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Famous Alaska Airlines pilot is a ‘legend’ in the Pacific Northwest

Few people find their life’s calling in first grade. But Mike Swanigan has never been like most people.

“One of my classmates brought a model of a Boeing 707. It was an American Airlines 707. And I took one look at that airliner and I knew what I wanted to do,” Swanigan said.

That was virtually unheard of for an African-American in the 50s and 60s, but that was news to him.

“I didn’t know. I didn’t understand the history of it,” he said of the unwritten but overt discrimination against black pilots at the time. “My parents were the type of people who encouraged us just to chase our dreams, they never talked about any barriers to entry.”

Related: Alaska Air buying Virgin America

So Swanigan set out to learn to fly. But his training began inauspiciously in a little single-engine Cessna in Alaska.

“I did not do well. I had a very intimidating instructor. He was kind of a yeller and a screamer. And when we finished that 10 hours, he just told me ‘I don’t think you have what it takes to be a pilot,’” he said.

That guy couldn’t have been more wrong.

Mike Swanigan with Russell Wilson in an Alaska Airlines ad. (Alaska Airlines)

Mike Swanigan with Russell Wilson in an Alaska Airlines ad. (Alaska Airlines)

Swanigan joined the Alaska Air National Guard in the 70s, and after logging 1,000 hours of flight time piloting C-130 cargo planes, he went knocking on a little local airline’s door.

“My timing couldn’t have been better because the airline just expanded at a rapid rate and continues to do so today. Now we fly all over the place,” Swanigan said.

As Alaska Airlines soared, so did Swanigan’s career. From the 727 to the 737, Swanigan became one of Alaska’s top fliers and instructors, training and certifying his fellow pilots.

He eventually rose to become Alaska’s chief pilot, then VP of flight operations and director of operations.

Swanigan helped pioneer a number of procedures and technologies, most notably Alaska’s groundbreaking, state-of-the-art computerized navigation system now used by all major airlines.

But his love of flying remained foremost, so he returned to full-time flying in 2000 and has remained in the pilot seat ever since.

John Hornebrook used to work for Swanigan. Now he’s Alaska’s chief pilot and Swanigan’s boss.

“Swani’s legend around here. Everyone knows him, everyone loves him. He’s had all the cool jobs here,” Hornebrook said.

Swanigan has become somewhat of a star beyond the airline as well, thanks to his unique relationship with a certain Seahawk he first met at a corporate event.

“Russell saw my hat and coat there and thought it would be kind of cool to wear it. So he put it on, came out with my hat and coat on, and I have to say it fit him perfectly and I think that’s what started the whole thing. It was a great gag. It caught me off guard,” he said.

And a modern day Abbott and Costello of sorts was born. Swanigan and quarterback Russell Wilson have starred in a number of humorous Alaska commercials, making Swanigan an unwitting celebrity of sorts.

He’s played the drums, sat in an ice bath next to Wilson, and carved a modern airline seat out of wood, always one-upping the Seahawks star.

“I get stopped all the time. I’ve taken probably 500 selfies with passengers. Sometimes it’s a bit of a struggle to make it to my flight on time.”

And he and the crew have been known to play with passengers a bit as well.

“One of the passengers in first class grabbed a flight attendant and said, ‘is that the guy from the commercials?’ And she looked at him and said, ‘yes it is. He’s not a pilot. I don’t know what he’s doing up there, he’s an actor,’” Swanigan laughed.

But somewhat sadly, Swanigan is stepping out of the spotlight.

Next week he hits the mandatory 65-year-old retirement age, so Sunday he’ll pilot his final flight – a hop to Tucson, Arizona that will be filled with family and friends.

“I’ll probably shed a few tears. Bittersweet is going to be the word. But I’m looking forward to the next stage in my life and new adventures. Passengers are saying ‘what are you going to do when you retire?’ And I say ‘well, I’m not going to the airport,’” he said with his wry smile.

But he’s not about to hang up his wings. Swanigan plans to keep flying gliders – one of his first loves.

“One thing I don’t have to worry about is filling it up with gas,” he said.

And even though he’s soaring off into the sunset, Hornebrook says Swanigan’s legacy is lasting.

“He’ll never be forgotten. He taught us all to be always be excellent to each other. He’ll definitely be missed.”

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