Being Squirrel

A Pilot’s Story


To Captain Squirrel with love from your daughter~

“The reason birds can fly and we can’t is simply because they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings.”
― J.M. Barrie, The Little White Bird

It was a crisp fall afternoon in Salt Lake City on October 1,1996. The airport was buzzing with travelers and it seemed like an ordinary day at one of the busiest airports in the country. If you happened to be at the Delta terminal, you were privy to one of the most respectful send-offs the airlines display to honor retiring pilots. As the Boeing 767 jetliner entered the gate it was greeted on each side by two fire engines. Their hoses directed high into the air, the 767 taxied through the make shift arch of water- a blessing given to the Captain flying his last trip. What a sight to witness at the airport that evening in Salt Lake City. Chills covered my arms as I thought about the journey the Captain must have gone through to end his career in a heroes salute.

(Picture of the water arches as Richard taxied through on his last flight)

Delta Plane

It was 1959 when the airline industry began to blossom. To travel on an airplane was deemed glamourous and working for an airline as a flight attendant or pilot, well, that was considered golden. To become a pilot in the airline industry was difficult, even for those with military credentials. It was not for the weak at heart, but for those with tenacity and passion. Following that passion took courage, especially when the odds were against you.

When Richard was a little boy his Mom could hear him at night in his bed playing with airplanes. At age five this little boy knew the sky was the limit and being a pilot was what he had to accomplish in his life. Some people go their whole lives and never realize their dreams. Richard’s story is one that redefines tenacity and proves that dreams do come true.

Richard was 22 years old living in New York City, with only two years of college education, no military experience, he was determined to become a pilot. His background to date was a private pilot license he earned by bussing tables and taking flying lessons at the local airport where he grew up in Deep River, Connecticut. Richard would do anything to get his foot in the door at an airline. In 1959, North East airlines hired him as part of their ground crew- running flight operations, crew scheduling and passenger service. As he worked through the year, during his free time he focused on qualifying for his instrument rating at Teterboro Airport. On his days off, you could find Richard watching the planes take off and land at La Guardia Airport. Parked at the end of runway 4, the noise of the propelled engines barreling down towards him, Richard dreamed of the day he would be piloting one of those planes.

Because of Richard’s exceptional work ethic, he was noticed by the Chief Pilot at North East. Eventually pilot positions opened up and that same Chief  gave Richard the opportunity to interview. Up against military pedigree pilots, Richard was hired in 1960 to begin training. Bussing tables to pay for his pilot license finally paid off. Flight school started and Richard was living out his dream. When North East airlines lost their bid for a route; just weeks away from completing school Richard was laid off.

While Richard eagerly awaited the call from North East airlines to complete flight school he moved back to Connecticut. In Connecticut Richard flew charters and cargo planes to keep his license active and increase his flying hours. A few months went by when Richard finally received the call he’d been hoping for and he and his fellow pilot friend Frank Bonna were sent to Miami to finish training. Both took their studies seriously in spite of the Florida sunshine, palm trees and bikini clad flight attendants lounging by the pool. It was all business. During the day they studied their books and at night they were trained on actual aircraft. In 1961 Richard completed flight training school and became a Flight Engineer. Things were looking up,  his dreams were about to be realized, when North East airlines called to lay him off again! The airline summoned him and Frank back to Boston that day, but not before they decided to indulge in a few “Miami distractions”… it was the golden era of flying after all.

While back in Boston with Miami indulgences completed, Richard plotted his next move. The five year old boy who laid in his bed at night dreaming of becoming a pilot was not going to quit, this was just the beginning…1962 would shape the rest of his life.

Delaware is where Richard landed for his next pilot job. Capital Airways, a charter that flew international routes, was in need of pilots. However, when Richard showed up, the flight instructors did not. This was a job that went nowhere. I don’t recall hearing any airline called Capital Airways today…now I know why. After leaving the peculiar situation at Capital Airways, Richard decided to follow a lead he heard about with Western Airlines. The airline wanted to interview him, but he had to get himself to Los Angeles. If Richard could get to Minneapolis, Western would fly him to LA. After pleading with pilots, hopping on charter flights and one scary turbulent ride to Chicago, Richard was finally in Minneapolis on his way to Los Angeles. In June of 1962, Richard was hired by Western Airlines. Settled in on the west coast enjoying training at Western, the unimaginable happened, Richard was laid off after only four months.

Two layoffs from North East and one from Western Airlines and still Richard was not going to quit. He heard about an airline called Slick Airways that flew cargo for the military. He had to relocate to Northern California and fly overnight flights to a Dallas airfield where they unloaded dangerous explosives. Richard flew with Slick Airways for a few months, when they relocated him to Norfolk, VA. After two months in Virginia flying for Slick, he was laid off. This was the fourth lay off Richard endured to date. His passion being the driving force, led him back to New York where he was hired as a co-pilot for Eastern Airlines. His friend, Frank Bonna, was hired with Eastern too. I was told during his stay in New York, Richard introduced Frank to a fellow flight attendant, whom he married. The golden ear of flying was truly golden.

Richard was enjoying flying for Eastern Airlines, when he received a phone call from Western Airlines offering reinstatement. Richard was torn on what to do- stay with Eastern where he was a co-pilot on the DC 7B or relocate across country to Los Angeles with Western? Weather and perhaps destiny played a part in his decision. Richard moved back to Los Angeles where he finished flight training school and became a pilot with Western Airlines in 1962.

Thirty six years as a commercial pilot and finishing with Delta Airlines after a merger with Western, Richard found himself many times on runway 4 at La Guardia Airport. This time he was the Captain of a Boeing 757 waiting for air traffic control to give him the go ahead. As Richard sat behind the controls, he remembered the young man parked in his car at the end of runway 4 watching the propelled planes take off. Throttles forward, jet engines reared up, the Captain with speckled grey hair piloted the boeing 757 down runway 4 and up over the very spot where he once dreamed of becoming a pilot. His dreams were realized.

The heroes salute bestowed upon Richard in Salt Lake City on that crisp fall day was well deserved. Richard’s journey was an arduous one, but he followed his dreams and became a commercial airline pilot. His example of working hard to achieve his dreams is what drives me to follow mine. Now, I know where I get my tenacity and passion. You see, my parents met on a flight to Salt Lake City. Richard was the pilot and my Mom was the beautiful flight attendant. It all happened in the same city where Delta gave Richard, my Dad, his heroes salute. Was it fate or luck? I vote destiny!

Destiny: The inevitable or necessary fate to which a particular person or thing is destined; one’s lot. A predetermined course of events considered as something beyond human or control

(The plane below where my parents met)

Western plane

Happy Birthday Daddy!


6 Responses to A Pilot’s Story

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *