Cockpit Chronicles: Frank’s final flight

It was time for Frank to go. Not because of a federally mandated retirement age, or because of a change in pension laws or fluctuations in the stock market. No, Frank had long ago decided that he was going to retire at the age of sixty. And he was sure of it.

Even when the retirement age was raised from sixty to sixty-five in 2007, Frank was still adamant that he’d be leaving at sixty. I’ve flown with this captain for more than a decade, on the MD-80, 737, 757 and the 767. We trained for six weeks together on the 737 when it first arrived in Boston and we even had the opportunity to take an empty seven-three out for a few ‘bounces’ in Sacramento for some take-off and landing practice that our company mandated for the first fifty crews flying the 737-800.

Over those years, I’ve listened to Frank discuss his upcoming retirement. He planned to drive his immaculately restored Morgan around New England and enjoy his grandkids. Maybe start another Morgan project or volunteer at the Owl’s Head Transportation Museum in Maine.

But once the retirement age increased to sixty-five, I honestly had my doubts Frank would actually go. He wasn’t the kind of pilot that complained incessantly about the job, or management, or his lack of seniority that resulted in fewer Paris trips and more Caracas layovers. So I had a hard time believing he’d retire at sixty.

Two years ago, Frank mentioned to me that he’d like me to fly with him on his last flight.

%Gallery-85512%”Keep your schedule open in October of ’09.” He said.

“Yeah, OK, Frank.” I replied.

It’s quite an honor to be asked to fly someone’s retirement flight-something I’ve been lucky to do once before with a dear friend. I gladly accepted.

I suspect my honorable position had something to do with my video and photography skills, since it’s always nice to have such a flight documented for posterity. I mean, there are plenty of co-pilots in Boston that are funnier, more entertaining and far better looking than me.

Alas, that October day finally arrived. But I wasn’t on the schedule with him. After Frank let me know which Paris trip he’d be flying, I scrambled to trade away two Caribbean one-day trips to fly on his trip. Frank suggested I try to pick up the relief pilot (FB) position since I’d be in a better position to take a few pictures of the event.

Captain Frank wasn’t normally senior enough to hold Paris, but the flight office managed to ‘displace’ another, more senior captain to make room for him to have a memorable Paris trip. A classy move, for sure, and the displaced pilot was only too happy to receive a paid trip off.

It’s customary to bring along family members for a retirement flight, so the captain brought his wife, son and daughter-in-law. The daughter-in-law was also an accomplished photographer, so that could have been her ticket aboard this flight-although, she actually did turn out to be funny and entertaining as well.

While driving to work, I called the chief pilot. Was there a chance we could see the traditional fire truck salute upon arriving back in Boston, I wondered? He promised to look into it. On the previous retirement flight I flew we didn’t get the water treatment in JFK. At the time, we were told there had been an emergency on the field that had them tied up, but I’ve also heard rumors that the fire hose retirement salute wasn’t happening anymore.

But maybe something could be arranged. I was successful in convincing the Paine Field airport fire department to give my retiring dad a water salute on his retirement flight almost ten years ago, so how much could have changed since then?

In operations, I met Frank and his wife Meredith, his son Drew and daughter-in-law Christine. The other co-pilot, Mark, was pulling up paperwork. Having two pilots on this over eight hour flight would allow all three pilots to take a staggered, two-hour break on each leg.

Frank’s wife, Meredith looked proud and excited about her husband’s final voyage. I think she was excited to be flying with her husband to Paris, a perfect place to celebrate such a transitional moment for them.

Frank’s son Drew is a pilot in the National Guard, flying KC-135s, the aerial tanker version of the Boeing 707. His wife Christine had an easy-going demeanor and I enjoyed talking photography with her. I knew we’d all have a good time.

I promised Frank I’d take a few pictures while we were at the gate and again above 10,000 feet. I also planned to shoot some video of his family when I was back on my crew rest break during the flight. In Paris the entire crew would celebrate the conclusion of his airline career at one of his favorite Parisian restaurants, “Le petit Prince.” Quite appropriate, since Antoine Saint-Exupéry, the famous French pilot, was the author of The Little Prince.

The flight over went smoothly and I invited Drew and Meredith to sit next to me when I was back for my crew rest break. I asked them a few questions and they shed a little more insight into Frank and his career while I had the camera rolling.

