Head in the clouds: Kroger Pilot Tom Pavlik soars through ups and downs

Tom Pavlik was born to fly.

From an early age, he had his eyes on the sky and played with toy planes. As he got older, he built model planes — then blew them up. He recalls enjoying this pastime with his two brothers.

“We made a lot of noise. Probably why I don’t hear so well these days,” says Pavlik, who just turned 50. “I was fascinated with how they flew.”

In the 1970s, Pavlik had a neighbor who had his pilot’s license. This afforded him the opportunity to take his first flight out of Lunken Airport as a young boy. “202 Mike Alpha was the tail number. When I was five – I remember that,” muses Pavlik.

These days, Pavlik takes to the skies several times a week as a commercial pilot for Kroger, flying executives back and forth across the country, to and from meetings. He loves his job, but the road (or, rather, runway) to his current, elevated station in life was long.

Wisconsin-born Pavlik came to Cincinnati as a toddler when his father accepted a food service job working for the University of Cincinnati. His family took up residence on the East Side in a house on Apple Hill. A couple years passed, and his dad was able to realize his dream of opening the Window Garden Restaurant across town on Harrison Avenue.

Pavlik recalls the trials of growing up in the family business. “I was a dishwasher. We all worked Thanksgiving and it was ‘all hands on deck’ from morning til night,” he says.

The Pavlik family’s Thanksgiving tradition was to get White Castle sliders for dinner on the way home. “The last thing anyone wanted was turkey at that point.”

In school, Pavlik was, admittedly, a mediocre student. Before graduating from St. Xavier high school in 1988, he made some very spontaneous plans and decided to enroll in a flight program at Kent State. He based his decision on a brochure cover.

“I just decided, ‘Yep that’s where I wanna go.’ Sight unseen … There was a picture of an airplane on the front,” smirks Pavlik.

Even in his college courses, Pavlik was uninterested in the subject matter, except for his aviation classes. He did, however, pursue academia within the flight program by joining the flight team, which competed with various other university flight schools on an academic level. An additional benefit of the flight team program was meeting his future wife, Judy, a fellow aviation student.

The relationship was slow to take off.

“She didn’t want anything to do with me. I think late my freshman year I caught her attention,” Pavlik says.

Judy recalls asking the flight team members if anyone would walk her back to her dorm after a meeting, per university safety protocols. “They always said don’t walk home alone,” she offers. Her recollection is that Pavlik leapt at the opportunity and the two became friends.

Judy graduated a year ahead of Tom and headed to Florida to find work. Tom insists that this bold move was actually devious on Judy’s part. He claims that on many occasions he had expressed to her his own desire to set up shop in the Sunshine State after graduation, due to better job prospects.

“She left me and went to Florida,” mourns Pavlik, in jest. “She took my idea and she left. The economy was bad then, and airlines were not hiring. Flight schools were not hiring. No one was hiring low time pilots — and that’s what we were.”

Judy has her own angle on the story. “I wanted to go to Florida and fly, too. I thought, ‘I’ll start working because I need money and then I’ll get a job flying.’ I drove down by myself and cried all the way. I got a job at Signature Flight Support at the desk.” She figured it would be a good opportunity to start networking while providing support services for private and business flight operations.

Judy soon had a nice apartment in West Palm Beach. Her parents attended Tom’s graduation from Kent State in her stead. The time of physical distance quelled the romance the couple had formed while in school together. But then, one day, Judy called with a job prospect, albeit not a prestigious one, and Tom quickly made a beeline south.

“I got in my ’84 Buick Regal and drove down ’75 as fast as I could,” says Pavlik. “I didn’t really think about where I was going to live. I just figured I’d stay with her a couple days and then find someplace to live. But, fate interjected.”

The couple rekindled their flame and Tom moved in. He worked filling airplanes with gasoline. Pavlik describes his younger self as the most overqualified line service worker in all of aviation history, but, like Judy, he saw the need to get his foot in the door. Eventually, he was lucky enough to find someone with a plane he could use for flight instruction. He logged more hours, and the pair lived well for a time.

