A Bittersweet Father's Day: Barry Schiff's Retirement Flight

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GUEST COMMENTARY. Noted aviation writer and author Barry Schiff has turned 60, and in accordance with the FAA's age 60 rule, was forced out of the left seat at TWA after 34 years. Barry's son Paul gives us a poignant firsthand account of his very special Father's Day retirement flight. We've included photos and a copy of the unique approach chart produced by Jeppesen (where Paul works) to commemorate the occasion.

Captain Barry Schiff
Captain Barry Schiff
ATISAfter a short rendezvous with friends at the TWA Ambassadors Lounge on June 21, 1998, at Saint Louis Lambert Field, we headed for Gate 25 on Concourse C. We were met by a frenzy of news reporters stalking the gate area. Several Saint Louis area television stations eagerly awaited the arrival of a father and son, who would pilot TWA flight 347 together this Sunday afternoon, Father's Day. My brother Brian Schiff, a 30-year-old first officer at TWA was my dad's co-pilot on this meaningful flight. He had been a Flight Engineer since 1989 and upgraded to first officer in 1994. My father Barry Schiff, a 60-year-old captain has flown everything in the fleet from the Lockheed Constellation, to the Lockheed 1011. He was displaced to the 757/767 when TWA's aging L-10ll's were retired from the fleet last year. Like the L-1011, he too would retire to warmer confines where he could enjoy the dog days of summer. Just four days earlier, I passed my commercial checkride and joined the family's ranks of commercial pilots. Akin to a father eagle passing on the gift of flight to his eager fledglings, Brian and I earned our wings.

One enterprising reporter handed Brian a microphone and asked if he could smuggle it into the cockpit for the preflight briefing. I could almost hear my dad's calm words to my brother as they spooled up the giant turbofans of the 757, "Ok, things have been pretty hectic around here today, let's make sure we take this slow and we don't miss anything."

No stunts, but several pranks

Ganddad Barry, son Brian, and grandson Brett
Ganddad Barry, son Brian, and grandson Brett

The FAA and Company Ops Manual prohibit virtually anything other than the most routine flights when piloting a commercial jetliner. No circus stunt flybys over the tower today, no threading the needle through the St. Louis Gateway Arch, but several pranks were in order. For his part, Brian contributed a great deal of insubordinate behavior to his Captain, something my Dad wasn't exactly used to. Earlier in the day, for the first leg of the flight (LAX-STL), Brian along with several AVweb and AVSIG co-conspirators, helped orchestrate the Los Angeles fire department's two fire truck salute, shooting up an arc of water as the jetliner taxied through for an unexpected bath. A few family friends ordered a wheel chair to whisk him off to retirement upon landing in LAX.

As the shiny Boeing 757 jetliner pushed back from the gate in Saint Louis, I realized that this was indeed the passing of the guard. The passing of the baton from one generation to another would materialize over the next four hours on our way to Los Angeles. Orville Wright once said, "learning the secret of flight from a bird was a good deal like learning the secret of magic from a magician. After you know what to look for you see things that you did not notice when you did not know exactly what to look for."

Setting aside the chaos created by the events that transpired minutes earlier, they effortlessly piloted the twinjet into position on runway 30L for takeoff. This was the last flight my dad would make as a TWA captain. On this emotional summer evening, as the flight attendants briefed the passengers for the flight, I calmly closed my eyes and exhaled a sigh of relief. I was flying standby and had barely made it on the flight. As I reached for the seatbelt, I quickly glanced around at the various passengers in the immediate vicinity and wondered what they must be thinking about this flight?

More than another routine flight

Barry with
Barry with "last lei" from flight attentants and signed 757 model

Some passengers looked a little nervous; another glared back at me uncomfortably as if I had something to do with the feeling of sickness permeating in his stomach. Several seasoned travelers went about their business, ignoring the flight attendants instructions, and looked nonchalantly off into the distance or perused the USA Today for an article that tickled their fancy. To many this was just another routine flight. To the family and friends aboard flight 347, we knew otherwise.

