For every professional airline pilot there is a date indelibly ingrained into their mind and career from the very first day of “New Hire” school. That is the date of their 60th birthday when they are required by FAA mandate to retire. For me that day was April 6, 2001. When you are young and just beginning your airline career that date looks oh so far, far away. But as time marches on it approaches so very quickly and the last few years just seem to fly by.
I flew for 33½ years at United Airlines and retired as a Boeing 747-400 Captain with approximately 20,000 hours of airline flying time. My last flight was a two-day trip consisting of a flight from Los Angeles to Washington Dulles Airport, with a long layover in Washington, D.C., followed by a return to Los Angeles. I purchased Business Class tickets for all of my family to accompany me on my final flight. It was great to have my wife, Nancy, our daughter, Debbi, and her husband, Jeff, and their sons, Kevin and Ryan, and my daughter-in-law, Nina, all riding in the upper deck right behind the cockpit. My son, Mike, who is a United B-737 pilot, and another UAL friend, David Bertellotti, rode the jump seats in the cockpit. To round out the crew my life-long friend and United “New Hire” classmate, Captain Roger Baker, flew as my First Officer. Boy! Was that a dangerous combination or what? Two Captains together who both also are CFIs! Dave and Mike had made arrangements with the Dulles Fire Department and as we taxied out for my final departure they sprayed an arch of water from their fire trucks which glistened in a rainbow of colors. It was a beautiful sight and a traditional farewell which thrilled us all, especially the passengers. My final landing was a real greaser—one of my all time best—on runway 25L at Los Angeles just as the glowing sun was slipping below the Pacific horizon. On short final Mike leaned forward and said, “Dad, what a way to go, flying off into the sunset.” Almost enough to make you cry.
For about six months prior to my retirement we had been planning my retirement party. (Always remember—wives and mothers never get to retire!) Since our lives revolve around our antique airplanes we decided the appropriate activity would be to host a Fly In/Drive In retirement party in our Stearman hangars at Dacy Airport in Harvard, Illinois, a beautiful airport with three long grass runways. What could be better than to have our family, airline and antique airplane friends join us for a fun day at the airport?
May 20, 2001 turned out to be a beautiful spring day and by mid-morning airplanes began to arrive. The first was Paul Carner in his Cessna 180. Paul had flown as my co-pilot on my very first solo trip as a Captain on the B-737-200. We have been good friends ever since. The next to land was my USAF squadron mate from the 481st Tactical Fighter Squadron, Chuck and Barbara Deeds, who flew their Cessna 172 in from Ohio. Chuck is also a fairly recently retired United pilot. Another United pilot friend, Stu Mitts and his wife, Chris, came all the way from Honolulu, Hawaii to help us celebrate. Flying the greatest distance was Jim Lyons who flew his North American SNJ-2 all the way from Arcadia, Florida. Jim had flown co-pilot with me in the B-737 on numerous occasions and years before that I had flown co-pilot for his father in the B-737 too.
As the day progressed more and more airplanes and cars arrived and soon the field was full of parked airplanes. By day’s end over 300 people were in attendance and more than 50 airplanes had landed. The types of airplanes flown in covered the whole realm of modern light planes, some experimentals and varied antique and classic airplanes including Champs, Stinsons, a Beaver, a Nanchang CJ-6A, two T-34s, a Beech D-18, a Spartan Executive, a Yale, a Beech King Air and even a Mustang. Finally, in my own area of special interest there were eleven Stearmans and eleven T-6s.
One arrival was of special importance to us. Last fall we had flown our 1931 Stearman C3R “Business Speedster” down to St. Louis to John Lohmar’s shop to have an oil cooler installed. When Mike and I returned to Creve Coeur Airport to fly it back home a magneto failed on run-up and we had to leave it again. By the time the mags were repaired, winter had set in and the C3R was stranded until spring. Early spring weather was atrocious over a long period of time and prevented us from retrieving it on several attempts. Fortunately, a break in the weather allowed John Lohmar to ferry it up to us on Sunday so it would be there for the party. It was great to finally get it back home again and to have our fleet complete once again.
