ATLANTA (AP) — From inside the cockpit, Cal Flanigan watched Delta Air Lines grow over the decades from a Southern regional carrier to a global airline that assigned him to pilot its inaugural flights to Dubai and other cities worldwide.
Now, after 37 years, Delta’s longest-serving pilot is hanging up his captain’s stripes. Flanigan is turning 65, which is the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots.
He landed his final flight — a Delta 777 widebody returning to Atlanta from Los Angeles — on Friday. His plane received a water-cannon salute and Flanigan was met by Delta employees with a celebration at the concourse gate at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
“It’s a career that has exceeded my wildest dreams,” Flanigan told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I’ve been preparing myself mentally for the last year, knowing it’s coming and I couldn’t do anything to stop it.”
Flanigan first joined Delta as a mechanic 45 years ago, with hopes of one day flying. A year later, in 1969, he was drafted into the Army for two years. Using the GI Bill and money saved from his Delta wages, Flanigan managed to pay for pilot training at a time when few other African-Americans were flying commercial airliners. He realized his dream in 1976, when he became a first officer flying DC-9s for Delta.
Flanigan is retiring after 25 years as a captain and a record eight years as Delta’s senior pilot.
Delta says Flanigan has logged more than 26,000 flight hours and flown roughly 12.5 million miles. He’s landed at 95 destinations on six continents.
In a message to employees, Delta CEO Richard Anderson called Flanigan “a hero of mine at Delta.”
“We are honored that you have been part of the Delta family for so many years,” Anderson said.
Those he’s retiring from commercial flying, Flanigan said he plans to keep his pilot license active and fly his own plane.
He’s not the only one facing a big transition. At Delta, Flanigan has been senior flight instructor, line check airman and international chief pilot in Atlanta.
“He epitomizes the principles of servant leadership,” said Steve Dickson, Delta’s senior vice president of flight operations.
And in his 45 years at Delta, Flanigan never took a sick day.