I participated in this local training mission solely to make my last landing on my last, “fini,” flight. This capped 9,500 hours flying the C-5 Galaxy.
A marvelous flying life it had been, but now it was over.
Jay Lacklen is a former C-5 pilot with 12,500 flying hours and the author of two books, Flying the Line: An Air Force Pilot’s Journey and Flying the Line: An Air Force Pilot’s Journey Volume Two: Military Airlift Command. The following story comes the last book of the trilogy, in progress: “Flying the Line, an Air Force Pilot’s Journey,” book three, “Air Mobility Command, 1993-2004,” in progress.”
“Full stop, Colonel, you’re up,” the flight engineer told me as I sat at the table in the crew area.
I participated in this local training mission solely to make my last landing on my last, “fini,” flight. This capped 9,500 hours flying the C-5 Galaxy. I’d soon be retired and out of the Air Force reserve system.
During the four-hour trainer that went around and around the traffic pattern at Dover AFB, I thought back over my flying career that would now end. I recalled my first solo in a T-41 (Cessna 172) in 1970 when I looked in terror at the starkly empty right seat that did not have my instructor pilot in it. I remembered my first solo as an aircraft commander five years later in the B-52 at Loring, Maine. Most vividly, I relived my nightmare bomb run over Cambodia in a B-52D model just before the final bombing halt in Vietnam.
From my C-5 days, I recalled an emergency or two, but mostly I remembered the myriad of worldwide destinations I frequented and the people who had gone there with me. I realized I had been given a travel opportunity few can have.
I walked forward, passing the pilot who had just completed training and climbed into the left seat. A young instructor pilot in the right seat said, “One last one, Colonel?” I said yes, recalling the hundreds of hours I had sat in his seat flying locals such as this. I had trained this pilot for years, and now he would take over such duties, a new generation to replace mine.
I grasped the controls; the plane was well trimmed, so I didn’t need to make any adjustment with the yoke. Good job, IP, I thought. We neared the point to turn base over Delaware Bay to land on Runway 19.
I began the left turn to base leg and said: “Flaps 40, gear down.” The aircraft pitched up slightly as the flaps came down, and the gear caused a rumbling in the air frame as it extended. Seconds later, as I started the turn to the final approach segment, I commanded, “Flaps landing.”
Rolling the aircraft into the left turn, I marveled that with barely more effort than turning my car’s steering wheel, I smoothly maneuvered half a million pounds of steel and aluminum gracefully through the air. I did so with reflexes honed over thirty-three years of flight for thousands of landings in half a dozen various aircraft. My country had trained me well to serve its needs, but now those robust reflexes would become obsolete as soon as the wheels touched down on the runway.
I anticipated this moment, realizing I had experienced many such episodes of sudden skill obsolescence. As I stood in the Friday night lights of my final high school football game, the skills I had honed for years would lose relevance since I was not large enough for college football. High school baseball also went out the window when I broke my right wrist as a junior that wrecked my control as I threw the ball. All the work and effort to excel at football and baseball now went on to the trash heap. Another instance of instant obsolescence includes the raising of four daughters as the last left for college. I would still be their father, but the formative years of fatherhood were over.
I flared the aircraft as the cockpit neared 60 feet above the runway, a similar sensation to landing your two-story house from the roof. The rear gear touched down. I gently lowered the front gear to the concrete and yanked the throttles into reverse to slow to taxi speed.
My family members awaited me in the parking spot to hose me down with a fire extinguisher, the ritual for the final flight.
Rituals. I recalled getting soaked as my pilot training compatriots tossed me into the water trough after my first solo in 1970.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, or, in this case, water to water. A marvelous flying life it had been, but now it was over.
Photo credit: SSgt. Kelly Goonan, Airman 1st Class Frankie D. Moore and Senior Airman Ashley N. Steffen / U.S. Air Force
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com