By GREG RUSSELL, Register Staff Writer
An airline now more than three decades out of commission continues to bear tribute from former employees who meet annually for a reunion dinner.
And in recent years, Gainesville has become their venue of choice.
Former pilots and executives of Braniff International Airways spent Monday’s Memorial Day afternoon in the Tomlinson Avionics Hangar of Gainesville Municipal Airport. Braniff International Silver Eagles (BISE) organization members nationwide conducted fly-ins and sold memorabilia and dined on catering from Dieter Brothers Restaurant in Lindsay.
They also cited the novelty of more than 250 guests celebrating a company that hasn’t existed since 1982.
“They’re still a big family,” said guest Sue Luthi of Gainesville, whose husband is a former Braniff pilot. “To me, it’s heartwarming that a company’s been bankrupt for 31 years and this many people still turn out.”
Braniff, incorporated in 1930, sustained five decades of success and reached a ranking as the fifth-largest airline in America before becoming the first major airline to file bankruptcy. This occurred in May 1982, with airline administrators citing high fuel prices, recession and abandonment from travel agencies sustaining their own economic problems. The company’s end was somewhat dramatic on a local level; on May 12, 1982, Braniff canceled all pending DFW International Airport flights in the midst of a Metroplex thunderstorm that had compelled other airlines at the airport to simply delay theirs.
The company later kept its 62 aircraft at the DFW Airport and at Love Field, and following a massive layoff — which had been in procession since 1980 — only 225 employees remained among 9,000. Today, more than 400 Braniff pilots are alive and are regularly invited to tribute events hosted by the Silver Eagles in Dallas-area cities.
Monday’s Memorial Day-themed reunion began in Gainesville in 2009, following a stint at an airfield west of Sanger.
“It was an ideal place for a fly-in, but it’s gotten developed with residential sections and it was necessary to move this,” Luthi said. “But however and whyever that decision was made, I’m thrilled because I live here.”
BISE Vice-President Rex Kathcart said the Tomlinson Avionics Hangar was donated for the purposes of the annual reunion, beneficial for the large base of former Braniff employees who currently live in the Dallas area.
“In the old days, it would have been quite a shock to go from Dallas to Gainesville for a fly-in, but it’s really worked out well,” he said. “For a major airline, it was very close-knit. Believe it or not, they still come out for this, and it’s great.”