Ohio pilot, Captain Denny Flanagan, on May 31 took his final flight for United Airlines, traveling from Seattle to Chicago on a Boeing 757. (Photo: United Airlines)
United's President and CEO Oscar Munoz greeted Captain Flanagan onboard upon the flight's arrival in Chicago. (Photo: United Airlines)
When Captain Denny Flanagan started flying more than 40 years ago, he took to the air in a Cessna 152 – a two-seater plane as a student at Kent State University.
On May 31, he took his final flight as a pilot for United Airlines in the cockpit of a Boeing 757. With his wife and five children on board, Flanagan steered the 218-seat aircraft from Seattle to Chicago. His landing – the ending of a 30-year career with the airline – was met by a water cannon salute.
"I'm doing what I always wanted to do, and I love every minute of it," Flanagan said. "My cockpit, I call it my sky office. It's a beautiful view."
However, after years of flying in the U.S. Navy – both active duty and on reserve – and 30 with United, he is trading in that bird's-eye view of the Earth for a life of retirement on the ground.
In his years with the yoke in his hands, Flanagan flew everywhere from the South Pole to a base in upper Greenland. He's taken his brother with him on one of his flights to Hawaii so he could go surfing; he's brought his mother along with him to Paris so she could go shopping.
"It's a great career. It's the only job where you can take your mom and dad to work every day," Flanagan said.
But now as he hits 65, the federally mandated age at which pilots must retire, Flanagan is ready to put down roots at his family farm in Richfield, where he and his wife rescue abused farm animals.
Even though Flanagan's voice won't be heard over the PA system on United flights anymore, his impact will be felt for years – in the stories his passengers tell, in the way his former employees operate, in the people whose lives he changed.
Flanagan is known in the United community for his generosity and kindness; he even has a nickname among frequent flyers: Captain Denny.
During delays, he often buys pizza or burgers for waiting passengers. On flights, he urges unaccompanied minors to call home from the plane using his personal credit card and will take pictures of pets traveling on board to show the family that their furry companions are okay. He's even walked passengers' dogs under the airplane before long flights.
"When you go to work, you choose your attitude for the altitude you want to maintain for the day," Flanagan said. "It's about working from the heart."
Robert Loesch, 17, was on one of Captain Denny's flights from Chicago to Denver seven years ago. The flight had been delayed, and the pilot purchased pizza and fruit for the waylaid travelers. Flanagan stopped to give Loesch a Boeing 757 trading card and some wings and, when he learned Loesch wanted to be a pilot when he grew up, took him on a personal tour of flight operations.
"That night changed my life," Loesch writes in a letter he sent to Flanagan upon hearing about the pilot's retirement. "I knew exactly what I wanted to do. From that moment on, I have been working to become a pilot at United Airlines."
Loesch now is working toward getting his pilot's license and plans to study aviation and aerospace when he starts college in the fall.
"I always turn the worst experiences into a positive experience," Flanagan said. "There's nothing better than after a customer says to you, after five hours, ' This is the best delay.' "
Flanagan's final flight was plagued by delays – delays departing and then weather delays in Chicago – yet he still managed to arrive on time to O'Hare International Airport, his home base during most of his time at United.
For the past 28 years, Flanagan has commuted from his home in Richfield to Chicago for work.
"You can live anywhere you want, as long as you get to work on time," he said.
And, for a pilot, that means catching a flight to the windy city the night before every week's shift.
An industry in flux
In the 40 years that Flanagan has occupied a cockpit, the industry has seen its ups and downs.
He was in Denver leading a class for new captains when the news broke about 9/11.
"It attacked your job, your profession, your friends, fellow employees, the industry, our country...it was a travesty," Flanagan said. "A pilot's No. 1 job is safety of flight, to get everybody safely from point a to point b. That's our job, our professional job."
In the months and years to follow, he saw the airline industry transform. TSA evolved and passengers became more aware. Travelers would tell him they were black belts and ready to defend the plane, if needed.
Beyond safety concerns, Flanagan has seen decades' worth of technology move through the aircraft. From the crash avoidance systems installed in the early 1990s to the days of the airphones Flight 93 passengers used to call their families before the plane crashed in Pennsylvania in 2001, airplanes increasingly are becoming more computerized.
"In the airline industry, it was a little bit different when I showed up," Flanagan said.
Sustainability wasn't a push; fuel was cheap and no one was concerned about using it, he said.
"Now, we're changing our carbon footprint. Airplanes are more efficient, more fuel efficient," said Flanagan, whose family recycles everything it can.
Despite the changes in aircraft, the actual act of flying has changed very little.
"Flying is flying, you just have to learn to fly different equipment," said Flanagan.
He has flown everything from Lockheed C130s and Lockheed P3 Orions in the Navy to Boeing 757s and Boeing 767s in United's fleet.
Flanagan said his last flight was very similar to his first flight, except that the aircraft he flew for United carried more people than his two-seater starter plane did. And it still had that view he loves.
"It's a great planet; you never get tired of it," Flanagan said.
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