The sky has had a hold on Cal Flanigan ever since he was a boy growing up in Conyers.
In 1968 he took a job as a mechanic for Delta Air Lines. But he kept his focus skyward.
“I knew I wanted to fly,” Flanigan said.
After being drafted into the Army in 1969 for two years, he used the GI Bill and extra cash from his Delta wages to pay for pilot training at a time few other African-American pilots were flying airliners. By 1976, he grasped his piece of the sky when he became a first officer flying the DC-9 for Delta.
After 45 years at Atlanta-based Delta, including 37 as a pilot, Flanigan is finally returning to the ground to retire. He is turning 65 — the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots.
It caps off a flying career that included 25 years as a captain and a record eight years as the company’s most senior pilot.
The last act of his career was flying a Delta 777 widebody from Los Angeles to Atlanta on Friday. He was greeted with a water cannon salute for the plane and a celebration at the gate on Concourse E at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
Pilots in uniform gathered to salute Flanigan from the ground as he sat in the cockpit, and a special ceremony at the gate commemorated his retirement.
Flanigan is “very humble — he epitomizes the principles of servant leadership,” said Delta’s senior vice president of flight operations, Steve Dickson, adding that the senior pilot has led others with diplomacy.
In a message to employees on Friday, Delta CEO Richard Anderson called Flanigan “a hero of mine at Delta…. a man of integrity and the epitome of the Delta culture.”
“We are honored that you have been part of the Delta family for so many years,” Anderson said.
As the longest serving pilot at Delta, Flanigan has watched the airline grow from a small Southern carrier to a global force.
“When I started, if you were to look at the route map, it was east of the Mississippi,” Flanigan said. “If you look at our system map now, it covers the world.”
Flanigan saw the company through Chapter 11 bankruptcy and restructuring. His work has included special assignments like piloting the delivery of a new long-range version of the 777 in 2008, when he told the AJC, “It’s such a pleasure to see the company on the rebound.” With the 777, “we’ll be able to reach parts of the world that we couldn’t have dreamt of before.”
He also piloted inaugural Delta flights to cities such as Dubai.
Flanigan, who still lives in Conyers, said he has “mixed emotions” about leaving the job he loves.
“It’s a career that has exceeded my wildest dreams,” he said. “I’ve been preparing myself mentally for the last year, knowing it’s coming and I couldn’t do anything to stop it.”
In retirement Flanigan plans to keep his pilot license active and fly his own plane, as well as potentially pursuing other flying opportunities.
It will still be a big transition. At Delta, Flanigan has been senior flight instructor, line check airman and international chief pilot in Atlanta — and he never took a sick day in 45 years.
“My DNA always contained widgets,” Flanigan said, referring to the triangular Delta logo. “If you ever cut me, widgets are coming out.”