As the sole passenger prepared to board a plane at the municipal airport in Rogers, Ark., with a soft drink in her hand, she turned to the pilot and asked, “Is it OK if I bring this can of Diet Coke on the airplane?”
Pilot Matt Gommel assured her it was.
“Ma’am, you own all of these airplanes; you don’t have to ask,” he told Helen Walton, widow of Walmart founder Sam Walton, who was, at the time, the richest woman in America.
Gommel, a Greensburg, Ind., native and a 1994 Indiana State University graduate, has worked for Walmart for nearly 19 years. He is among the staff of pilots who fly the company’s North American fleet of Learjets throughout the continental United States, Canada, Mexico and Central America. Another team handles the mega-retailer’s flights to Hawaii and other countries.
“One of the great things about my job is it’s not the same every day,” Gommel said during a recent visit to his alma mater for a reunion of aviation alumni. “I’ve been to every state except Hawaii. I get to see things in the world that I’ve never been able to see. Walmart’s given me the opportunity to do things I never thought I’d ever do.”
He averages six to eight overnight flights per month and enjoys 12 days off each month.
“The time I get to spend with my family and the time I get to do whatever I want allow me a quality of life that if they would pay me half as much tomorrow, I would still work there. It’s just a great company,” he said.
Sam Walton was a pilot and all three of his sons earned their wings, so it’s no surprise Walmart has its own planes.
“Our company is very rich in aviation culture,” Gommel said. “Sam not only was a pilot but his three sons were also pilots. I’ve heard stories where he’d circle the stores counting the cars in the parking lot to see how many customers they had.”
But don’t look for the chain’s bright blue lettering or smiley face on the aircraft. The company does not advertise on its planes, Gommel noted.
One thing that sets Walmart pilots apart is that they are all considered co-captains.
“The captain and co-pilot scenario doesn’t exist,” Gommel said. “We’re all trained the same way.”
His passengers are primarily Walmart’s top executives and buyers.
“We all wear badges like the people in the store,” he said. “It’s a very unassuming company. I get to call the president of the company by his first name. Everybody knows everybody. We fly a lot of the same people out of the home office. It’s like one huge family.”
It hasn’t always been this way for Gommel. As in most fields, a college degree is not always a ticket to instant success.
After graduating from Indiana State with a bachelor’s degree in professional pilot technology, Gommel moved to Florida to look for work as a flight instructor and, after about six months, finally found a position with a struggling flight school that paid $75 per week.
After surviving for a few months on peanut butter and bologna sandwiches, he moved back to Indiana where he landed a job pumping gas for an air freight company and then transferred to the same company’s dispatch office and eventually served as a pilot for about two years. That’s when a former co-worker from Arkansas helped him get an interview with Walmart.
Gommel said Indiana State prepared him well for his career, although he never imagined he would one day fly bigwigs in corporate jets.
“They taught me what I needed to know to be a flight instructor, and that is the key to starting out in aviation,” he said. “It’s a very difficult industry to get started in. I really appreciate Indiana State for what they did. It was a good education; I had a great time here.”
Gommel met with several aviation classes during his campus visit, telling students, “You can’t like aviation. You have to love aviation,” he said. “It has to be in your soul; it has to be something you dream about at night, because there are going to be hard times. You just don’t go out making six figures the day after (graduation) flying a Boeing 747 around the world. You have to do the stuff that is tough.”
He stressed that students must look for jobs that emphasize quality over quantity.
“You have to scrimp and do everything you can to get the quality flight time to prepare yourself to do what I’m doing,” he said.