Everyone enjoyed an airline pilot’s delight—a free lunch—which featured some great hot dogs and the fellowship of numerous friends, many of whom we’d not seen for years. One young T-6 pilot, who will remain un-named, devoured nine hot dogs before the day was done! Mike’s wife, Nina, and her parents, Bob and Margie Reed, prepared and served the food and drinks and made it possible for Nancy and me to concentrate fully on our guests and enjoy the moment fully. It was almost like a United Airlines ALPA reunion. What a joy it was to see so many fellow airline pilots with whom I’d shared a cockpit over the years as well as the many other sport flying enthusiasts we’d gotten to know during more than 30 years of attending fly ins and other antique airplane functions.
We all were surprised when a famous celebrity burst upon the scene unannounced dressed in a bright red suit covered with sequins and diamonds. He treated us to several renditions of his rock and roll classics as he gyrated and twisted in front of the crowd. Elvis lives! Elvis was a big hit and everyone seemed to enjoy his performance immensely. Turns out it was my good Stearman friend, Greg Toland, an Elvis impersonator who decided to spring this impromptu appearance on us.
The afternoon’s scheduled entertainment was a mini-airshow featuring Susan Dacy in her 450 h.p. Stearman “Big Red” and Chris Hand in his Pitts Special. Dave Dacy had also planned to fly his Super Stearman with wingwalker, Tony Kazian, but he was unable due to a technical problem. So he filled in as the airshow announcer. The airshow began with a couple of formation fly-overs. I led a four-ship T-6 formation which included Tim Gillian, David Thompsen and Don Pfeiffer and a three-ship Stearman group was led by Duane Bolin with my son, Mike, and Wally Falardeau as his wingmen. Following several passes the formations each made an overhead break for landing. After that Chris and Susan each gave a great low level aerobatic performance which thrilled the crowd.
A short time later Susan told us that she’d just received a phone call from a United B-737-200 Captain. (He desires to remain anonymous as far as any publication is concerned.) As a teenager he had learned to fly at Dacy Airport and since he was flying a trip, he couldn’t attend the party. He told Susan that he was flying his next leg from Minneapolis to Chicago O’Hare and that he had telephoned the ATC controllers at both Chicago Center and O’Hare Approach Control to request in advance the lowest possible altitude while flying down the Janesville Arrival which passes almost directly over Dacy Airport. He told them what was transpiring and that he wished to pay tribute to me with a low as possible pass over the airport in my all-time favorite airliner—the Boeing 737-200. (I had 17 years and almost 9000 hours in it.)
Late in the afternoon we all were excited and amazed to see a United B-737-200 with flaps extended to 5º detour slightly off the Janesville Arrival and make a slow pass over the field at the MEA of 2900 feet MSL. That was a great tribute which I will remember forever. My sincere thanks to Captain Anonymous and the Chicago ATC controllers who made it possible.
As the day neared its end the crowd gradually thinned as our many friends headed for their separate homes. But those fortunate individuals who stayed late got to view the best airshow of the day. We all looked up as we recognized the deep throaty purr of a Merlin and saw the indescribable profile of Vlado Lenoch’s P-51D as he came roaring down the runway with the prop just barely missing clipping the grass. Vlado proceeded to “beat up” the airport for several minutes and thrilled us all as we envisioned what terror it must have evoked to have been on the receiving end of a Mustang pass back when it was done for real. About that time Mike returned overhead after giving his brother-in-law, Rob Reed, his first ride in our T-6G. Vlado made a couple of gunnery runs on Mike and then they joined up and flew a formation pass down the runway. What a sight–a T-6 and a Mustang together!
As the day faded into twilight I again reflected on how lucky I have been in life; a great family; a wonderful career flying some of the best airliners in the world; a collection of several antique airplanes for whom I am privileged to be able to serve as their caretaker for a while and friends that make it all worthwhile. I am truly honored and humbled that so many friends made such great efforts and traveled so far to help me celebrate the culmination of my airline career and to make this day so special for me and my family. We certainly appreciate it all. Finally, as I have been known to say on more than one occasion, “To own and fly a Stearman and a T-6—it just doesn’t get any better than that!”
STEARMANS AT THE PARTY
Stearman N2S-5, N388DB Duane Bolin, Schaumburg, IL
Stearman PT-17, N57950 Ray Coker, Bloomington, IL
Stearman PT-17, N213BB Susan Dacy, Harvard, IL
Stearman PT-17, N59472 Wally
Falardeau, Elmhurst, IL