That magical age: a pilot’s 40-year journey from Cessna to Airbus

My Dad turned 65 recently, and as with so many of his peers, this year means mandatory retirement from a 26-year airline career. While for him it’s a singularly pivotal and more-bitter-than-sweet event, his retirement also represents a journey that began with a Cessna and ended with an Airbus, in what has become a massive wave of his peers with remarkably similar stories of GA roots, turbulence in an industry, and a magical age of forced retirement.

I majored in history, so pouring over the stack of Dad’s logbooks is like a treasure trove to me, their value to me about equal to that which a complete set of logs adds to a nice Cub. They tell a story (you do put notes in your logbook, don’t you?), one that catalogs a broader aviation career that includes nine type ratings and over 30,000 hours in over 50 models of aircraft spanning more than 40 years. His story also encapsulates the pilot stories of so many of his sexagenarian colleagues, one full of mergers, bankruptcy, heat, cold, cranky passengers, and the aftermath of 9/11, while at the end of each day the satisfaction of being in the cockpit, flying the line, and doing what he set out to do in 1969. It’s a story that will resonate with all of us who have yearned to fly and have sacrificed, often much, to realize the dream.

Aviation blood courses through my veins. I swear it’s genetic. I remember my grandpa, born in 1919, telling me he always wanted to be a pilot, but he was a farmer’s kid and it was just too expensive. His farm deferral from the draft in 1940 certainly kept him out of the war but also kept him from getting into that career as a young man. Stubborn as he was, however, shortly before he retired after 40 years as a carpenter, he earned his private pilot’s license. He never lost the dream.

First solo
It all started here, as it does for every pilot.

My dad, meanwhile, was flying his tail off. After he graduated from high school in 1969, he mowed lawns for two years to pay his way through his flight training. He was horribly allergic to the grass he was cutting, but persisted through the swollen face and hands and took his first flight on January 3, 1969 at Sawyer Aviation at KPHX. The logbooks indicate that there were the same financially-related fits and starts many of us had when we first began, but set on a goal, he was earning money as a CFI by February 1975.

Dad’s logbooks tell the classic story of the difficulty of “making it” as an airline pilot. There’s the 3,000 hours – an entire logbook filled from his days as a CFI – of dual given and another thousand flying charters over six years at Sawyer before he ever got a corporate gig. Even while he was teaching students, he was still a student himself, earning his MEI, ATP, and even his private pilot glider rating, all within one marathon week in ’75. He usually annotated the good and bad students, and it’s funny how many of those names I now know as his fellow airline buddies at Southwest, FedEx, and others. I suspect those were the good ones. Apparently the bad ones were really bad: there is a rather terse note meant as a legal disclaimer, disavowing a student of his who was flying solo without his authorization.

From his time at Sawyer, stories of the more unusual folks in the aviation world emerge. There was the guy who paid Dad to fly his pressurized Baron (“that thing was the biggest piece of junk,” he always said) because, well, this guy just wasn’t a good pilot. Dad would have never signed off on a multi-engine checkride. Worse he – let’s call him “Dave” – had financed it against his kids’ inheritance, proving his parents prescient in skipping a generation. Dave loved to impress the ladies, so one day he rented a car and swore that he could beat my Dad in the Baron on a one-hour flight that would ordinarily take a car at least two. Dad was charged with the both the Baron and Dave’s girlfriend, and knowing he’d win handily, took his time doing a leisurely preflight and departed in no hurry whatsoever. Not too long after Dad landed, Dave came tearing into the parking lot, leaving a trail of fluid and dragging parts and proceeded to chew out the rental car company for giving him a crappy car. You get all kinds in this business.

There’s another terse entry from 1979: to keep building that multi time, Dad took a job with the upstart Cochise Airlines flying a Cessna 402 between Phoenix and Tucson. He had begun when the airline held great promise, but it faltered and collapsed under poor management (and probably lack of air conditioning) as many before and after. Dad barely beat the bankruptcy lawyers to the punch on that one.

Oh, and this career path brought my parents together. Sawyer and a local hospital had begun the first civilian air evac service in the U.S. My mom was one of its first nurses. Dad recalls working up the nerve to ask Mom out for four years. For her part, Mom swears she never even saw him until just before he asked her out for ice cream, you know, so if he didn’t actually like her he wouldn’t be out too much cash. I for one am glad there was a second date. Even the nuptials were done in proper aviation fashion: Dad rented a 310 and flew Mom to Vegas with the best man (the aforementioned student-cum-Southwest pilot) and maid of honor. Weirdly, Dad didn’t log that trip, but Mom did make her first appearance in his logbook a few weeks later.

