George Lyall’s career took flight by chance on a trip to Miami in 1949.
Having fallen in love with air travel during World War II as a private in the Army, it didn’t take much convincing by a friend for Lyall to accept a job with Pan American World Airways instead of joining a petroleum company in Texas as he had planned.
For over over five decades, Lyall made a name for himself in the aviation industry, joining Eastern Airlines in 1964 and eventually teaming up with Ross Fischer to start a charter flight company, Miami Air International.
Lyall, of Coral Gables, died at 95 over the weekend while vacationing in Canada.
“George was the type of guy that when he would see you, he would embrace you — un abrazo — as we would say,” said Luis Palacio, a former Eastern Airlines employee and longtime friend of Lyall’s who has known him for more than 30 years.
His wife, Ingrid, said they married for a “beautiful and happy 44 years.”
He took great pride, she said, in his leadership skills, which he attributed to being an Eagle Scout.
Born on Sept. 16, 1924, in Eagle Pass, Texas, Lyall was 19 when he took his first flight. It was 1944 during World War II, and he was a private in the 643rd battalion. The flight was taking the soldiers from France to the Rhine River Valley in Germany.
“It was just an unbelievable thing for me to be soaring through the clouds,” Lyall told the Miami Herald in 1998 after receiving the Greater Miami Aviation Association’s Wright Brothers Memorial Award, which recognizes a person who made significant contributions to aviation.
After the war, he went back to Texas and earned a civil engineering degree from Texas A&M in 1949.
Lyall began with Pan Am, which started in 1927 with its first flight from Key West to Havana. He started as a station manager and then moved up to sales manager in El Salvador, Panama, Jamaica, Costa Rica, among other stops in Latin America and the Caribbean.
In 1964, Eastern Airlines hired him to expand the company’s international reach. Lyall moved up quickly at Eastern, ascending to director and vice president of international operations. Lyall believed offering more flights to South America would give Eastern an edge over other airlines.
He’s described by those who worked with him as a gentleman who knew how to make everyone feel special. He also respected others and made sure no one was disrespected in his presence.
“I still remember one time when we were all in his office and somebody said a foul word and he just said, ‘Please leave this office and when you’re able to come back and behave respectfully you can come back in,’ “ said Alexandra Villoch, a former Eastern Airlines employee.
But he said it with a little Texas flare.
“ ‘Young man, leave the room and when you get that burr out from under your saddle, you can come back in here.’ That’s what he said,” Villoch said.
Lyall mentored Villoch, who later became president and publisher of the Miami Herald and East Region Publisher for McClatchy before becoming chief executive officer of Baptist Health South Florida Foundation.
He influenced her life so much, she said, that she sometimes still asks herself: “How would George Lyall behave in this meeting?”
During his time as vice president, Lyall soon began pushing for Eastern to expand its charter service, to no avail. In 1989, he left the airline.
He then embarked on a new journey — starting Miami Air International, a charter airline he co-founded with Fischer, Eastern’s vice president of systems control at the time.
Lyall knew it wouldn’t be an easy feat.
“They thought we were nuts,” Lyall told the Herald in 1998. “This was a time when Eastern had gone down. Pan Am was going down.”
Pan Am stopped operating in 1991, the same year as Eastern.
Working his connections, Lyall was able to get investors, and in 1991 Miami Air International had its first flight. Within the year, the company turned a profit, adding the Florida Marlins and four other baseball teams to its client roster.
Aside from being a businessman, his family and friends describe him as a role model, an inspiration and a man who loved his country.
“We lost a great man and his legacy is of service to his country, service to his company and the companies he worked for — both Pan Am and Eastern — and service to his family and friends who will always remember him,” Palacio said.
Lyall is survived by his wife Ingrid Deliz, his daughter Victoria Isabel (Matthew Patterson), his son George A.M. Lyall and granddaughter Maeve. He also is survived by three daughters from his previous marriage, Laurie Lyall, Carrie McCann and Kathy Cooper.
There will be a Mass at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Church of the Epiphany, 8081 SW 54th Court.