Pilot John Cosgrove walked toward his aircraft before flying out of St. Louis Downtown Airport in Cahokia, Ill. John sees his work as a pilot as connecting people with each other, in addition to connecting with Jesus.
Pilot John Cosgrove walked toward his aircraft before flying out of St. Louis Downtown Airport in Cahokia, Ill. John sees his work as a pilot as connecting people with each other, in addition to connecting with Jesus.
Photo Credit: Lisa Johnston

Taking flight for Jesus

As a young pilot, John Cosgrove sees the connections between faith and flight as he navigates life in a pandemic

John Cosgrove completed a pre-flight checklist in his aircraft. John describes his work as a pilot, saying “you’re closer to Jesus at cruising altitude.”
Photo Credit: Lisa Johnston
John Cosgrove enjoys kicking the tires and lighting the fires.

That’s pilot-speak for taking to the skies, which he does both as a commercial airline pilot and a private instructor.

John has found himself contemplating his work, affected by the coronavirus pandemic, through the lens of faith. He reconnected with his Catholic faith through several encounters while a student studying aeronautics at Saint Louis University. And now he’s found his grounding through his parish, Incarnate Word in Chesterfield.

In his work as a pilot, “It’s like getting in touch with Jesus,” he said. “You’re taking 65,000 pounds of fuel, engines, oil, people and hearts from zero to 150 miles an hour, climbing 5 miles above surface of the earth. I always say that you’re closer to Jesus at cruising altitude.”

But the work is more than connecting with Jesus, he said. He sees it as a way to connect people with one another, too. “People meet long-lost relatives, or they’re going to a funeral, or a business meeting,” he said. “I see Jesus using me as an instrument in connecting people. And I believe that Jesus is present in all of that.”

The commercial airline industry has been among the hardest hit during the pandemic. It’s had an effect on John’s work as a pilot for GoJet Airlines, a regional airline based in St. Louis that operates commuter services under the United Express brand, part of United Airlines. While he continues to work there while airlines operate with fewer passengers and flights, he’s been working as a flight instructor with St. Louis Flight Training at the St. Louis Downtown Airport in Cahokia, Ill., teaching aviation students and helping others to earn instructor ratings.

Pilot John Cosgrove prayed a pilot’s meditation on his iPad as he sat in the lounge at St. Louis Downtown Airport.
Photo Credit: Lisa Johnston

Finding faith

John grew up in the Chicago area. The 23-year-old was raised Catholic, but faith was not a priority.

He began flight training in Chicago in July 2014, before his senior year of high school. Later that month, he attended a Kairos retreat. It led to a reawakening in faith.

“I learned to understand what Jesus’ love consists of, how special it is and how intertwined it is with everything that’s going on in the world,” he said. “Once I understood that, my eyes were opened. I was born again.”

John Cosgrove received the Eucharist from Father James Sullivan at Incarnate Word Parish in Chesterfield.
Photo Credit: Lisa Johnston
John doesn’t think it was a coincidence that he started learning how to fly and found a new relationship with Jesus within the same month. “They really have grown in tandem with each other, and as I am working with one, I am finding the other and vice versa,” he said.

He earned his private pilot license in March 2015 as a senior in high school; in the fall, he began flight training as an aeronautics student at Saint Louis University’s Parks College of Engineering, Aviation and Technology, the only Jesuit university in the United States to offer a degree program in aeronautics.

He attended more retreats and served as a sacristan at St. Francis Xavier “College” Church. While on a freshman retreat, he met Emily Winborn, a friend who introduced him to Incarnate Word Parish in Chesterfield. He was invited to Encounter, a monthly evening of praise and worship, prayer, eucharistic adoration, and a witness talk.

In recalling his first Encounter in December 2016, John said youth minister Dan Huss spoke about the arrival of the infant Jesus at Christmas, and the inconveniences Mary and Joseph experienced in their journey to Bethlehem. John saw that “Jesus doesn’t come when it’s convenient. He comes when we’re broken and when we’re undone, and perhaps when we need Him the most, especially in those times when it seems inconvenient.”

John Cosgrove, who attends Incarnate Word Parish in Chesterfield, said his relationship with Jesus took on a new form around the same time he learned how to fly. “They really have grown in tandem with each other, and as I am working with one, I am finding the other and vice versa,” he said.
Photo Credit: Lisa Johnston

Staying connected

As the coronavirus outbreak took hold of St. Louis in March, John watched as the two things he loved most changed — the Church and flying. He said it’s been difficult to see how the airline industry has been affected by the pandemic, as well as the changes to parish life, such as livestreamed Masses and videos from his pastor, Father Kevin Schroeder, and music minister Adam Bitter.

But throughout all of it, John said he’s remained steadfast in his faith, and he credited his parish for the ways in which it helped parishioners stay connected to one another. “Of course it’s no substitute for the Body of Christ and spending time in adoration,” he said. “But it gave me a virtual sense of community, a time and space for me to process my feelings and desires, and to listen to what Jesus wanted me to hear, even if the times are tough.”

Since public Masses have resumed, John has returned to attending regularly, including with his girlfriend Sarah Maller. “It’s been such a good feeling to come back to Mass,” he said. “With new guidelines, yeah there’s distancing, masks, separated pews … but I get to look at that tabernacle, I get to receive Him into my soul and oh, it’s so good.”

He’s also learned how to see the gift of faith through his work as a pilot, too. “I get to watch Jesus paint some pretty nice pictures of sunrises on those early mornings, sunsets and everything in between,” he said. “I’m set free from the problems of the world for the next hour and a half. In a way, it’s like taking a silent retreat.”

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