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The Air Up There: Al Zielinski’s Dual Careers

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Torn between two very different passions, Al Zielinski chose both worlds. Meet the energetic president of Niles-based Better Kitchens, a man who’s following his own flight plan.

“When you’re in a balloon, you’re part of the wind,” Zielinski says. “The earth now begins to turn all around you. To fly for an hour or two in that kind of solitude is simply amazing.” (photo provided)

During his 20s, Alan Zielinski was faced with a difficult decision: continue working in the family’s Niles-based kitchen architectural design business, or pursue his affection for aviation on a full-time basis?

That’s when he had a heart-to-heart discussion with his father, Edmund, one night at the dinner table.

“I said, ‘I don’t want to give up the family business, which is near and dear to me, but I also have this love for flying,’” he recalls. “My dad was very supportive. He said, ‘Why don’t you live in both worlds, and let’s see how we can make it work out.’”

It turns out that his father knew exactly what he was talking about.

Today, the younger Zielinski, a Park Ridge resident, enjoys not only the challenge of running a successful business, but carving out enough time during his hectic schedule for flying.

Zielinski is president of Better Kitchens Inc., in Niles, the business Ed launched in 1956, helping homeowners to achieve their dreams of building and renovating kitchens and bathrooms. He’s also a certified kitchen designer and 2012 president of the National Kitchen & Bath Association (NKBA), the industry’s main trade association.

“It’s such a great industry,” says Zielinski. “People always ask me what my job is. It’s to help clients edit choices in a very complex marketplace and come up with solutions. To me, that’s what kitchens and bathrooms are. I enjoy complicated puzzles.”

When he’s not consumed with the demands of work, Zielinski recharges his batteries by taking to the sky. He earned his pilot’s license at age 18, and has kept an eye on the skies ever since. He’s not only an airline transport pilot, but also a certified flight instructor and a Federal Aviation Administration-designated pilot examiner, which means he has the authority to issue licenses and certificates for pilots, from those flying airlines to those flying private craft. He’s piloted jets, hot air balloons and war birds such as a 1944 Grumman Goose. He’s flown all of the lower 48 states, Alaska, Mexico, Greenland, Iceland, Scotland and Paris.

Whether it’s designing kitchens or staying proficient on aviation requirements, Zielinski is both passionate and serious about his work. “I’ve been fortunate to have two passions in two different industries,” he says, “and to have success in two things that I absolutely love.”

Earning His Wings

Zielinski grew up in Niles with his parents and younger sister, Lynne, who also developed a keen interest in flying. But not right away. Growing up, the Zielinskis led a pretty quiet childhood: Their days were filled with books and projects that kept them busy. “We were kids that didn’t have a lot of toys,” Lynne says. “Mom gave us a Quaker Oats box and told us to make something out of it.”

It was their father, a World War II veteran, who introduced his kids to the wonderful world of aviation. Ed spent 27 years in the Naval reserves as a Chief, based at the Glenview Naval Air Station, just north of Chicago. While he didn’t fly himself, he was responsible for overseeing the base’s aviation supply program. Their father’s assignment also gave Zielinski and his sister a chance to visit the air shows frequently held at the naval station.

Zielinski got a real taste of flying when his family went on a trip to Argentina to visit relatives. On the way home, they stopped in Florida to visit an uncle, who happened to be a pilot. “That was my first small-airplane ride,” Zielinski says. “I loved the buttons, the switches and lights. I loved all of it.”

While Zielinski became hooked on airplanes, sister Lynne dreamed of becoming an astronaut. Now a retired high school physics, astronomy and space science teacher, Lynne was one of 10 finalists from Illinois for the 1985 Teacher in Space program. She started the Glenbrook Aerospace Development Get-away Experiment Team, a student organization at Glenbrook North High School that has flown active and passive experiments on Space Shuttle missions, sub-orbital NASA rockets and high-altitude balloons. “She’s the brains of the family,” says her big brother.