Meanwhile, Judy had been joking to Tom that all she wanted was some “karats” for her birthday. So, in December of 1994, Tom hit the local Publix produce section. He discreetly placed a ring around a carrot at the bottom of the bunch and presented it to Judy. She overlooked the ring at first and was livid. However, once she found it, she cooled her jets and accepted Tom’s proposal.

Around that same time, better job prospects for Tom had led him (and, soon after, Judy) to Ocala. Pavlik had accepted a position as a flight instructor for Hawthorne Aviation. The couple settled down in what Tom refers to as “a stinky, nasty apartment.”

“Judy hated Ocala,” remembers Pavlik. “She used to say, ‘Tomma, I hate this place,’ just out of the blue, for a year and a half. And then she got so desperate with me of hating the place, she started sending out my resume and forging my signature, to anyplace that would take it.”

As a result of Judy’s scheming, Aviation Sales out of Dayton brought Pavlik up to interview in ’96. His teaching record was impressive. They offered him a job as a Chief Flight Instructor and he graciously accepted.

“It was a very good job run by some very good people — some of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” says Pavlik. “Just a mom and pop little place — everybody pitched in for everything. At the Christmas party, we drank all the leftover beer from the airplanes and made deep fried turkey.“

Pavlik was making double what he did in Ocala. He ran the flight school and Judy worked for him as a flight instructor. After a couple years, Pavlik was promoted to charter pilot. Times were good. Regardless, he says he was always looking for something bigger and better.

Through a connection with a friend whose father worked for Kroger, Pavlik caught wind that the corporate giant was looking to hire a pilot locally.

“It was the strangest interview ever,” says Pavlik. “They were looking for a fit. (The interviewer and I) talked for two hours. Then he said, ‘Come back in two hours and we’ll fly.’”

Pavlik fully expected him to rent some sort of light aircraft to fly out of Lunken airport. But this was not the case.

“There was a jet sitting on the runway and he said, ‘Let’s go!’ I had never flown a jet before in my entire life. We took off, and as the wheels came off the ground he said, ‘Your airplane. Let’s see what you can do.’”

Since he’d worked as a charter pilot of smaller planes, Pavlik was accustomed to avoiding clouds to lessen turbulent conditions within the aircraft. When he maneuvered the jet in this manner, the interviewer asked bluntly, “What are you doing?” Pavlik explained that he was looking for the smoothest ride possible. He believes this is what secured his job with Kroger.

Tom Pavlik has now been with Kroger for 20 years, and still continues flying executives during the coronavirus pandemic. He is the oldest tenured Kroger pilot. He, Judy, and their two daughters reside in Anderson Township near where Pavlik grew up.

The tight-knit family of four has recently developed a slight obsession with theme parks and roller coasters. In fact, for the past few seasons, Tom, Judy, and their eldest daughter have worked part time jobs at King’s Island, enjoying free admission and other perks.

Pavlik’s reputation for being a smooth operator on his charter flights carries over to his work at the park, where his specialty has been operating the Diamondback coaster. He goes above and beyond to make sure patrons have the best experience possible. Exit surveys filled out by visitors have earned him wide acclaim for his spirited involvement with the lined up crowds, and he has been chosen from among many to operate the new Orion coaster when the park reopens in 2021.

Pavlik imbues both his piloting and his work at the amusement park with equal dignity and puts his best foot forward in each role.

“I’m making the same amount as everyone else,” says Pavlik of his theme park job. “But I’m a shareholder in the company, and I take pride in what I do. I’m not just a ride operator… I’m an attraction."

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Read more articles by Eliza Bobonick.

Eliza Bobonick is a Cincinnati-based writer and a mother of three. Her work has been featured in such local and regional publications as Cincinnati CityBeat and Kentucky Homes and Gardens Magazine. She is a former musician whose interests include photography and interior design.