Tonight's flight from Cologne back into home base at Louisville was a milestone. Not for me; this was my captain's last flight at the controls of a transport jet.
I had this experience once before, and it was a quietly moving thing. In that previous case, I happened to be flying out of Milwaukee, and the captain finished up his last leg down to Louisville where his wife and family were out on the field with a flight manager in a bus to witness the last landing up close. Then inside for a little party. This is how it goes.
For tonight's flight, all the local Louisville controllers understood that the captain was conducting his last flight, and he was congratulated by each in turn as we passed through their sector--two approach controllers, tower, ground. He also received a congratulatory message on the ACARS (like an airborne text message device in the airplane) by Flight Control. A flight manager met us at the airplane to congratulate the captain and to carry his bags through Customs a final time. Very nice.
The captain's story tonight had an unusual twist. He actually flew his "last flight" once before, almost exactly five years ago. Water cannons, cake, etc. But at that time the mandatory retirement age was 60 and a pilot forced out of the front seats could accept demotion to flight engineer and stay employed (albeit not in the manner to which he had grown accustomed). This was very common, and at that time we still had two different fleets of aircraft that required a flight engineer to operate--DC-8s and Boeing 747 "classics" (there is no age limit on the flight engineer's seat). But in this guy's case, on the day he was to start training for the engineer's seat, Congress passed a law raising the retirement age to 65. And so he was awarded a co-pilot bid on the 747 up in Anchorage, and within a year or so he was back in the left seat of the MD-11. So he had seen this last flight business before. We spent the long crossing of the North Atlantic talking about his career, his favorite aircraft, what he'll miss, what he's looking forward to.
There are so many little profundities in all this. There's always an element of poignancy about retirement, I think, not least because the subtext involves the painful facts of biology being put unavoidably in front of us. Of course, for many people it's not a tragedy in the least. Lots of folks are happy to stop the drudgery of work and embark on a life of liesure. But this doesn't seem to be the norm for pilots, despite the decades-long stream of bitching and burning discontent that mark the collective pilot character. Many of these guys hang on to the bitter end and fade quickly when mustered out. They've spent decades--their whole adult lives--in this setting doing these things, and it's all they know. For many pilots, aviation is the be-all and end-all of life: their days in the cockpit for work are separated by days flying their private airplanes and helping their flying buddies with their private airplanes and evenings reading flying magazines. This is a life's immersion for them--private pilot to military flying career to airline job--and good on them; I can think of a zillion fields less worthy of intensive study than this one. And for many this work setting is also their primary social life; quitting deprives them of many of their social contacts. This is why so many guys do not leave this employment willingly (OK, that plus their need for money to cover their multiple alimony payments).
But this element of unwillingness contributes to the poignancy of the situation. After one's last flight, the cache of company property must be returned: flight case and binders, company credit card and emergency calling card, uniform pieces. And of course the all-important company I.D. Parking privileges are revoked. Luckily, they don't wait at the foot of the aircraft stairs to take this stuff and escort you outside the security gate, ushering you across the threshold between Welcome and Unwelcome. You get to hang onto your stuff long enough at least to catch a final jumpseat home. But the line of demarcation is there. (I wonder about walking through the front door of home after this last flight. How everything has changed. That's one of the ways that flying for a passenger airline is kinder: retirees hang onto pass privileges on the company airline--a valuable perk--even if they are no longer allowed to ride up in the cockpit. The withdrawal is not so cold-turkey. We can look forward to no such perk: at a cargo airline, when you're done you're done. Once you leave the property you are a private citizen.)
But this stuff is true of any retirement, especially from a security-sensitive job. And maybe the rest of it just marks me as a hopeless geek. As we sat in the airplane in Cologne preparing to depart for one final flight, there's a palpable sense of all that he is shortly to give up: the layovers in fabulous international cities, the favorite restaurants and bars in far-flung places, the great hotels, the familiarity with all the little things that differentiate international from domestic flying (all the stuff I try to put down on paper here; this guy understands all these things and more). And then there is the fact of being regularly given the keys to a hundred-million-dollar machine, of being in charge of a daunting piece of this vast enterprise. We sat at the gate in Cologne and he went through the crew briefings he had done a thousand times before, knowing that these very specialized skills are being used for the last time. The calls for checklists; the ritualized communications with the ground crews; the approach briefings; the navigation and systems checks; the odd, foreign-language-like cadences of the radio communications; myriad procedures, done over and over and over again throughout a series of airline jobs over a 40-year career. It's all part of the mundanity of our job until we are faced with not having to exercise these skills ever again. Tomorrow he will still be perfectly qualified and able to operate this 630,000 lb., 500 mph machine. But as of this morning he's done, and the skills will fade over time until they're a distant memory.
Having recently turned 50, I can see this milestone coming down the pike for me. 10 or 15 years down the road, true (depending on when I choose to throw in the towel, or when health issues might force the issue for me), but that's about as long as I've been here to this point. Time is not limitless.
And maybe it's just the romantic in me, but I'll really miss the extraordinary things in this job--and there are so many. The view of the world from several miles up, the sensation of pulling back on the yoke at 200 mph and pulling 300 tons into the air, the organized chaos of the sort operation at night, room service in Dubai, even my ratty little crash pad. How brilliant it all is.
But tonight it's about someone else. Here's a hope for smooth sailing.