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Sky's the limit
Soaring career: Capt. Calvin Flanigan has logged more than 20,000 hours of flight, as Delta's most senior pilot out of 12,000. - photo by Submitted Photo

t is not easy to tell Capt. Calvin Flanigan is at the height of his career, having achieved in 32 years what few accomplish in a lifetime, just by talking to the man.

Flanigan’s humble demeanor belies that he is the senior pilot for one of the world’s largest airlines in the busiest hub on the planet. But what is more remarkable about Flanigan’s rise at Atlanta-based Delta Airlines is he started in maintenance.

Although the 62-year-old Conyers native began in 1968 cleaning planes, it was his goal from day one to be a pilot.

Aviation has fascinated Flanigan all his life. In the 1950s his grandparents lived by a private grass airstrip by Parker Road. "I’d just stand near the fence and watch little planes come and go," he recalled fondly.

Working at Delta, he knew he needed to get his foot in the door. He had no money for flight lessons, so he began learning from people, such as a friend’s father, to fly small planes at little airports.

"When I first started out, it was fun," he said. "Then I knew I wanted to fly."

After being drafted in 1969 and serving two years in the Army, Flanigan used GI Bill money and saved paychecks when he returned to Delta to afford more flight training and the necessary certifications.

He became a Delta pilot in 1976. It was early in his now 42-year marriage to Veronica and they had a baby. He reminisced about how the first flight he piloted was from Texas where they lived then. "My wife has been very supportive even when we had to dedicate money to my flight training instead of buying new furniture or something," he said.

When Flanigan began flying for Delta, he had about 1,000 hours logged. Today, he has more than 20,000. Typically he flies four days a week around the globe. He is the most senior pilot of 12,000 pilots and has been for four years. Delta has a fleet of 730 aircraft flying to 65 countries.

It is a rigorous effort to maintain Flanigan’s performance level. There are months of classroom and flight training, simulator testing and physicals.

"It never stops. I have to have two physicals every year by an FAA doctor," Flanigan said. "The fact that you’re a pilot doesn’t mean you can walk onto any plane and start flying it. You have to learn the mechanics, the emergency procedures."

Name a plane and chances are Flanigan knows a good deal about or has flown it – Douglas DC-8s, DC-9s, Lockheed Tristars, Boeing 757s and 777s. His favorites are the Tristar and 777, which he has been captain of for the past eight years.

Capt. Warren Abrams, Chief Line Check Pilot for Delta, has worked with Flanigan for 32 years and grown to admire him immensely.

"He’s salt of the earth," Abrams said. "Cal’s the type of individual we most want to be like when we grow up. He doesn’t set out to be a role model, he just is."

Along with 33 pilots, Flanigan works for Abrams, who is in charge of standardization, or ensuring things consistently happen right. There are 300 captains on the 777 line where Flanigan is Lead Line Check Pilot.

Abrams, son of a Navy pilot, has a bachelor’s and master’s in aviation so he shares Flanigan’s passion. He described Flanigan’s leadership style as "quiet authority."

One of his memorable times working with Flanigan was during Sept. 11. Flanigan was Delta’s International Chief Pilot and spent several nights at the airport helping.

"He was there 24-7," Abrams said. "Manning phones, talking to pilots who were stranded across Europe and North America

At work, he is Capt. Flanigan. In the community, in his church, Peeks Chapel Baptist, and at home he is simply Cal. He has three daughters and six grandchildren. His parents are very proud of him and his brother, a doctor who worked his way through medical school.

Flanigan is excited his 13-year-old grandson has an interest in aviation. Flanigan also relishes speaking to youth at schools, churches and community groups about the importance of preparing now to achieve their dreams. He still remembers former Rockdale County Public Schools chairman and Delta captain James Miller Jr.’s encouraging words at his high school graduation.

"He asked me what I wanted to do and said something like, ‘OK. Come on. Be a pilot. I’d like to see you in a Delta uniform,’" Flanigan said. "Other than that, I didn’t know anyone else in aviation at the time. That’s why it’s so important for me to speak at schools.

"I tell them their parents don’t have to be Bill Gates or Donald Trump. As long as they have will and drive, kids today can be pilots."