The Romualdo family celebrating their American life. (Courtesy Les Abend/)
As the Diamond DA42 Twin Star climbed northeast over Florida’s coastline after departing Daytona Beach’s Runway 7L, I grinned empathetically as Will Romualdo’s multiengine CFI student dealt with the process of correctly managing a simulated engine failure from the right seat.
How many years had it been since I recited, “Dead foot, dead engine, mixture, props, throttle, identify, verify, feather”? The years that had passed weren’t nearly as significant as the fact I was trusting my rear end to a man who wasn’t born until after I had been hired by the airline from which I am now retired. Even more ironic, the combined flight time logged for the pilots seated directly in front of me was less than one-quarter of my career total. But I was still relatively comfortable. Why?
It had been six years since I went flying with Brazilian Will Romualdo in his previous life. After riding in the jumpseat of an Avianca Airlines A319 in summer 2013, I had written “The Brazilian Shuttle.” The article described the experience of round-trip flights between the downtown Sao Paulo airport and Rio de Janeiro’s Santos Dumont Airport, with runway lengths at 6,300 feet and 4,300 feet, respectively. Will’s competence was as unquestionable then as it is now. So how did a former airline pilot end up as a flight instructor for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University?
The answer is simple: The American dream. Will had caught the flying bug at 5 years old after sitting on the lap of a captain flying for Varig’s regional airline. (He eventually flew as a first officer for that same captain years later.) Will became immersed in a desktop flight simulator at 9 years old. This magazine had a pivotal role in his future, with some of the translated articles enticing him about the freedoms of unrestricted flying in the United States; airspace in Brazil is highly restrictive for general aviation.
For his junior year in high school, Will traveled to Indiana as a foreign exchange student, further encouraging his desire to become an American. He obtained his private certificate and instrument rating and then returned to Brazil for completion of his senior year.
Having developed an affinity for Indiana, Will enrolled in Indiana State University at Terre Haute with a student F-1 visa. He attended one semester and then found a better opportunity to advance his flight training at Portland Community College in Oregon as part of an African missionary program. In addition to obtaining his A&P license, Will became a 19-year-old CFI, teaching at the Hillsboro Aero Academy for 2½ years. Having recommended the school to many aspiring Brazilian pilots, he eventually became their sales rep, sending approximately 210 students to the academy.
After spending some time in Africa flying a Cessna 206 as part of the missionary program following his time at Hillsboro, Will returned to Brazil. He converted his FAA licenses to the Brazilian equivalent. Because taxes for general aviation airplanes registered in the country are horrendous, affluent owners would oftentimes purchase aircraft in the US just to have the N number. This fact provided Will with an opportunity to fly a Beech King Air 350, which would be flown outside of Brazil to avoid the time requirement for registration.
With the appropriate flight experience in his logbook, Will was hired by Gol Airlines as a 737 first officer. He faced the possibility that it would be 12 years before an upgrade to captain presented itself, so when Avianca Brasil Airlines offered a faster track to the left seat, he accepted employment. In 2014, after two years with Avianca, Will became an A319 captain at the ripe old age of 28. His rapid success was further catalyst toward pursuing a better quality of life in the US.
Read More from Les Abend: Jumpseat
Though Brazil has its share of poverty and crime, it is a modern and vibrant part of the world. My exposure to Brazil and its people always left me with the impression of overall satisfaction and happiness. Sure, we avoided certain areas of the streets on layovers in several cities and traveled most often as a group, but that was common practice for many of our layovers.
Will’s insight to his country had more depth. He was frustrated with the corruption. The disparity between haves and have-nots promoted crime to the point that many of Will’s captain colleagues opted for bullet-proof windows in their cars. He shocked me with the statement, “They would kill you for an iPhone.” Will expressed fear that his emergency room pediatrician wife, Debora, might not come home from work.
And beyond the fears of everyday life was the lack of freedom to fly. Renting an airplane is not an option in Brazil. Flight plans are always required. Fees are charged for every flight. Will did not want to raise a family in that environment. Beyond his impeccable fluency with the English language, and his ability to assimilate colloquial speech to the point you just assume he is from Indiana, he had mentally transformed himself into an American.
Obtaining a visa to the US is not an overnight process, involving mountains of documentation and years of waiting, much of the delay because of quota restrictions. So when Will had a chance meeting with a fellow countryman in Orlando, Florida, he learned of an academic H-1 visa opportunity at Embry-Riddle, which is not subject to the standard quotas. He could complete the requirements for his Bachelor of Science degree and become a flight instructor. It didn’t take him long to apply. Leaving behind an airline career and a medical career, Debora and Will moved their life to Daytona Beach with hopes for the future.
Initially, Will assisted a professor with lab work. Within a short period of time, he not only became a CFII and multiengine instructor for the university, but he was anointed in-house check airman with the ability to conduct FAA standardized tests. Because of the waiting time required to obtain a green card and become a permanent resident, many of the students that remain at the school after graduation are foreign nationals. The six-day-a-week pace required for the job is beyond the energy level of most people.
One of the great parts of this story is that Debora and Will have brought a son into their new life. At 2 years old, Nathan is already indicating potential as a budding airline pilot. Another great part of the story is that they received green cards on the day before our nation’s birthday in 2019.
And as I sat in the back of the Diamond Twin Star, watching the calm, cool, collected Will talk through various procedures as we made six circuits around the pattern of my hometown airport of Flagler Beach, I smiled. At 33 years old, he was just about to begin his new career while I had recently ended mine. In less than two weeks, he would begin his employment at Spirit Airlines as an A320 first officer.
Not only is it the beginning of a happy ending, it’s the American dream. None of us should ever forget these are the people that help define our country. I am humbled to call them friends.
This story appeared in the March 2020 issue of Flying Magazine