Real Answers from Real Pilots

A Pilot's Retirement Flight

This letter was shared with me and I would like to share it with the group. So often on this website we speak of starting a career in the airlines, we rarely speak of how the end. A pilot’s retirement flight is a big deal, it is the end of decades of hard work and typically thousands of hours spent in the air, transporting millions of people safely around the globe. Captain Ed Vaughn recently retired from United Airlines and wrote about the experience of his final trip. The Vaughn family will remain airborne as his son is currently in training with ATP to become an airline pilot and continue on the family legacy. Congratulations to Captain Vaughn on his retirement!

My Last Flight
by Captain Ed Vaughn - United Airlines

10/27-29/2020

It was a difficult decision to take the early retirement offered by the company. It boiled down to getting half pay for two years for not flying. On one hand I love to fly, on the other how can you pass up getting paid to not work? In the end it came down to two things:

  1. Tomorrow is promised to no one- we both have our health now.

  2. My wife Deb who was totally supportive of me making the decision either way said: “You’re comparing the job to what it was, not what it is now.” She was so right.

After making the decision my thoughts and feelings were very much like grieving. I had loss something before it’s time. You set your mind to how things should be and this is not it.

Typically your last flight is to your favorite destination, you fill up first class with your family, hand pick your crew, ATC is notified and you’re congratulated all the way across the globe. It all culminates with a water cannon salute and reception at the gate to celebrate. I was to get none of that, so I didn’t want any of it. I asked Deb to stay home and emailed the First Officer, who I’d never met, to not do anything.

I picked up a domestic trip the day before it departed, a three-day double Chicago layover.

The ID started with a dead head to Denver, which I got upgraded to first class after getting settled back in Economy. We’ll call that miracle #1, as that never happens in this day and age of using miles to upgrade.

I had a few hours in Denver prior to departure so I made my way to flt ops. As I walked in, there on the table were the remains of someone’s retirement cake. I met a Flight Manager who told me Denver is having several receptions to accommodate many of those who are taking the early out as we all “retire” on the same day. Many pilots won’t even get to fly a final flight. He was a very personable fellow and I shared with him it was my last trip. He tried his best to include me and congratulate me even though everyone had gone. It just so happened that a senior VP was passing though Denver and stopped in to flt ops to say hello to the troops and give us words of encouragement. The Flight Manager told him it was my last trip so he made an effort to congratulate and thank me. So much for not wanting recognition.

After the VP left another pilot came up to me and said “Ed?” In this day and age of wearing masks we didn’t recognize each other, it was a Capt. friend of mine I’d flown many trips with. We chatted for a while, it was good to catch up with him but overall it was a sad conversation, as we knew it would most likely be our last face to face. This is a roller coaster of emotions.

Met my First Officer, Bob Hehemann an instructor out of Denver. I told him I haven’t flown in 2 months and I’m totally distracted as it’s my last flight. “If anything happens, it’s YOUR fault!” Here’s miracle #2, Bob is really sharp and he did watch over our flights like a hawk. Or should I say an Eagle as Bob flew F-15s in Desert Storm and has recorded the most kills since the Vietnam War, yea, he’s the real deal.

Our flights to Chicago, Denver and back to Chicago went smooth as silk. The flight attendants treated us like royalty when Bob told them it was my last flight. Many glad tidings and good wishes. One in particular, Deb who told us her name meant Does Everything Better was so excited to take pictures and wish me well. That was heart warming.


As Chicago was under curfew all the bars were closed upon our arrival, that’s probably just as well. I was able to meet one of my best friends and Eastern classmate Robbo for breakfast. It was great to see him and come full circle as I met him my first day with a Major airline. Since we couldn’t have a beer together he made a special point in bringing me a Guinness for when I finished my trip.

As I checked out of the hotel the thought occurred to me it was the last time I’ll be doing this. Today is full of that. We both got ‘random’ selected at the Known Crewmember Security station so we had to go through normal security. The worse part is I had to throw my beer away!

We met the crew and I had flown with the Purser before. David was a very thoughtful person and a great Flight Attendant. As we preflighted Bob noticed there were no runways to select for take off in Chicago. That’s a problem, like most computer/gps systems it needs a starting point. We could manually input it but that is not 100% right. So now we’re faced one last time with the decision: Do you get out of town, or fix the aircraft. We took the high road because who knows what other data is corrupted. I made the PA telling the people: “Folks, I have some bad news, we’re taking at least an hour and a half delay. No one wants this flight to go smooth as much as me as this is my last flight after 41 years of flying. But I made a promise to myself that I would never take an aircraft that wasn’t 100% right. You’re safety is my number one concern.”

Now the God stuff starts happening. Yes, you can make a case that this is all coincidence, but for me I believe this is God’s hand in things. Florence, a flight attendant, came up to say hi and get any information she could. She noticed the cross I wear on my tie and asked if I was a believer. I said yes and Bob chimed in that he was also. She told us there was a Christian rock band on board trying to get to Eugene for a gig. The next thing you know up comes this 20 something girl who is as sweet as she can be and hands me a list of the 12 people in the band and their itinerary. She said she only came up because Florence told them I was a Christian. They now have a very tight connection. I told her I can’t promise anything but would try to get them to hold the flight. She then asked if they could pray for me after the flight. I told them they should pray for me during because they’re going to have to run to make their flight.

