If you took off and flew continuously for the total number of hours veteran Decatur pilot Barton Cole has under his wing, you would not land again for 15 months.
Stretching the boundaries of achievement has come naturally to Cole, who has flown everything from military ground attack fighters to private passenger jets in his 11,000 hours of flight time.
Those hours were racked up over a career that spans an extraordinary 50 years and was recognized by the Federal Aviation Administration in January. The FAA presented Cole with its prestigious “Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award” to acknowledge his half-century of safe, exemplary flying.
Slim and cool, calm and collected, with the coveted gold wings he won in the Navy now pinned to his private pilot’s uniform, Cole is self-effacing and slipstreams in jokes you have to think about to catch.
Asked what he thought of his impressive recent honor, he smiled and said, “I guess this is the way the FAA has of recognizing pilots who, after 50 years, still have the same number of takeoffs and landings.”
The father of two and grandfather of five had grown up in Macon dreaming of flight. He later discovered he had an aptitude for it and, after graduating from the University of Illinois, headed out to sea to learn to fly.
“I went into the Navy and went to flight school in 1965,” he says. “And I did my first solo flight on Oct. 27, 1965, 50 years ago.”
After 13 years of active duty and Naval Reserve service, he had flown on into civilian life looking for a pilot’s berth but found the skies less than friendly.
“I had a letter of hire from United (Airlines) in 1970, but then they had started laying pilots off,” Cole says.
So he took a chance and flew in a totally different direction by buying a beer distribution company in 1972. Happily, he found his assured pilot’s eye proved pretty adept at navigating the flight path of running a successful business. The love of flying continued to orbit his heart, however, and he bought himself a twin-engine prop aircraft which he flew in his spare time to “keep me in the game.”
By 1997, he was ready to shift careers again, selling the business so he could seek profit from the skies. He went on to perform various pilot jobs, and flew for Archer Daniels Midland Co. for 2½ years before being hired as a pilot for NetJets in 2004. Owned by Berkshire Hathaway, NetJets runs a fleet of some 400 private jets in which the passengers actually own a share of the planes in which they fly.
It’s a life reserved for top-flight business executives, professional golfers and entertainment stars and means you have a private jet available on short notice to take you where you want to go. Cole has flown all over North America, Mexico and the Caribbean and taken passengers as far as London. He said the luxuriously appointed jets are a grand way to roar across the heavens.
“Oh, they’re quite comfortable,” says Cole, describing the sumptuous interiors with his trademark understatement. “But I’ve never ridden in the back; I’m always up front.”
Sandy Cole, his wife of 37 years, doesn’t get many passenger rides in executive jets, either, but she has been a passenger in lesser planes with her husband at the controls. She said she can understand why celebrities and everyone else would enjoy having her unflappable hubby zip them along at 550 mph.
“You just trust him; he’s such a good pilot,” she says. “I guess I figure if he can land on aircraft carriers in the Navy (he has 252 carrier landings to his credit), he can land anywhere.”
Now 72, Barton Cole says he is taxiing towards retirement from NetJets this year. But, as long as he’s able, he still plans to fly and has already spoken to some folks who will occasionally have need of a seasoned pilot’s services.
He says the thrill of flight never grows old, and the natural high of bursting through a dense layer of dark cloud to embrace the perpetual sunny skies far above always makes his soul take wing.
“They say that flying is the second best feeling you will ever have,” he says with a bright smile. “The best feeling, of course, is landing.”