As a young adult, Zielinski helped out at the family business, washing windows, making deliveries or learning carpentry and design. But dreams of flying were never far away. In fact, he even traded out carpentry work at the local airport for flying lessons. He also studied architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

After college, he assumed more responsibility at Better Kitchens. During that time, Zielinski had opportunities to pursue jobs with American Airlines and United Airlines, but found that he couldn’t walk away from the family business entirely. Instead, he landed a corporate pilot job, later becoming chief pilot, which gave him the flexibility to juggle both careers. Zielinski spent 22 years flying for Klein Tools, a manufacturer of professional hand tools, owned by wife Margaret’s uncle.

During that time, Zielinski developed bonds with other pilots, many of whom have become his mentors and close friends over the years. “It’s a fraternity,” says Verne Jobst, who met Zielinski more than 20 years ago.

“Aviation is not just about airplanes,” he says. “It’s about the people we meet and the beautiful things we can see from the air. Some of the amazing pictures God puts in the sky can only be seen from our viewpoint. For those of us like Alan, who are passionate about flying, we love it morning until night, and we love everything about it.

“Alan is very generous when it comes to sharing his passion and his knowledge of flying,” Jobst adds. “Once you become friends with Alan, you have a friend for life.”

In the Sky

Zielinski says some of his best times are spent flying with his family. Wife Margaret, vice president and designer at Better Kitchens, is trained in emergency landings, and 17-year-old son Justin is close to earning his pilot license. The family takes day trips in Zielinski’s four-seat, single-engine Cessna 172 Superhawk, visiting friends or just going for lunch in regional destinations like Madison, Wis., and the Wisconsin Dells. Sometimes, they travel as much as 400 miles round-trip on these jaunts.

“For us, it’s just as special to hop in the plane as it is to take a vacation by car to visit Yellowstone,” he says. “It’s just a different perspective, and we get there faster.”

An aviation history buff, Zielinski has more than 20 hours of experience flying a replica of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, thanks to his friendship with Jobst, a leading historian of the famous American aviator.

“Alan flew [the replica] magnificently,” Jobst says. “He took to it like a dog takes to water.”
Seldom does Zielinski pass up an opportunity to explore new territory.

“That’s his nature, to go as high and as fast as he can,” says Lynne. “He’s always involved in the latest and greatest things. He wants to fly the most technically equipped airplanes. He likes all the bells, whistles, buzzers, switches and electronics. He loves combining aviation with technology.”

For nearly 30 years, Zielinski has participated in the annual 10-day Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico.

For nearly 30 years, Zielinski has participated in the annual 10-day Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico.

The first time Zielinski saw a hot air balloon, he didn’t have much interest.

“I thought they were a nuisance to aviation,” he says. “I was descending through the clouds, and as we broke out of the bottom of the cloud, we had a windscreen full of balloons, causing us to immediately go back into the clouds. Back then, that event left me with a bad memory of balloons.”

But he changed his mind in 1979, thanks to a trip to Colorado to visit a cousin who needed another crew member for his balloon. Zielinski saw things on that voyage that he never experienced before. He saw beauty and tranquility that not even an airplane could offer.

“When you’re in a balloon, you’re part of the wind,” he says. “The earth now begins to turn all around you. To fly for an hour or two in that kind of solitude is simply amazing.”

Sister Lynne shares her brother’s fascination with this old-fashioned method of air travel, and many years ago, the siblings bought a hot air balloon together. The registration number, N830AL, stands for the year, how much money they had left over, and their initials. It was a major purchase for two totally different pilots.

“I like barnstorming, but Alan’s more of a technical pilot,” Lynne says. “He gets into trying to figure out the winds. It’s the attention to detail that makes him a really great pilot.”

