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77-year-old ATC instructor returns to guide new Airmen

Jim Bailey, 334th Training Squadron air traffic control instructor, displays a Second Air Force command chief coin inside Cody Hall at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, June 17, 2020. Bailey served in the Air Force as an air traffic controller from 1961-1966 and then at the age of 76 he earned his associate's degree so he could become an air traffic control instructor. Bailey was coined by U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. JoAnne Bass, Second Air Force command chief. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Suzie Plotnikov)

Jim Bailey, 334th Training Squadron air traffic control instructor, displays a Second Air Force command chief coin inside Cody Hall at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, June 17, 2020. Bailey served in the Air Force as an air traffic controller from 1961-1966 and then at the age of 76 he earned his associate's degree so he could become an air traffic control instructor. Bailey was coined by U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. JoAnne Bass, Second Air Force command chief. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Suzie Plotnikov)

Jim Bailey, 334th Training Squadron air traffic control instructor, poses for a photo inside Cody Hall at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, July 8, 2020. Bailey served in the Air Force as an air traffic controller from 1961-1966 and then at the age of 76 he earned his associate's degree so he could become an air traffic control instructor. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Suzie Plotnikov)

Jim Bailey, 334th Training Squadron air traffic control instructor, poses for a photo inside Cody Hall at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, July 8, 2020. Bailey served in the Air Force as an air traffic controller from 1961-1966 and then at the age of 76 he earned his associate's degree so he could become an air traffic control instructor. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Suzie Plotnikov)

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --

“The way I grew up, college wasn’t pushed like it is now because there were a lot of jobs,” said Jim Bailey, 334th Training Squadron air traffic control instructor. “People took those jobs and stayed until they retired, but I went into the military because I wanted to. I thought it was cool.”

Bailey served the Air Force from 1961-1966, where he discovered his passion for air traffic control. If he was asked if he was going to be an instructor in the Air Force at 77 years old, he would’ve told them “no way.”

“I wanted to be a medic or a policeman,” said Bailey. “My recruiter said ‘you made a high enough score where you might want to try something else.’ I asked him what he had in mind. He told me air traffic control.”

Bailey didn’t know what air traffic controllers did when he first joined. His first thought on what the career field entailed was an aircraft marshaller, which he found out quickly, wasn’t the case.

Throughout his five years in the Air Force, he traveled to many places like California, France, Africa, Greece, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland.

“I loved it,” said Bailey. “I have been everywhere and it was just so educational. I only stayed in the Air Force for five years, but I should’ve stayed in longer.”

After he separated from the Air Force, he worked for a finance company for a year until he realized he missed being an air traffic controller. That’s when he applied to the Federal Aviation Administration and worked in various air traffic control facilities until he retired. At least that’s when he thought he would retire.

“I thought I would work for 25 to 40 years, I’d retire and then I’d play golf,” said Bailey. “But that’s not fulfilling.”

He spent the next several years as the owner and operator of an advertising firm, then as a real estate broker before he decided he wanted to go back to what he loved the most.

“I missed the job, but I couldn’t go back because there’s an age limit,” said Bailey. “So I asked myself, ‘what could I do that’s air traffic control that I like to do?’ So I started thinking about it and I thought to myself, ‘I can go back to Keesler where I was taught!’”

Bailey spent a year looking online for an instructor position. Upon finding one, he found out he needed an associate’s degree. So at the age of 76, he went back to school.

“While I was getting a degree, four jobs came open,” said Bailey. “So I got my degree and then in October a job opened up. I came on Keesler, I told them I got my degree and I was selected in November to become an instructor.”

Tech. Sgt. Christopher Grunert, 334th TRS Air Traffic Control instructor supervisor, believes Bailey will be a great asset to the team.

“His overall personality will uplift the mood in the classroom,” said Grunert. “Some students like to learn from people who are straight to the point and other students enjoy learning from someone who has that spirit and motivation to teach, and I see that in him. He wants to be here, he doesn’t need to be here.”

Bailey is currently taking the Basic Instructor Course, but after graduation he said he is eager to teach the students.

“I found something that is very fulfilling and I love it,” said Bailey. “Teaching the students, being down here with them and watching them grow is amazing. I see their brains just absorbing everything and the look on their face when you teach them is amazing. I want to fill their brain with all the knowledge I have of air traffic control.”