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Closing the Hangar Door

August 31, 2020

 

It’s the night before my last trip as an airline pilot.  It’s the last time I’ll have to go through the ritual of packing for a trip.  My Go-To-Work Checklist for packing all the right supplies hangs unread today over the bedroom mirror of my MSP crashpad.   In 4 days, 6 hours, and 53 minutes, my long career will come to an end.

For years, I took ownership of my career.  At fifteen, in a Cessna 150 taxiing out behind my father and his instructor at Ulysses, Kansas, it began awkwardly, like a gosling trying to take off for the first time.  During the tedious years at the commuters when hiring at the majors was stagnant, I remembered what my father had told me as a teenager.  He had sat me down at the dining room table several times and lectured me on life and taking ownership in this career I had chosen.  He said I had to own it, no matter how the career came out. It was mine.  It was my responsibility.  So, during that stagnant time at the commuters, longing to fly for a major airline, I kept sending out resume’s, job applications, letters of intent, and updating my previous applications.  In all, I suspect I mailed over 500 pieces of correspondence to get the prestigious and coveted title that I am soon to retire.   

As a teenager, Dad had also told me that, “You have to remind yourself that someone has to do it.  It might as well be you.”  He also gave me the sage advice that, “There’s no point in feeling sorry for yourself or wallowing in self-pity.”  He said that I might never make it, but surely I would never make it the moment I stopped trying.

So, here I am, lying in bed, tearing up, feeling sorry for myself that my magnificent career is over too soon.  COVID-19 had decimated our airline's revenues.  The company had offered a generous early retirement package.  It was too good to pass up, a once in a career opportunity to help some fledgling aviators reduce the chances of furlough, while reaping the benefits of decades of service.  Still, it was emotionally difficult to say goodbye.  I had loved flying for 45 years and now was grieving to see her leave, or at least change in a way would forever alter my perspective of life.  After decades of persistent striving to climb to the highest pinnacle in my career, I would now suit up, strap in, and glide back down.

Here are a few things that I am not going to miss about the career.  Knowing that on virtually every flight there are folks in the back of the airplane that are doing “once in a lifetime” trips, it is exceedingly difficult to disappoint them.  On nearly every flight there is someone going on their honeymoon; someone going to a funeral or going to visit a loved one for the last time; someone going to a multi-million-dollar business meeting.  Letting them down before we take off (pun intended) due to a mechanical or weather is bad enough.  Frustrating them due to poor planning or lack of manpower on our companies’ part is even more emotionally challenging for us the employees.  Although countless times we successfully help them reach their goals smoothly, it is the abrupt emotionally stabbing pain of not being able to accommodate them that punctuates our memories.

It will be easy saying goodbye to long days and longer nights.  Most passengers do not realize that pilots and flight attendants fly multiple flights in a typical day.  It is common to work 12-14 hours in a shift, and occasionally 16-hour shifts.  It is incredibly challenging to pilots to safely navigate through bad weather to a successful landing at 5 in the morning after catching a hotel van at noon the previous day.  We fly all 26 hours around the clock leaping time zones and wrecking our normal circadian rhythms on a nightly basis.  I remember when I left flying intercontinental trips for more domestic trips and realizing that I had been jet lagged and doggedly tired for years.

Although I will miss the cooler climes of Alaska in the summer and the warm tropical beaches in the winter, I will not miss the sub-zero temperatures.  Several times I have had to meander outside to start my commuter car, or do preflight inspection on an aircraft in windchills below -50 Fahrenheit dressed in a thin pilot uniform.   At least once I had to try and start my commuter car in -39 actual air temperature. 

Once my commuter car was parked near a fence at the airport.  While away on a trip a deep snow blanketed the area.  Crews cleared the snow by piling it 20 feet high on the other side of the fence.  When I arrived back to my car, the wind had picked up and the snow pile had drifted through the fence burying my car up to the rear-view mirrors.  Wearing my uniform and armed with only a small ice scraper, I dug out my car. It took nearly 2 hours.

Lately, the flights I have commanded have been plagued with last minute runway changes and radical maneuvering to prevent accidents or excessive delays.  There was a time in my career when I thought this form of risk management was exciting.  With just a few landings till retirement, I find them annoying and threatening.  

