Taking Wing: Last Dance

Last flights are always bittersweet affairs. Photo by Jon Whittle, Courtesy: Sam Weigel

The last time I flew my flying club’s 1940 J-3 Cub, it really should have been with the door open and warm breezes wafting through the cabin, passing low over rolling pastures and smelling the verdant earthiness of a rural Minnesota summer. This is the way every pilot should experience flying at least once in his or her life, and I am fortunate to have enjoyed it many times over my past five years in the club, based at Airlake Airport, south of Minneapolis. But alas, my penultimate day as a Cub owner was cold and brisk and steely gray, with little autumnal sunshine to illuminate the few golden leaves still clinging to their branches. My brother Steve and I were bundled up, and we kept the door tightly shut, the muffler-shroud heater cranking out what little warmth could be harvested from the faithful Continental four-banger clattering away out front.

Winter was clearly on its way in, and with it, my wife, Dawn, and I would soon be on our journey south to our new life afloat on our 42-foot sailboat, Windbird. It was time to pass my membership on to someone else who would appreciate the Yellow Cub Club’s fantastic little time machine and keep her where she belongs — in the air.

Last flights are always bittersweet affairs when you know they’re your last in advance. In the case of my 1953 Piper Pacer, I didn’t know that the engine was tearing itself apart during the final flight of my ownership, or I never would have taken it. In retrospect, it was a memorable sendoff. On a Portland, Oregon, layover for work, my friend and Alaska Airlines pilot Duncan Roberts picked me up with his two young boys, Calvin and Bjorn, and we made our way to the Pacer’s temporary home across the Columbia River at Pearson Field (KVUO). We took off to the northeast, clawing all the way up to 8,500 feet while the terrain beneath grew increasingly rugged and Mount St. Helens loomed ever larger in the windscreen. Rounding the corner of the cataclysmic 1980 eruption’s crater, the boys exclaimed at the stupendous sight of the mountain’s innermost parts laid bare. I meanwhile kept a close eye on the engine instruments, aware that the only survivable engine-failure option was a ditching in chilly ­Spirit Lake. From Mount St. Helens, we flew over the ­remote Gifford Pinchot National Forest, down the Columbia River Gorge and around downtown Portland. A few days later, the discovery of a mess of metal in the engine sump during the annual inspection made me realize just how close to eternity our scenic flight had taken the four of us. I still get goose bumps thinking about it.

Before the Pacer and the Yellow Cub Club, I was flying a 1949 Cessna 170A in a loose flying-club-type arrangement. I loved that airplane despite its torpid cruise speed and habitual tailwheel shimmy, but I could not recall my last flight in it until referring to my logbook just now. It turns out that I took my brother Jon for a local flight around the Twin Cities on November 26, 2012. Shortly thereafter I lost my medical, and by the time I got it back the airplane had been sold to a gentleman from northern Minnesota, much to my surprise. I have some great memories of N9186A, the first old taildragger I really got to know well, but never got to say a proper goodbye.

It was time for Sam Weigel to pass the Yellow Cub on to someone else who would keep her where she belongs — in the sky. Photo by Jon Whittle, Courtesy: Sam Weigel

In the airline world, last flights are generally known well ahead of time unless you bend metal or commit some other unpardonable sin. Retirement flights are a particularly big deal. Of course, there is no fanfare if one is merely changing airlines or fleets — or worse yet, being furloughed.

When I left Horizon Air, I just happened to fly with a respected check airman I knew pretty well, enjoyed some scenic Montana flying, and greased my last landing in ­Portland (a rare event in the notoriously hard-to-land-well Q400). For my last trip at Compass Airlines, I was paired with two of my favorite flight attendants at the company and a young, amiable first officer, and we celebrated my departure over several memorable layovers.

At my current airline, I was initially assigned the ­McDonnell-Douglas MD-88 and MD-90, but last year transitioned to the Boeing 757 and 767. I didn’t mind flying the so-called Mad Dog; its old-school, cantankerous nature was a nice change of pace from the sleekly automated Embraer 175 I’d been flying for more than six years. But the Boeing fleet offers a much greater variety of flying, and I’d lusted after the 757 in particular since childhood. I was still on the fence about bidding it when I had lunch with Flying’s then-editor, Robert Goyer, during which he asked whether I didn’t enjoy learning new airplanes. I ­really do, and so I put in my bid the next morning. The airline was short on Mad Dog drivers, though, so I spent another sweaty summer on the airplane before transition training.

My last trip on the Mad Dog was a hilariously bad compendium of all the things that make flying that airplane such a chore at times. The trip had a ton of short legs, the weather was terrible, and the delays were constant. We had several maintenance snafus, and at one point on a busy RNAV arrival, the FMS decided it would be a great time to fail. The cherry on the sundae was my last approach and landing, in Asheville, North Carolina. It was pitch dark, raining hard and bumpy with mountains around, and I ended up hand-flying the ILS to near minimums after the autopilot started doing a poor job of it. That’s about as close as I care to come to real, honest work.

My year on the B757/767 fleet has seemed like a vacation in comparison. Mind you, I suspect I’ll be back on the Mad Dog at some point. Already, with three years’ seniority there are several dozen Mad Dog captains junior to me on the seniority list. I’m not tempted to bid it while we’re out cruising the Caribbean, but once we move back to land I may not be able to resist the siren call of left-seat pay.

Similarly, I very much doubt this will be my last time flying a Cub, which eases the sting a bit. Steve and I ­landed back at Airlake, and I asked Dawn if she’d like to go up for one last spin; she gamely climbed aboard, and Steve hand-propped the engine. We took off to the south, circled our favorite little hidden lake and white-steepled country church, and then worked our way west above dusty gravel roads. I swooped down low over Prior Lake, the better to appreciate an unseasonably tenacious gaggle of brilliant maples along the shoreline, and marveled at a great mass of water birds that rose from the surface of the lake to meet us. We climbed back to 500 feet and headed back to Airlake. I worked hard at really greasing my last wheel landing, which I’ve found often yields the opposite result, but this time I was rewarded with the sweetest, smoothest kiss of rubber brushing asphalt that a lucky Cub driver ever felt. If it had been on grass, I would never have known I’d landed. It was a hell of a way to close one chapter of our lives. I am filled with nervous excitement to see what the next few bring.

Sam Weigel has been an airplane nut since an early age, and when he's not flying the Boeing 737 for work, he enjoys going low and slow in vintage taildraggers. He and his wife live west of Seattle, where they are building an aviation homestead on a private 2,400-foot grass airstrip.

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