Greek-American Historical Museum of Washington State


Nick Cosmakos’ aviation career really began at 16 years of age when his parents gave him a $200 gift certificate to a local flight school. Now, with over 40 years as a pilot, he continues his career training those who fly the skies for Alaska Airlines.


Even with both parents born in the United States, Nick is first generation as his parents spent much of their young lives in Greece. His mother, Angeliki “Kiki” Papanicolaou (shortened to Nicholas), was born on June 8, 1926, in Lynn, Massachusetts. Her mother’s great uncle, George Papanicolaou, invented the Papanicolaou test (abbreviated as Pap test or Pap smear) to detect cervical cancer, a revolutionary test for women. Her father, James, had a candy store in Matoon, Illinois, near Peoria, which he operated with his oldest son, Arthur. When Kiki was seven years old, her mother took her and her two younger brothers, George and John, to Greece to visit yiayia (grandmother) Condropoulos in Solaki, near Kalamata in the Greek Peloponnese. The family was held there under the German occupation. Thus, Kiki spent over 10 years in Greece while her father and older brother remained in Illinois. When she was about nine years old, she witnessed a tragedy when her mother was raped and killed by an angry boyfriend/lover. After that, Kiki’s yiayia raised the three children until Kiki was 18 years old and returned to the United States. She was held in New York, having developed tuberculosis and was placed in a sanitorium for two years until she moved to Chicago where her brother had located.

Nick’s father, Thomas (1925-1994), was from Chicago, Illinois, but raised in Baltimore, Maryland. Like Kiki, he and his parents traveled to Greece and were held there by the Germans in the village of Tarapsa near Sparti where Thomas spent his teenage years with his younger brother, Peter. Back in Chicago, Thomas enlisted in the Navy and served as a cook. After his service he worked in a large fish cannery.

Thomas and Kiki met and married in Chicago. Their two children, Nick, and his older sister, Litsa, were born there. Then, in 1961, partly to seek a milder climate for Kiki’s lung issues, they moved to Phoenix, Arizona. In Phoenix, Thomas worked as a waiter in a high-end restaurant. Meanwhile Kiki completed her GED (General Equivalency Diploma) and began working for the telephone company, Western Electric, at its large cable-producing plant. In the late 1960s the company was producing large cables for the Apollo space program and Kiki’s job was a “ring out operator” who checked the quality of giant reels of cable. She was the first woman in the company to become an inspector, supervising several employees.


The name Cosmakos may have been derived from the Greek cosmos indicating the family had a worldly ancestry. When he was born on January 23, 1958, in Chicago, Nick’s mother was apparently “at a loss for words” and did not use the traditional Greek spelling of the name, nor give him a middle name. Thus, instead of Nicholas Thomas after his father, or Nicholas James after his grandfather, he has always been simply Nick Cosmakos. He was just three years old when the family moved to Phoenix where Nick was a real “westerner” who liked cowboy boots, hats and pistols. He remembers attending Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church from the time the family moved there. He spoke only Greek until he was five years old. His mother’s English language was better than his father’s and she pushed him to learn English to improve his chances of success in school.

He attended Madrid Elementary School in the Alhambra district and graduated from West Phoenix High School. His first job was at an ice skating rink where he loved to drive the Zamboni and play ice hockey. In his senior year he worked in a local hospital as a surgery orderly, moving patients from their floors to the operating room. It was around November of 1977 when he was invited to a party by a young nurse’s aide he had noticed in the hospital. By Christmas of 1977, he and the young woman, Cheryl Burke, had become an “item.” Although he had enlisted in the Navy in September, his entry was delayed until March of 1978. He completed his boot camp and training at the Naval Training Command Center (NTSC) in San Diego, California. He then trained as an anti-submarine warfare operator in Millington, Tennessee, and chose a helicopter platform as a rescue swimmer. He completed his water training in Pensacola, Florida, and then returned to San Diego for his final duty. Shortly thereafter, he and Cheryl were married on May 28, 1979.


Cheryl Ann Burke was born in the little mining town of Globe, Arizona, on December 26, 1956. Her father, Lloyd Burke, worked for the state, was out of town much of the time and eventually divorced from her mother. Cheryl was raised by her grandparents, Virgil and Barbara Burke. Virgil owned a trucking company in Arizona and Cheryl describes them as wonderful and well-respected. She has a brother and a half-brother, both now deceased, and one sister. She finished high school in Globe then moved to Phoenix and trained as a dental assistant. She was partly influenced by her stepfather, a physician, and had a strong mathematics background. With a preference for nursing, she began training in the local hospital and became a nurse’s assistant where she and Nick met. When they moved to Seattle in 1986, Cheryl worked as a hospital phlebotomist. As their children became older, she earned her nursing degree and “found her niche” as a pre-operation and recovery nurse in surgery. She then worked with the Western Washington Medical Group in Everett, Washington, an out-patient surgery center, and retired in 2016.

