LIFE IN THE AIR
Flying|August 2021
Senior Moments The trade-offs of airline-pilot life
SAM WEIGEL

Senior Moments

The trade-offs of airline-pilot life

It is a beautiful starlit night deep in the Bahamas’ Exuma Cays, warm and soft in the light caress of the easterly trades. I am sitting on a white-sand beach moodily lit by the flicker of a driftwood bonfire, sipping a dram of aged rum, and taking an occasional pull on an aromatic cigar. Piper is dozing at my feet, and along with Dawn and my brother-in-law Paul, a number of new and old cruising friends are softly chatting around the fire. All are adventurous kindred souls who have sailed here on their own boats.

I look out over the popular anchorage and can pick out Windbird among the constellation of anchor lights; our floating home glows just a little warmer than the rest. This is a sublime night, and it reminds me of all the other really good days and nights we’ve had in our nearly five years of living and cruising aboard Windbird. Moments like this feel serendipitous, like gifts from the universe we just happened to catch. We are indeed lucky beyond measure—but it is worth remembering that these moments are also the result of conscious decisions, trade-offs, hard work and sacrifice.

For our first three years aboard Windbird, I was a Boeing 757/767 first officer at my airline. This wasn’t an accident; I bid the airplane specifically because it dovetailed so well with our cruising plans (never mind that I had lusted after Boeing’s lithe, sexy 757 since I was 10 years old).

When Dawn and I decided to sell everything, buy a boat and head to the Caribbean, I was flying the McDonnell- Douglas MD-88. This is an airplane with a certain dubious reputation among airline pilots— well-deserved in my experience— but I would have happily continued to fly it if doing so had fit our plans. There was certainly the allure of instant seniority as other first officers bid to bigger, better-paying,less-cantankerous airplanes. But the “Mad Dog” was a year-round workhorse at my airline, with no quiescent season, and its very “ juniority”—the fact that people kept leaving it for greener pastures— made it perpetually short-staffed. It was no place for a lazybones pilot looking to hang out on his boat in the Caribbean half the year.

The 757/767 category, on the other hand, appeared to be tailor-made for the pilot who also loves altitudes of 0 feet msl and speeds of 6 knots. It was a niche fleet, with the airplanes mostly paid for and therefore no great need to fly for their keep. The 757 could haul full loads of people and cargo over routes where the 737-900 and A321 struggled; the 767 was big enough to cross the pond with ease but small enough to cover the secondary European routes.

In my adopted base of Atlanta, the fleet flew a ton in the summer and early fall, and it was all hands on deck. I didn’t mind—summer was my moneymaking season, when Dawn, Piper and I made our northward migration while the warm tropical waters spun up fierce hurricanes I wanted absolutely nothing to do with.

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