Captain Bill’s Retirement
Today, we were supposed to the “precious cargo” (aka passengers) landing on Bill Cox’s final flight from Sydney to LA, and then returning to SFO together to celebrate at the Millbrae Pancake House. We used all of Colleen Cox’s miles and then some, had our tickets, our hotel, our visas, and were prepared to brave taking a 6-month old on a 14 hr flight, for 23hrs in Australia and then loading up for the 14hr flight back! Due to COVID-19, not only do we not get to celebrate this moment, but after a 35+ year career with American Airlines, what ultimately ended up being his last flight, happened back in March without any fanfare or celebration with family, friends or coworkers. Retiring as Captain on the Dreamliner is not a bad way to finish a career, but since I can’t post a photo of his last flight, I've instead added these words, and commemorative page: KelleyLCox.com/captainbill
Born in San Francisco, raised in San Bruno, he grew up overlooking SFO airport and always knew he wanted to be a pilot. He took his first solo flight before he got his driver’s license. Never a good student unless it related to flying, he took the 5 year junior college path to San Jose State to get his Aero degree. Working as a private pilot instructor, he met my mom who randomly signed up for lessons “after talking to a nice old man on the phone”. That nice “old man” was my 20-something dad who thought he was talking to a little girl on the phone not a 20-something woman. He still has his log book from when they met: “What a fox!” Turns out, she enjoyed flying but lost interest when it came to weather (“what is the temperature dew point?” is still a recurring joke in our family). So when he asked her “I’d like to take you on a date sometime, but if you say yes, I can no longer be your instructor” she readily agreed. As the story goes, when my grandpa first met my dad he said “well you must be either a really great catch or a really sh*tty instructor!” 😜
She saw his hard work and determination and believed in his dream to become a commercial pilot as he went from flight instructor to charter pilot, to flying for a small commuter airline. She was proud and supportive of every step. A few months after Stacey was born, he got an offer from American Airlines (I have no idea why in the family photo album they took a picture of the offer letter in the refrigerator?) and that started his career on the 727, to DC10, back 727 as FO, 757/767, and captain on MD80. Initially assigned to be based out of Chicago, when a position at SFO opened, he jumped at the chance. His childhood dream come true!
When people asked if it was hard to have my dad gone overnight, I never understood. Their dads were home every night but exhausted from long days of unfulfilling work. Sure, mine was gone a few nights but when he was home, he was so present. Happy to go to work, happy to be home. (And he’d often bring home Rolling pin donuts!). He felt he had the greatest job in the world. It’s no surprise that I would marry someone who (prior to this year, and again in a few years) works 48hr shifts. And also someone with a private pilot’s license, who took me flying on an early date and still laments at how much it failed to impress me. 😆
Since he was always goofy “Mr. Bill”, my sister came home in tears one day worried because a friend told her he wasn’t serious enough to fly big planes. He had to reassure her that he was very knowledgeable and skilled at his job and capable of being very serious when he needed to be. A degree in Chemical Engineering, working in biopharma labs since high school, an MBA from MIT, named top engineering leaders under 40, she is currently taking all her zoom calls with Disney-themed backgrounds. I think the lesson stuck.
For me, I took to heart the idea that you can be anything you put your mind to and to follow a career that interests you. Though now I see the privilege in that reality, I’m incredibly grateful that when I feared I would fail at Cal amongst all the “smart” people, my parents reminded me I knew how to study and could succeed if I put my mind to it. When I wanted to become a sports photographer, neither of my parents discouraged me. They helped me buy my first gear and championed me every step of the way (while also emphasizing the importance of earning my degree). When I felt defeated, they’d ask “do you still enjoy it?... then you’ll find a way to make it work!” And helping at any opportunity, whether it was being my road trip buddies for an assignment, my assistant when I took Kings media day headshots ~2weeks before I was induced, to being the best babysitters around when I had to work, and hopefully will again as soon as it is safe!
My mom’s decision to not work out of the house, not only let my dad take trips without worrying about the care (both logistical and emotional) of his children, but enabled us to take full advantage of stand-by, travel often and touch all 50 states! To visit various parts of the US, learn history (even if I forgot most of it) understand what makes our communities unique and what connects us, and a love for travel is something I hope to instill in my daughter who flew to Kansas at 4 months and no doubt has more flights in her future, even if not with Grandpa as pilot.
When AA closed the SFO base, my dad switched from the Super 80 to the 777 out of LAX! When I flew standby on his 777 flight to Japan, there was an open seat in first class, so the purser kindly moved me up. As I sat down, he said “your father will be very happy to know you made it” making the guy in the apartment sized seat next to me pop his head over the glass “I gotta ask, who is your father?” and I got to reply “He’s the captain on this plane!” And recreate a photo from when I was a kid.
A few years later he moved on to the 787 Dreamliner! Though I never got to be passenger, not too long ago, on a bit of a whim, Stacey and Rick flew stand-by on his flight to Rick’s home country, New Zealand. They got to surprise Rick’s grandma. The trip was more special than they could have guessed, as it would be the last time he saw her before she passed away.
He ends his career full of stories and friendships. While it’s surreal to think he‘s retired from safely transporting hundreds of people across oceans, there is plenty more sunny skies in Whirlybird’s future as with his Bell 47 helicopter, “Baby Belle”. And will be staying busy with my baby who consistently giggles most with him and stops crying when he plays guitar (even over FaceTime). And of course, and even more so right now, a whole lotta time with my mom who has been counting down days and points out that when he got hired, FAA mandatory retirement was 60, not 65.
To miss out on this because of the Coronavirus pandemic is insignificant compared to the struggle and loss that so many are facing, cancelled weddings, cancelled proms, losing jobs, losing loved ones. It is heartbreaking. But I just wanted to take a moment to virtually celebrate until we can have a proper celebration! Thanks and congratulations on an inspiring career, Captain Bill, aka Daddy, and now Grandpa! Even in retirement, I guess you had to be “Cox Early”. 😜
Congratulations Bill......what a dream career you have had! What a beautiful tribute to your dad Kelley......I very much enjoyed hearing the great story and wonderful pictures. Knowing your mom and dad, I got a good chuckle and smiles from reading this. As you said there will be plenty of flying yet to be had.....flying is in your dad's blood and his passion only second to his family. Looking forward to watching the next chapter in your life unfold Bill.
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