Spring brings new things to life.
Little Canadian Geese hatch and grow into big geese so they can clog inlet guide vanes and fill big city rivers with Air Busses. Flowers bloom, little green turtles open their eyes to a brand new pond and our airline rolls-out a new passenger boarding system. The old method of loading the people seemed to work well enough in the olden days. You would announce that the flight was about to board and were there any disabled people, people with little kids, or disabled people with kids? They got to board first. Once the 120 suddenly crippled, lame and child-burdened passengers shoved their way onto the plane, the four or five honest or deaf people got to board.
It has always been amazing to me that we could carry so many physically challenged passengers who spontaneously got healthy enough during our flight to jump up and run off the airplane first when we reached the gate at our destination.
Of course, first class passengers always got to board first so they could sit in their much larger seats, sip on cocktails in real glasses and look smugly upon the great unwashed masses as they schlepped their stuff to the back of the bus. Our new system does away with all that randomness and adds an entire new system of unfairness. We still board what few first class passengers we have at the onset, but the plebeians in the back have zone colors and seat numbers on their home-printed boarding pass cards.
The "order of go" is vitally important to them because we now charge money to check a bag. This means that the passengers lug everything they own onto the jet to save money. Our airline's little excursion into making duffels into dollars has turned most gate houses into bedlam-ridden flea markets.
Chad, my erstwhile copilot and I get to board before any passengers. As a matter of fact, if we were wont to follow company policy, our little fannies would be in our pilot seats a full half hour before push-back. The company wants us to do this so we can program all the computers and do all those little nagging chores needed to give the pubic the impression that we know what we are doing.
The paradox, of course, is that if you really know what you are doing, you only need about seven minutes (yes, I've timed it) to fully program and prepare a Boeing 767 for flight. This means that the very act of showing up 30 minutes early to reassure the public of your flying competence actually proves the opposite.
We threw our flight bags into their places and I looked over the paper work as Chad made all the noises. The noises, for those of you who are uninitiated to the ways of the modern flying cattle car, are your basic GPWS wailings, over-speed warnings and fire warnings along with your other annoying little voices that normal pilots never check but that Chad was checking today with the apparent intent of pissing off his captain.
Once the cacophony of computer generated voices quieted and rational thought returned to my head I picked up today's fueling slip and noticed that we were tankering fuel into Florida today. Hey, we are tankering fuel again, said Chad, echoing my thoughts as he looked at the gauges on the overhead panel. I guess fuel has finally gotten cheap enough for long enough so the big giant heads in the front office noticed.
Cheaper jet fuel means we save money by flying to Florida with enough go-juice to make it both ways. The taxes are so high down there that our airline has tinkered whenever possible when we fly there. There is a dot on a graph somewhere telling the dispatchers when it is cheaper to tanker than to buy and we had apparently passed that point.
Our plane was full, our jump seat rider, a pilot commuting home to West Palm Beach was firmly ensconced in his jump seat and our jet's pointy nose was pointed to points south. The passengers were all relaxing a little bit after we announced we were passing through 20,000 feet well above attack-goose flight levels.
Jed, our jump seat rider had that haggard-tired look that only an international pilot can have after a 12-hour bumpy flight from the sandbox to JFK. He fell asleep as soon as he sat down but bolted up awake after his head flopped forward and hit the back of my seat. His near concussion put him in the mood for talk, so he spoke.
"Boys," he said, "this is the last time you'll see me doing this. Today was my retirement flight and I'm going home for good. No more Mumbai shooting fests, no more single-engine diverts to the Azores, no more angry flight attendants with cold sores and early morning van ride shopping stories. I'm leaving early while I still have enough life left in me to, well ... enjoy life."
"Congratulations!" I said. Chad didn't quite know how to respond. On one hand, he was happy to see somebody senior to him retire, but on the other hand, he didn't want to look as old and worn as Jed when retirement finally came along for him.
I could relate. You see, my retirement is coming up pretty soon and I don't look too good myself. I am not waiting till I age out or until I die on a layover. I'm getting out early and am doing it after my next trip at the end of the month.
Mentioning my impending bail out from the airline system really got Chad's attention. What in the world are you going to do? Chad asked. If you leave early the retirement system they set up post-bankruptcy won't pay you enough and things like your health insurance won't be covered either.
Jed and I looked at each other and smiled.
"Son," Jed said, "it is better to retire young and live poor than it is to retire at whatever age they allow you to and die with health insurance. I just got to the point where none of this is fun anymore and decided that quitting early and hanging out in Palm Beach for the next 30 years was a far superior way to live than dying in a hotel room somewhere in South America of old age in five years."
I had to agree with Jed and tried to explain my reasoning to Chad. I understood where his financial concern was coming from. He had two young kids, a huge mortgage and two car payments. College expenses for the kids, plastic surgery for the wife, his two airplanes, the golf course memberships and Chad's penchant for good food, clothing and booze had him in the clutches of a financial trap he couldn't escape.
At age 42, he was ensnared in the airline system. In my mid-50s with no money owed to anyone and both kids grown I had just realized I could escape.
Jed and Chad and I talked all the way down to KPBI about what retiring from the airline would be like. For all my bluster and sarcasm, I'll miss flying overloaded sub-sonic people movers from urinal to urinal. The past thirty years or so have been a great time to be an airline pilot. I personally think the glory days are over but maybe that is age, not reason talking.
What will I do in retirement? My wife and I look upon it as a return to the President Carter years a time when it was just the two of us with no money, no real future and a lot of polyester clothing.
I'm giving up the airline, but I am certainly not giving up flying. If anything, I am returning to the flying I love to do the best. Hot days, wearing shorts and t-shirts, flying tail draggers and occasionally pulling out the fuel hose to put gas in a Stearman. They say you can't return to your youth but they are very wrong. I may not be retiring with enough money to own an FBO but I certainly have the wherewithal to work at one.
After my last trip, you can look for me a few days a week behind the counter or hiding behind the fuel truck at our local airport. I have been flying out of there for years and it is about time to take on my role as the resident old fart know-it-all.
Jed told us he was going another way. He liked flying, but he loved boating. His retirement life would include working at the local marina and taking Yankees out fishing. I've had a great time, Jed told us, but when it is time to go, you simply know that it is time.
Chad didn't understand when I agreed with Jed with a big nod and a smile. When it is time to leave you really do feel it and know the truth of it in your heart and soul. I know in my heart that I have made my last autoland and I just don't look forward to spending my weeks and months watching the flight school pattern mostly from the ground I yearn for it.
Jed and I agreed that we would miss the big airplanes and our crewmates terribly but wouldn't miss the memos, management morons, flying through horrible weather or on Christmas.
I'll miss the feeling of competence I get when I do a difficult approach in bad weather and get 300 people safely on the ground. I'll miss layover beers, copilot jokes and seeing hundreds of work-related friends that I'll never see again after next week.
Somewhere, there is a young person just starting out getting ready to take my place in the airline world. I hope he or she has as much fun as I did and ends up loving it, even with all of its faults, as much as I do as I say goodbye.
Chad stopped looking sideways from his copilot seat at the two has-been geezers who would soon leave the airline. He was looking forward and was, even now, dreaming of moving over into my left hand seat.
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