Sandwiched between two strangers, I settled back into my "cozy" coach chair, where an even more relaxed smile found its way onto my face. "This is it, I thought, this is the last time I will be a passenger on one of my Dad's flights." Growing up as a child of an airline pilot has its benefits, but isn't easy. When I was much younger, I can recall several stormy nights when my Dad was on a trip and the phone rang in the middle of the night. I hoped and prayed it was not TWA management. Deep down, I always knew he would return fine, at least that's what my mom said. He felt at home soaring alongside his feathered companions. His fledglings however, were always excited when he returned home to the nest.

I daydreamed about the numerous trips my Dad piloted in TWA aircraft with me as a passenger to various destinations throughout Europe and North America, but remembered most, the frequent weekend getaways together in Hawaii. I remembered the calm, collected child that said, "don't worry, my dad's flying our plane." Now, for the first time since sharing the cockpit on a 1991 TWA flight to Berlin, one of my siblings and my dad would be sharing the duties and responsibilities for over 100 passengers that evening. As we climbed to FL 350 and leveled off, my father announced to the passengers that this was a special flight, a passing of the guard. He announced that he was turning 60 and that the FAA would no longer allow him to fly passengers as a Captain of a Commercial airliner. This was his last flight after 34 years with TWA. The FAA determined that 25,000 hours (1,042 days or nearly three years) was enough time spent aloft.

Saying farewell

Sandi, Brett, Brian, Paul and Barry Shiff
(L to R) Sandi, Brett, Brian, Paul and Barry Shiff pose for the media cameras

My Dad started with TWA flying Connies in 1964, a time when flying was both a privilege and an exciting experience for most people. He used to say that people "came to the airport just to witness a Connie or a DC-7 crank up, belch smoke and come to life." I imagined that the flight attendants were always smiling and serving the best meals to all passengers, not just to those in first class. I pictured the people wearing their Sunday best; not torn jeans, or shorts and faded tee shirts. It was a time when people were excited to fly and each flight was a real adventure often spanning several days. Today I wanted to believe that I was a passenger in a Connie on a historic flight, circa 1964. Midway through the flight while cruising along at FL330, the aircraft began a shallow turn to offer the passengers a better view of a spectacular thunderstorm. I imagined that this was my father's last chance at catching a closer glimpse of a perfectly defined anvil. I believe it was his way of saying farewell to another friend, a compatriot of the sky. Content, I turned my attention to the calm, clear earth passing below us, and wondered how all of those circular crop patterns got there.

My dad announced over the PA system that since this was his last flight he would make every attempt to making it an adventure for everyone on board. He pivoted the aircraft around the Ship Rock and as we passed over the Four Corners area, explained that it was the only point in the US common to four state corners. He pointed out various topographical highlights such as the Navajo and Hopi Indian Reservations and Monument Valley, as if he were teaching a Geography class at school. Laughter and excitement filled the cabin with each position report, made as if he were leading a flying expedition to Los Angeles for the first time. Passengers craned to look over one another's shoulders for a glimpse of each landmark and the spectacular scenery below. He received permission from ATC for a descent from our cruising altitude, for better sightseeing over Grand Canyon National Park, only minutes ahead. The quiet descent of nearly 17,000 feet went all but unnoticed, except by the most astute of passengers. Knowing that the lowest altitude in Class A airspace on an IFR flight plan was Flight Level 180, I was a tad bit disappointed that we wouldn't get to buzz Grand Canyon.

Tour the Grand Canyon in a 757

The Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon tour in a 757

The cooperation of ATC awarded passengers a tour of America's most spectacular park from the air. A low stratus layer obscured the view somewhat, but it was nonetheless spectacular to see the setting sun radiating its beauty off the North Rim's cavernous walls as we made S-turns over the canyon in the 757. I've often been told by non-flying acquaintances that flying today is nothing more than driving a bus full of cattle in the sky. Although some airlines profit from this type of bovine mentality, TWA flight 347 was an adventure back through time. My father's passion for flying wouldn't allow anything but perfection that day. Soaring freely through the air, at great velocities, high above the Rocky Mountains, on the highway in the sky, no boundaries stood in our way, no stop lights or rush hour traffic would delay our voyage.

