By Ed Brock
For nearly four decades Benny Doran has flown higher than the strongest eagle.
He's seen the Northern Lights and falling comets from 37,000 feet, the tops of thunderheads and things he dreamed about as a boy growing up on a ranch in New Mexico.
But today the retiring Air Tran pilot will say good-bye to all that as he concludes his final flight under an arching salute of water from Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport's emergency fire crews. He's turning 60, the age when commercial airline pilots are required to retire.
"It's an interesting way to make a living," Doran said as he sat in the living room of the house he built with wife Jadean outside Morrow.
Arranged with care on the shelves in that living room are models of the numerous aircraft he's piloted. It all started with a DC-9 propeller plane that he flew when he was hired by now-defunct Eastern Airlines in 1966.
But even before then Doran was taking every opportunity to fly with a friend while he working as teacher and while Jadean Doran was working as a bank teller.
"She was making about $50 a day and I was spending about $200 on flying," Doran said.
Even so, Eastern trained him how to fly the commercial passenger planes that have been his bread and butter ever since.
"They didn't hire me because of my vast flying experience," Doran said. "They hired me because I was very young and I had a good education."
As a pilot for Eastern, Doran began building up that long list of cities around the country where he's been, places like San Diego, Los Angeles, Colorado Springs, El Paso, Tucson, Oklahoma City, Wichita and many more. At each stop he often had time to look around, but for his family's sake he declined an opportunity to fly the South American routes that would have given him 5-day layovers in a foreign country.
The regular schedule of a commercial pilot is hard enough on family life, but the Dorans have made it through and have two sons.
"We both grew up in the same small town," Jadean Doran, also 59, said. "We're high school sweethearts."
Her husband's schedule meant he spent a lot of Christmases and Thanksgivings away from home.
"We do celebrate those holidays, we just don't always celebrate them on that day," Jadean Doran said.
But Benny Doran did have enough seniority to make sure he was home for his son's football games. Sons Jay, 40, and Ray, 34, live in Dallas and Doran's last flight will be there to pick them up (and a few dozen more passengers).
And Jadean has traveled with her husband on several trips, including one to the south of France.
"It was like a working vacation," Jadean Doran said.
Then came Jan. 18, 1991, the day Eastern closed. It didn't come as a surprise, so the Dorans were prepared.
"I came home, she said ?That's it' and I said ?Let's go to the basketball game,'" Doran said.
Of course Doran's piloting was far from over. For about three years he worked as an industrial chemist and at one point worked under contract for Jamaican Airlines.
He even flew through the Bermuda Triangle on more than one occasion.
The only problem with that is the use of high frequency radio communications.
"It's not unusual that you'll be out of contact for about 20 minutes," Doran said. "I've never seen any UFOs."
In 1995 Doran started flying for what was then Valujet and later became AirTran, his current employer.
During his career Doran also got to experience the ever-increasing refinement of flight technology. Nervousness was not the emotion he felt the first time he flew a jet.
"It was pinch me I'm dreaming," Doran said.
The last plane he will fly will be a Boeing 717, one of the most advanced planes in the sky. Of course, all of the navigational technology is only as good as the information humans put into it, but the best thing is the precision of information offered by LCD displays that form the "glass cockpit."
"You can see where you are in relation to other things," Doran said.
Previously pilots had to keep a mental picture of where they were.
But now it's all over. Doran is still considering what he will do next, perhaps becoming a full-time "recurrent trainer" for the 717. Meanwhile, he's coming to accept the fact that the next time he is on one of those jets he'll be sitting in a passenger seat.
"You hate to stop doing something you really enjoy doing," Doran said. "You try to not be upset about it. I enjoyed it while I did it but that's it. Nothing lasts forever."
His wife is happy to have him home.
"We're thankful that he made it to age 60, he has no health problems and no incidences," Jadean Doran said. "He made it."