What’s in a Pin? ALPA member wins first place with touching story of camaraderie…


When United Airlines First Officer Bruce Benyshek first saw Fletcher Kehmeier, he knew there was something different about this 87-year-old man. As it turned out, the thing that was different about Kehmeier was an ALPA pin - the very thing that united these two strangers in brotherhood. 

Benyshek turned the chance meeting into a touching story (read below), which took first place in the International Labor Communications Association’s 2016 Media Awards for Best Editorial Column. Kehmeier was about to celebrate his 90th birthday when he heard about the story, and he had a family member reach out to Benyshek to express his sincere appreciation. 

Regarding his first-place win, Benyshek said, “I couldn’t be happier. Thanks for the award, but the real reward was knowing how much it meant to him and his family.” 

ALPA is pleased to extend congratulations to F/O Bruce Benyshek on this well-deserved honor! Thank you for your excellent contribution and more importantly, for your remarkable perspective on what it truly means to wear the ALPA pin.

History, Pride, Pin

 

Pilot Musings History, Pride, and a Little Pin

By F/O Bruce Benyshek (United) 

On a recent trip, the captain and I were at Denver International Airport late at night waiting for a missing hotel van. The pickup area is an island that is narrow in places, and sometimes you have to squeeze in to let people by. 

Capt. Wayde Beckman (United) was on the phone trying to find out where our van was. As I waited, an elderly gentleman approached from the right. He was smartly dressed in a gray suit with a tie. Although in his twilight, he carried himself with dignity, purpose, and confidence. 

As he proceeded, he had to pass close by me due to the island. As he did, he made eye contact, but it seemed more than just a courtesy. It seemed as if he was about to say something then didn’t. 

As he passed, I caught a fleeting glimpse of a small lapel pin, but I couldn’t say for sure what it was. He took a place on the island a few feet in front of us. As we waited, curiosity gnawed at me. As minutes ticked by and still no van arrived, I decided I had to know. 

I approached him, pointed at his lapel, and asked, “Sir, what kind of pin is that?” 

“ALPA,” he said proudly. 

It was slightly different from today’s ALPA pin, bearing a patina acquired over time but easily recognizable. I put out my hand, introduced myself, and shook hands with him. “Sir, an honor to meet you. When did you start flying, and what aircraft have you flown?” 

His name was Fletcher Kehmeier. He told me he started flying in 1955 and went to work for Frontier in 1959. He had flown DC-3s, Convair 580s, and B-737s. 

This man had flown the airliner that launched the beginnings of profitable passenger service and finished with the jet equivalent. He had started his career as the second generation of pioneers who created ALPA. He had seen the greatest changes to the airline industry that we will ever know in one lifetime. 

As I conversed with him, Wayde saw me speaking with Mr. Kehmeier and came over to find out what the hubbub was. 

I filled him in. Wayde asked where he learned to fly. 

“Denver, Clinton Aviation.” Wayde said his father had learned to fly at Clinton and later instructed there. 

The gentleman asked his name, and when Wayde told him the gentleman said, “I knew your father.” Wow! 

Wayde went through a list of his father’s contemporaries and even family friends. This old codger knew almost all of them. 

I asked what he was doing in Denver so late at night.

“Riding space available.” The patriarch of an aviation family—his sons were A&P mechanics, and two of his grandsons are B-747 pilots—he had been traveling the country to visit them. He didn’t make the last flight, so he was headed to the hotel to wait until morning. He’s 87 years old! 

We spoke with him for another 10 minutes or so, until our hotel van showed up. We said our goodbyes and boarded. As we drove off, he waved to us. 

There was a smile on his face, and I’m sure meeting some fellow pilots and talking “airplanes” made his day—if not his week. It certainly made mine. 

All of this was set in motion because a pilot at the outer marker of his life still felt pride in the history of his life and career. He still wanted the world to know that he belonged to a special brotherhood and was still a part of it. And the best way for him to show that was by a small lapel pin. 

What is an ALPA pin worth? I’d bet it doesn’t cost ALPA more than a buck or two to make. It’s not made of precious metals. For that matter, how does an ounce of gold, a diamond, or a barrel of oil get its value? How does anything get its value? The answer—people decide something’s value. They decide how important something is to them and assign a numerical or emotional value to it. But it’s arbitrary; there’s no scientific basis for it, and it can fluctuate. 

Some say the ALPA pin isn’t worth anything. They say strikebreakers have been granted amnesty and wear the pin. They say some staunch unionists don’t wear the pin. There are arguments that one union cannot possibly be the best representation for all pilots when it also argues in favor of your competition. 

ALPA isn’t perfect. But when the pin reflects your pride in your profession, your passion for aviation, or the camaraderie you enjoy from working with people you call “friend,” “brother,” or “sister,” it takes on great meaning. When worn with a star, it signifies sacrifice, dedication, and a belief in something bigger than oneself. 

People decide the value of the pin. For Fletcher Kehmeier, it meant everything. For me, along with this brief encounter and reminder, it’s priceless. And I’m damn glad to wear the same little pin.

Here’s to you, Capt. Kehmeier.

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