Zielinski finds other ways to share ballooning. For the past 29 years, he’s taken part in the 10-day Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico, which draws up to 800 hot air balloons annually. He also flies his balloon to regional events, like Rockford’s On the Waterfront Festival, held each year during the Labor Day weekend.

Zielinski has many other interests. He loves model trains. He belongs to a club, and has a room in his basement designated for an extensive American Flyer train collection, starting with the first set he received from his parents in 1956. He’s also a ham radio operator. He even worked as an adult roller skating instructor, which is how he met Margaret.

“He’s definitely energetic,” says close friend Bill Zangs, a United Airlines pilot. The two met 20 years ago as members of the U.S. Civil Air Patrol. “He’s so passionate about his family, work and flying. He approaches everything full-throttle. If he’s off on a Sunday, he’s flying or at a train show in Milwaukee. If he’s on vacation, he’s flying hot air balloons for 10 days in Albuquerque. I don’t think Alan ever has a down day.”

Paying It Forward

Throughout his one-year term as president of the NKBA, Zielinski must give industry trend reports and educational presentations to chapters across the country, and it’s helpful that he has easy access to a plane. Many days, he takes off in the morning and flies back later that night while fulfilling those obligations.

His involvement with the NKBA carries on yet another legacy from his father, who died 10 years ago. In 1963, Ed was one of the founding members of the American Institute of Kitchen Dealers, which later became the NKBA. For more than 20 years, the younger Zielinski has served the organization in several roles, gaining industry respect and building a national reputation in the process.

“My father started the Chicago and Wisconsin chapters of the national organization and encouraged me to become involved in the local chapter,” he says. “Having that knowledge and expertise has really helped me to grow within the industry.”

Zielinski takes his love of flying across the country, too, speaking to various aviation groups about air safety, which is of the utmost importance to him. He’s proud of his safety record in 39 years of flying, despite a few engine failures and emergency landings along the way. “You could say, ‘I’ve been there, done that and got all the T-shirts,” he jokes. “Yes, you get surprised from time to time, but that’s where our recurrent training comes in.”

“Alan demands a great deal of himself,” Zangs says. “He’s an exacting person, whether it’s as a designer or pilot. When I’ve flown with him, he’s very concerned about flying the aircraft. He always thinks about how he can do things more efficiently.”

“One time I was taking my plane to Houston for a solo flight,” says Lynne. “He called me and said, ‘Let’s go over the flight plan first.’ As my big brother, he wants me to do the right things. He does that with other people as well. He takes them under his wing and nurtures them.”

There’s always room in Zielinski’s aircraft, whether it’s for first-time flyers through a program called Young Eagles, or terminally ill children through the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

“I believe in paying it forward, just like my uncle did for me 40 years ago,” he says. “There are so many things that young people aren’t experiencing today. We need to spread the word, share our knowledge and pass the torch to the next generation.”

For more than three decades, Zielinski has kept the following passage tucked away in his wallet. It’s from Island in the Sky, a book given to him by one of his mentors, Stiles Whipple. In it, author and pilot Ernest K. Gann, who also penned The High and the Mighty and numerous books about aviation, writes:

Before take-off, a professional pilot is keen, anxious, but lest someone should read his true feelings he is elaborately casual. The reason for this is that he is about to enter a new though familiar world. The process of entrance begins a short time before he leaves the ground and is completed the instant he is in the air. From that moment on, not only his body but his spirit and personality exist in a separate world known only to himself and his comrades.

As the years go by, he returns to this invisible world rather than to earth for peace and solace. There also he finds a profound enchantment, ’tho he can seldom describe it. He can discuss it with others of his kind, and because they too know and feel its power, they understand. But his attempts to communicate his feelings to other earthly confidants invariably end in failure. Flying is hypnotic and all pilots are victims to the spell.

For someone as passionate about aviation as Zielinski, no truer words exist.

“The disciplines of architectural design and aviation and their exactness go hand in hand, allowing for successes in two high-profile professions,” he says.

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