Reading Time: 5 minutes

Some of the pilots forced to retire at 60 aren’t as fortunate as their peers who have good pension plans when the bell tolls.

The bust-ups of Eastern, Pan Am and several other carriers in the 1980s and 90s are still felt by these former captains, as their retirement kitties were raided by the ailing airlines when such activity wasn’t regulated. And some ex-pilots worked for airlines when retirement packages weren’t a standard benefit.

Others simply love to fly and can’t stand the idea of golfing or living in a condo just yet. They feel as physically and mentally fit as ever.

Retired Capt. Hal “Mac” McNicol Jr., who runs the country’s oldest pilot placement agency, pointed out that although all the major airlines now have good pension plans, the same isn’t always true of the smaller carriers. And sometimes those small companies end up being fly-by-nights. One example in recent memory is Kitty Hawk International, whose planes had a number of engine failures that cost about $1 million apiece to fix. Within months, the company filed for protection from creditors under Chapter 11 of U.S. bankruptcy law.

“All of a sudden you end up at age 60 and you can’t withdraw Social Security until you’re 62 or 63, with minimal benefits. Then you have to wait for the full, normal benefit at age 65,” asserted McNicol, founder and president of Flight Crews International, based at Los Angeles International Airport. “So that age discrimination rule is a real hardship.”

Jessica Stearns, a just-retired captain from Continental, has friends who have gone through “a dozen uniforms” because they worked for airlines that went bankrupt. To make matters worse, they have hardly anything in their pension funds.

“I only got a good (captains) salary three years ago, but that’s only three out of 16 years (of service), and I struggled,” said Stearns, who was in the Air Force for 20 years before moving to the old People Express. That airline was bought by Continental in 1987, which then filed twice for protection from bankruptcy. “This age 60 rule really hurts a lot of people, and that knowledge is not out there. The congressional people think they’re all United, American and Delta (pilots), retiring with 1 to 2 million dollars, but that’s the minority.”

Retiring at 60 is premature, “especially for women my age, who entered the field later,” she added. “What you do in life should be based on your ability. If its physical, fine. If its mental, fine. Being an airline pilot is an extremely demanding profession. But as long as you’re passing your physicals, this age-60 rule is ridiculous.”

Fortunately for Stearns, she received 12 years worth of pension contributions upon retirement from Continental. But not everyone has been so lucky.

Lost his pension, his house . . . and his wife

Buddy Davison is one of those pilots who worked for Eastern Airlines and has only $30,000 left in that retirement fund. Hired at 24, Davison served Eastern for 25 years when it went under in 1991. But the heartbreak didn’t end there. Eastern’s chairman and CEO, Frank Lorenzo, “piecemealed off the airline, and our retirement plans got raked, and the union [Air Line Pilots Association] screwed us even worse,” Davison told The Public i.

Davison, who had four teenagers and a $3,600 monthly mortgage payment at the time, had to raid his retirement fund to make ends meet. But he was taxed on that, and, unknown to him until it was too late, the withdrawals ate into the principal. “I ended up losing that house and that wife as a result of that fiasco,” he recalled.

A Maryland-based Southwest captain, Davison turned 60 on Jan. 1 — and said he wasn’t ready for retirement. “I don’t smoke, I jog three times a week, I love my job, and I don’t feel 60 or too old for the job. At least I would like to work until I’m 65, when I could withdraw that money,” he said.

“What really disappoints me about this whole business is that ALPA completely ignores people like me whose retirement plans got ruined.”

Like Davison and countless others, Harry Clark worked for a number of airlines that didn’t have pension plans or went bust. Clark started out his career transporting planes for the Army during World War II and in 1949 joined TransOcean Airlines, where he sat in the left seat for 11 years before it folded. Now 75 and the chief pilot of his own cargo airline in Honolulu, Clark admits that when he was younger, the age-60 rule suited him just fine, so that he could “move up” faster.

Now, however, he jokes that if the rule is to be fair, it “should apply to all members of Congress.”

Rather be flying

R.B. Miller, a former American Airlines pilot who is now 67, takes whatever aviation work he can get: simulator, test flight, ferry or international work, all one-shot deals or short-term contracts. “I just want to fly. Theres no real financial reason,” Miller said from his Orange County, Calif., home.

Miller said there is such a shortage of pilots that he has had no problem getting work on private jets in the last year, even though he had no experience on that type of aircraft.

And Smiley Johnson, a 66-year-old Texan who collects from his America West 401(k) plan, still flies for private individuals. His compensation has dropped from $90 an hour to about $25 but, he says, “You fly because you like to fly, and you’d rather do that than boat on a lake or blow your time on something else.”

Johnson points out that the older a pilot gets, the more he or she is subject to heart tests, EKGs and other rigorous measures of health.

Like many over-60 pilots, Richard Delafield continued to fly with major, foreign-owned carriers (which have higher or no age restrictions) since his forced retirement in 1995 from America West. Now an FAA flight inspector in Phoenix, Delafield first started up his own international jet-ferrying company and took on six-month contracts with Australian and Saudi Arabian airlines. With the former, he was allowed to command a Boeing 747 as captain, and with the latter, he flew the Saudi king.

“With all his bucks, King Fahd didn’t think a 62-year-old was a bad deal,” Delafield said.

Nancy Aldrich, who had to retire from United a year ago when she hit the golden age, has opted for a more traditional retirement but said she “would have loved flying for another two years” if only she could have remained a captain.

“I think 60 is an arbitrarily picked age, and it has no basis in medical fact or substance, but I have no interest whatsoever in getting out of the front seat and going into the back seat as a flight engineer,” she said frankly. “I decided that if I could no longer manipulate the controls, I would like to have a life.”

One of the few female commercial pilots in the nation, Aldrich whose e-mail name is “captgramma” now flies a two-seater, single-engine Cessna 120 near her Colorado home just for fun, and is already teaching her 13-year-old grandson how to fly.

“We’re the guys who made pilots when we were kids, and we haven’t ever wanted to do anything but fly,” Delafield summed up. “We’re not in it for the money.”

Help support this work

Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you.