An Airline Captain Wraps Up a Memorable Career

A pilot's farewell flight is the culmination of thousands of hours in the cockpit.

Southwest Airlines Kent Roper
Capt. Kent Roper emerges from the cockpit for the last time to streamers and confetti.Courtesy Dick Karl

Imagine retarding the throttles, trimming the nose up slightly, feeling the ship as she prepares, reluctantly, to settle back to earth, hearing the wind noise bleed off, the engines wind down, the robotic callout of 50, then 30, then 10, and knowing that this is the last time you will do this in the cockpit of an airliner. Tomorrow you turn 65 years old. This is the final landing of your career.

How many times, in how many different types of airplanes, in how many different places around the world, and in what different kinds of weather have you done this? With your 30,000 hours, your type ratings and memories, today is the end of the line.

If you are Kent Roper, you make a party of it. If you end your career at Southwest Airlines, you’ve picked the right group for a party. If you’ve been a widely admired chief pilot for Southwest at Baltimore and then Orlando, there are many senior captains and first officers vying to be your FO on your last day. Lots of other folks are eager to salute you and just maybe tell an embarrassing story or two. My wife, Cathy, and I got to see it all last May. It was at once fun, funny, poignant, sad, wistful and instructive. I’d never experienced anything quite like it.

Though I retired from surgery when I decided to do so, I still remember well that last case. I remember looking at the heart and the phrenic nerve coursing over the pericardium and thinking, “I will never see the human heart again.” Were these last, privileged views on Kent Roper’s mind as he shook hands and exchanged hugs with well-wishers?

Kent and his delightful wife, Lynn, met up with us and our mutual friends, Rob and Kathy Haynes (she's Len Morgan's daughter, for longtime Flying readers), for a dinner celebration in Orlando the night before the retirement flights. Rob and Kent had been in Baltimore together in the chief pilot's office. Kent's flying history was the topic du jour. An Embry-Riddle graduate, he joined the Air Force, where he flew RF-4s, T-37s and T-38s. Mustered out, he began civilian flying at Rocky Mountain Airlines, then went to Braniff, where as an FO he flew 727s and DC-8s. When Braniff collapsed, Kent went to Midway Airlines, where his organizational skills and emotional intelligence were soon recognized. That's how he became chief pilot and, subsequently, vice president of flight operations. Then Midway went under.

How many times, in how many different types of airplanes, in how many different places around the world, and in what different kinds of weather have you done this? With your 30,000 hours, your type ratings and memories, today is the end of the line.

Southwest benefited from Midway Airlines’ demise by virtually taking over Midway Airport, and it got Kent in the bargain. At dinner that night, we conjectured as to which was more important. We ate and joked for just over an hour and then went to bed; sign on was 0605 in the morning.

Flight 2184 was scheduled out of Orlando at 0705 EDT and into Chicago Midway at 0835 CDT. Kent picked these flights because he grew up in the Chicago area and had Midway Airlines history, and because he had started his Southwest career at the Midway base. The wives and I were in the back. Rob was in the jumpseat. The conversation on the way up to Chicago was about whether or not there would be a firetruck salute for the retiring captain and about what to do in retirement. As we descended toward Chicago, a familiar voice came over the PA. Kent pointed out Bass Lake, Lake Michigan and the downtown skyscrapers. Lynn told me that Kent’s family had a place on Bass Lake where he spent lots of time as a kid.

Right on time, we touched down on 4R after Kent maneuvered us through the wake turbulence of a departing 737. We craned our necks, but no firetrucks were in sight. The base chief pilot was on the jetway, though, to welcome Kent and wish him well. Ramp congestion had nixed the firetrucks, we were told.

Just an hour later, we boarded a new 800 series 737 where a surprised Orlando cabin crew was just hearing that this was a retirement flight. The flight attendants huddled. Sondra Carter went to her bag where she retrieved some streamers and some confetti. She acted as if any self-respecting Southwest flight attendant would be prepared for such a celebration, and she put me to work cutting blue and yellow streamers to be hung over the cockpit door at the end of the flight. She demanded that the streamers be of equal length; this was a matter of importance, I was given to understand.

We were then joined by Kent’s brother and Lynn’s family, one of whom, Alan, is a Southwest flight attendant. Who would have guessed? The passengers must have been advised at the gate because many stopped to wish Kent well as they boarded. There was excitement in the air. As we pushed back, word came that the new 737-800 would get a bath upon departure. Kent was to get his Chicago salute after all when we taxied out. Many of us filmed video of the firetrucks and the carwash effect on the windows.

We departed 4R and Kent made that graceful turn to the east, smooth and easy over Hyde Park and the University of Chicago. Cards were handed out for passengers to write a word or two for the retiring captain. Confetti was readied for dispersal. Too soon, we started to descend.

The cards were collected. “Thanks for keeping us safe. Have a wonderful life,” read one. Kent came on for his last PA, announcing that we’d be landing to the south and that the weather was good.

Shortly after noon, the big Boeing was taxiing to the gate. We’d been with Kent to Chicago and back in a morning. Our taxi seemed a little meandering, and I soon saw why: more firetrucks. That had to be the cleanest airplane in Southwest’s fleet for at least a week.

If you ever wanted to look at several hundred thousand hours of flying experience in one place, this was the spot. Pilots young and old clustered around the guest of honor.

Parked, Kent emerged from the cockpit to a standing ovation. He parted the streamers like he was being introduced on the Tonight Show. Up the jetway, we raced to more applause. The boarding passengers had been made aware.

Down to the pilot lounge we went, specially escorted by TSA because entrance to the base office is usually by badge only. After cake and speeches, we retired to a hotel to rest. The goodbye party was yet to come that night.

If you ever wanted to look at several hundred thousand hours of flying experience in one place, this was the spot. Pilots young and old clustered around the guest of honor. Stories were told. Kent described the check airman at Rocky Mountain Airlines, who said, “If you’re low on fuel and the visibility is zero, just slow to stall speed and follow the ILS in. You’ll probably hit the transmitter, but you won’t die.”

Tellingly, most of the stories were about Kent’s leadership, not aeronautical derring-do. I got to tell about the time I stuck my head in the cockpit of a 737-500 in Denver several years ago and asked the crew where they were based. When they said Orlando, I asked if they knew Kent. Without hesitation, the first officer’s head snapped around, and he looked me right in the eye. “I’d fly a hundred days in a row without pay for Kent Roper.” Then he told me why.

It seems a shame to put that kind of talent, not to mention a man whose character engenders that kind of feeling, out to pasture. He’s got a lot more to give.