I am an Air Force C-130 pilot by trade, and as a student of history, I was enormously jealous when I saw some DC-3 time in Dad’s logbook, a brief stint at a cargo operation out of Dallas. Airlift hero of the Hump, Operation Neptune, and the Berlin Airlift, the venerable C-47 continues, 70 years later, to operate (fitted these days with turboprops) in cargo and missionary work around the world. One can even pay as much as $18,000 for a DC-3 type rating from an operation in Georgia. It almost seems worth it.

But then Dad started moving up in the business, and he flew corporate for several years, first in a Gulfstream 159 and finally in a Citation 650. It is here that I have first evidence of my aviation immersion: Dad holding my one-year-old self on the steps of that beautiful turboprop. Confirming what I’ve always known about being the favorite son, there was a ten-day break from flying after my brother was born; for me, six weeks.

Father by airliner
An overnight success, 40 years in the making.

Then in 1989 Dad went to work for another new airline, this time for America West Airlines flying the Dash 8. I remember the company picnic and touring one of its 747s, and indeed, it was probably these “excesses” that landed AWA in bankruptcy just two years later. I never caught wind as a kid, but it must be pretty scary to be the new guy at a new airline going through Chapter 11. But he wasn’t furloughed, and, as part of the restructuring, he started flying the 737, then the 757, and finally the Airbus 320, where he stayed to the end.

He got home from a trip at 0200 on 9/11 and thankfully was senior enough to survive the fallout from that date, the merger with U.S. Airways, the Great Recession, and still another merger with American in 2012. In one decade the biggest names like Pan Am, Eastern, Continental, and TWA were going under, and in another thousands were furloughed and things looked pretty bleak. From AWA to USAir to AA, after all those bankruptcies and mergers Dad’s three-airline story seems common among his peers in the twilight of their airline careers. What is uncommon is how fortunate he was when so many others were rather more unlucky amid all of that upheaval. Dad never got hosed in an era when many did, or as he says, “they’ve never missed a paycheck.” Indeed.

The logbooks also include a fun grab-bag of other notes demarcating big events to a pilot filling out his logs. A demo flight for Mario Andretti. The first simulator checkride, in a Citation 650. “Shuttle explosion,” 1/28/86. “KNS660 install,” laughably archaic now but really fancy stuff in 1987. The summary tally of milestones – “1000 hours in Citation 500/550” or “5000 MEL time.” The captain who assumed the persona – including legal name change – of a certain Gone with the Wind character. Captain upgrade in 1997, where the logbooks end in favor of scattered flight crew logbooks. No real need to keep logging time at that point, I guess.

Dad asked me recently if I remember him being gone more or home more. Are you ready? I feel like he was home all the time. Other airline pilots’ kids I know have different recollections, it’s true, but it speaks to the benefits of living at one’s domicile rather than commuting. He was there for my basketball games. He was there for my brother’s football games. Heck, he even came to our practices. And you can be damn sure he bid off for when I got my pilot’s license. Because he could.

Growing up, I always got the impression that the ex-military guys flying with my Dad had had it easy. Dad would acknowledge that it’s a wise way to go, and after reviewing his seven logbooks I get a sense of the hard slog that civilian pilots go through to get those precious hours that we military flyers get almost de facto. We sacrifice in other ways, but getting turbine time usually isn’t one of them.

So here’s to you, Dad, for a hard-earned, well-deserved, long, and storied career. Here’s also to the wave of guys and gals retiring in the next few years. I hope to take your place one day.

7 Comments

  • Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I started flying around the same time your dad did, but never pursued it as a career. However I learned life skills that gave me the confidence to pursue a different career.

    I recently dusted off my old logbook, not nearly as thick as your father’s, but nonetheless riveting as I reviewed my experiences from what seems a lifetime ago.

  • Yet another pilot has lost his job to an archaic outdated rule. You don’t retire from the airlines, you get laid off! Tell your dad that he can apply and get unemployment compensation!

    • Harvey,. Tell me more. I just got “laid off” from a 40 year carrer. I’m definitely feeling descriminated against and believe unemployment compensation is warranted.

      • I was living in Texas when I lost my job. I applied to the Texas workforce commission at twc.state.tx.us. You have to create an account and follow instructions. I received $2000.00 a month for 6 months. Every little bit helps.

  • GA is a tough way to make it to the airlines. Your dad is one of the breed of pilots that could put a DC10 down without hydraulics or land an Airbus on the Hudson- an aviator not a button pusher. Much respect, a great tribute to your dad.

  • Winn, loved your boys story! Sounds a lot like my own. Loved flyin with you, and cherish being one of the “Vegas Vampires”
    Here’s wishing you well my friend, and the best in all endeavors. For me, I’ve started a new career, they call me FAA inspector now!
    Ken Chapline Captain, AWA, USAir, AA
    P-1298

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