At the end of my two-hour break, I exchanged places with Frank in the left seat as he went back for his break and to visit with his wife.

The early morning arrival into Paris was smooth, and with the pressure on, Frank managed to kiss the ground, rolling just the first two front wheels of the main landing gear onto the pavement before the whole airplane gently settled to the ground. I’d have been tempted to quit there, and let the co-pilot fly the airplane home two days later, but all the landings-the icing on the cake, as I call it-were to be Frank’s on this trip.

It took a few minutes for the bus to show up, a fortunate thing, since I was able to take a few portrait type pictures of Frank next to the airplane just as the sun was coming up.

And now, the only painful part of the trip; the bus ride to the hotel in Paris. During the week, this ride can take an hour and fifty minutes, and this day was no exception. We all tried to sleep in the bus to make the time go by.

Our main celebration would have to start in the early-evening during our layover in the city. The crew bus arrived at the hotel before 9 a.m.-plenty of time to allow for a long nap. We agreed to meet up at 6 p.m. in the lobby before heading to dinner.

Frank and his family took a shorter nap and thus managed to get out to visit a few Museums in Paris. After crossing the Atlantic at night, sleep can be an irresistible activity despite the rock hard bed and wildly fluctuating temperature at our hotel. This time, I chose sleep over viewing “Whistler’s Mother” at the Musé d’Orsay. It wasn’t even close.

Downstairs at 6, we planned to take over the lounge the hotel provides us for the meeting before dinner. Unfortunately a New York crew had already moved in with an impressive spread of Monoprix-purchased cheese, wine and baguette, a staple diet of Paris-flying crews, and the reason most international pilots are 10 to 15 pounds heavier than their domestic counterparts.

Like a group of ducklings following their mother, we lined up behind Diane, the purser who bought the Champagne and two beautiful flutes to serve them in before heading downstairs to a lounge next to the lobby. The hotel was nice enough to let us use this room and Diane presented the Champagne glasses to Frank and his wife. The hotel let everyone borrow some restaurant wine glasses and we drank a toast to Frank and his family to a flawless 23-year career.

The eleven of us made our way over to Le Petit Prince for dinner. I sat next to Drew and we talked a while about the state of the industry and who might be hiring when he is ready to get out of the military.

Most of us ordered a salmon fillet that was scrumptious and relatively reasonably priced, not that Frank would let any of us pay for the dinner. Meredith ordered a creme brûlée and the chef lit a bit of alcohol on the top to caramelize the dessert. It made for a nice picture.

During dinner, I convinced Drew and Christine to hold off on dessert so they could pick up a ‘crepe Nutella’ on the way back to the hotel. I’m convinced it just isn’t a proper layover in Paris without this three euro scalding-hot chocolate dessert. So the two of them skipped desert and decided to make a run for the Eiffel Tower before it closed, since this might be one of the few times they get to Paris together.

After dinner, just outside the restaurant, I gathered the the crew and Frank and Meredith for a shot with the Pantheon visible in the background.

Not everyone had desert at the restaurant, so we found a perfect little street and enjoyed a crepe while a few other flight attendants had an italian-style ice cream.

Could this be the way I celebrate my retirement flight? I can only hope so.

On the way back to the hotel, Mark and I stopped off at the ‘water store,’ a grocery store that is frequented by everyone on their way back to their hotel rooms. Our pickup time wasn’t for another 14 hours, and since the rooms seem to get exceedingly warm in the middle of the night, savvy crews usually pick up a bottle of water and maybe something to eat for the next morning.

The next afternoon, as we checked in with security, Frank was asked if it was true that this was his last flight. “It is,” he responded, and the co-pilot, Mark didn’t miss a beat as she checked his I.D.

“It’s my first flight,” he said.

Frank elected to do the last walk-around, something normally reserved for the co-pilot, but I think he wanted to get one last trip around the airplane in before the flight. Not to mention it was a good photo opportunity.

After checking on his wife and family, Frank gave his window a quick wash by hanging out his side window and then briefed us on the departure. Mark gave Frank the next leg as well, meaning that he’d give up the flying duties to operate the radio on the return flight since it was Frank’s last trip. It was the least Mark could do, especially since this was also Frank’s 60th birthday.

We departed on-time, just after 1:30 p.m. from Paris and Frank flew a beautiful departure. Things were going smoothly, as they should. He even commented on just how well trimmed (true and straight) the airplane felt.

