Atlas Duty Pilot Honored with Prestigious Aviation Award 

The Wright Brothers Pilot Award Certificate.

Former Atlas Air Captain Dave Heemstra retired as a 747 pilot in August 2021, but his aviation career is still going strong!

Since retiring from flying, Captain Heemstra has been serving as a Duty Pilot for Atlas. He was recently recognized by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award. This award is named in honor of the Wright Brothers, who built and flew the world’s first successful motor-operated airplane in 1903. The brothers were also the first to invent aircraft controls that made fixed-wing powered flight possible.

The award recognizes pilots who have demonstrated professionalism, skill and aviation expertise by maintaining safe operations for 50 years or more. Recipients are presented with a certificate and a lapel pin and are listed in the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award – Roll of Honor.

Captain Heemstra (left) receiving the award from the FAA.

Karen Henriques, Senior Manager System Chief Pilot, works closely with Captain Heemstra in his Duty Pilot role and shared what an asset he is to Atlas.

“Dave is always prepared. He never hesitates to go the extra mile. Whatever comes his way, he will stay with until it gets resolved. Even if the issue is outside his area of focus, he will not stop until he has identified a solution. He is a fantastic member of team and an all-around wonderful guy.”

Captain Heemstra.

When asked what receiving the award meant to him, Captain Heemstra said “Reflecting on my over fifty years in aviation, I find myself profoundly grateful to God for the extraordinary gift of flight. It has been a privilege to embark on not one, but two immensely fulfilling careers – first in the United States Air Force and later with Atlas Air.  Receiving the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award marked the pinnacle of a rich and fulfilling career in aviation.  I am humbled by the recognition and grateful for the countless memories that this journey has afforded me.”

Below is the nomination letter, written by Captain Heemstra’s wife Cheryl for the Master Pilot award, which details his aviation background and captures why he was chosen for this very prestigious honor.

Congratulations Captain Heemstra!

Nomination of Captain David L. Heemstra for the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award  

Submitted by: Cheryl Heemstra 

I am honored to submit this nomination for my husband, Captain David L. Heemstra, for the prestigious Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award. As his wife, I have witnessed firsthand his unwavering passion, dedication, and exemplary career in aviation. It is with great pride that I share his remarkable journey and accomplishments, which make him an ideal candidate for this esteemed recognition.  

Growing up in Sheldon, Iowa, David’s love for airplanes took root during his childhood. Consuming every book about aviation in the town library, he nurtured his dreams of taking flight. His journey commenced on February 1, 1969, when, as a Boy Scout pursuing his Aviation Merit Badge, he embarked on his first airplane ride in an Alon Aircoupe A-2. This experience ignited his passion further, leading him to accomplish his solo flight in the very same aircraft. Little did he know that this experience would shape the trajectory of his life and instill in him an unwavering commitment to aviation.  

During his high school years, David’s enthusiasm for aviation found a supportive mentor in his Industrial Arts teacher, Merwin Foster, who was also a licensed pilot. Recognizing David’s potential, Mr. Foster recommended him for a part-time job at the Sheldon Municipal Airport, where he worked diligently at M&B Flying Service, receiving invaluable training on aircraft maintenance and flying lessons from CFI Elmer Muecke. His dedication paid off, as he soloed a Piper Cherokee PA-28 at the age of 16, followed by soloing the Aircoupe just three days later. On his 17th birthday, he earned his Private Pilot License, and by his 18th birthday, he had obtained his Commercial Pilot License, subsequently adding a Multi-Engine rating. David’s commitment to excellence extended beyond piloting, as he also pursued an Airframe & Powerplant Mechanics License after receiving a letter of recommendation from A&P IA Merlin Bock, his supervisor at M&B Flying Service.  

Eager to further his aviation career, David enlisted in the United States Air Force after high school. He excelled in Aircraft Maintenance School, graduating at the top of his class. As a crew chief on the B-52 Stratofortress in the 410 Bombardment Group at KI Sawyer AFB, MI, he continued his private flying endeavors while actively seeking opportunities to enter the cockpit of larger aircraft. In 1978, he volunteered for Flight Engineer duty and was subsequently stationed at Norton AFB, CA, in the 15th Military Airlift Squadron. This is where we met.  