I will not miss racing thunderstorms to or from an airport or arriving at an airport with minimum fuel only to have unexpected challenges or delays crop up.  Landing in very low visibility with crosswinds gusting right to the limits, flying through areas of potential wind-shear,  maneuvering on slick runways and taxiways, and worrying about injuring or killing some ground support personnel that we can’t or didn’t see, are a few things I’m going to miss intentionally (pun intended). Trying to make quick, difficult decisions under pressure with ultimate consequences on the line is something I will gladly give up.

Just a few flights ago, at night, we saw a bright flash in the cockpit coming from the first officers’ clock.  “Great!” I thought sarcastically, “less than a week to go. All I need now is the dreaded cockpit fire.”  It turned out to be a faulty rheostat in the lighting that remedied itself after landing.  It had been 20 years since a fluorescent ballast caught on fire in the Boeing 727 I was flying, and 20 years before that when a light plane had an undetected bird nest in a heating duct catch on fire.  Was it just coincidence all these occurrences happened at night?

Although I will miss seeing St. Elmo’s fire, nose cone plasma, and ionospheric clouds; I will also miss severe turbulence, severe icing, wind shear, hail, lightning strikes, and volcanic ash, but in a good, avoidance way.

My wife, Susan, and I will be traveling to celebrate one of our granddaughter’s birthdays in a few weeks.  Her mom asked us to dress up as our favorite superheroes.   Since Susan was a physician for several decades, I will be wearing scrubs and have a stethoscope around my neck.  She plans to wear some non-airline-specific bits of some of my old uniforms.  It was just yesterday that I thought how we were real-life superheroes in our careers.  The realization made me think about the movie “Hancock” starring Will Smith about a washed-up superhero and wonder how we were going to present ourselves to our community during retirement.  It also made me think about other real-life superheroes like firefighters, police, military personnel, humanitarians, researchers, medical personnel and even parents.  On many a layover, the housekeepers and cooks who invisibly made life tolerable were some of my superheroes. Please accept my apology if I did not merit another profession that you consider a superhero.

My last flight had quite a few of the natural phenomenon that few “ground pounders” get to witness.  The flight was DAL788 from Anchorage (PANC) to Minneapolis (KMSP) departing August 23rd at 9:45 pm and arriving at 5:50 am on August 24th.   It was raining slightly when we left Anchorage and slightly gusty as we departed runway 25L. The sun was setting in the northwest and there were some beautiful blue gray scattered cumulus and altocumulus as we climbed out to the south.  Turning east, the higher overcast layer opened slightly as we passed over a few glaciers near Portage and Whittier and a few were briefly visible.  The sun shown magnificently through the captain’s side window.   Each of the controllers wished me a happy retirement as we changed frequencies. It was one of picture-perfect departures.  Climbing through 23,000 feet, Air Traffic Control (ATC) handed us off to the upper altitude sector who again congratulated me and asked if I would like a gift of direct ABR (Aberdeen), the initial fix on the arrival to MSP.  It was rare to get a direct clearance that far through multiple sectors and 2 countries. We accepted the clearance and climbed to 33,000 feet at Mach .78 for our initial cruise. 

The sun set in the north and the stars and milky way shown brightly.  Mars rose brightly above the horizon and eventually Venus.  As the sky darkened the Aurora Borealis painted its faint green arc above the northern horizon for approximately the first half of the flight.  I counted 3 meteors during the flight and the first officer noticed a couple.  Crossing over Edmonton, the skies were clear and the nocturnal view of this part of the world, with its red pinpoints of light from natural gas production, was magnificent.   There were severe thunderstorms over north western Minnesota, and we diverted slightly to the south and west. As we slid between a couple towering cumulonimbus, the lightning show was magnificent. The ride at cruise had been perfectly smooth until we passed the storms. Then, as we descended, the ride through the clouds became bumpier with constant light chop.  The storms were dissipating as we turned more towards MSP but were encroaching upon our arrival.  It was a race to see if we could beat the weather to our destination.  There was a definite possibility my retirement might be delayed by the storm, and we might have to divert to Rochester for fuel and to wait the storm out. 

During the descent in continuous light, occasional moderate turbulence, and light icing, we were once again spectators to God’s handiwork known only to aviators.  Saint Elmo’s fire danced occasionally across the wind shields.  Its steady blue flames glowed from the corners of the windows and sharp edges of the windshield wipers.  For a brief time, plasma lightning could be clearly seen jumping several feet from the nose cone into the darkness.  As we descended through 10,000 feet a momentary cacophony of heavy rain, or ice pellets filled the cockpit.  It was unlikely that it was hail due to the distance we were from the worst of the storms, but the thought crossed my mind: I never damaged an aircraft due to hail and this would be a lousy time to start. 

