Les’ fi­nal trip, a re­tire­ment story

AN AIR­LINE PI­LOT RE­TIRES

Flying - - CONTENTS - By Les Abend

As I glanced down the par­al­lel taxi­way of JFK’s Run­way 31L, the idea that this would be the very last time be­gan to res­onate in my psy­che. The thought wasn’t de­bil­i­tat­ing by any means, but the con­cept hadn’t re­ally taken hold un­til that mo­ment. No more 777. No more trips to Heathrow. No more Cat III ap­proaches. No more copi­lots to shoul­der the bur­den. No more in-flight es­presso.

Dur­ing idle mo­ments fly­ing across the North At­lantic, I had spent the past five years con­tem­plat­ing this par­tic­u­lar day. I pon­dered triv­ial items, such as the des­ti­na­tion of my last trip, my copi­lot se­lec­tion and the en­su­ing cel­e­bra­tion. Now that the day had come, my trep­i­da­tion was more about how emo­tions would af­fect the trip rather than re­grets about re­tir­ing early. Many col­leagues had ques­tioned my san­ity. Thirty-four years of se­nior­ity. A com­fort­able salary. A premier air­plane. My choice of the chicken or the beef. Why give it up?

Many fac­tors were in­volved, but sim­ply stated, it was time. I could feel it in my gut. Although I still loved the vis­ceral chal­lenge and skill re­quired to ma­neu­ver a 775,000pound ma­chine, the task had be­come

more about man­ag­ing than about fly­ing. Even with the au­topi­lot dis­con­nected, a reg­u­lar rou­tine I prac­ticed on take­off, climb, ap­proach and land­ing (much to my copi­lots’ dis­may), my ef­forts were just a sur­ro­gate to the re­al­ity of send­ing elec­tronic sig­nals to a com­puter. And that was OK. But the repet­i­tive na­ture of the air­line rou­tine was be­com­ing te­dious. A great ca­reer had be­come a job.

So, I could slog out an en­vi­able job to the very end or say good­bye on my terms. For me, it was not a dif­fi­cult choice. I was leav­ing on a high note. I was for­tu­nate to have en­joyed over three decades as an air­line pi­lot with only one uni­form change. I sat in the left seat for al­most 28 years, 21 of those years in wide-body equip­ment. I spent a grat­i­fy­ing pe­riod as a check air­man. Although not part of the heavy lift­ing, I was a back­ground union vol­un­teer. I had ex­po­sure to a cadre of pro­fes­sion­als whom I ad­mired and re­spected. And I com­pleted a fi­nal re­cur­rent train­ing pe­riod of which even I was sat­is­fied with my per­for­mance.

Just be­fore I keyed the mic to make my last PA out of JFK, I stole a glance over my shoul­der at Tom, a pi­lot buddy who was sit­ting in one of the jumpseats. He and a hand­ful of other pi­lot friends, among oth­ers, had gra­ciously ac­cepted my in­vi­ta­tion to take time and money out of their lives to ex­pe­ri­ence the last trip. Al­most 10 years prior, Tom’s brother had re­tired from South­west as its di­rec­tor of train­ing. He was well aware of the mo­ment’s sig­nif­i­cance. Tom’s eyes glis­tened as he mon­i­tored the PA. He wasn’t help­ing.

“Ladies and gen­tle­men, wel­come aboard from the flight deck. We’ll be de­part­ing Run­way 31 Left with a quick left turn once we’re air­borne, ini­tially head­ing to­ward the is­land of Nan­tucket. We should be in our take­off po­si­tion shortly.” I paused. “And on a side note, I’d like to thank you for com­ing along to­day as this will be my last trip to Lon­don. I will be re­tir­ing upon our re­turn to New York af­ter a 34-year ca­reer. Flight at­ten­dants, please pre­pare for take­off.”

