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They fell in love three decades ago. Now they pilot planes together

On their first flight together, Joel Atkinson and Shelley Atkinson couldn’t contain their excitement. They enthused to the flight attendants. They posed for photos. They told passengers via a pre-flight announcement.

“We made a big deal about it,” Joel tells CNN Travel.

Then, right before take off, Joel and Shelley sat side by side in the flight deck, just the two of them. They’d come full circle, and were about to embark on an exciting new chapter.

“It felt amazing,” Shelley tells CNN Travel.

“As we prepared to take off, I was giddy, euphoric,” says Joel.

Joel and Shelley met as twentysomethings flying jets in the US Air Force. They became fast friends, then, over time, fell in love.

Today, they’ve been married for 27 years and counting. They’ve brought up two kids together. And now they’re both pilots for Southwest Airlines. They regularly fly together, with Joel as captain and Shelley as first officer.

The couple say working together is “amazing.” They treat layovers as “date nights.” They learn from one another’s respective “wisdom and judgment.”

And no, they don’t argue mid-flight.

“People ask us, how does it work, flying together?” says Joel. “We know a few pilot couples and some of them fly together, some of them don’t. I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh I could never fly with my wife or my husband.’”

For Joel and Shelley, working together is seamless – a joy that comes easily to them both.

“We’re best friends,” says Shelley.

“There’s just that unspoken bond,” says Joel.

Inspired by ‘Top Gun’

Joel and Shelley met while working in the US Air Force. - @luvpilots/Instagram
Joel and Shelley met while working in the US Air Force. - @luvpilots/Instagram

Shelley grew up in Iowa and moved to Colorado – Joel’s home state – as a teenager. The two spent their high school years unaware of one another, but they graduated the same year, and both opted to study at Colorado’s Air Force Academy in the late 1980s.

Joel says he was very influenced by the 1985 Tom Cruise movie “Top Gun” – “which made flying jets look like a lot of fun.” For Shelley, who was an athlete, the appeal of the Air Force Academy was less about flying – which she only really discovered once she was enrolled – and more an opportunity to play college basketball.

“I didn’t attend the Academy to pursue flying, initially. Once I was there I realized it was a great opportunity for a fun and challenging career,” she says. “And the introduction to flying there made me want to pursue it further.”

Joel and Shelley spent four years studying at the Colorado Air Force Academy without actually crossing paths, although Joel was vaguely aware of Shelley.

“There’s not that many women at the Air Force Academy, so I kind of knew who she was,” he says.

The two finally met a few years later, after they’d both completed pilot training in different states. They got the same first assignment – flying Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircraft in Texas.

When Shelley arrived in Texas, Joel had been there for a few months.

“So I was there, kind of established, and she came into the office where I was working,” he recalls. “She came in and turned in the paperwork, and we said, ‘Hi,’ just exchanged some pleasantries.”

Joel was struck by Shelley right away.

“She’s tall. She looks great. She left the room and this other coworker was just looking at me smiling. And I said, ‘What?’ And he could tell.”

Looking back, Joel thinks it was the “eye contact” he had with Shelley that gave his feelings away. Or maybe just “the look on my face.”

“There was something there,” says Joel, smiling. “But I just kind of laughed it off. I was like, ‘Nah, we’re just going to be friends.’”

The two became friends first and later fell in love. - @luvpilots/Instagram
The two became friends first and later fell in love. - @luvpilots/Instagram

Joel was also a bit intimidated by Shelley – he was “attracted to her right away,” but didn’t know if she’d ever be interested in him.

“She’s taller than me. And I had never dated anyone taller than me,” he says. “She’s an athlete, she’s a natural leader, and just an impressive person.”

But Joel’s warm nature appealed to Shelley. She felt comfortable around him right away. They became close friends.

“Joel has a really great sense of humor,” says Shelley. “I love that about him. And he just really has a sensitive heart to people, all people around him, he looks out for people.”

“That really attracted me to him. And also, he used to have a nice dark head of hair. I really liked that too. But he has a very distinguished look now, and he’s just as handsome as ever.”

About a year after they first met, Joel and Shelley were deployed abroad, together.

