The first time Craig Levine flew solo, he was 16 years old, and had to wait for his mother to pick him up at the airfield since he didn't have his driver's license yet.
While he's now legally permitted to operate a motor vehicle down here on terra firma, the 45-year-old Blue Bell resident has never really left the friendly skies for all that long.
Immediately after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., Levine got his wings as a co-pilot in Nebraska, running flights to and from a Sioux reservation. Then he worked on private charters, whose passengers included celebrities like Diana Ross and Barbara Walters.
Eventually, he joined Continental Airlines, where he's been a captain and flight instructor for the past 22 years. The Long Island native even met his wife aboard a plane: She was a flight attendant.
"I just love the idea of traveling, of going to different places and meeting different people," stated Levine, whose current Newark, N.J.-based international routes include London, Paris, Madrid, New Delhi, Beijing, Tokyo and Tel Aviv.
Levine said he feels safer in his Boeing 777 jumbo jet than virtually anywhere, and he often greets nervous passengers to assure them they're in good hands.
But whose hands?
Levine said the computer systems are so advanced nowadays that he rarely has to fly the plane manually. Large passenger jets are often landed by auto-pilot, and even when an engine fails, the plane can essentially land by itself, he explained.
"You're better off having the auto-pilot do as much work as you can. It frees your mind up to see the big picture and evaluate fuel, navigation and passenger issues," he said.
For the past year-and-a-half, Levine has spent much of the month on what he calls standby, waiting to get the call to fill in for another captain. After he gets a buzz on his beeper or cell phone, Levine has two hours to get to Newark International Airport. On the days when he's on call, he doesn't venture far from the house and always brings a pressed uniform and a suitcase.
That's because years ago, he got called in at the last minute to replace a captain whose wife had gone in to labor. He flew from Houston to San Diego in cutoff shorts and flip-flops. Nothing like that's happened since, but every once in a while, getting the call throws a wrench into plans.
"Several times, I've had to call up my wife and say, 'You have to go pick up the kids. I have to run to the airport,' " said the father of two boys, ages 8 and 9. The family attends Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel's Blue Bell campus.
Levine insisted he spends as much time with his kids as parents with more traditional work schedules, noting that he's only gone about 12 days a month, and remains at home much of the time other than that. Plus, how many kids get to go to Zurich for their birthdays, as his did several weeks ago?
An added bonus with his current rotation is that he's in Israel once a month, which has afforded him an opportunity to explore the Jewish state. On his layovers, he often takes a taxi to Jerusalem, where he wanders the Old City. He's also gotten in the habit of bringing home fresh pita and hummus straight from Tel Aviv.
"I find that the people in Israel are a lot friendlier toward Americans than any other country that I visit; they love Americans over there," he said.
He's already decided where his sons will have their Bar Mitzvahs: at the top of Masada. And he has no plans to let the constant threat of terrorism, both in the air and on the ground, interfere with those plans.
As he claimed, "I'm more nervous that something will happen to me in Center City than in downtown Tel Aviv."