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SunLit Interview: Bravery set Michael Chowdry apart, says his wife and biographer

Linda Chowdry describes a man unafraid to take chances in his life -- from leaving Pakistan, to starting a business, to creating success from failure

Michael Chowdry was born to fly. For a Pakistani boy born to modest means, though, getting airborne required unbounded self-confidence, rare determination and the courage to travel halfway around the world. He ultimately succeeded in becoming both an accomplished aviator and founder of the world’s largest all-cargo airline, Atlas Air.

His wife and business partner, Linda Chowdry, captures this modern aviation pioneer’s life story in “No Man’s Son.”

In a recent interview for SunLit, Linda shared her unique perspectives—from family flights to the shocking tragedy that took him from her and their children — with William B. Scott, former Rocky Mountain bureau chief for Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine.

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.


William B. Scott: From a reader’s perspective, Michael’s compelling journey seemed to be a fast-paced adventure, but also a financial roller coaster.  Clearly, you believed in him.  What about Michael did you find so inspiring?

Linda Chowdry: I think the attribute I most admired was how brave he was.  Just think about him boarding a plane for the first time in his life, traveling from Lahore, Pakistan, to London, where he knew one person.  There, he did whatever he had to do to survive.  Realizing there was no opportunity for him in England, he got on a plane from London to the University of Minnesota in Crookston, where he knew not a soul.

While there, he managed to buy a small plane.  The payments on the plane were $2,800 a month, making it necessary for him to keep the plane working any way he could.

He was always seeing and taking the next step forward.  He was fearless.  He had some business failures and lost businesses. When this happened, he came out with just enough to take that next step forward.  He also learned lessons that he never forgot along the way.  Several times we weren’t dead broke, but we were close.  He always had ideas about what he wanted to do next.  I trusted him completely and knew he would take care of us.  It definitely had its stresses, but it was mostly fun. 

William B. Scott

Scott: Michael obviously liked people and treated his employees and colleagues well.  Could you cite a few examples of how he took care of his loyal employees, core executive team and flight crews?

Chowdry:  When doing interviews for the book, I had to make sure some things had actually taken place.  For instance, I remember his friend and colleague, John Blue.  For John and Sandy Blue’s wedding anniversary, he sent them on the Concorde (the supersonic aircraft developed by British and French aircraft manufacturers and powered with Rolls Royce engines) to Paris.  He enjoyed making generous gestures like that.  

His flight crews – I think this was unusual – he liked to put them up in really nice hotels for layovers.

And then there were the parties.  Michael really loved giving parties. We had big Christmas parties in New York City, Miami, and Denver.  We threw clam bakes with fresh seafood flown in from New England in our backyard.  He always knew important dates, birthdays and anniversaries, and he always made the congratulatory phone call, and when appropriate, sent gifts.  He cared deeply for his people.

Scott:  There was periodic pressure and business reasons for Michael to relocate your family, but Colorado must have been a special place for you.  Why did you and Michael choose to set up Atlas Air’s headquarters in Colorado, even though the company’s fleet of 747 cargo aircraft was based on the east and west coasts?

Chowdry: Actually, Atlas was the second company to be headquartered in Genesee.  Its predecessor was Aeronautics Leasing, Inc.  Just as the name suggests, the business was buying aircraft and leasing them to the airlines.

Michael loved the foothills with sweeping views of Denver and the mountains.  When we moved from Fort Collins to Denver, we considered locations within a 30-minute drive of the old Stapleton Airport.  We chose Genesee.  I think it reminded him of Abbottabad, Pakistan where he spent a month each summer at the home of his beloved uncle.  We lived in Genesee from 1992 until his death in 2001.  I think that was where, for the first time, he felt that he had a home.

Scott: You hailed from West Texas and Michael from Pakistan, but aviation joined your lives in Colorado.  Did Michael enjoy the unique challenges of mountain flying?  Could you share particularly memorable experiences of flying with him in Colorado?

Chowdry: On weekends, we most often would go to Jeffco Airport (now called Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport).  We might take a small plane to Cabellas in Nebraska or take the DC-3 to an air show in Kansas. On Fourth of July holidays, we would get Chinese takeout and go up in the DC-3 to watch the Denver fireworks below.  The kids especially loved that.

Scott: There’s no question that Michael was an out-of-the-box thinker.  Can you give me examples of how that skill manifested in his personal life and in business?  Maybe a non-obvious fix to a vexing, seemingly unsolvable problem?  

Chowdry: In his personal life, I would say his out-of-the-box thinking was marrying me.  Had he not been who he was, he would have married a nice young Pakistani woman.  Instead, he left Pakistan and married me, a divorced Caucasian woman with two kids.  

Then, of course, there was creating Atlas. In the early ’90s, airlines were suffering and some went bankrupt.  Michael was having to take back planes he had leased out through Aeronautics Leasing.  Along with the banks, he owned the planes and was having to keep them from putting him into bankruptcy while seeing aircraft be returned.  He managed to absorb the losses except for a 747 cargo plane that Pan Am returned.  This was the final blow.  But instead of going under, he leased the plane to China Airlines, providing aircraft, crew, maintenance and insurance.  Atlas was born. 

Scott:  Although Michael Chowdry was recognized as a true pioneer in American and international aviation circles, he was also one of us.  How would you like Coloradans to remember Michael?

Chowdry: He was a man of faith with a strong belief in God which allowed him to pursue his dreams no matter where they took him.

Not long before he died, he told me, ‘If I die tomorrow, I’ll die a happy man because I built a good business and have a good family.’  I’ve always remembered that and it’s given me peace over the years.  He died doing what he loved.  He died flying.

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Read an excerpt from the book.

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