Fifty and Flying: What Comes After Retirement?

Fifty and FlyingFifty and Flying: An inspiring story about making a dream into a reality

By Danielle Aihini

Author Shirley A. Barbee’s recent book Fifty and Flying tells the story about how she decided to pursue her dream of becoming a Flight Attendent after retirement, something she had wanted to do ever since she was a little girl.

“My first flight as a teenager excited me and stirred up an early interest which continued whenever I boarded an aircraft. It was all about the flight, the travel and the possibilities. Life has a way of providing direction and turning our lives around. But I ultimately achieved my goal of becoming a Flight Attendant which allowed me to explore exotic locations from side-walk cafes in Paris to the splendor of the acropolis in Athens, Greece.

Since flying is an important part of life for a lot of people, this book takes the reader on my journey as a Flight Attendant from that first interview, through actual training, graduation, and flying the line. It is a story told from personal experiences with airplanes, traveling, passengers and crews and is sprinkled with many humorous on-board episodes,” said Barbee.

The book starts with Barbee as a child when she took her first flight to California and fell in love with flying. Through the chapters, Barbee takes you on her inspiring journey, through the long, tiring hours to get to where she is now, to the details of her first flight as a stewardess. This story is an inspiration to anyone facing the lingering question, what comes after retirement?

An excerpt from Chapter Twelve

“There’s an eclectic makeup of personalities and personas that form crew members, since individuals usually arrive at training with varying and diverse backgrounds. Some pilots have a swagger and confidence about them, but that isn’t all bad. I’d rather fly with an overconfident pilot than one that’s not. In my short career I’ve flown with many different and varied crew members.

I’ve made many friends, and have even bid to fly with the same crew members on known routes.

About six months out of training, I was on a flight to Portland, Oregon. I was getting coffee cups out of the bin when a young male attendant, named Cullen, told me about his compulsions. In his apartment cans in the kitchen cabinets had to have all the labels facing frontward and all the fringe on his rugs had to face the same direction.

He vividly described his apartment to me, and I knew it was a “neat freak’s dream.” He said his apartment was painted with bold colors, and the bathroom was black and red. I told him it was definitely not the calming colors that were in my decorating palette. We laughed and then talked a little about flying. He was from Iowa and had worked as a dancer prior to his employment with American.

On a trip to Mexico City, I flew with “an awesome crew.” The pilot, co-pilot, muself and four other attendants had a day and a half to stay and so with our Spanish speaking interpreter, we toured the city going from old churches to shops to dancing in the street. For safety reasons we all dined together on the local cuisine, and our Captain made sure we didn’t “drink the water” by treating us all to Coronas.

At one “Pharmacia,” we stopped to get the captain some aspirin. On the counter, right in front of us were packets of Viagra. We attempted to encourage our co-pilot to scarf some up, and the jokes became endless.

Shirley BarbeeShirley Barbee

He was a good sport and played along. We teased him about how fitting behind the controls would be difficult and that we would notice a change in him for being the “big” guy grinning from ear to ear.

But there is always a down side. During my second month of flying I heard the story of a flight attendant who had arrived early at one of the hotels here in Mexico for an overnighter. She had heard of a silver mine where everyone goes to get great bargains on real silver, plates, bowls, and jewelry. She called a taxi from the hotel lobby, waited about ten minutes, went outside and was never heard from again.

Johnny Depp in the Cockpit

On a trip to Nashville, the home of stars and bars, I accompanied an extremely handsome, junior to my age, pilot, who was right out of a Johnny Depp movie. He asked if I wanted to go dancing and explore Music Row. He did his wiggly hipped Elvis impersonation for me and kept looking into my eyes.

“Yeah,” I said to myself, only in the movies.” However, accompanied by other crew members we did go dancing and a fun time was had by all. I told Mike about Mr. Dreamy and he just laughed and said “He was sure Elvis had watched over us.”

I had always heard of so many stories of the beautiful, long-haired, young flight attendant who wooed the dashing, handsome pilot away from his wife, or was it the other way around? Anyway, I found the stories of sordid affairs and broken marriages to be far from what I observed.

My visions only confirmed my belief in happily ever after. By golly, those were happily married men who talked affectionately and fondly of their wives. One of the pilots I flew with actually got out a picture of his wife and kids and clipped it to a visor in the cockpit. I was told by one of the attendants who knew him, that he did this on every flight.

Another attendant I fondly remember was Marla. She was thin, middle age, and very petite. One evening over dinner, at the Courtyard Denver airport, I noticed Marla seemed pensive, lost in thought. I could tell she was troubled so, not knowing her that well, I didn’t want to pry. However, after drinking a couple of glasses of wine, she just started talking and opened up. She said she recently found out that her son was gay.

Marla was divorced and had two daughters that were unaccepting of her son. She told me her son was a flight attendant with another airline and, apparently, I was the first person she had confided in outside her immediate family. I had mixed emotions. I felt good that I was able to be there, but sad that it was taking such a toll on her. We spent several hours just talking and then I went to my room as we had a very early on-call.”

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