin said of Mutawassim. “I am beyond proud of him.”

Mutawassim with his mentor, Ivor Martin, an Alaska Airlines captain, at Mutawassim's Delta Air Lines pilot wing ceremony in May. (Courtesy of Justin Mutawassim)

Mutawassim, for his part, said being a pilot for a major airline is “even better than I imagined.” He is already looking ahead to the future and is working toward his next goal of becoming a captain.

On a recent morning, while walking through the airport terminal in his Delta uniform, he saw a little boy point to him and say: “Look, there’s a pilot!”

In that moment, Mutawassim said, “it all came full circle."

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