A dream not deterred

By Gus Bode

On the Wings of Dedication

He is a Muslim and he is a pilot, but Sept. 11 didn’t ground SIU student Omar Baig.

Flight posters are tacked on the wall. Under those are a University Aviation Association certification. A flight simulator yoke rests on the floor next to a desk.


Omar Baig, 20, an aviation management major, sits in his dorm room holding a list of his accomplishments as a pilot. The list clutters an entire sheet of paper.

Baig has been infatuated with the sky ever since he set foot on a plane. His family has backed him 110 percent and made sure that every opportunity was offered to him. His dreams of being a pilot were always in the most beautiful Technicolor, but on Sept. 11, those dreams were momentarily reverted to black and white. Not only was Baig a pilot; his roots were in India, and the color of his skin and his Muslim religion made him question whether or not those dreams would ever appear in brilliant color again.

His first experience with a plane occurred when his mouth was chock-full of baby teeth.

Both of Baig’s parents are from New Delhi, India. Baig was born in Ames, Iowa, and when he was still in diapers his parents would take trips every few years to visit relatives in India. The eight-and nine-hour flights provided exposure to Baig when he was only four years old.

I still remember it like it was yesterday. I was four years old; it was a winter day in Des Moines, Iowa. I got on the airplane, I even had a couple of tears in my eyes because I’d never been on an airplane before and didn’t know what it was going to be like.

As soon as the engine started up on that jet and that thing got in the air, I knew right then I’d be an airline pilot.

When we got in the air, my mom said, Look, it looks just like your matchbox cars,’ and I was glued out the window the whole time after that. It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen, Baig said.


After that, Baig bought every book about planes that he could. His parents bought him as many toy airplanes as they could afford.

My family did everything they possibly could to make my flying career dreams come true, Baig said.

It wasn’t a smooth flight from the beginning. Baig’s eyesight began to deteriorate when he was 10 years old.

In the late 80s and early 90s, airline pilots weren’t allowed to wear glasses, and Baig happened to be sporting a pair. This discouraged him from flying, so he pursued a brief career in rock n roll. In middle school, Baig played lead guitar in a band.

Then things started to change. The market for aviation expanded so fast that the requirements for pilots, since there was such a shortage, became more lenient. Basically, if someone had contacts or glasses that corrected his vision to 20/20, he could be a pilot.

As soon as I saw that, I cut off the long hair, I got a new wardrobe, started reading up on flying again, bought a flight simulator for my computer and I hit it 24/7, Baig said.

Baig was 15 years old when he walked into the airport to take flying lessons. When his classmates were excited about getting their driver’s licenses, he was looking forward to something else.

Baig woke up on his 16th birthday excited because his parents drove him to the airport. Baig soloed an airplane before he could legally drive a car.

From then on it was straight ahead, as fast as he could, and Baig didn’t look back. By the time his 17th birthday rolled around, he was a licensed private pilot.

It was fun birthday birthday cake and a pilot’s license, that was the best present I’ve ever had, Baig said.

When he made it to the 11th grade, he had his instrument license. By age 18, Baig was a fully licensed commercial pilot with multi- and single-engine credentials. Yes, that means he is capable of flying the big jets seen tearing up the skies.

When other kids were flipping burgers, Baig was dropping people out of planes. In his last semester as a senior in high school, Baig flew for a skydiving club in Des Moines, Iowa.

So, I’d take them up to altitude and throw them off the airplane. It was great; I was 18 and earning money flying, Baig said. I did get some weird looks at first, but as soon as we got in the air and we all kind of made friends with each other, they said, Wow, he’s so young, he’s motivated and he does his job well.’

In August 2000, Baig enrolled at SIUC. Because he arrived pre-qualified in all the areas most freshman spend their first two years devoting time to, Baig was awarded 32 credit hours and sophomore standing.

Baig is involved in almost every flight Registered Student Organization available and is so devoted that he now doubles as a flight instructor at SIUC.

I usually have four students a semester. It’s an absolutely amazing and rewarding job because now I get to share all my enthusiasm with people pretty much my age. Not only that, I’m learning just as much as they’re learning, Baig said.

The average number of flight hours upon graduation for a aviation graduate with a commercial certificate is 250 to 300. Baig came in with 325 and has now racked up more than 700 hours.

The skies were clear. Baig was soaring toward his dream; the future never looked so good. Then something happened. A national tragedy that hit him close to the heart.

Baig arrived at the SIU airport at 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 11. All of his fellow instructors, classmates and teachers were congregated in one area. This was unusual because most people are flying or busy somewhere else by that time in the morning.

It was just minutes before the second World Trade Center tower was gutted by another plane.

No one really knew what was going on at that point, Baig said.

When he first came in, a co-flight instructor told him that somebody had hit the Trade Center in a plane.

Low visibility, Baig thought. A small plane had an accident.

Another flight student said a plane had been hijacked.

That stuff happens, Baig thought. It’s happened in the past.

Around 8:45, a group of flight students and teachers alike headed for the television.

And there they were; both towers were hit and there was smoke all over the skyline of New York. I stood there with my mouth open for about five minutes, Baig said. After a couple hours of that it started hitting me.