Whether communicating over the PA system or while walking through the cabin, my brother and Dad were busy answering questions for passengers. In one instance, my Dad explained that we were traveling through the air about as fast a bullet from a 45 caliber gun at over 500 MPH, or traveling roughly one mile for each breath of air we took. In another instance, he mentioned that the windows on the 757 are sealed for a reason. At our cruising altitude, the temperature outside is a mere 44 degrees, below zero. I didn't know what adventure was lurking behind the next wave of clouds as we soared westward towards our final destination, the City of Angels.

The flight attendants gathered like a bunch of "giddy" school children in the front galley of the first class cabin. They baked him a cake, presented him with a bottle of champagne, (don't worry he didn't drink it in flight), and gave him a lei, created out of various crew meal and galley accessories. I tried to finish the piece of cake allotted to me quickly, because I didn't want to alienate any passengers that were unsatisfied with their raisins or chips. My stepmom Kathy, who is also a commercial pilot, videotaped the entire flight from the jumpseat, capturing precious moments to share with family and friends for years to come. Dad's friends on the flight presented him with a model of a TWA 757 that they had all signed.

Grandson almost upstages the Captain

Brett Schiff
Brett Schiff in uniform. Shades of the future?

My sister-in-law, Lynn, was busy tending to my nephew, Brett, who at just eight weeks old, was experiencing flight for the first time. Brett is dad's first grandson, and Lynn had dressed him for the occasion. His TWA captain's uniform included epaulets cut from some old ones of my Dad's and a miniature TWA I.D. badge, including his micro-sized photo. The tie also was cut down to size from one of Brian's. Perhaps it was all symbolic of another baton to be passed further down the road, but for now he simply looked incredibly cute and garnered almost as much attention as his granddad.

Prior to the flight, I presented Dad with a unique Jeppesen chart that I had developed for the retirement flight. (Editor's note: Paul works in Jepp's marketing department) Turning a complex terminal approach chart into a memorable work of art wasn't easy. With the technical help of Jeppesen employees Ted Thompson and Roger Crane, we pitched in to give him a lasting memory of his aviation achievements. Siblings Brian, Mike, Sandi and myself were inserted as intersections for the approach. The IFR Departure Clearance instructs him to go flying in the Citabria, to meet his best friend Hal Fishman, at two of their favorite watering holes. He loved it, but was most happy that he didn't have to file it. After all those years, his TWA revisions were finally over.

More than a means of travel

Special Jepp Chart - Click for Hi-Rez version
Unique Commemorative Jepp Chart
[Not for navigation, obviously!]
Click image for Hi-Rez version

My sister, Sandi, who lives in Orange County, Calif., was the first person to board the aircraft upon arrival at LAX International Airport. She emerged from the cockpit minutes later wearing a "tired" captain's hat and helped to kick-off the festivities. Seconds later an avalanche of news reporters from each network poured into the cabin, anxious to capture a special moment. Standing in the Jetway amid all the chaos, father and siblings gathered for a giant Father's Day hug. It was one of the happiest moments in my life.

We landed on the day of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, just as the sun disappeared below the horizon into the Pacific Ocean, bidding us its daily farewell. I didn't have to ask him what he would miss the most about flying. His eyes fighting back the tears of emotion would not give into temptation just yet. His love and passion for flying will continue, although at much lower altitudes, in his brand new Citabria, N707BS. Although TWA and the FAA have officially clipped his Captain's wings at age 60, nothing will keep him from soaring above the Los Angeles skies like a bird with new wings.

My Dad plans to spend the remaining summer months writing about navigation in a book for Jeppesen, due out early next year. For him, flying has always been more than a means of travel between two points and this trip was indicative of the way he flies, always trying to replicate the flight characteristics of our feathered friends. Ernest K. Gann once said that "there are airmen and there are pilots: the first being part bird whose view from aloft is normal and comfortable, a creature whose brain and muscles frequently originate movements which suggest flight; and then there are pilots who regardless of their airborne time remain earth-loving bipeds forever. When these latter unfortunates because of one urge or another, actually make an ascension, they neither anticipate nor relish the event and they drive their machines with the same graceless labor they inflict upon the family vehicle." My father is the one who is part bird.

Peering one last time into the glass cockpit to retrieve his worn flightcase, I thought I heard my father say Sayonara. Literally translated, "since it must be so," he joined us in the Jetway, completing the final chapter of a remarkable career at Trans World Airlines, riding off into the sunset in his wheelchair.