It was one of those last times. The weather was perfect, the leg fairly short, just 425 nautical miles. There would be no passengers, no luggage to wrestle in and out. The starts were cool and without complications, never a certainty when cranking one thousand horse-power turbine engines in the summer-time heat. As I taxied out, I thought to myself I will miss days like this…then I thought, I will miss all these days… flying across the heavens. After forty-three years of commercial flying this would be my last flight. Retirement was but a one hour and twenty-two-minute leg away.
The Twin Commander is a pilot’s airplane, it always has been. The aircraft accelerated quickly even though the density altitude was high at over nine thousand feet. I couldn’t resist pulling the nose up to the ships best rate of climb speed 135 knots indicated. I pitched her up to an even greater deck angle as N48BA rapidly climbed through ten thousand feet at 115 kts indicated. I glanced at the rate of climb indicator…3,500 feet per minute, what a performer! As I recited the clearance back to ATC the ship held the climb rate through 17,000 feet. I lowered the nose and let her gain some ground speed. A slight tail wind pushed us along at 225 kts. I leveled off at twenty-five thousand feet just 9 minutes after liftoff.
It is one of those moments in flying that is much like sailing. Once the sails are up the boat picking up speed the sails are full, the heading exactly right…we cut the engine and the atmosphere of the sea envelopes the sailor. The smell of the ocean, the sounds of the sea along the hull of the ship, the call of the sea birds. It is in that moment we take a deep breath and soak in the experience. In piloting the experience is much the same… level off, set the power to cruise, sync the engines just perfectly with one ear outside the headphones for a moment, so that two turbo prop engines become the sound of but one. The aircraft seems to rise slightly as she settles onto “the step”. The groundspeed clicks up slowly for a few moments, 305 kts. A quick check to insure all the gauges are in the green…they are. I take a deep breath and relax this is the moment we as pilots, all know. All is well. 1:07 to our destination. But this is the last time, for all of it today.
The hour goes by quickly. Quicker than I want it to. I cross a large part of New Mexico and the Texas panhandle in just thirty-two minutes. I peer out the window. The Llano Estacado is below me. Being a history buff, I know that below me is what was the last strong hold of the Comanche Nation. I close my eyes imagining what it might have been like to travel that terrain just one-hundred and fifty years ago. Walking, or on horseback 18 miles per day would be great progress while trailing the buffalo herd. I cover 18 miles in three and a half minutes.
Traffic is light this morning, ATC fairly quiet. I’m given a descent clearance from flight level 250 all the way to six thousand feet. I pitch the nose down but in the perfectly smooth air leave the power where it is, descending at 1,500 feet per minute, the barber pole and the airspeed indicator become one. A quick glance at the GTN 750…ground speed 360 kts. This flight is much too fast for me this day. I pull the power all the way back to flight idle. Groundspeed still 300 kts. Descending through Flight Level 180, I make a quick call to ATC and cancel the IFR. The controller wants to know if want to continue with VFR flight following. I decline. I need to be alone these last few minutes. She reports no traffic between me and my destination. I thank her for her help today. I wish I had more words, more time to explain my thanks for her help over the last 4 decades. “N48BA Thank you sir have a nice flight.” I take another deep breath.
The remaining 12 minutes of the flight are a joy to me. I disconnect the autopilot and let the aircraft descend to an altitude of 3,500 feet. The air is perfectly calm, not a bump in the sky. Giant wind generators turn below me. I can see a farmer in the cab of his huge airconditioned tractor. Small ponds and lakes dot the landscape below. I cross an uncontrolled field at its center, a Super Cub is taking the runway. I glance at the traffic page on the GTN. Just the Cub and one target 8 miles to my south. Flying by hand I make a 360 turn to the left…just to feel the wing load up in the steep bank. I add back pressure the aircraft slows but I maintain the altitude, to within 20 feet as I roll out on heading. ATP standards are simple in perfectly smooth air. I think for a moment about my first instructor. I still know his name. Larry would be proud of me, at the results of that 360.
Just 12 miles out now. I run the landing checklist. The gear slowly lower. Three green I say aloud. I call on the unicom frequency a 3-mile final. The wind is straight down 17R. I touchdown with a squeaking of the mains, (I had hoped for a greaser) I lower the nose and go into full reverse. The airplane decelerates quickly. Even with no breaking I make the first exit off the runway just 2,500 feet from the numbers.
There are no firetrucks casting a rainbow of water over my little ship. No crowds are gathered at the gate. There is no fanfare for this last time. The buyer sits in the small office of the deserted FBO awaiting my shutdown. I run the checklist quickly. The engines wind down. I smell the wonderful smell of jet fuel exhaust as I exit the cabin. I greet the man with a gleam in his eye. I know that look well. I have seen it in my mirror many times. He does not know this is my last. I have a different kind of look in my eye…I am certain.
Four hours later I am in the center of the Llano Estacado again. This time I’m doing 75 mph in a rented minivan. Five more hours to go.
The drive is good. A time to reflect. I think of my boyhood fascination with flying. The dreams of a six-year old I still recall, ”I can fly!” I had seen Peter Pan the previous day. (did you know the subtitle of the book written by J.M. Barrie is ‘The boy who wouldn’t grow up’”). Apropos…but the dream was planted firmly. Ten years later at 16 years of age I would solo. At 19 I would begin flight instructing. At 23 the ATP check-ride. Now at 62 , I am as grate-filled as a man can be. No accidents, no violations…it is on the insurance form I have filled out each year, for more than forty years of commercial flying.
My last flight, much like my first one, of which I still have the log-book entry, was pure joy. I think in the final logbook entry, I will jot down every detail I can recall.
Retirement seems a strange word. Stopping doing what we have always done. Stopping doing for some of us that which we love, seems well simply wrong on some level. But I look ahead as I always have. My first book will be published next month. I am as busy as I have ever been. Book two is 60% complete. Final decisions on artwork and editing of book one fill the schedule. Grandchildren (five of them), and all the wonderful activities that they each bring to my life also fill the calendar. I am a busy man. It is not retirement per say. But I will forever miss this work, this profession, this joy that I have been blessed to live out and experience.
For most of my life on this earth… I could Fly!
Steven G. Hightower AOPA #007642060,lives in the central mountains of New Mexico. He and his wife Ellie have two children and five grandchildren.