It was that sim­ple. I had also meant to say that it was my birth­day and it was quite benev­o­lent of the air­line to al­low me the use of a 777, but I for­got in the heat of the bat­tle. My copi­lot, Bruce, sensed that I needed a brief mo­ment. He smiled with­out a word. I was pleased that he had ac­cepted my in­vi­ta­tion for the last trip.

Bruce is a me­thod­i­cal but re­laxed pro­fes­sional with an af­fa­ble de­meanor and a dry wit, of­ten­times an­swer­ing an in­ter­com call with, “This is Bruce almighty.” He car­ries him­self with poise, the type of guy who wears a sport jacket on a lay­over. I con­sider him a friend. Stand­ing side by side, his 6-foot-8-inch frame made us liv­ing metaphors for Mutt and Jeff. I still haven’t quite de­ter­mined how he fits in the RV-8 he built.

With our clear­ance for take­off ac­knowl­edged, I slid the power levers for­ward and pressed the au­tothrot­tle but­ton. “Let’s go to Lon­don ... for the last time.”

The trip across the North At­lantic

NOW THAT THE DAY HAD COME, MY TREP­I­DA­TION WAS MORE ABOUT HOW EMO­TIONS WOULD AF­FECT THE TRIP RATHER THAN RE­GRETS ABOUT RE­TIR­ING EARLY.

was rou­tine, the time com­pressed by vis­its to the cock­pit from pi­lot friends, notwith­stand­ing my wife. The flight at­ten­dants, many of them friends who were hand­picked for the oc­ca­sion, were more than gra­cious and ac­com­mo­dat­ing.

As we en­tered UK airspace, the chronol­ogy of metar re­ports in Lon­don in­di­cated the pos­si­bil­ity for low­er­ing ceil­ings. A 300-foot scat­tered layer had the po­ten­tial to be­come bro­ken and then over­cast. To hand-fly or not hand-fly? I couldn’t pos­si­bly al­low tech­nol­ogy to man­age my last land­ing at Heathrow. Af­ter a short de­bate with my­self, I elected to fly. I’m glad. It was a non­event.

Hav­ing planned the lay­over ac­tiv­ity, I al­lowed my small en­tourage the lux­ury of a two-hour nap de­spite our heads hit­ting the pil­low at 2 a.m. body time. There wasn’t much of Lon­don we missed on our walk­ing/sub­way tour, in­clu­sive of a fi­nal toast at the pub in the ho­tel, a venue that had been my home for al­most nine years.

In the morn­ing, our group as­sem­bled in the ho­tel lobby and boarded the crew trans­porta­tion bus to Heathrow. The at­mos­phere could best be de­scribed as jovial, with an air of un­spo­ken an­tic­i­pa­tory rev­er­ence, which was a bit unusual for friends who en­joyed an open op­por­tu­nity to ad­min­is­ter good­na­tured al­pha-male rib­bing. It made the very last flight all that more spe­cial, and to some de­gree, solemn.

Bruce and I parted ways with the group at the Ter­mi­nal 3 curb. We passed through crew se­cu­rity with min­i­mal abuse and walked into op­er­a­tions. The nor­mally util­i­tar­ian area wel­comed me with “Happy re­tire­ment!” para­pher­na­lia, a choco­late cake and a tear­ful hug from the sta­tion man­ager.

With a wink and a nod af­ter com­plet­ing our pre­flight plan­ning, I was re­quested to re­main in op­er­a­tions for just a lit­tle longer. The flight at­ten­dants were still “pre­par­ing” the air­plane. Un­for­tu­nately, it had been towed to the gate late.

The de­lay was well worth it. I was greeted by an overly dec­o­rated air­plane, a red vel­vet cake and flight at­ten­dants all wear­ing stick-on mus­taches in an­tic­i­pa­tion of my typ­i­cal brief­ing. I was over­whelmed with their thought­ful­ness, mask­ing my emo­tions with a grin and hugs for ev­ery­one. Even the air mar­shals got caught up in the fes­tiv­i­ties. I briefed them on the po­ten­tial for above-aver­age cabin-to­cock­pit ac­tiv­ity.

