Gear Up: The Splendid End

The final days of a second professional career bring gratitude and questions of what’s next.

Dick Karl and Charlie Ellison
Basking in White Plains, New York, Charlie Ellison after Dick Karl's last flight.Dick Karl

Well, this is it. I’ve given notice. This three-day trip will be my last as a CJ3 captain for ­JetSuite. It has been a grand three years and a few days, but the nights away from home just got to be too many.

When this trip is over, I will be ­retired. I won’t be earning a paycheck. I certainly won’t be flying a Cessna CJ3 with these fine fellow aviators whom I’ve come to know at JetSuite. It is a little like the last day of high school. What awaits?

So I am filled with wistfulness and wonder, anticipation and dread, curiosity and trepidation.

Wistfulness because I have so ­enjoyed the flying and the people. I have a hard time imagining my life without the banter and the commiseration. I will dearly miss the sunsets and sunrises, those low approaches and those (occasional) soft landings.

Wonder because it has been an extraordinarily lucky gift to be hired by a real company to do real aviating after being a hobby flier for 46 years. I still can’t believe it. Nor can I believe I’m giving it up. I won’t get the chance to fly this way again.

Anticipation because I am ­hoping for a fun finish, with good trips and good people. I’ve learned by real ­experience that some rotations are better than others.

Dread because I am uncertain about what’s next, both in aviation and in life. I’ve renewed my first-class medical and I’m hoping not to be done with jets just yet, but I don’t have anything lined up. In my previous work life as a surgeon, I never left one job without going to another. The abyss awaits. I’ve always enjoyed work, both in medicine and in aviation, so retirement to play golf holds no great appeal.

Curiosity because I don’t know yet what it feels like to set the brakes for the last time in an airplane you love. How will that be?

Trepidation because I’m “short,” as we used to say in the military. A soldier who is short is close to going home or getting out of the service. He or she has no inclination to take risks. I certainly don’t want to violate an altitude or hit a bird on my last day.

So here we go.

Good news: I’m airlining to Buffalo, New York, to catch up with one of my favorites, first officer Charlie Ellison. Charlie and I arrive at the FBO to wait for Capt. Amber and FO Larry to deliver our airplane. They are finishing up an eight-day trip, and we know they’ll be eager to beat feet to their airline connections home, so we plan to put their plane to bed.

They arrive too late to catch ­early flights, however, so we take a crew car to Charlie the Butcher’s for some beef on weck. This local shrine makes Buffalo a favorite with many crews. I’ve flown with both Amber and Larry, so basking in the warm sunlight with these three pilots is fun.

A friend sends advice on the best place for Buffalo wings. “Anchor Bar is where it all started,” he says, “but Duff’s is better.” Charlie and I feast on wings at Duff’s.

Our itinerary the next morning is gentlemanly: Buffalo to Morristown, New Jersey (KMMU), at 1100, to pick up three pax for Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina (KRDU). Charlie says:

“Hey, man. It’s your last days. You get all the legs.” I vowed I wouldn’t do this. Other outgoing captains, upgrading to the majors, took all the legs when I was an FO, and I don’t want to be “that guy.” Nonetheless, Charlie insists.

The green trees of Westchester County scan across the windshield as we turn in for the Sound Visual to 34 at KHPN. Long Island Sound shimmers a salute in morning sunlight.

The KMMU-KRDU leg looks like benign weather and a quick flight. I’ve filed for Flight Level 340, but I’m pretty sure we’ll end up at 260 because that’s what happened a week ago on the Teterboro, New Jersey, to KRDU route. Sure enough, we are “capped” at FL 260, so it’s a bumpy ride. So far, this all seems normal. There is no sense of ending. I have no sepia-toned images to store in my mind.

After KRDU, we fly to Roanoke, Virginia (KROA), at 10,000 feet; it is only 105 nautical miles. The approach controller gives us 6,000 feet and we hurry on down, hoping for a visual, given all the mountainous terrain near KROA. We break out and Charlie spots the airport. The mountains are impressive in that East Coast way — and just as hard as the Rockies if you hit them.

We make arrangements with the FBO to ensure they will be ready at 0445. Let’s fuel tonight, I say. We’re scheduled to take four pax to Boston (KBOS) at 0545. At ­dinner I don’t get teary, exactly, but the enormity of tomorrow is clear to me. I will be done.

I’m up by 0300, excited and concentrated. The mountains will be dark at 0545, and we have a ­complicated one-engine inoperative procedure to rehearse. By 0500, the coffee is ­loaded and we’re ready. I pace.

The last of the passengers arrive at 0545. As we climb to FL 410, the sun announces its intentions with that sliver of orange-blue that all eastbound oceanic pilots know. Soon we’re on the Roebuck Arrival. The approach controller clears us for the ILS 4R and then rescinds it. We’re now cleared for the localizer 4R, with its higher minimum descent altitude. Why the change? “Tall ships in the harbor,” comes the reply — a first and, I guess, last for me.

Boston is familiar to us, and the taxi in is easy. The passengers are grateful. “See you tonight,” they say. Alas, ­another crew will take them home. By the time they get back to Roanoke, I’ll be out of work.

Boston to White Plains, New York (KHPN), is a flight the airplane could probably do all by itself. The routing is familiar. My fingers enter it into the Rockwell Collins Pro Line almost without conscious thought.

And so it goes. We stay low at 14,000 and admire New England in autumn. The green trees of Westchester County scan across the windshield as we turn in for the Sound Visual to 34 at KHPN. Long Island Sound shimmers a salute in morning sunlight.

I remember reading a book once about surgical residency programs, which are known to be arduous. The graduating surgeon plans to go by the offices of his attending teachers and say goodbye, but when he does, they are all busy dealing with emergency surgery. I get the same feeling as I leave Charlie with the airplane. He is waiting for Capt. Paul Leeder to arrive and take him and the airplane and what’s left of my dreams to Martha’s Vineyard. By the time they land, I will be home.