After my break, Frank again went back to sit with his wife.

In between listening to the other co-pilot, Mark, make his position report and a PA announcing the captain’s retirement to the passengers, I wondered how I would ‘celebrate’ my last flight.

I’m sure for me, as it was for Frank and my friend/flight instructor Mike, the retirement flight won’t have that ‘last day of school’ celebratory feel to it.

Of course you want to enjoy the trip, and hopefully make it memorable for your crew and your family, but in the back of your mind, there’s a dramatic voice saying, “Don’t screw up your accident-free career on the final flight!”

Case in point:

I know of a pilot at another airline who decided to do a fly-by in the form of a modified ‘go-around’ and cruise above the runway before coming back for his final retirement landing. I’m sure the phrase “what are they going to do, fire me?” ran through his mind.

To do a low pass in a jet isn’t as serene inside the cockpit as you might expect. As the airplane approaches the ground with the gear and flaps up, the enhanced ground proximity warning computers loudly announce “Too Low, Gear!” and a flap warning horn squeals.

But the three pilots in the cockpit that day had already thought of that, so they disabled the warning horns for their celebratory buzz-job. (To be fair, they were probably a few hundred feet above the ground, but how often do you get to write ‘celebratory buzz-job?’)

At any rate, the company wasn’t happy at all with this crew. The terms of the punishment for each pilot wasn’t disclosed, but I heard the FAA became involved, which is one way to make it a memorable last flight.

After the three of us had our breaks, it was time to begin the descent.

Frank knew there was a chance for a water-cannon salute from the Boston fire department. And since the secret planning was out, I offered him a tip before we left Paris.

“Whatever you do,” I said, “don’t stop midway under the water.”

I then showed him the video from the Virgin America inaugural flight to Orange County where the pilots did just that.

“You’ve got to keep going,” I implored. Co-pilots are like that. Always trying to make the captain look good.

After we were switched over to the Boston approach control frequency, we were offered a new arrival to runway 33 left. The lighthouse visual to 33L involved flying visually by hanging a right at Minot’s Ledge lighthouse, descending to 1,800 feet and then turning left at the Boston Lighthouse where you can then go down to 1,000 feet before aligning with the runway over Fort Warren.

This was the first time any of us had been offered that arrival and I was impressed Frank jumped at the opportunity. What better way to go out than to fly a brand-new, scenic arrival into Boston. The “Boston Light” lighthouse was the last thing the British burned before exiting the colonies, and the Minot Ledge lighthouse sat on a rock with crashing waves below. It couldn’t have made for a more perfect ending to a career for Frank and I suspect he’ll remember that arrival for some time-it’s not likely to get mixed up among the hundreds of other approaches he’s flown into Boston.

As we taxied past terminal E to the far corner of the building and into gate 8B-a gate with very little room-my heart sank a bit when it became clear there would be no water salute for Frank.

Apparently they really aren’t doing this anymore for retiring pilots in Boston.

After saying goodbye to the passengers, many of whom congratulated Frank personally, we made our way back to the Boston operations, where our Chief Pilot, Rich, was waiting with a cake and Frank’s personnel file. The other pilots in ops as well as Frank’s family and I enjoyed a few pieces of cake and then said our goodbyes.

But in the eyes of the airline, Frank’s story wasn’t exactly over. No, he wasn’t to be reprimanded for buzzing two lighthouses and a fort.

You see, on the 17th of every month, pilots eagerly look up their schedule to see where they’d be flying, on what days and with which captain or co-pilot.

I did a double-take the next day when I saw which captain was on my schedule. Frank was to fly with me to London next month!

I gave him a call. Since he had bid ‘reserve’ for his retirement month, he was required to answer his phone and fly whatever trips the company had for him for the first two-weeks until he retired. But somehow the word hadn’t reached the company that Frank was officially retired.

“They’ve called me for two trips this morning,” he said.

It was Frank’s one last chance to come back to work, act like nothing happened and fly for another five years.

But he turned down the chance.

I put together a video for Frank, which is why this Cockpit Chronicles has been so delayed. I wanted to share it with you as well. Come along with us on Frank’s last trip. Think of it as the video version of everything you’ve just read. Still interested? Well then, here you go:


Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Check out Plane Answers or follow him on Twitter @veryjr.