Nick and Cheryl have two children, Thomas, who works for Amazon in Seattle, Washington, and their daughter Niclina who, following in her father’s footsteps, is a first officer for Alaska Airlines.


When Nick turned 16, he began using his $200 gift certificate and at 17 he earned his private pilot’s license. He was working on his commercial and instrument training when he ran out of money and joined the Navy. His training as a rescue swimmer in the Navy did not provide him with college credits. Their daughter had just been born and Nick found himself with no applicable skills to earn a living. Fortunately, Cheryl, then working as a phlebotomist drawing blood, was able to support the family while Nick earned his degree in electrical engineering.

In 1985 the Boeing Company began its 747-400 program and Nick, along with one third of his engineering colleagues, were hired and the family moved to Washington in late 1986. While working at Paine Field in Everett, Washington, Nick saved some money and completed his training to become a certified flight instructor. He began moonlighting on nights and weekends teaching private and commercial pilots and building up his flight time. After two years as an engineer, Nick began training on the flight simulator for the 747 which was flying all over the world. At the same time, he was flying some corporate jets, had his first job with Airlift Northwest flying a Lear Jet air ambulance and was earning his jet time to enter the commercial airlines. While flight training with All Nippon and Japan airlines on the 747-400, he joined pilots in Moses Lake, Washington, who were completing their “airplane bounces” (where the wheels of the plane just touch the ground and the plane resumes flight). At 30 years of age he was given the controls by the co-pilots and completed his “touch and go” experience on the 747.

By the late 1980s, Nick had been teaching for over a year and was practicing on the simulator but had less than 600 hours on real airplanes. He was also flying part time for General Telephone and Electrics Company (GTE) on a Cesna Citation airplane. Around 1994 Alaska Airlines purchased several Boeing 737-400s and Nick was one of the instructors for their pilots. As an auto-flight subject matter expert, he was known to Alaska. When Alaska was looking for qualified instructors in the mid-1990s, he was made a significant offer to leave Boeing and work for Alaska. By 1996 he was fully qualified as a pilot and has continued his career with them ever since. Presently he works “on call” as an instructor and flies passenger routes as well. He now makes two to three training trips per month but most of his time is on the simulator. With retirement a few years away, he still finds his work very rewarding and thinks about learning to fly a helicopter.


Nick credits his ambition to his Greek heritage. He was teased a bit by his young neighborhood friends but never ridiculed or treated with disrespect. For Cheryl, the Greek family traditions and dynamics are most enjoyable, especially at family gatherings. While Nick’s mother may have wanted him to marry “a good Greek girl,” after some initial reluctance, Cheryl became an integral part of the Greek culture and Greek Orthodox faith. A highlight of family celebrations was on the Sunday following Easter when Nick’s father, Thomas, would hold a big party with food, dancing and music to celebrate his name day (the day on which one’s baptismal namesake saint is recognized). Their children, while exposed to Greek traditions and religion when young, have migrated away from the church and the culture.

Although he spoke only Greek until he was five, Nick now struggles to get it back. However, a few Greek sayings come easily to him. For example: nahathis (get lost); na fas xilo (literally to eat wood or I’ll hit you with a stick); mavro sa makaronia (slap with a hard noodle). It is important for Nick to “keep your priorities straight”: God, Family and Country, and you will do well. While Nick grew up with a strong Greek identity the culture for him has faded over the years mostly because he has no roots in Greece. But, his Greek Orthodox faith has remained strong and has increased as he has grown older. At the Church of the Assumption in Seattle, Nick can be seen assisting in the liturgy and views himself as “the world’s oldest altar boy,” or close to it.

By John and Joann Nicon, December, 2018
1 Nick Cosmakos, 2018
2 Nick’s family: (l-r) standing: Angeliki, Thomas, maternal uncle George (seated), theo (uncle) Demo married to paternal thea (aunt) Helen, papou Niko Cosmakos; seated: paternal uncle George, 1958
3 Nick, 1961
4 Nick senior class photo, 1976
5 Nick wrestling, 1970s
6 Nick playing football, 1970s
7 Nick with helicopter, 1980
8 Cheryl, 1957
9 Cheryl, 1978
10 Cheryl and Nick wedding, 1979
11 Cheryl with nursing colleagues, 2000
12 Niclina and Tom, 1984
13 Thomas, Angeliki, Nick, Niclina and Tom, 1986
14 Nick and Cheryl, 1989
15 Nick in uniform, 2003
16 Nick in Sitka, Alaska, 2013
17 Nick and Niclina (first flight together), 2017
18 Nick and Niclina, 2018
19 Niclina, Tom, Nick, Cheryl, 2010
21 Cosmakos family (l-r) Paul Gluntz, Nick, Danny Sheehan, Cheryl, Thomas, Kiki, Litsa, Niclina, Stephen Carlson, Pierre Schutz, 2015
22 Nick and Cheryl, 2018
Photos 1 and 22 by John Nicon; all others from Cosmakos family collection
Video interview by John and Joann Nicon, May 2018