That’s when they “kind of started dating,” as Joel puts it. While there wasn’t much opportunity to go on actual dates on active service, they bonded.

“Conversations, talking about everything, basically,” says Shelley. “We really got to know each other’s heart that way. And I think it just made it clear that this is what we were supposed to do.”

Back home in the US, the two “started officially dating.”

“We just kind of knew that this was going to be it,” says Joel. “And within a few months, we got married.”

Joel and Shelley became instructor Air Force pilots in Mississippi. Then, in the early 2000s, Shelley gave birth to the couple’s kids, two twins, a boy and a girl. Shelley left flying around this time, but she stayed in the military, working for the US Air National Guard.

“I wanted to be at home,” says Shelley.

The path to pregnancy wasn’t easy for the couple and Joel calls their kids a “huge blessing.”

“We went through in vitro a couple of times,” he says. “It took a few years for us to actually get pregnant.”

The family relocated back to Colorado and Joel transitioned from military flying to commercial flying, becoming a pilot with Southwest Airlines in 2006.

Returning to the air

Cut to 2021. The pandemic years were tough going for Joel and Shelley, emotionally speaking. While the couple stayed healthy, their kids were in their late teens and struggled with the upheaval. Plus, Covid was impacting the aviation industry, so Joel was flying less. Around this time, Shelley left her job at the National Guard. She and Joel were wholly focused on their family and their kids’ wellbeing.

But in time, the pandemic waned and Joel started flying more regularly. Joel and Shelley’s kids graduated high school and started the next phase of their lives. It was a transitional period for the Atkinson family, and in turn, Shelley started considering her future.

She found herself dreaming about flying. She hadn’t been behind the controls of a plane in over two decades, but she felt a call to return. She started wondering if, like Joel, she could become a commercial pilot.

When Shelley voiced the idea to Joel, he was immediately enthusiastic.

“I said, ‘Come fly with me,’” says Joel, joking “cue the music.”

Then, by coincidence, later that day, Joel saw a social media post from his airline, Southwest, about a pilot who’d taken a two decade break to raise a family, then returned to flying.

“She literally had the same story as me,” says Shelley.

It felt like a sign. While Joel didn’t know this other pilot directly, he was able to reach out to her via his work network and pass on contact details to Shelley, who subsequently texted the other pilot, asking for guidance and advice. Then, with encouragement from her new friend – plus Joel’s wholehearted support – Shelley committed to returning to the skies full time.

While Shelley had years of Air Force experience, she hadn’t flown airplanes for 20 years. She had had to hit the books, take additional tests and ensure her qualifications were up to speed.

But before long Shelley was hired by SkyWest Airlines, flying regional jets. Then she joined Joel at Southwest in 2023.

“It was crazy. It happened way faster than I thought it would. It’s been amazing,” says Shelley.

“It was meant to be,” says Joel.

Flying together

Joel and Shelley credit their success as a co-pilot team to their nearly three decades of marriage, as well as years of co-parenting.

“Raising two teenagers during Covid, I tell people that was a lot harder than what we’re doing now,” says Joel.

Plus, the two met as colleagues – so they know how to balance commitment to a job with enjoying each other’s company.

Still, as a married couple in the military, Joel and Shelley never flew in the same aircraft.

“The military kind of frowns upon it,” says Joel. “It’s a little morbid, but they don’t want you to both go down in a plane crash.”

No such guidelines exist in commercial aviation, and so once Shelley joined Southwest, she and Joel were able to work side by side. Joel’s seniority allows him to regularly bid for flights with Shelley. And the two find Joel’s years of commercial aviation experience pairs well with Shelley’s fresh take.

“She looks to me and relies on me for the experience that I have. But I also know that she is a very sharp person, she just went through a lot of training. So her knowledge is fresh. And she also has that wisdom and judgment,” says Joel.

Joel and Shelley say they make a great team because they're a married couple -- they're good at working together. - @luvpilots/Instagram
Joel and Shelley say they make a great team because they're a married couple -- they're good at working together. - @luvpilots/Instagram

Since the excitement of their first flight, Joel and Shelley tend not to “make a big deal” about being a husband and wife pilot duo – unless it’s preempted by their colleagues.

