C.J. Wetzler

CJ Wetzler

Imagine this: A few years from now, you’re sitting comfortably on an airline flight, seat belt buckled and tray table in the upright position. A reassuring voice wafts through the cabin:

“Greetings from the cockpit, ladies and gentlemen. This is Captain Wetzler. We’ve reached our cruising altitude of 30,000 feet and anticipate a smooth ride. By the way, did you hear the one about the three-legged dog that walks into an old west saloon?”

Serious pilot-in-training and aspiring stand-up comedian. Class clown and dedicated student. A satirist of authority and an authority figure. A walking contradiction? No, that’s just SkillsUSA’s national postsecondary president, Carl Wetzler.

His father is a mechanic for American Airlines, and Wetzler, 20, remembers flying in planes since babyhood. “I began to associate flying a plane with having fun,” the Broken Arrow, Okla., native says. “Every time I’d been on a plane, we’d always ended up somewhere fun, like a beach or something. I began to think, ‘What better job than to fly?’”

This realization led to flying lessons. At age 14, Wetzler managed his first flight and landing. “I got to land on a ‘big boy’ runway, as I call them,” he remembers, the excitement still palpable in his voice. “That was my hook, to touch down on a big runway in a little itty-bitty airplane.” But on that big runway were also big planes, and Wetzler knew he was destined to fly them one day.

But as Wetzler dreamed of spreading his wings, he didn’t realize he’d soon be expanding his education as well.

Cleared for takeoff

When he was 16, recruiters from Tulsa Technology Center’s aviation maintenance technology program visited his school. Wetzler listened, but only halfheartedly. He was already happy with the progress he was making on his own, and besides, he wanted to be a pilot, not an airline mechanic.

After looking at the materials, however, his father reacted differently. “It just blew him out of the water,” Wetzler recalls. “He was like, ‘What? This is great! You can go to Tech for free and get the same thing [an airframe and power plant license] that I paid thousands of dollars for! You’ll know how the aircraft works and how to fly it!’ So I said, ‘So, this is good?’”

After enrolling, it didn’t take Wetzler long to realize that, yes, it was good. Better than good. “The campus was great,” he says. “We had our own 727, we had aircraft, we had a brand-new jet-engine test cell. I could not believe how much went into the behind-the-scenes aspects of flying an airplane. It was really an eye opener.”

No joking matter

Yet after his second year, Wetzler says he was ready to “break things up,” try something different. Typical of his penchant for, as he says, “jumping head-first into anything,” he found himself running for national office in SkillsUSA.

CJ WetzlerThe campaign was a positive experience but also an occasional comedy of errors —which, as an aspiring comedian, suited him just fine. He’d been writing stand-up comedy material for years, making his first performance in a fifth grade talent show.

“I was the class clown, but I was never in trouble. I knew what the teachers’ lines were, so I knew when I could be funny and when I’d better be serious,” he says.

Even so, crossing that line can backfire. Before making a speech to 3,000 state delegates during that first campaign, Wetzler shunned the approach of some other candidates and decided to lighten the mood. “It’s possible to be professional without being stiff,” he explains.

“I get up on stage — and everyone claps for you no matter what — so I decided I’d say, ‘First, I’d like to thank the Academy,’ like I was winning an Academy Award.

So I stood up, grabbed the mic, looked down, and the joke came off all mumbled, and they’re all looking at me like, ‘You need to get off the stage.’”

The punch line? Wetzler didn’t win. However, the experience “set me up to be a district officer and helped me build a passion level for SkillsUSA,” he says. That was what kept him in his program despite burnout from his rigorous schedule.

“I was a signature away from quitting Tech and going to college to finish up a professional pilot program. But SkillsUSA was my deciding factor to stay. I realized being a part of the program was making me a safer and more efficient pilot. I wanted to finish what I’d started. And I wanted to stay a part of SkillsUSA and run for office again.”

The true measure of his growth would be a return performance at the event that brought such disappointment a year earlier: the state delegate session. Minutes before his campaign speech, he decided to discard what he’d already written and rework it to better reflect the mood of the assembled delegates.

The gamble worked. “The speech came out awesome, perfect,” he says. “I basically rewrote my speech right then and there, and that’s kind of when I realized that instead of psyching myself out, if I’m relaxed and comfortable with the audience, it’ll work, it’ll flow.” Wetzler won the election overwhelmingly.

Sunny skies ahead

The ability to relax and relate to an audience is something Wetzler is also discovering with his stand-up comedy routines, which he performs in the Tulsa area. He says one of his main strengths as a comedian is “playing off” a joke that doesn’t have the desired effect. “The way you play off a bad joke can become a good joke in and of itself.”

Wetzler’s career path thus far hasn’t been without the occasional turbulence, but he sees clear skies ahead. “My goal is to be 21, flying for a regional airline, have all my ratings and have my college degree. That way I can be a full-time first officer on a major airline by the time I’m 23.”

He also envisions performing at local comedy clubs during layovers and has created his own comedy website, “Take Flight Productions.”

And what if Wetzler had decided not to board SkillsUSA? “I think I’d have been really far behind from where I am now,” he says. “Thousands of people graduate from high school and college, but what are they doing to stand out? SkillsUSA is a way to enhance yourself and your education and to stand out in an employer’s eyes.

“For example, Southwest recruiters came to our program, and my counselor said, ‘Carl, why don’t you go pick them up?’ Now I know some people from Southwest Airlines. That would’ve never happened if I hadn’t been a part of SkillsUSA.”

And if you’re still wondering about the three-legged dog that walked into a saloon, he was looking for the man who shot his “paw.” Bada-bing!