• Final Argosy

    Final Argosy

    By Tony Vallillo (7 August 2008)

    Final Argosy

    Retirement! The word means different things to different people. For many, retirement is akin to parole from prison after a lengthy sentence - a freedom from an incarceration of sorts, ensnared in a job that they never enjoyed. For a fortunate few, however, retirement is a bittersweet leave-taking from a pursuit that has brought delight and fulfillment over the course of many years. These few are fortunate, of course, because the job itself was something they would gladly have paid for the privilege of doing, would it have been possible to do so. Many airline pilots fall into the category of those fortunate few - they have been able to make a lifetime career out of a childhood dream.

    The dream, however, has a limit. An airline pilot is perhaps the only professional who knows with certainty, to the exact minute, when he or she must retire. In fact, I knew the exact moment of my retirement long before I was hired! You could even say that my retirement was written in the stars the moment I was born.

    In the beginning, airline pilots retired when they or their chief pilot decided that they ought to. Usually this was a matter of no longer wanting to fly, or of having aged, mentally or physically, to the point where one could no longer safely do so. But in the late 1950's, prompted by a complicated set of events and circumstances, not the least of which was the advent of the jets, the head of the new FAA decreed that no person could fly as a pilot in scheduled airline operations after reaching their 60th birthday. Thus was begotten the so-called age 60 rule; and so it was that the day I was born my retirement date was fixed: 9 September 2009 would be the first day of the rest of my life. Or so I had always thought.

    For some time, beginning in the 1980's, there had been a very small but inordinately vocal minority of airline pilots who, for one reason or another, bemoaned their mandatory retirement. Their lamentations had little effect, since the overwhelming majority of pilots at the airlines were nowhere near the end of their careers, and had no interest whatsoever in prolonging their own apprenticeships in the right seat just so that some old guy (or, these days, old gal!) could prolong his or her already successful career! The pilot unions, always influential in such affairs, took heed of this prevailing wind and lobbied for no change in the regulations - effectively, as it turned out.

    But everything changed dramatically after 2003. In the wake of 9-11 just about every airline in America went through the car-wash of chapter 11 bankruptcy; and, along with the debt and a good portion of pilot salaries, so also went the pensions. With somewhere near 8 out of every 10 airline pilots facing retirement on only the financial orts and droppings of the PBGC, the tune changed overnight; and following the lead of the Europeans, the U.S. Congress eventually prodded the FAA into raising the mandatory retirement age to 65, thus giving every airline pilot who was on the payroll on the day the law was signed an extra 5 years to live in a style above that which Social Security would allow!

    This was not, of course, universally appreciated. The pilots at American Airlines, my own alma mater, were very much opposed to the idea of raising the mandatory age. Beholden of the last intact pension in the industry, at least among the majors, AA's pilots were not facing subsistence-level income in retirement, and the FO's were in no mood to wait another 5 years to achieve the Captaincy. Our in-house union, the Allied Pilots' Association, fought the age increase tooth and nail, much as the larger ALPA had done in previous years, but without success. Thus far, at least, age 65 stands.

    I myself never had any intention of flying beyond age 60. My own feeling was that age 60 had been my original goal, and it would serve little purpose to hang around longer, a monkey wrench in the gears of advancement for others! Then too, the old kit bag was getting considerably heavier, for no apparent reason! Perhaps most importantly, She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed had input into this decision as well, and had already decreed that she intended to wait no longer than my 60th to begin a life of leisure and travel! Since the word of She is usually law around here, I had little choice but to comply!! September 9th, 2009 loomed large, albeit still out there in the mists of future time!

    But suddenly, like a hurricane in the days before weather forecasting, came the late 2007 tanking of the equity markets around the world! By early January '08 it had become evident that, unless the financial markets recovered dramatically by the end of March, it would make a great deal of financial sense to retire on 1 April, which would be a year and a half "early" (or 6 1/2, depending upon whose notion of retirement you consider!). The actual financial reasons for this decision are arcane, have nothing to do with flight simulation, and thus can be ignored here. Suffice to say that the markets did not recover; and, as I write this, I am now a retired airline pilot! So, like all of you, the only 767 I can get near these days, other than as a passenger, is the Level D version that resides within my FS2004 and FSX!

