US Airways' senior pilot retires after 39 years in sky

Career: Changes in the industry mean that few pilots will be having 39-year careers with one airline as did Charles Bennett Chamberlin.

June 01, 1999|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

On his last day on the job before mandatory retirement at age 60, after 39 years of holding the lives of millions of airline passengers in his hands, Charles Bennett Chamberlin got really nervous only once.

That occurred two weeks ago after US Airways' public relations department asked the airline's most senior pilot to talk to reporters upon arrival in Philadelphia from London in command of the last flight of a career that spanned flying everything from Piper Cubs and DC-3s to the Boeing 767 wide-body.

"Pilots really have very little contact with the public, much less the media," said Peter Gauthier, chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association union at US Airways, who joined hundreds of other pilots and friends at Philadelphia International Airport to greet Chamberlin.

Among those along on his last commercial airline trip was his favorite flight attendant, his wife, Kathy.

Chamberlin's welcome-home included airport firetrucks shooting two plumes of water over the big jet as it taxied to the terminal.

Pilots retire from the airline business all the time. But the end of a career as long as Chamberlin's is a good time to reflect on the seemingly routine but vital role they play in the lives of the millions of people who take commercial airline flights every day.

Without the high standards for safe flying set by government regulation and strictly adhered to by pilots, travelers would not have developed the trust they have in airlines. And without airlines, of course, modern business travel would be a far different experience.

Airline pilots are well-paid. Senior captains who fly wide-body jets for the major carriers receive more than $200,000 a year. And while those high salaries may contribute to what many business travelers believe are outrageously high fares to make last-minute flights, paying pilots well enables airlines to attract and keep the cream of the crop.

Chamberlin started his career at Allegheny Airlines, one of US Airways' predecessors, on July 21, 1960. One of the last Federal Aviation Administration regulations that he had to obey was to retire at age 60. That rule is in place for obvious reasons: No matter how good a pilot is, the chance of losing a few steps, or of eyesight failing, increases with age. Retiring from US Airways won't stop Chamberlin from flying. He plans to work in corporate aviation for a friend he taught to fly years ago, and he owns a Christian Eagle biplane that he flies for fun.

After his last US Airways flight, Chamberlin stood at the doorway of the 767, shaking hands and thanking passengers for their good wishes as they got off. Then he agreed to go back to the jet's flight deck one last time, for a few questions about his career.

Chamberlin said he feels much better today about US Airways' future than he did a few years ago, when the company lost money and seemed unable to find the direction it wanted to go. Thanks in part to a healthy economy, but also to better management, the airline has enjoyed growing revenues and passenger boardings in the past three years. "US Air has been up and down, but it's got a tremendous management crew in there now," he said. "They're great. They're watching every little detail."

The change in the airline includes attention to every aspect of safety, down to seemingly minor items such as airport ground crews always having a flashlight available at night to help direct planes to a gate, Chamberlin said.

Perhaps the most important trait a pilot can have is to never get bored with the challenging but repetitive job of getting a complex piece of machinery safely to its destination day after day.

"I flew the same route, between Baltimore and London for three years, and I never got tired of it," he said. "It was always different."

With the major changes the airline industry has undergone in the past 20 years, with new carriers starting up and others fading or going out of business, few pilots can hope to have a career with one company as long as Chamberlin's.

But travelers will be well-served if the more vigorous 60-year-olds stay in the cockpit until the day before they have to retire.

Pub Date: 6/01/99

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