Howard Arcon began his career as the Great Depression was in full swing. He said that jobs were scarce then, and that he was lucky to find a spot on the production line at Ford Motor Co. in Detroit.
But Arcon, who turned 100 on Dec. 31, was looking to the skies, not the roads.
“I’d been reading about aircraft, and it made sense to me that it was the coming thing,” he said from his granddaughter’s house in south Charlotte, where he celebrated his centennial with his family.
Arcon had followed news stories of Charles Lindbergh, who made the first solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“I just wanted to get in an aircraft,” Arcon said.
Arcon, who recently moved to Indian Trail from Florida, spent his 40-plus-year career supervising and managing aircraft maintenance for American Airlines. Although he hasn’t flown in a few years, he keeps up with developments in the airline industry.
As a child, Arcon loved to draw cartoons, but as a teenager he focused on more practical skills and left high school to attend the Henry Ford Trade School in Detroit. He graduated in 1933 and went back to Detroit Western High School to earn a diploma there as well.
He spent a year working at Ford before moving to Chicago to attend the Aeronautical University of Chicago. He got power-plant and aircraft licenses there, which he took straight to the fledgling American Airlines.
Arcon recalls asking the airline in 1937 if it had any work. An American Airlines representative told him no; when he pulled out his licenses, however, he was quickly hired into the airline maintenance department.
He was moved to New York in the late 1930s to work at LaGuardia International Airport, where American was establishing a hub. He met a “nice lady” named Louise, who soon became his wife, and they had three daughters.
Arcon didn’t give up his dream of getting into an aircraft. He had a student pilot certificate but turned down a job as a flight engineer because it would have meant too much time away from his young family.
World War II, however, left him no choice, he said.
Commercial flight slowed as the U.S. government required commercial airplanes to be painted gray and recommissioned for military use. Arcon said he moved to San Francisco, where he lived in the Pickwick Hotel and supervised aircraft maintenance at Hamilton Field.
When the war ended, Arcon said, he was there to oversee 60 men who inspected and serviced planes as they were decommissioned, repainted and sent back to the airlines.
Those years were difficult, he said, because he had to leave his family in New York. In 1950, the family moved to Dearborn, Mich.
In the ensuing decades, Arcon recalls the family atmosphere at American Airlines, including his friendship with company President C.R. Smith, who later became U.S. Secretary of Commerce, and the lifelong relationships he developed with fellow supervisors and their families.
Before the airlines were unionized, he said, employees helped each other out, whether it was unloading baggage from a crowded flight or working unpaid overtime to finish a job.
“People who worked for the airline had a passion for what they did, and they felt like it was their airline,” said Elaine Samperi, Arcon’s daughter.
Arcon retired in 1978, but he and Louise didn’t cut ties with American Airlines. They traveled worldwide on standby, a perk of being a retired manager, and attended annual American Airlines conventions until Louise died eight years ago.
As for living to be 100 years old, Arcon said, the key is to keep moving. He now paints, builds model boats and plays the piano every day.
“Don’t sit around,” he said. “Be active and do anything you want to do.”