    An airline pilot's final flight is a special event, and often an emotional one. Depending upon the pilot's outlook, there may be nostalgic regret or an eagerness to get the thing over with and start playing golf full time! Some pilots have even been given to grand gestures, such as the Captain who, rumor has it, tossed his full kitbag off a large bridge on his way home from the fini flight! Others can barely make it through the water cannon salute without the eyeballs becoming unusually well lubricated! As a chief pilot back in the 1990's, I officiated at a great many last flight ceremonies, and I observed the gamut of these reactions. Yet little of that extensive experience prepared me for my own final argosy!

    But we are getting ahead of ourselves here, because I really didn't have just one final flight, but many! Thanks to the one Captain ahead of me on the New York 767 roster retiring in December, I had several months in the exalted position of Number One in the bid status, thus ensuring that I could arrange things entirely to my own satisfaction, at least as far as my schedules were concerned. And so it was that, as it became apparent that I might indeed have to retire on 1 April, I began to schedule myself for "last flights" into a good many places that I had frequented and enjoyed in the course of my career. It is upon this series of flights that I now invite you to embark, and experience with me the sunset of an airline career!

    For many years now, one of my favorite places in the entire world has been Buenos Aires, Argentina. I first became acquainted with the delights of BA, as we call it, in 1999, the first year that I flew the 767. We had been flying the JFK-EZE run ever since we took over the South American routes of Eastern Airlines, back in the early '90's. In those days, of course, I was qualified on the Airbus, which lacked the range for such a long flight. Thus, almost a decade would pass before I would fly under the Southern Cross. Once I began flying there, though, I began a love affair with that wonderful city that will outlast my flying career, probably by a considerable margin considering that She-Who-Must and I will probably be spending our winters down there, basking in the South American summer!

    Once it became apparent that the past winter might be my last as an AA pilot, it was obvious that a month of BA was in order, so in February I selected a schedule that featured three trips to BA, with two of them including a mid sequence turn to Montevideo, Uruguay. We will explore the realm of South American flying in the next installments, "Under the Southern Cross".

    The final month of March 2008 was my last chance to say goodbye to Paris, to say nothing of Rome. I had long ago decided that the actual fini flight, the final Argosy, would indeed be a Rome trip; and so for the last month I selected a Rome schedule. But Paris has been a favorite destination of mine for more years than I have been flying as a Captain, so several trips to the City of Lights would be in order. This was easy to accomplish - the pilots flying the Paris runs, especially the ones that layover on the weekend, are far below my lofty status of number one on the NY 767 list. These men and women rarely get to Rome, and so a trade is easy to arrange. Since my purpose in Paris would be to bid farewell to my musical friends, who for the most part ply their trade on Sundays, I ended up with two Paris trips over the two middle weekends of the month. We will explore the City of Light in the subsequent chapters, "Last Tango in Paris".

    But there was one more entry I had always wanted to make in my logbook. Over the course of my career, I had never commanded Flight One, our premier JFK-LAX transcon. This is an historical flight at AA, and it has been around since the 1930's, flown by just about every major aircraft that we have had on the property. For the last couple of decades, the 767-200 has held the assignment, and it was available to me if I ever got around to choosing it. In the last week of my career, I did indeed choose it, and we will take a look at the flight and its' long and storied history in "The Mercury".

    And then, as time marched inevitably on, came the fini flight - my final flight as an AA pilot. Did he make it without tears, and without putting a scratch on the airplane? Did She-Who-Must get a seat on the flight? In "Fini Flight" you'll find the answers to these and other questions that inquiring minds want to know!

    Next stop - Buenos Aires!

    Anthony Vallillo
    [email protected]

    Read the series:
    Final Argosy - Under The Southern Cross
    Final Argosy 2 - Last Tango In Paris
    Final Argosy 3 - The Mercury
    Final Argosy 4 - Fini Flight

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