We broke out of the clouds at 5000 feet while vectoring to a seven-mile final.  The multi-scan radar was painting heavy precipitation and areas of turbulence just touching the airport.  Nearing the final approach fix we saw the airport and were cleared for the visual approach and handed off to MSP tower.  Tower advised that it was just starting to rain at the airport.  Thirty seconds to touchdown, the tower advised moderate to heavy rain and quartering right headwinds at 13 knots gusting to 28 knots.  We had increased our approach speed to the 15-knot limit and were showing gusts of 10 to 15 knots and light turbulence and moderate rain as we touched down.  I had hoped my last landing would have been the smoothest of my life, but I was thankful that I would not be playing Russian roulette with the weather again with so many lives in my hands.  Since the rain had just started, there was a brief patch of slickness and the antiskid released the brakes momentarily as we passed through 80 knots.  I gasped, hoping that this was not the dreaded complete brake failure.  I really did not want to end my career rolling off the end of the runway in full reverse, especially since I had bragged, as the flight was boarding in Anchorage, about carrying 1.2 million passengers during my career without a single passenger injury.   We taxied to gate F9 and shut down in moderate rain without incident. 

We quickly ran the shutdown checklist, and I was able to get a thank you and congratulations from nearly every passenger as they deplaned.  My copilot’s girlfriend had been onboard. She and the copilot videoed me exiting the aircraft for the last time as captain.  I jokingly waved goodbye to Delta and the airplane then sprinted past them as if I were running from a burning house for comic effect. 

The mix of bittersweet emotions nearly overcame me.  I was extremely thankful to Delta and all its employees, and to the career that had been such a huge part of my life, as well as the passengers and other customers that had granted me the precious privilege to entrust their lives and livelihood to me.  It has been a great honor to enter that solemn inner-sanctum pact and such a great blessing, both financially and experientially.   There are some parts of the journey that I am going to miss greatly. But there are also some parts that I am glad I was able to run the gauntlet with only 2 flight attendant injuries, no violations, and no actual deaths aboard my aircraft.   Other statistics I have accumulated include: more than 26,000 hours logged flight time, which equates to more than 3 years in the air, and travel to about 60 different countries.  My career spanned more than a third of the airline era.

There were a couple of items that needed to be deposited in the chief pilot’s office on the way out.  As I walked alone to my car in the parking garage, I noticed the sun was starting to brighten the morning sky again, the rain was beginning to wane, and the future looked brighter.

It is now 1:33 am the morning after my last flight as an airline pilot.  Tears are flowing freely as I am overcome with a profound sense of grief.  I have loved commercial aviation for most of my life.  Now that she has passed, my lover is gone but not forgotten.  My relationship with her had been rocky at times, but she was always a very intimate part of my life. It feels like losing an immediate family member.   There are also a few feelings of guilt.  I had stopped life support early on my secret and very personal bride, due to the financial hardship our company was facing during the COVID-19 pandemic.  I reassure myself that it was for the best and that it was my choice to do the righteous thing.  In some ways this is easier saying goodbye on my terms than because of some tragic event like a violation, illness, or reaching the mandatory retirement age.  One last hug, one long last kiss, then as her passionate eyes follow me, I turn, lower my head, and walk away. Goodbye forever.

My real wife and I try to reassure me that there will be other passions, other interests in the next chapter of life.  There are lots of hobbies that have been put on hold for decades that may be resurrected and a few new ones that I am anxious to start: oil painting and other visual arts, songwriting and composing, camping, woodworking, clock making, gardening, restoring a truck that is only 10 years younger than myself, and doing some inventing, science experimenting, and building projects are included in the list.  There are plenty of things to keep me busy, but at a more relaxed, less stressful pace.  I ponder how my personality will change now that I no longer am stuffed into the mold of the career that molded me.  Although, I am sure I will physically be healthier due to a better sleep and eating habits, will I still be “captain shaped” next spring?

It is my earnest desire that I retain the best character attributes from being a captain, discard those stereotypes that belittle the profession, and inspire fledgling aviators.  May they humbly and boldly take up the challenge by following in our contrails, climb to the heights only pilots can experience, and, as John Gillespie Magee Jr. so elegantly wrote in his poem High Flight, “… reach out their hands, and touch the face of God.”

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