United pilot passes torch to daughter in final flight to O’Hare Airport after 38-year career

United Capt. Chris Bales expects a range of emotions will hit him when he exits his last United flight this weekend. His daughter and co-pilot, Ally, will be by his side.

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On Sunday, Chris Bales, who lives in Milwaukee but has flown out of O’Hare Airport for 38 years, is set to take his last flight before reaching the federally mandated retirement age of 65. And his daughter, Ally, will be his co-pilot.

On Sunday, Chris Bales, who lives in Milwaukee but has flown out of O’Hare Airport for 38 years, is set to take his last flight before reaching the federally mandated retirement age of 65. And his daughter, Ally, will be his co-pilot.

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For years, when anxious passengers shuffled to the front of his plane to alleviate pre-flight jitters with a glance at the cockpit and pilots, United Airlines Capt. Chris Bales would greet them and pull a picture from his wallet.

It showed his three daughters outside his house on the first day of school.

The message was clear: “I’m going to get home to them, and I’m going to get you home to your loved ones, too.”

On Sunday, Bales, who lives in Milwaukee but has flown out of O’Hare Airport for 38 years, is set to take his last flight before reaching the federally mandated retirement age of 65.

And one of the girls in the picture, his daughter, Ally, will be his co-pilot.

“It’s kind of the passing of the torch. I’ll be feeling a lot of pride,” he said.

Ally Bales, 33, a probationary pilot who’s flown with her dad one other time in her 10 months on the job, might make an announcement to the passengers about his retirement, but the thought of getting choked up makes her hesitant.

“It’s kind of the culmination of all I’ve known,” she said.

As a baby, her carseat migrated between the family automobile and small airplanes her dad flew for fun.

She and her sisters had a cheat sheet they kept by the phone as kids that helped them read military time so they could determine when to call their father at whatever hotel around the world he’d be catching a few winks before retaking the yoke (a plane’s steering wheel).

Upon return, the girls mobbed their dad at the front door.

Holidays were thick with aviation chatter. Two of Ally Bales’ uncles have flown for United, another became a flight attendant, as did two of her aunts. Another aunt worked as a United flight instructor. And her grandfather was a corporate pilot for an insurance company.

“It was almost like osmosis,” she said. (One example: She’s apt to say “abeam” instead of “next to” — it’s an aviation thing.)

The elder Bales this week spoke with nostalgia at the memory of flying American troops — who brought their weapons aboard the plane — to Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm.

He flew the World Series victorious Cubs in 2016 and Giants in 2014.

San Francisco Catcher Buster Posey told Chris Bales — after a tour of the cockpit — he had the best job in the world. “I looked at him, and I said, ‘Maybe the second best.’”

He was granted special airspace privileges to take the team on a brief tour over the city, their ballpark and Alcatraz.

But mostly he flew regular commercial flights. Honolulu, Seattle, Hong Kong, Paris, Rome, Munich and Shanghai are a few cities he’s flown to over the years.

“I’ve seen some pretty spectacular moonrises and sunrises, and some incredible views of northern lights while crossing the Atlantic,” he said.

“But I’ll be OK looking at pictures that Ally brings home,” he said.

He began flying right out of high school. His first gig was flying a Milwaukee traffic reporter around during morning and evening rush hours. Between rush hours he attended college classes. He later worked for a company that transported checks for the Federal Reserve.

Chris Bales said he’s been glad to see the number of women in the traditionally male-dominated industry grow in recent years.

“I think it’s been pretty well received in the cockpit,” he said.

His daughter said she hasn’t faced any headwinds.

“Absolutely not. None whatsoever. Everyone’s very receptive and expects you to be a professional and have a good attitude,” she said. “And to have a resource like my dad, it’s great insider info.”

Chris Bales, who’d fly for another year or two if not for the mandated retirement age, offered his daughter a few words of advice: “Keep your nose clean, and things will sail along.”

Ally Bales is looking forward to spinning her own yarns at holiday get-togethers.

“Being born into an aviation family, all the stories I’ve heard, now it will be me having the stories and filling them in. It will be pretty incredible to keep this family legacy,” she said.

Her father said, “The opportunities she has, and the places she’ll see, it’s sad to think I won’t be doing it, but I’m happy to see it in front of her.”

United was working to get a fire engine on the tarmac Sunday night to offer Bales a water cannon salute.

“I’ve been soaking up the last few flights. It’s kind of hit me, 2023 was just a number for all these years to retire. Now, it’s hit me,” he said.

Apart from trying to get on a normal sleep schedule, Chris Bales isn’t sure what comes next. He may try to fly part time on a corporate jet. And he might go on a roadtrip with his wife, Suzi, or play more golf.

He jokes about his wife enjoying him being around the house — for the first few weeks.

It’s also unclear whether people will stop occasionally asking him to speak in his “airplane voice” — the one he uses to address passengers.

“It’s not really any different,” he said with a laugh.

A younger Chris Bales in the cockpit with daughters Lexie (left) and future pilot Ally.

A younger Chris Bales in the cockpit with daughters Lexie (left) and future pilot Ally.

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Ally Bales showed her airline allegiance at an early age.

Ally Bales showed her airline allegiance at an early age. She’s now a pilot for the airline and will be co-pilot to her father on his last flight before he retires.

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