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One last flightOne last flight

Like many GA pilots, Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines sometimes wonders: How might an airline career have worked out? When the lumbering, fully loaded Boeing 767 deftly touched down at Los Angeles International Airport on February 28, you might not have known that anything unusual occurred, were it not for the cheering and applause from the flight deck all the way to the aft bulkhead seat.

Like many GA pilots, Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines sometimes wonders: How might an airline career have worked out?

When the lumbering, fully loaded Boeing 767 deftly touched down at Los Angeles International Airport on February 28, you might not have known that anything unusual occurred, were it not for the cheering and applause from the flight deck all the way to the aft bulkhead seat. For Delta Air Lines Capt. Gary Beck it was anything but the usual Wednesday morning milk run from Atlanta to Los Angeles. Flight 407 was his last flight as an airline pilot. He turned 60 on March 1.

Later this year, the FAA intends to introduce rulemaking that would allow pilots to keep flying another five years, assuming they can meet the medical requirements and that another pilot in the cockpit is under age 60. But for Beck and hundreds of others, the 18- to 24-month rulemaking process comes too late. And that's a shame for all of us who fly the airlines who might have benefited from the expertise that Beck and others with so many years of experience bring to the flight deck. The timing is a double whammy for the airlines, which could use those pilots in the cockpit a bit longer because of the growing demand for flight crews. According to Aviation Information Resources Inc., which tracks such things, the airlines will need 8,000 to 10,000 pilots this year, especially at the regional airline level. Many pilots furloughed over the past few years have already been called back to work. Some have chosen to go to other jobs, abandoning their dreams of an airline career in an industry bruised by bankruptcies and fickle cost structures.

Many airline observers, however, predict that the worst is over for the airline industry. There will be a few more mergers. Beck's beloved Delta was set to emerge from bankruptcy in late April. With load factors on the rise — as well as ticket prices — and with fuel prices stabilizing, the airlines are on the airway to recovery. For prospective pilots that means new job possibilities. Although the new hires may not see the sky-high salaries and rich retirements once expected in the airline business, the pay after the first couple of years will be good and the retirements in line with what many others in the work force enjoy. An airline captain for a major airline will still see a salary when near retirement well into six figures.

Landing a job

On this day, though, Beck, who has served as a chief pilot for Delta in Los Angeles and later as a senior vice president and general manager of flight operations as well as chief pilot for the airline, thinks little about airline economics. He's concentrating on getting the last landing just right. In the cockpit before we leave Atlanta he jokes with longtime friend and Delta Chief Executive Officer Gerald Grinstein. "I hope to finally master landings with this last one," quips Beck. Meanwhile, an FAA inspector ambles aboard, threatening to ramp check the captain. "Does this guy really know how to fly?" he questions copilot Steve Dickson and jump seater Kurt Schular. Dickson is vice president of flight operations and Delta's chief pilot; Schular is the general manager of flight operations and also a 767 captain (how many captains does it take to change a landing gear indicator bulb?). Both have worked with Beck for many of his 34 years with the airline.

Like a lot of pilots of his generation, Beck learned to fly after hanging out at the airport. As a child he often accompanied his father on Saturdays to what is now Los Angeles International Airport. His father worked for an aviation contractor at the airport and later went on to hold executive-level positions at numerous airlines.

Bitten by the aviation bug as he watched all of those airplanes landing, Beck saved his money and started flying at age 17 at the late Sky Harbor Airport near Northbrook, Illinois, outside of Palwaukee.

Wanting to fly Navy fighters, he enrolled in the Navy Cadet program in 1966 while in college, but the Navy abandoned the program shortly thereafter. Thanks to the lottery draft of Vietnam, Beck found himself drafted and in the Army — and accepted into flight school. Expecting to fly helicopters, Beck's two-year Army deal was up before he started military flight school. While in college and in the Army he continued his fixed-wing training and took his commercial checkride shortly after graduating from college.

Short stints with multiple commuter airlines followed — from Arizona to North Dakota. He was furloughed twice in his first year at Ozark Air Lines. His wife, Mary, eight months pregnant, drove alone from California to St. Louis where Beck was undergoing training — only to learn upon arriving that Beck had been furloughed again. He took a job in St. Louis cleaning hangars and aircraft for six months waiting to be called back to work.

But perseverance paid off and on March 5, 1973, he started flying Boeing 737s for Western Airlines. Beck's father soon started at Western too — as senior vice president of service. Grinstein came on board as CEO.

At one point Beck's twin brother worked for Delta and his father at Continental Airlines while he was at Western. Nepotism clauses at the time kept them all from working together. Beck's daughter Erin is now a flight attendant for American Airlines. Among them they seemed to have nearly blanketed the airline industry. His son Chris, meanwhile, works in commercial real estate sales — hedging his bets, perhaps, against the even more cyclical airline business.

Delta acquired Western in 1987, which is how Beck ended up flying for the Atlanta-based airline.

Moving on

While Beck could have stayed on at Delta as chief pilot even after age 60, that was not an option in his mind. "Head of flight ops and not be able to fly? That's not for me."

Instead, he chose to take his 19,000 flight hours of experience and return to his general aviation roots as the president and CEO of Delta Connection Academy in Sanford, Florida. The thriving school, owned by the airline, boasts a fleet of single-engine Cessnas and Piper twins. The Cessnas will soon be phased out in favor of 50 new Cirrus SR20s replete with glass cockpits to train the next generation of airline pilots. The Cirrus training will be bolstered by new high-end simulators and flight-training devices (FTDs) at a facility now under construction at Sanford.

Beck says his goal at the academy is to bring GA training in sync with the airline-style of training. He sees technology advancement as the biggest change occurring over his long airline career — technology now finding its way to the GA fleet. "The technology is exciting — glass cockpits, FTDs, simulators. To watch the emotions of these instructors and students when they see the technology coming down is phenomenal."

There could be no better pitchman for the prospective academy students than the enthusiastic Beck: "If you truly love to fly airplanes, there is no better career. It's a dream to get to fly these airplanes."

As for his landings, he admits he's still trying to master them — especially as he returns to general aviation flying. "I'm flaring way too high," he confesses, "but I'm sure having fun."

E-mail the author at [email protected].

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