While the sky was definitely the limit, it was also a destination for Conyers native Calvin Flanigan, who will be retiring as Delta’s senior most pilot next month after 37 years of flying for the airline.
Flanigan will make his retirement flight on March 8 from Los Angeles to Atlanta, where family members, friends and his Delta colleagues will welcome him to celebrate his remarkable career. His retirement will end his eight-year reign as the company’s senior aviator.
“I still love the job, but it comes a point when you know retirement is coming,” said Flanigan, who will be 65 in March, the retirement age mandated by FAA regulations. “I am mentally prepared. I will miss the people more than anything else. It’s time to pass it on to the next generation.”
Flanigan is an unassuming man who is described as humble and inspiring by his colleagues at Delta. In his nearly 37 years with the company, he has never missed a day of work, used a single sick day or had any actions taken against him by the FAA or Delta.
“Delta has been a dream for me,” Flanigan said. “That was my number one choice from day one and I was fortunate enough to work with them. I can’t think of one negative. It was my number one choice and still is.”
His dream of becoming a pilot started in the 1950s when his grandparents lived by a grass airstrip near what is now Parker Road. Fascinated by watching the planes come and go, Flanigan set his mind to a career in aviation and began plotting his course. He started in the maintenance department at Delta and used any extra money available for flying lessons. His wife, Veronica, must have seen his determination and the couple made sacrifices in order for Flanigan to earn his flight hours. He had 1,000 hours logged when he became a Delta pilot in 1976, and today he has flown over 25,000 hours.
"Anyone who has the dream to become a pilot, pursue it," Flanigan said. "It seems overwhelming when you start with all the requirements as far as flight time and such. But it is attainable. Being a pilot is not the only career in aviation. We need people in all aspects of aviation. Pursue it."
Flanigan said his journey has been an adventure as he has had the privilege of flying the inaugural flights in and out of several new international destinations such as Tel Aviv and Dubai as captain of a Boeing 777. Passengers on his flights have included movie stars, athletes, and musicians, most recently of which was flying a Boeing 777 chartered by Rihanna for her seven day, seven nation tour to promote her new album last November.
But perhaps his most important passengers have been his wife and three daughters whose childhood was spent travelling around the world with the pilot in his early days, before the girls went to school. He has enormous pride in his memories of family trips most fathers would give anything to be able to provide for their children.
"We went to Paris and London, just to name a few. Their passports were well-used."
Middle daughter Monica Flanigan Love, now 39 and living in Florida, said her father’s career and work ethic inspired her to find a company she likes working for and dedicate her career to it. Today she is a Holy Land Travel Consultant, a profession she said was born from the trips of her childhood.
“My dad was definitely my hero,” Love said. “To be sitting on the plane and know my dad was piloting was something I have always been proud of. Travelling abroad and seeing all the cultures made me the person I am today. We experienced so many cultures early on, and that is something that shaped my life.”
Just as the veteran pilot has hundreds of fond memories from his career, the hundreds of Delta employees he has worked with over the last 37 years have fond memories of him as well. Delta Captain Kurt Schular has worked closely with Flanigan off and on for 15 years, with the last four as Chief Line Check Pilot for the Boeing 777 Program.
"Cal is really an outstanding individual," Schular said from his office at Delta this week. "As an international chief pilot he was my boss several years ago and he was a great boss. He is a wonderful pilot and mentor who continually sets a positive tone for everybody with his open leadership style."
Eric Janssen, who was Flanigan's first officer on the Boeing 777 flight, said ""He the consumate professional in every regard and a delightful gentleman to fly with and work with." Janssen served as Flanigan's co-pilot on his last international flight from Sydney, Austraila and even managed to arrange a surprise farewell reception in Sydney.
Even though he is retiring, Flanigan has no intention of staying grounded for long. He is entertaining several invitations and is considering aviation consulting, teaching, and participating in a pilot interview team, which he has already done for the past 15 years.
He is also mentoring the next generation of pilots. His 16-year-old grandson, Donnell Smith III, hopes to join the Air Force Academy and become a pilot – an interest sparked by seeing his grandfather’s passion and profession. There are also young men that Flanigan is helping in the community and in his church, Peeks Chapel Baptist, who are interested in going to pilot academies.
"I have to decide what I am not going to do actually," Flanigan said. "I am a firm believer you have to retire to something. Golf and fishing only take up so much time and then you are bored."