The past few weeks and months haven't exactly been the most enjoyable of my flying career. If we weren't dealing with hurricanes, destroyed cities and plague, we were worrying about and dealing with airlines declaring bankruptcy and telling their old, sick retirees, "Sorry, pard, I know you're 85 and have cancer but no soup for you! We're stopping your pension checks."
A fog of lethargy has fallen over the airline world and it has even crept into my usually upbeat cockpit. There just wasn't much to talk about tonight as we plodded against moderate turbulence and a hundred-knot headwind westbound to Vegas.
Charlie, my copilot and Gwen, our jumpseat rider from a well-known operator of RJs, sat glumly watching the grey wisps of bumpy cloud crawl by the windows. Occasionally we'd get a little shot of Saint Elmo's fire against the windshield, but tonight it didn't add any festive color to our drab existence.
Guys, I said, I just can't go on being this down about everything. Let's look on the bright side. We've got our health, we're going to Vegas and there hasn't been a shooting at our layover hotel there in months. Life is good and this job is still better than a lot I've had. We need to get over what we can't control and enjoy what we can.
Charlie did perk up a little bit at my pep talk and managed to mumble a heart-felt "Bite me" before turning glumly to once again look out the window.
Gwen didn't cheer up either and took the opportunity to tell us that she just got a memo from her chief pilot telling her that her airline just got sold for a cow and a handful of beans so the parent airline could survive outside of bankruptcy for another week.
"Just who the hell is Trans Western Southwest Jehosophat Airlines anyway?" she asked. "I've got over $60,000 in educational loans I took out to get this job. How am I going to pay them back with an upcoming 40 percent pay cut? Plus, I don't want to relocate to Ottumwa, Iowa; I like my trailer in Peachtree City and with the airlines going belly-up, I can't sell it.
I could feel my usually buoyant nature being dragged down by these two youngsters. I wanted to tell them that they should just enjoy the flying while they could. I wanted to tell them that in a hundred years none of this would matter. All I could come up with though was, Hey, I'm going to the back for some coffee -- anybody else want some?
As I went through the very long procedure that we must all use today to get to the other side of the cockpit door so we can go pee and get coffee, I remembered back when the door was usually unlocked and sometimes propped open so the passengers could watch us make the magic. Being an older guy, I felt responsible at least in part for the aviation system we now have. Face it people, we've really screwed the pooch.
Lynette, our front-of-the-bus flight attendant, poured me the requested coffee and handed me a printout downloaded off our ALPA bbs. The printout was the final farewell of a retiring pilot. I read it and decided to share it with my cockpit posse.
The air had smoothed out to occasional light and we were out of the clouds under a curtain of stars. Gwen put down her magazine and Charlie pulled off his oxygen mask. They both gave me a look that said tonight's pity party was finally over and they were ready to talk about the important stuff. You know: movies, sex, gambling, money and cars.
Children, I said, I'm going to read a goodbye written by one of my friends who just retired. I know you are eager to get on with the pre-layover chatter about sex, drugs and rock & roll, but you need to hear what he had to say.
You probably don't remember this, but we used to have a pilot base in New Orleans. In that base was a pilot codenamed "Coonass." He was the funniest and most able pilot I ever flew with. Here is what he wrote to the troops as he left the scene last month.
It has been a fun 28 years for me and my only regret was that we senior slugs left the airline bidnez worse off than we found it. If good intentions count (and they don't) we had 'em.
Our pilot group operated in the fog of self assurance for too long. Eastern? Pan Am? It'll never happen to us, etc.
Back then, senior guys like me could schedule trips in such a way that our regular days off could be linked by a two-week vacation, which would stretch the total time off to four weeks. If I remember correctly, we also got five paid personal days -- and this was during a time when the airline made record profits. Drinking on deadheads to a layover was encouraged. Our biggest onboard problem was choosing between the steak and the lobster. Smoking in the cockpit was allowed and brought some pretty nice, smoking flight attendants up for a foot rub by yours truly.
DC-10 Captains in 1977 made enough money to buy two pickup trucks a month. Engineers never paid for a beer. The party on layovers was generally in my room and the booze was free, courtesy of "survival kits" packed in air-sickness bags provided by the flight attendants I kept giving those foot rubs to.
Nobody ratted on anybody else. Conflicts were handled in-cockpit and you could actually go into a chief pilots office and volunteer that you screwed up on something.
Chief pilots back then were older guys who played a lot of golf and didn't go to the office much. They wouldn't think of telling you, as it happened in my case, that you were abusing sick leave when the truth was that you were dying of cancer. (Not that I'm bitter about that.)
If you did get summoned to see the big Kahuna at the General Offices, he bought you lunch. Remember, those were gentler times.
We went from a smallish, well-run, obscenely profitable airline that knew it's market to a huge company owned and managed by N.Y. bankers and MBA types that never loaded a bag or pulled a chock, and perfumed princes who I wouldn't hire to mow my lawn because they'd hold too many meetings about how to use the starter rope.
I can't tell you how much I detest those guys. They took something beautiful and fun and turned it into a charnel house of back-stabbing, PowerPoint charts, elitism and idiocy. At every turn they screwed the pooch, peed in the pool and blamed us, the pilots.
We went from being the highest paid in the country and being considered by management as the airline's greatest asset to being the least paid, least regarded in the industry and considered by the perfumed princes as liabilities. They made the atmosphere so rank with their incompetence that over a thousand of the most senior guys, including this one, bailed out of the best job on the planet because we have zero optimism for the airline's continued survival.
Even now I get so angry when I think about it that the drugs I'm taking for this cancer thing won't calm me down. Sure, I might have fought to get my medical back and in a few years I might have made it -- but for what purpose? I'd take a pay cut coming back to the line.
Besides, who the hell would care? When I was on the line and sicking out every other trip due to the uncontrolled growth of an unknown lung tumor, I heard weekly from the chief pilot about their latest pie chart on how you pilots were "gaming the system." When I spent a month this summer in the hospital literally dying, I never heard a peep from anybody at our "family airline." Not a "How are ya?" Not a "Kiss my ass" -- nothing.
So much for 28 years of "loyal service"!
I'll be like most early retirees -- I desperately miss the flying and I even more desperately miss you guys, but management that wouldn't be able to run a Sonic drive-through on a slow day and the "job" itself?
It is time to literally drain the swamp around my hurricane-damaged house, rebuild and get on with things. Maybe I'll finally get that big rig and do the truck driving I always threatened to do. I'll definitely keep flying the Champ.
It looks like, with the airlines backing out of their pensions, me and the wife will have to get jobs. I hope I can say, "Welcome to Walmart," without having a seizure.
So -- goodbye, I guess.
It was an honor flying with you. Thanks for covering my ass for all those years (you know who you are).
I love you guys.
Just after I finished reading this to my cockpit buddies Thelma called in on the intercom to tell us that a passenger had told her that both Delta and Northwest had declared bankruptcy. Now around 50 percent of the nation's airline seats were being flown by bankrupt carriers.
We re-entered the clouds and it got bumpy again.
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