An Airline Pilot’s Last Trip

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 775,000-pound 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 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 hand-picked 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.

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

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 good-natured alpha-male ribbing. It made the very last flight all that more special, and to some degree, solemn.

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

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-to-cockpit 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.

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

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.

Les Abend
Les AbendAuthor
Les Abend is a retired, 34-year veteran of American Airlines, attempting to readjust his passion for flying airplanes in the lower flight levels—without the assistance of a copilot.

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