In the courtroom and in the clouds

Mark Skolnick, lawyer and pilot, on the runway at Merrill Field.
I AM UAA: Mark Skolnick, lawyer and pilot, on the runway at Merrill Field.
(Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

B.S. Aviation Technology ’01
Hometown: Rockville, Maryland
Fun Fact: Reported directly to U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan while serving in a Marine Corps Reconnaissance Company at Elmendorf.

When Clark Kent steps into a phone booth on the streets of Metropolis, he emerges as his alter-ego Superman. When Mark Skolnick steps into the supply closet at UAA’s aviation campus, he steps out as… well, he’s still Mark Skolnick, just wearing Carhartt coveralls over his business suit.

Mark splits his days between two very different jobs—he’s both a full-time lawyer (hence the business suit) and a dedicated flight instructor (hence the Carhartts). He may start his day in a courtroom downtown, head to Merrill Field an hour later to spend the afternoon flying to King Salmon, then drive home to his wife and three kids to enjoy evening family time. Often, he’ll head back to the airstrip for a night flight or to the law office to work in undisturbed peace.

He may not have any comic-book-caliber superpowers, but his ability to multi-task and succeed on his schedule is nothing short of amazing.

Flying to Alaska

Mark enlisted in the Marines at age 17 and began piecing together his college degree while serving at bases around the country. After arriving in Alaska, it wasn’t long before he realized he wanted to become a pilot.

“I transferred to Elmendorf in May of 1998 and within a month I rode my bicycle around Lake Hood and watched all the float planes taking off and landing and thought, ‘I want to do that,’” Mark recalled. The surrounding beauty of Alaska helped as well—the limited access by road versus the freedom to explore from above. Everyone in Anchorage knows the amazing drive to Seward. What would that look like from a couple thousand feet up, with views of the glaciers, ice fields and the Pacific Ocean en route?

After leaving the Marine Corps, Mark remained in Alaska and earned a B.S. degree in aviation technology, a program he described as “in its infancy.” He graduated with the class of 2001—the first class of four-year aviation tech graduates from UAA. Several months later, 9/11 would rattle the nation and deeply impact the aviation industry for much of the next decade.

With a fresh degree in a suddenly stagnant industry, Mark reassessed his goals and started considering law school. He jokes that, in his East Coast family, “everyone becomes a doctor, dentist or lawyer.” Enlisting in the Marines, becoming a commercial pilot and making a home in Alaska were complete outliers for his family, but he did follow the family path to law school at UCLA. Sunny days in Southern California couldn’t keep him from returning to Alaska. “The second I came back after I graduated I jumped right back into flying,” he said.

Busy mornings and night flights

For the past six years, Mark has been a flight instructor for UAA. To graduate, every piloting student needs a certain amount of hours with an instructor in the air, so Mark monitors student checklists, coaches them through controls and spends hours on end shoulder-to-shoulder with his student.

Piloting, on paper, is very direct and mechanical, but it’s far more than just pushing the throttle. It’s significant bookwork, checklists and radio work. It requires adapting to changing weather, assessing situations and responding. Quickly.

A typical day in Mark’s life is overwhelming just to hear about. “The biggest juggle actually is getting out of the house,” he laughed. Mark’s day starts with that familiar flurry of lunch-packing, diaper-changing and dog-feeding typical of many young families. “Fortunately, I don’t have to shave here or at my law job,” he joked.

He’ll often start his day as a lawyer, focused on real estate and banking law. “I’ve gotten to a level of experience in my practice where I can do much of my work remotely, except for of course court hearings,” he explained. He schedules his flight shifts around court appearances and meetings, and makes sure to be home from 5 to 9 p.m. for family dinner and winding down the day with his family.

But even with the kids in bed, his day is far from over. He’ll keep prepping for the courtroom and, more often than not, end up back at the airstrip. Students are required to obtain a certain amount of night hours as well, and Mark is happy to fill his schedule with late-night blocks. “In the summer—when we have nighttime from 1 to 3:30 in the morning—I love those flights,” he explained.

He credits his supportive wife Cortney—a UAA English alumna—for the ability to live such a crazy schedule. “My wife understands how important this is to me,” he said. “I’ve been flight instructing for six years and I love flying. Alaska and UAA mean a lot to me.”

Mark is an all-star on the flight instructor roster. As a UAA aviation alumnus and a military veteran, he can relate to his students. Not only does he train piloting students, he also mentors the next crew of flight instructors as well.

He’s earned a reputation in the department for his dedication to the students. “If there’s a student who’s struggling or not doing as well, I know—without a shadow of a doubt—I can put him with Mark and the student’s going to get their best shot,” said Ash Burrill, flight operations manager for the piloting program.

Mark’s track record proves his dedication. For the past two years, his students have notched a 100 percent pass rate on flight tests. “I think what he really truly enjoys, in all honesty, is seeing the students’ jumps in progress and feeling like he’s part of it,” Ash continued.

“He gives back every single day, while working another full time job… What you get from Mark, it’s incomparable.”

In Ash’s eyes, there’s one final benefit to having Mark on his roster: “It’s hard for students to say they’re too busy or they don’t have enough time when I assign them to Mark,” he joked.

Yes, it’s a nearly superhuman daily schedule. And somehow—with two fast-paced and completely dissimilar careers—he’s still home by dinnertime and to coach his kid’s soccer team.

The only snag, which he’s quick to admit, is his proclivity to running late. “The students that work well with me are patient, and I thank them for their patience daily,” Mark laughed.

Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement. This story originally appeared in Green & Gold News on Jan. 29, 2015.

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In the courtroom and in the clouds
In the courtroom and in the clouds
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