Monday, August 25, 2014

New Horizons

My last flight with United happened over a month ago. Why have I waited so long to write about it? Am I too wistful about it to face the blank page? Does it hurt to recall it? Am I reluctant to sever my link with that era in my life?

Nah. I’ve just been too busy. First there was a long family weekend event. (Weekend: I know what that is now.) Then there was a week at AirVenture at Oshkosh. (I flew a nice CJ-6 warbird up there at the invitation of its owner.) And after that I suffered the hellish anxiety of a low and slow Cessna 182 flight from Arizona to Alaska, then hung out in Alaska for 10 days. This retirement thing is tough. But about that last flight…

Nothing profound happened. My wife and two of the three sons (you’ll recall the third one, Rusty, accompanied me to Buenos Aires on my next-to-last flight) went along with reserved coach seats. We had a great 50 hour layover in Frankfurt. We took a Rhine River cruise one day and a train to Heidelberg the next day to see the castle. We also hung out with the crew in the local restaurants and watering holes around the layover hotel. As a bonus, we witnessed the pandemonium in the streets after the Germans won the world cup. That experience alone was unforgettable.

The guys insisted I fly both legs, and so on the return flight to Houston I was at the controls for the last time. Curiously, the arrival and landing seemed more challenging than usual. So very much was happening on the radio and on the weather scene that I was a bit behind the aircraft. Maybe it was because I was so used to arrivals at 5am when nothing much is happening. Maybe I was just tired or had decided to retire before completing the flight.

Thunderstorms were popping up everywhere and the radio with both Houston Center and Approach Control was hopping busy. Our STAR (Standard Arrival Route) was changed three times and our arrival runway also three times. STAR charts and approach charts were flying out of our kit bags, only to be cast aside as quickly as they were gotten set up, and replaced by others. Instructions and clearances flowed in through our headsets at a pace that allowed no day-dreaming or nostalgic reflections. We were simply busy as hell.

When finally we were established on ILS final to runway 27 I tried to relax and just make a good landing. I was ready for it to all be over. As we passed the outer marker and switched to tower we learned that an emergency aircraft was breathing down our tail. The tower wanted us to keep the speed up as long as possible. Great. Now, on my last flight I’m risking a go-around for not getting slowed. The F/O shook his head and said, “Sorry, Boss. With that emergency you’ll probably not get a water salute.” I grunted something to the effect that I was too tired to care.

I wanted the last landing to be a good one, but it was a so-so one—not smooth. I didn’t care; we were down and I could relax. The tower congratulated me on retirement and asked us to exit the runway ASAP.  As we did I saw legions of emergency vehicles sweep past us. We never did find out what the emergency was about.

But the confusion and busywork were not over. The emergency had caused taxi routes to change from normal and we goofed up our instructions. I made a wrong turn and only after making it did I realize that the fire department had left one truck for me! The ground controller, sounding exasperated, re-cleared us to the new way that I had inadvertently chosen, while telling us that the fire truck was expecting us on the other route. I thought, Okay, Klutz, they are trying to honor your retirement and you’re making it difficult for them. I expected that truck to give up its chase for us and join its peers out at the emergency site.

But, low and behold, the truck gunned its engine, wheeled around, reversed its course and raced ahead of us toward gate E-18, our assigned gate. As I made the last turn to line up with the gate I heard the truck chief say on ground control frequency, “Sorry Captain, due to the emergency we can only give you half a salute.” I muttered a thank you. About 50 feet from the stopping point we went IFR in heavy rain and had to use wipers.

I set the brakes and ordered the engines shut down for the last time, got slapped on the back by my two co-pilots, handed my coat and hat and ushered to the door. Did they want me out of there that soon? No, they knew the passengers wanted to congratulate me, and so I let them. I got lots of handshakes, a lot of thank you’s for a great landing (those were polite lies), and even a few hugs. Then it was done.

I stopped by the flight office, turned in my company I-Pad and ID badge, took one sweeping look around the place and headed to the home-bound gate to meet the rest of the family. For the first time in 25 years I had a one-way positive space ticket in my hand to Huntsville, Alabama. This was one commute flight I would not get bumped from.

Decision Height has nearly half million hits since it started. I don’t know how many of those were full reads, or just touch-and-goes, and I don’t know how many people regularly follow it. Over the years I have crossed paths with total strangers who read it and have been privileged to meet with others whom I knew were regular followers. I have judiciously kept the profiteers out of it. If I’ve done anything right, it’s been protecting you, the reader, from the annoyance and indignity of commercial ads.

Thanks and best wishes to all of you. I enjoy hearing from you either by e-mail or the blog’s comment bar. Keep the RSS feed open. I’ll think about whether to continue to post to Decision Height or start something with a new direction and twist. I should finally be getting some time to ponder those things, since I am starting a rather long stretch of days off.

Tailwinds and fair skies.

The last crossing

Last Atlantic sunrise from as seen from the front office

Grandson Hayes sees us off

After 42 years suffering me, Eleanor still can make a jumpseat look good

Scott & Brad on the Rhine

Did I bomb this thing once?

The breakdown is: 4800 military, 5000 general aviation, 12,700 airline.

 Planning to add more to the logbook