Not All Retirement Flights Come with Balloons

Insurance woes make for personal misery…and taking stock.

[Courtesy: Dick Karl]

One day after I flew our Cessna Citation CJ1 from Austin, Texas, to Tampa, Florida, I was deemed incompetent by virtue of age for single-pilot flight by the Brown Insurance Corporation. The jet sat unused for a month while I searched for pilots who would qualify to fly with me under the two-pilot provisions of the new policy. Though the type rating for Cessna 525s is good for all CJs, the insurance carrier demanded currency in make and model. Some pilots with 3,000 hours of CJ3 time were not eligible without “differences training.” I can tell you right now what those differences are: Our airplane is slower!

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A long-awaited Christmas holiday vacation with the grandkids in New Hampshire loomed without any hope of flying there. But then, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but my flying buddy, Bill Albert. Some people say you can tell if you have a close friendship by asking yourself, would I ask this person to pick me up at the airport? How about, would I ask this guy to drive a rental car from Orlando to Tampa, fly with me to Lebanon, New Hampshire (KLEB), and take an airline home the next day? Bill and I have flown CJ1s, -2s, and -3s together. He’s on my insurance policy. He volunteered to help Cathy, me, and our dog Rocco go to New England for the holidays. He is that kind of friend.

Only one problem: a giant weather system featuring heavy rain, high winds, and snow straddled the route. Furthermore, the forecast for Lebanon for the next two days was more blizzard than blue sky. By the time Bill got to Tampa, we had realized that we’d better arrange for him to get back to Orlando that night, or he would be our house guest for the foreseeable future. We found a flight from Lebanon to Boston, Massachusetts, at 1:13 p.m. that same day. If we got the 1,200 nautical miles behind us by 12:30, he might make it.

I had not flown in six weeks. In fact, I hadn’t even visited the airplane. Loss of single-pilot insurance meant we were selling the jet. Like a jilted lover, I didn’t even want to see her. This airplane that I have loved so was no longer going to be mine. I could not look her in the eye. Bill was a soothing compatriot. In the FBO, we looked at the radar together. Thunderstorms perched just north of Tampa and obstructed our path. We planned to ask for vectors to the east so as to climb to a safe altitude, turn on the ship’s radar, and head north, picking our way through.

This was not to be. After takeoff, we were given a heading of 360 degrees and step-climbed to 23,000 feet. Though we were in dark clouds, the radar didn’t show much, and our Nexrad information confirmed that the savvy Jacksonville Center controllers were threading us through some light spots. We broke out at 35,000 feet. 

Tailwinds materialized as we turned northeast and climbed to flight level 410. Fat, dumb, and happy, we were on top and amused ourselves by listening to the complaining airliners banging it out at FL 350. Speaking of complaints, Bill listened with his sympathetic ear to my whining about losing the airplane of my life. After a good hour of this, I realized I needed to acknowledge how lucky my life has been. I have had a great ride, but this restriction seems unrelated to my experience, abilities, and aviation decision-making capabilities.

Sure enough, our destination was holding up with VFR visibility. When Boston Center turned us over to the KLEB tower, Bill’s first words were, “Can you check on the 1:15 Cape Air to Boston for a passenger named Albert?” The tower acknowledged our position, and gave us the visual to Runway 36, but said that he thought the Cape Air flight had already left. Uh oh. On final, the tower said, “Oh, I see it, there is another Boston flight in about 30 minutes.” We landed, taxied in, and I dove headfirst into a crew car to get Bill around the field for the Cape Air check-in.

After unloading Cathy, the luggage, and the dog, we went back around the field to check on Bill. He was getting bored waiting to board. That night, we got 20 inches of snow. The airport was closed for two days. Bill got home by 9 p.m., exhausted, no doubt.

Three weeks later, how were we to get home to Tampa? The answer was the same (thanks, Bill), though the choreography was less propitious. Bill arrived by airline at 1:30 p.m., and by 2:00, we were in the cockpit. The tower said that there were ground stops for flights into Florida. Something about a computer issue at Miami Center and the effect on ERAM (En Route Automation Modernization program). Our EDCT (estimated departure clearance time) was 5 hours hence. We went back to our cottage, turned on the heat and the water, and built a fire in the fireplace.

Next day showed clouds with rain beginning early, so we planned our getaway accordingly. By now, headwinds had ruled out a nonstop to Tampa. We climbed to FL 380 and peeked in and out of clouds. Two and a half hours later, we landed for fuel in Savannah, Georgia (KSAV). During that long, slow leg, we talked about lots of things. I thought of my two friends who had unknowingly flown their retirement flights. One never flew an airliner again because of a medical issue, the other because of COVID. 

Refueled, we landed at home base, KVDF, at noon. Bill took an Uber home. As I resettled, I learned that during the preceding six days, two Phenom 300s had crashed. Both had two-pilot crews younger than I am, a fact not lost on me. The next day, a friend pointed out that perhaps the KSAV to KVDF leg had been my retirement flight. There were no balloons, no water cannon, and no glowing tributes. I guess that could be true at any time for any of us.

This article was originally published in the April 2023, Issue 936 of  FLYING.

Dick Karl
Dick KarlAuthor
Dick Karl is a cancer surgeon who appreciates the beauty and science involved in both surgery and flying. Dick’s monthly Gear Up celebrates the human side of flying. He writes about his enthusiasm for both the machines and the people who fly and maintain them.

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