The Purser, David then comes in with another story of a passenger trying to get to Redding to see her dying sister, her connection is even tighter as she would only have 10 minutes. Both of these flights are on our Commuter Carrier which is not even our own airline so the possibility of them holding these flights were slim and none and slim just left town.

After loading multiple databases we finally have one that works so we’re in a mad rush to push. We call ramp ready and they tell us we’re cleared reference a Lufthansa 747 next to us that has yet to push, that would easily be another 10 minutes. Bob asks the Lufthansa crew if they would be willing to swap push clearances since we’re so late. The German voice answered “OK”. That’s a first for me in 41 years, well done Bob.

We fly to SFO the speed of heat and every hour we’re messaging the station asking them about our connections. We keep getting the “We’ll see what we can do” I know what that means. Finally right before decent we bug them one last time and they inform us they’ll be holding both flights! OK, that’s gotta be miracle #3, I’ve NEVER had them hold any flights in my career.

Often times I put myself out of my comfort zone with public speaking. I’m totally comfortable talking in front of people from my Auctioneering, but this time it was the content as this would be my last PA ever. I had written it the night before when I woke up in the middle of the night. I just hoped I could hold it together to deliver it.

“Ladies and Gentlemen this is your Capt. speaking, if you’ll indulge me, as I told you this is my last flight after 41 years of flying. Folks, I am a religious man, I live my life by the credo God takes care of pilots and dumb animals and I’ve been both. I have over 20,000 hours of flight time, which means I’ve been in the air over two and a half years. I don’t want to scare you but I know I’ve had Guardian Angels watching over me many times. I’m very blessed and thankful for this fairy tale life.”

“I’d like to thank my wife, it takes a special person to be married to a pilot because when the hose breaks and the laundry is flooded there’s not much I can do about it in Tokyo.”

“I’d like to thank the Flight Attendants, they are some of the most caring, giving people I know but they are really here for your safety. I have seen them on my own flight bring two people back from the dead with defibulators, so if they forget your cream with your coffee cut them some slack.”

“I’d like to thank the mechanics, this is my third airline and I can tell you they are the best I have worked with. Never once did they try to get me to take an airplane that wasn’t completely 100% right.”

“I’d like to thank our instructors, including Bob sitting next to me. They are top notch and if you didn’t know United has the largest training center in the world and we train many other airlines and the Air Force One pilots.”

“I’d like to thank my flying partners the pilots. They are a bunch of characters. I actually have a Psychology degree and they told me if you want to work with crazy people you should check out the airlines.”

“Mostly though I want to thank YOU, especially our frequent flyers. You’ve put bread on my table and my kids through college. I once flew with a Capt. that told me ‘As soon as everybody gets to where they’re going we’ll be out of a job!’ Fortunately for me that hasn’t happened yet.”

“If there are any young people out there that are trying to figure out what to do in life I can’t recommend this job enough. I’ve been to over 100 countries, seen sunrises on the Atlantic, sunsets over the Pacific, flown over the North Pole and seen the Northern Lights dozens of times and for that I am eternally grateful.”

“Capt. Eddie Jr. Over and Out”

David was nice enough to call me and tell me there were cheers and applause form the passengers, and who knows it might even be true.

Now I could concentrate and fly the FMS Bridge Visual to 28R into SFO, an approach I’ve done many times. It is challenging, as there are many altitude and speed restrictions. I always click off the autopilot and do it by hand because that is the fun of it. The approach went well and the landing was good. Not my best, not my worse but enough of a squeaker that I left with a good feeling.

As I was taxing in I was glad there were no water cannons, I think I would’ve lost it, as my emotions were so high. It’d be hard to park with tears in your eyes.

Saying goodbye to the passengers one last time was very moving. So many people wished me well and many many people told me they were glad to hear me mention God. I received several notes and pictures from passengers and flight attendants. Florence gave me her daily devotional for that day: A Road Not Traveled. It was all about God being with you as you embark on a road you’ve never traveled. Coincidence? The most moving was from the Christian group: “Edward, Thank you so much for taking care of our group of 12 today on your last flight. Your speech moved me to tears as you inspired each of us to dream and to love what you do. I pray God continues to bless you richly even after retirement. Lots of love from the Bethel Music team!”

After the people were gone I went up to the cockpit and gathered my gear and bags. I told Bob to go ahead as I wanted to be the last one off the airplane. As I left the cockpit I thanked the 777 and patted the Capt.’s seat never to return again.

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Retirements from a job you love always gave me a weird vibe.

You’ve been doing the same thing for 30+ years and then poof, the routine ends.

I really wish I could continue working past the mandatory 65 year retirement age.

I guess you could still always be a flight instructor if you still hold your medical, or sim traininer for amateur/newbie airline pilots.

Great post!

Pretty sad to see so many seasoned pilots nearing retirement age ending their careers well before they likely planned. I recently flipped through an ALPA magazine from over the summer that had several pages of Captains and First Officers from around the country taking early retirement. These men and women made the difficult decision to do so likely not for the benefit of themselves but for the benefit of the companies they are leaving behind, the employees already working there, and for future generations such as those who frequent this forum. It must be a heart-wrenching decision and I feel terrible for those whose careers have been cut short by COVID.

This year, I flew a commercial flight from ATL to SLC and it was the Captains final flight. Just as the gentlemen in this farewell email stated, the fanfare was limited…an announcement over the PA and some applause from those who managed to look up from their cell phones. No celebratory showers from the firetrucks in SLC or handshakes from passengers. I’ll never forget his watery eyes as we all deplaned.