SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Kenneth “Gene” Clinkingbeard doesn’t come from a long line of pilots, but you wouldn’t be able to tell. His wife, Maryellen, and their son, Michael, are also pilots.
“She was my flight instructor. She’s the one who taught me how to fly,” he said.
Maryellen, Michael and their daughter, Lindsey, joined Clinkingbeard at Sacramento International Airport for his last flight as a pilot with American Airlines. He’s retiring after 26 years with the airline.
He said he chose the route between Sacramento and his home base of Phoenix as his final trip because it was one of his favorite layovers.
“I always enjoyed coming into Sacramento and spending time there whenever I could,” he said. “It’s just a beautiful city.”
Clinkingbeard said he wanted to be a pilot at a young age, but he didn’t know how to make it happen.
“No one in my family was a pilot or flew. So, I didn’t have anyone to mentor me,” he said.
It was his mother who offered to help him become a pilot. She arranged a trip to Cochise College in Sierra Vista, Ariz., to learn more about the school’s aeronautics program. Gene was 23-years-old when he enrolled in the program in 1977.
Little did he know, he would meet his future wife, Maryellen.
“We were good friends and we always enjoyed each other's company,” he said. “She was a terrific instructor and we always had a good time together.”
Clinkingbeard graduated in 1978, but it would be a little over a decade before the two decided they wanted to be more than friends. They married in 1990.
In the years between graduation and marriage, Clinkingbeard began his career flying helicopters. He was an officer pilot for the Arizona Department of Public Safety. During his time flying for Air Services International, he had a couple of celebrity passengers.
“I flew Tom Cruise when he was shooting the movie 'Days of Thunder.' I also got to fly the rock group Aerosmith out to the concert venue in Phoenix,” he said.
Clinkingbeard said flying helicopters is exciting and challenging, which is why he enjoyed it so much. But eventually, he found his way to flying airplanes with StatesWest Airlines in 1991. The regional airline was his first.
He said he went through his first airline merger while flying for America West Airlines in 2005.
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“They merged with US Airways, so America West Airlines went away and we became US Airways… then US Airways merged with American Airlines and US Airways went away and now it’s American Airlines,” Clinkingbeard explained.
No matter which airline Clinkingbeard was working for, his son, Michael, was watching closely.
“When he was little, I would take him on trips with me whenever I could. He was able to come with me to New York City, Boston, Philly and Anchorage,” he said.
While in high school, Michael decided he wanted to follow in his parents’ footsteps and pursue aviation as a career. He’s now based in Seattle as a first officer with Compass Airlines.
Clinkingbeard said Michael sat behind him in the cockpit during his last flight.
“It was a beautiful flight. You always want your last flight to be memorable,” Clinkingbeard said. “My wife and my daughter and son on board. The cabin crew in the back were America West flight attendants. The aircraft was a former America West aircraft. It was very nostalgic.”
He said it feels surreal and bittersweet to retire after 26 years.
“Most of us got into it because we love to fly. It’s the opportunity to do... something you love to do. It’s hard to explain to somebody who doesn’t fly,” Clinkingbeard said. “Just the fact that you’re propelling a machine up in the air. It’s very exciting and challenging. It’s definitely a skill.”
Although Clinkingbeard is required by law to retire from the airline at 65-years-old, he said “that doesn’t mean you can’t do other types of flying,” referring to private and commercial aviation outside of the airlines.
When asked if he would continue flying he said, “I probably will.”