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SunLit

In this excerpt from “No Man’s Son,” the author recounts her husband’s final day

Michael Chowdry, a Pakastani immigrant, built a cargo airline and a life in Colorado. It all ended too soon when he and a journalist died in a crash.

Linda Hayes Chowdry might be equally as adventurous as her late husband, Michael.

As a young woman, she left Texas for Cheyenne, Wyoming, and a new life with her first husband. Nine years later, she traveled across the border to Colorado, where, as a single mother, she worked to support her two young daughters. 

Linda met Michael Chowdry shortly thereafter, in 1981. They were married two years later – the beginning of a 20-year relationship. Along with her two daughters, Jennifer and Regan, she and Michael had two children, Jim and Olivia. After Michael’s death in 2001, it didn’t occur to Linda to write a memoir about her immigrant/entrepreneur husband. But, she said, “Michael had a pretty fantastic story to tell. My friends kept saying I should write a book. And, finally, in 2017, I did.”

The following is an excerpt from “No Man’s Son.”

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.


Michael Chowdry was a Pakistani immigrant to the U.S. who arrived with with a driving ambition to make a difference in his chosen industry — aviation. With an entrepreneurial spirit, he launched a successful airline, Atlas Air Cargo. In 2001, he died in a crash in Colorado, along with the aviation editor of the Wall Street Journal who had come to do a story on his company. “No Man’s Son” is the story of Michael Chowdry’s short but successful life told by his wife, Linda Chowdry.

We arrived home in Denver on Sunday evening. Michael went straight to Taiwan on Monday, January 22 for a short meeting, left immediately after, and was in Seattle by Tuesday afternoon, January 23 for a five-hour negotiation with Boeing over a multi-plane 747 deal. 

In addition to discussing Atlas 747-400 purchases, one purpose of the meeting with Boeing was to gauge their interest in developing a larger passenger and freighter aircraft. Always looking ahead to the next step in Atlas development, Michael had discussed with Airbus the possibility of Atlas being the launch customer for the A380 freighter. At the time, Boeing was skeptical of the marketability of a larger passenger aircraft to compete with the A380. In later years, Airbus declined to offer a freighter version of the A380, but Atlas went on to operate the larger 747-8F aircraft that Boeing developed.

Following the meeting in Seattle and a same day turnaround, Michael arrived home in Denver well after midnight.

The kids were eating breakfast before school on Wednesday, January 24 when Michael, having heard they were awake, came out of his bedroom in the oversized, terrycloth, yellow hooded bathrobe he often wore around the house. He picked Olivia up under the arms and swung her in a circle. 

“No Man’s Son,” by Linda Chowdry

“Do you know how much I love you?” he asked.

They giggled together, he put her down, and he did the same thing with Jimmy.

Michael then went back into the bedroom to dress for the day. When he returned to the kitchen, I had come upstairs from my morning workout.

“You’re up early,” I said, knowing how late he’d arrived home and realizing how little he’d slept.

“Huge day today,” he said. “I have that interview with the Wall Street Journal.”

He was up bright and early for the moment he’d been looking forward to, not only all week, but for years. More important to Michael than the Bush inauguration or his meeting at Boeing, was his morning interview with the aviation editor for the Wall Street Journal. 

His excitement was palpable as he sat down to the fruit salad, hard boiled eggs, and Assam tea Virginia had prepared for him.

“Where are you meeting the reporter?” I asked.

“Front Range Airport,” he said. 

“You’re taking him flying?” 

“The man writes about aviation for the Wall Street Journal.” Michael grinned broadly. “Of course I’m taking him flying.”

Given the fatigue inherent in the breakneck pace of the past week, I wondered if it was a good idea. I was even less sure when he added:

“I’m taking him up in the L-39.”

“You’re taking him up in the military jet trainer?” 

“Definitely,” Michael said. 

Linda Chowdry

“You can’t take the reporter up in the DC-3 or one of the other planes?” I asked, more than over his penchant for pushing the envelope.

“No way.” 

“Are you even current in that plane?”

“I am. Vicki is bringing my certificate to the airport,” he said, confident of his abilities and excited to show off his plane.

“I swear, you’re going to kill yourself in that thing.”

“You’ll be a rich widow,” he said, not taking me seriously. 

“I don’t want to be a rich widow raising two kids,” I said. “I want you around.” 

“You worry too much,” he said, and kissed me goodbye. 

“I love you,” I said. “If you kill yourself in that plane and are in heaven, know I’ll be mad as hell.”

“I love you,” he said, gave me another kiss, and headed on his way.

To say Vicki Foster was excited about that morning’s interview with the Wall Street Journal was a huge understatement. She’d been working for the better part of eight years to score a feature of this magnitude about Michael Chowdry and his accomplishments. She’d gotten up extra early and made sure she was at the airport ahead of either Michael or the reporter. 

While she waited at the Front Range airport, Vicki reveled in the beauty of the foothills and the crisp dry air. She’d just flown in the evening before from upstate New York where Atlas, and everyone who worked there, had moved six months earlier. Everyone in the company but Michael and the top executive team, that was.

 She wondered how she’d allowed Michael to talk her into selling her house, having her husband give up his job, and move away. 

By the time Michael arrived for the interview, she was feeling homesick and a little cranky. 

“You’re never going to move to New York,” she said instead of hello. 

“Vicki, we’re looking at houses now.”

 “What time did you get in last night?” she asked, noting he looked fatigued, particularly around the eyes.

 “Three a.m,” he said. “But I’m fine.” 

“No doubt,” she said, not liking his dismissive tone. “Are you sure you want to go up in the L-39?” 

“You sound like my wife,” he said. “There’s no way I’m taking the aviation reporter for the Wall Street Journal up in anything but the L-39.”

 Michael was a pilot who was qualified to fly a number of aircraft, so Vicki was confident in his abilities, and she had the current flight certificate.

“Ready to run through my flight plan with me?” he asked.

Vicki was only too happy to go down the safety list necessary to fly the L-39 that morning. Together, they went through every item, Michael saying, “Got it,” over and over until he’d checked off everything. She watched him fold the flight plan and put it in his jacket. While he followed up with a visual check of the aircraft itself, Vicki went to greet Jeff Cole, the Wall Street Journal reporter.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

As she escorted him over to meet Michael, she found herself steering their esteemed guest toward the DC-3.

“The DC-3 is a great plane,” she said. “I think you should go up in that.” 

Michael spotted them and waved from in front of the L-39.

The reporter looked as excited as twelve-year-old Jimmy when he heard they were going to take the jet trainer for a spin.

Vicki knew her idea had fallen on deaf ears.

She watched them prepare, Michael providing Jeff Cole with a flight suit, helmet, and everything else he would need. Before they climbed into the cockpit, Michael detailed various information, including important instructions about the canopy lockdown and release system. Michael then helped his passenger into the rear seat, clipped him in, climbed into the pilot’s seat, gave the thumbs up, and closed the canopy. 

Vicki gave them a friendly wave.

A Cessna 401 pilot watched the L-39 pull up nearby on the run up pad and observed Michael following a full-blown, in-cockpit checklist including several “high engine” run-ups over a five-to-seven minute period. 

Michael and his passenger took off at 11:26 a.m.

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