David NewMyer, department chair of SIU Aviation Management and Flight, saw the effects of Sept. 11 weave through the department.

There was a lot of shock because the weapon of delivery was aviation. It was sad for all of us to see airplanes used in that fashion, NewMyer said.

Baig was affected on more than one front that morning. He had the same feelings that heavied the hearts of Americans across the nation. He, however, had an extra surge of emotions filling his mind.

I thought, here’s my industry, here’s everything I’ve worked for to this point, Baig said.

Then I thought, I hope this is not Islamic-related, because if it is, what’s going to happen, what are people going to think, what are they going to think of me?

When people started saying it was an Islamic event or a Muslim tragedy, Baig became frustrated and angry.

When Timothy McVeigh blew up the building back in 95, no one said, This is a Christian event,’ no one said, this was a Christian terrorist,’ he said.

Baig was so upset, he called his parents. He told them it was by no means anything Islamic related. He asked, why are people saying that this is under the act of Islam?

There’s nothing in the Quran, and I’ve read it myself, that talks anything about terrorism, Baig said. In fact it says, If you kill one person, you are punished as if you have killed the whole mankind.’

His parents tried to comfort him and calm him down. They reassured Baig that it wasn’t his face on TV.

I felt like I wanted to tell everyone what was really the case and the media kept saying Islamic this and that,’ so at the same time I just wanted to stay low key, I didn’t want to go out in public, I didn’t want to go out late at night, I didn’t want to deal with it. I wanted to do something but I couldn’t, Baig said.

Then things really started to come full circle for Baig. He realized his career could be in jeopardy. Everything he had worked for since the 10th grade could be washed away with prejudice. So he got to work.

Baig was a positive force as the president of MAC, NewMyer said. He helped raise more than $900 for the relief effort in New York.

He’s doing all the right things, NewMyer said. He works for the department, and he was right in there working hard to get his flight students finished on time.

Baig spent the two weeks after the towers collapsed sitting in his dorm room. Because of the FAA’s decision to restrict airspace, Baig couldn’t do the one thing he wanted to do fly. He couldn’t do the one thing that could have gotten his mind off of the television.

The television taunted Baig with confused accusations streaming from the visual and audio waves hour after hour.

What’s my future like now?

Now, when Baig tells people he’s going to be an airline pilot one day, they just look at him with surprised, incredulous glances.

What are the airline interviewers going to think of me now when I sit at their desks? Are they going to say I look pretty similar to the guy that just blew up their jet, are they going to question my ability? Baig said.

In that lonely dorm room, the phone was the only thing that kept him going. It wouldn’t stop ringing. Friends, family and other airline pilots kept calling. They told him they knew what was going on and to persevere. They told him not to stop; they told him to hold on to his love of flying.

Before Sept. 11, it had never occurred to Baig that being Muslim could impede his chances for a flight job in the future; the thought never even crossed his mind.

Why should I let 19 idiot hijackers ruin my career? Baig said.

So he just worked harder and kept going. He accepted the Muslim stereotype that he may have to deal with in the future. He realized that, just like many minorities, he may get the short end of the stick when applying for a job.

Although Baig’s job was suspended for two weeks as a result of the FAA’s flight embargo, he was still a student at SIUC. SIU planes could not take to the sky until air clearance was given, which wasn’t until around Sept. 24.

I couldn’t have picked a more comforting school then SIU, Baig said.

The first thing SIU did was console its aviation students. SIU flight administrators told their pilots and students there was still a light at the end of the tunnel, even if it appeared to be snuffed out at the present time in aviation.

All through it nobody changed their behaviors, not Omar or the students around him and their actions toward each other, NewMyer said.

Barely a month after Sept. 11, SIU hosted TWA day. Baig was chosen to fly on the flight to St. Louis, regardless of all the profiling going at security counters.

They still chose me. I said there’s no way to stop now; there’s no reason to stop now, Baig said.

Everything is actually busier at SIU aviation then before Sept. 11. It’s on its way to prosperity again. The aviation industry moves in flux with the economy, but it’s on its way back up.

In essence everybody was right there is light at the end of that tunnel, Baig said.

Baig wants to obtain an internship with a major airline. He wants to become a pilot for a regional air carrier, which would include charter flights. He still wants to meet his lifelong goal as a major airline pilot. He would like to become a chief pilot one day, a base manager or a spokesman for a pilot’s union. Upon retirement he still wants to stay with the airlines.

After I turn 60, I’ll still fly till I die, Baig said. September 11 is something I’ll have to deal with for the rest of my life, as will my kids, but it will not be an issue if I stay focused and maintain my standards. I think there will be a bit of a barrier, initially, when I go to get hired, but I’m just going to have to prove myself harder.

After it all, Baig cannot walk away from the one thing he’s certain of, just like the air he breathes or the blood pumping through his veins the fact that he’s a fly-boy.

I’m a pilot; this is who I’ve always been, Baig said. It’s in my heart; it’s what people see me as a pilot, and that’s all I’m going to be.

Reporter Arin Thompson can be reached at [email protected]