“We wait for them to ask,” says Shelley. As the couple share the same last name, often crew members put two and two together.

As Joel’s the more senior of the two, he often runs the pre-flight briefing. Sometimes he’ll end it with a quick, throwaway: “Yes, we’re married.”

The crew usually “start laughing,” says Joel.

When Joel and Shelley are taking off and landing, they’re focused on the job at hand. “It’s very technical,” says Joel. “We’re running checklists.”

But when the airplane reaches cruising altitude, “there’s some downtime” and Joel and Shelley will make the most of it, talking through their thoughts on life, their kids, their future plans and everything else that’s on their mind.

“It’s so great, because all the years that I was flying, and she was at home, anything I wanted to talk to her about when I’m up in the air, it had to wait,” says Joel. “You’re saving up conversations until you’re home. It’s like now we’re making up for lost time.”

Then, when they land, Joel and Shelley make the most of the layovers. Southwest largely flies domestically, so the couple enjoy traveling the length and breadth of the US together.

“It is a great job, because you go see different places and spend time in different cities,” says Joel, but before Shelley joined Southwest, Joel says layovers sometimes felt like “wasted time, because it was just me, and I couldn’t share it with her.”

“But now we’re together when we’re on the road – it’s so fun. Because every night on the road, it’s a date night together,” he says.

Now, instead of counting the days until he’s home, Joel says his “home is right here” because “she’s with me.”

Family connection

The couple love traveling together and cherish their time working as a duo. - @luvpilots/Instagram
The couple love traveling together and cherish their time working as a duo. - @luvpilots/Instagram

While Joel and Shelley have flown together countless times since Shelley joined Southwest, they’ve yet to fly with their kids in tow. That’s on the to-do list – plus, their son is also training to be a pilot, so there’s a chance Shelley and Joel might pilot an aircraft with him in the future.

For Shelley, an additional perk of the last couple of years is her adult kids getting to “view her as a pilot for the first time.”

Shelley and Joel’s children grew up knowing their parents met flying jets – but while they saw their father regularly piloting airplanes for Southwest, they never saw Shelley flying. Shelley is really happy her children get to see her doing a job she loves.

Shelley’s also proud to be a female pilot in an industry that’s still very male-dominated. She hopes to inspire other people, especially mothers who may have taken a break from the workplace to raise a family, by demonstrating that returning to a passion is possible.

“I hope it encourages other women that there is this opportunity out there – you can come back and you can still do it,” she says.

Shelley says she’s really loved rediscovering her love of flying.

“The view from 36,000 feet is pretty awesome,” she says. “Flying over parts of the country - I just love looking down and going, ‘Oh, what town is that?’”

Shelley and Joel particularly enjoy flying in and out of San Diego, California, but they also love it when Southwest takes them to New York. Before Christmas, they enjoyed a stopover in New York City and went searching for the settings of their favorite movies, from “Elf” to “Serendipity.”

“I love traveling, seeing new places,” says Joel, who adds that he’s gone from avoiding working weekends to voluntarily signing up for Saturday and Sunday flight shifts. He and Shelley now spend Saturday nights watching jazz in Portland, going on hikes in Sacramento or drinking cocktails in Palm Springs.

Joel’s always loved flying – especially what he calls “the art and science” of aviation. He also loves “serving people, getting them to where they need to be,” but he admits flying during the pandemic was hard going. For Joel, having Shelley now by his side at work has “been just a complete turnaround.” Now even the ride to work is fun as the couple car share, coffees in hand.

Joel and Shelley, who post about their adventures on their Instagram account @luvpilots, are currently planning to pick up a flight together on Valentine’s Day. Joel bought the two of them heart-printed ties especially – they’re “silly, but fun,” says Joel.

The couple enjoy chronicling their travels on social media – celebrating their marriage, their respective careers and their adventures.

“We feel blessed. We’re thankful for the opportunity,” says Joel. “We’re thankful to Southwest Airlines for letting us do this together.”

“If you love doing something, why not do it with the person you love?” says Shelley.

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