During his tenure, he flew as a Flight Engineer on C-141A/B cargo aircraft for ten years, serving as a flight simulator instructor and examiner. Additionally, he authored a script for a Cockpit Resource Management training film, “MAC 249, what are your intentions?”, which played a vital role in promoting more synergistic flight operations within the United States Air Force and the Australian Air Force. Simultaneously, David pursued higher education through Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, earning a BAS in Professional Aeronautics with a remarkable GPA of 3.7 in 1990, followed by a MAS in Aeronautical Science with a GPA of 3.9 in 1992, leveraging the educational benefits offered by the G.I. Bill.  

Following his tenure at Norton AFB, David was stationed at Hickam AFB, HI, within the 89th Military Airlift Wing. As a Flight Engineer on VC-135 aircraft, he contributed to VIP transport operations for the nation’s military leaders. His passion for aviation extended beyond his military duties as he volunteered as an Aviation Merit Badge Counselor for local Boy Scouts, offering them unique experiences such as touring VC-135 aircraft or visiting the Air Traffic Control Center nestled within the crater of Diamond Head volcano. Hickam AFB served as his final assignment during his commendable 20+ years of service in the United States Air Force.  

Upon retirement from the Air Force, David joined Atlas Air as a Flight Engineer on the Boeing 747aircraft. Eager to broaden his horizons, he acquired his Instrument Rating, Airline Transport Rating, and both CFI and CFII certifications. Committed to sharing his knowledge and expertise, he actively served as a CFII, Advanced Ground Instructor, and Ground Instructor Advanced Instrument at the Fort Meade Flying Club and Navy Annapolis Flight Center in the Washington D.C. area during his spare time. Remarkably, he has maintained his CFII License to this day. Seizing the opportunity to upgrade to First Officer, David participated in numerous 747 pilot training flights and dutifully supported 747 simulator operations as a Flight Engineer, preparing himself for the coveted promotion. When Atlas Air initiated the recruitment of First Officers, he was fully prepared and emerged as an exceptional candidate, seamlessly transitioning to this new role.  

David’s passion for aviation extends beyond his personal accomplishments. In a heartwarming gesture, he selflessly offered flying lessons pro bono to Gary Cusimano, his son’s sixth-grade teacher, who shared his fascination with aviation. Within a mere 13.7 hours, Gary successfully soloed under David’s guidance, earning his Student Pilot Certificate, cementing David’s reputation as an exceptional instructor.  

On October 8, 2002, David attained a 747 Classic Type Rating and subsequently acquired a 747-400 Type Rating. He achieved the pinnacle of his career when he was promoted to Captain on April 2, 2014, commanding flights on the 747-400/-8 and LCF, Boeing’s Dreamliner, truly exemplifying his expertise and versatility. Notably, David’s final flight held great significance, as he chose to fly a military charter passenger flight from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, to Baltimore Washington International Airport, transporting 251 service members. In a delightful twist of fate, the flight duration was precisely 7 hours and 47 minutes, a poignant conclusion to his remarkable journey. His esteemed colleague and friend, Captain Tony Baca, documented this memorable flight in a YouTube video, serving as a testament to David’s enduring legacy.  

Having devoted 27+ years to Atlas Air, David’s exceptional achievements include operating almost all models of the 747 (excluding the SP) and occupying various seat positions—an extraordinary feat. Despite reaching the mandatory retirement age, Atlas Air recognized David’s immense value and invited him to continue contributing to Flight Operations as a Duty Pilot. In this capacity, he utilizes his piloting and maintenance expertise at the Global Command Center near Cincinnati Airport, serving as a liaison to facilitate effective collaboration between airline crews, flight dispatchers, crew schedulers, and aircraft mechanics, ensuring optimal operational and safety outcomes.  

Throughout his remarkable career, David’s passion, commitment, and expertise have left an indelible mark on the aviation community, earning him the utmost respect and admiration from his peers and colleagues. His enduring legacy, characterized by exemplary piloting skills and an unwavering commitment to inspire and mentor fellow aviators, reflects the true spirit of aviation. Guided by his faith, David’s dedication extends to his family and fellow airmen, making him widely recognized as “a Pilot’s Pilot” embodying professionalism, skill, and expertise.  

As I have personally witnessed his journey, I firmly believe that David epitomizes the ideals and legacy of the Wright Brothers, with his immeasurable impact as a consummate professional and mentor. It is with gratitude that I express my trust in your recognition of Captain David L. Heemstra’s exceptional contributions, rendering him highly deserving of the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award. By acknowledging his profound achievements, you not only honor his remarkable career but also inspire future aviators for generations to come. I extend my heartfelt appreciation for considering this nomination and providing the opportunity to recognize a pilot who has made a significant difference in the aviation industry and touched the lives of many.