Bittersweet Goodbye
Flying|January - February 2021
Leaving the flight deck amidst a pandemic
SAM WEIGEL

On a sunny August afternoon in New York City, an Airbus A330 landed on Runway 31R at John F. Kennedy International Airport. It appeared to be a perfectly normal flight, noteworthy only in the era of COVID-19 for having been one of relatively few airplanes to come across the North Atlantic tracks from Europe that day. But as the heavy jet taxied ponderously to its gate, there were a few signs that this was not an entirely routine arrival. A crowd of onlookers waved and cheered from the rooftop observation deck of the new TWA Hotel. The ground-control frequency crackled with congratulatory messages. As the sleek behemoth turned the corner onto Kilo Foxtrot taxiway, firetrucks sprayed twin jets from their water cannons, forming a perfect arc for the jet to taxi through.

This was a retirement flight—and a noteworthy one at that. Capt. Joe Fahan and First Officer Margrit Fahan were one of my airline’s few married pilot couples who frequently flew together as a team. Energetic and fun-loving, they started posting their aviation adventures to Instagram several years ago (@flyingfahans) and have built an international following of nearly 20,000. Now faced with the fallout of a pandemic that devastated the industry in which they’ve worked for 40 years, the Fahans chose to fly their final airline flight together.

Retirements have always been a big deal at the airlines. At the legacy carriers in particular, pilot careers are a throwback to the America of another age: a good-paying union job, protected by seniority, frequently held at a single company for life. Those of us who came up via the civilian route did a fair amount of jumping around on our way to that coveted major airline slot, but at my company, there are quite a few senior pilots who have never held another flying job outside of the military.

Retirement means that you’ve spent a lifetime flying millions of miles and hundreds of thousands of passengers safely around the globe. It means you’ve survived a career of real and simulated emergencies, arduous check rides, and biannual flight physicals. It signals an end to thousands of far-flung layovers spent with fellow crew members as well as years of missed holidays, birthdays and anniversaries at home. For the lucky, retirement means that the airline that hired you all those years ago has somehow survived the vicissitudes of a notoriously unstable industry, and though you may have been scarred by furlough, bankruptcy or mergers, you made it through to the end with hallowed seniority intact.

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