Af­ter an­other rou­tine North At­lantic cross­ing, Bruce and I (and maybe some ex­tra pi­lot friends — and a sup­port­ive wife) be­gan the process of pre­par­ing for my last 777-300 ap­proach into JFK. With the de­scent check­list al­most com­plete, I keyed the mic for a PA an­nounce­ment to 247 pas­sen­gers. Aside from my typ­i­cal pat­ter about the weather and land­ing run­way, I took a long breath and spoke from the heart.

“As you all know, I am re­tir­ing af­ter this flight. I want to thank my crew and my pas­sen­gers for al­low­ing me the honor to serve you. When I was 6 years old, I climbed aboard an Amer­i­can Air­lines air­plane and was given a cer­tifi­cate that of­fered me an in­ter­view 20 years later. I guess you can say I have prac­ticed 34 years for this mo­ment. On my next trip, I hope to be sit­ting in the back with you folks, as a pas­sen­ger.”

So as not to alarm ner­vous pas­sen­gers, I also men­tioned the wa­ter-can­non salute that would greet us at the en­trance to the ramp.

Although I couldn’t hear, ap­par­ently the cabin erupted in cheers and ap­plause. Mean­while, back at JFK Tra­con, the con­trollers had non­typ­i­cal plans for our ap­proach. Nor­mally, an ar­rival from the east is as­signed Run­way 22 Left, but on this day, we were given a shore­line tour of Sandy Hook, New Jer­sey, and Man­hat­tan via the RNAV ap­proach to 13 Left. Very cool.

The con­troller ap­plied the pressure when he con­firmed with Bruce that it was my last land­ing, say­ing with stan­dard New York ir­rev­er­ence, “It bet­ter be a good one.” I de­lib­er­ately forced my­self to fo­cus on the task rather than the sig­nif­i­cance of the mo­ment, and thank­fully, it was.

Af­ter a kind state­ment of ap­pre­ci­a­tion for my ser­vice from the tower con­troller, I tax­ied to­ward the gate and the await­ing wa­ter-can­non salute. Paus­ing at the en­trance to the ramp, I sa­vored the mo­ment. It wasn’t un­til our com­pany ramp con­troller of­fered con­grat­u­la­tions that I choked up for a brief mo­ment while at­tempt­ing to of­fer thanks for their as­sis­tance over the years.

I set the brakes at the gate and be­gan to re­cite the stan­dard litany af­ter park­ing the air­plane. When the words “Shut ’em down” passed my lips, Bruce grinned and ges­tured at the fuel con­trol switches, the task nor­mally per­formed by the copi­lot. I nod­ded my head, ac­knowl­edg­ing the in­tended mean­ing, and pulled both switches to the off po­si­tion, shut­ting down two gi­ant GE90-115B en­gines for the fi­nal time. Bruce was a class act.

The last few min­utes were a blur. Hand­shakes and con­grat­u­la­tions from pas­sen­gers and friends. Hugs from flight at­ten­dants. A fi­nal lin­ger­ing glance at the cock­pit. A tie-cut­ting cer­e­mony with the chief pi­lot in op­er­a­tions. A walk out the door of the ter­mi­nal as a civil­ian. An un­be­liev­able ca­reer come to an end.

What’s the next chap­ter? I’ll keep you posted. As for my con­tri­bu­tion to this mag­a­zine, ex­pect fu­ture columns from a slightly dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive — per­haps from one par­tic­u­lar Piper Ar­row. I might have left the air­line pi­lot ranks in em­ploy­ment, but never in my soul. Stay tuned.

A fi­nal trip through op­er­a­tions with great friends and my wife, Carol.

A tra­di­tional wa­ter-can­non salute en­ter­ing the ramp.

FlightAware’s last track to JFK’s Run­way 13L.

The cus­tom­ary tie-cut­ting cer­e­mony, per­formed by chief pi­lot Andy Si­monds.

A me­mento left on the con­trol yoke by the flight at­ten­dants.

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