Flying on a Southwest Pilot’s Fini-Flight
Wow–it’s been a while since I last posted! I have been busy learning French, re-qualifying on the C-17 Globemaster, and starting a new job. It was a busy Spring and now I am sitting (in coach) on an American Airlines flight from Philadelphia to San Francisco to celebrate a wedding of one of my best friends.
Now that I am somewhat coherent in French, am once again a qualified pilot, and am getting a handle on the new job–it seems like a good time to catch up on some blog posts. I purchased the wifi plan for the 5 hour flight–and the speed seems pretty decent so let’s get started.
What is a Fini-Flight?
In April I had the unique opportunity to participate in a special Southwest Airlines pilot’s final flight. In this case the pilot was my father-in-law and many family members were on board to celebrate. The fini-flight is something that I am familiar with as an Air Force pilot–basically it is the pilot’s last flight in a particular airframe or the last flight before retirement or leaving the service. Military aviators have a tradition where aircrew members upon completion of their final flight are met and hosed down with water by their squadron comrades, family, and friends. While I knew that commercial airlines also celebrated a pilot’s fini-flight, I had never experienced one, and really wasn’t sure what to expect. I suspect that most commercial travelers have not experienced this tradition–so I wanted to share the event here.
Preflight at Dallas-Love
All of the family and friends that were going to participate in my father-in-law’s fini-flight gathered at a hotel near Dallas-Love Field the day prior to the flight–about 20 of us total. We enjoyed a nice dinner together, and several people presented him with gifts, including a large montage of Denny’s impressive 35 year Southwest career.
Denny began his career in the US Air Force at Reese AFB in 1976 where he graduated from pilot training in 1977. He ended his military career at Mathers AFB in California as a T-43 Aircraft Commander and Instructor Pilot before beginning a career as a commercial airline pilot. He joined Southwest Airlines in 1982, which at that time was undergoing expansion of flight operations beyond regional Texas flights into neighboring states. He would spend the rest of his career with Southwest, flying over 23,000 hours in their 737s!
Everyone was looking forward to the celebration the following day–although I am sure that Denny was probably having some mixed emotions–happy to be celebrating with his family and friends…but sure to miss flying the bold Blue, Yellow, and Red Southwest 737s.
One the morning of the flight, we all gathered at Dallas-Love Field for the flight to Phoenix, where Denny had chosen to have his retirement celebration. The flight was a normal passenger revenue flight, but all Denny’s family and friends were provided positive space passes so we were ensured a seat.
When we arrived at the gate, a crowd had already begun to gather. Many of Denny’s friends and co-workers from the Dallas area who were not going on the flight were coming by to say thank you, and offer their well-wishes. The passengers at the gate began to realize that this was not going to be just a normal routine flight.
About 45 mins before the scheduled departure, Denny got his paperwork and boarded the aircraft to complete his pre-flight activities. We got a couple of pictures before he boarded.
As many of you know, Southwest does not have assigned seats–instead preferring the free-for-all method of seating. Initially I was worried that this would mean that his family and friends would be spread throughout the cabin, but luckily we were allowed to pre-board and sit together in the first few rows. Of note, we did not occupy Southwest’s “first class” exit row seat on the 737-700 (seat 12A)–leaving it open for paying passengers. Southwest’s 737-800s actually have two of these seats with unlimited leg room (seats 16A and 16F). Always a great choice if you are one of the first to board.
Once everyone was on board, one of the Senior Pilots in Dallas made an announcement telling the rest of the passengers about the special occasion. Below is a video of the explanation and introduction.
While taxiing to the runway, a firetruck provided a celebratory water arch. This is one of the many fini-flight traditions and was definitely cool to see as a passenger.
Finally, we took the active runway, he pushed up the power, and we were airborne. Denny’s final takeoff was smooth and uneventful–and most importantly–on time!
Flight from Dallas to Phoenix
Shortly after we reached cruise altitude, the flight attendants began the standard Southwest snack and drink service. Once they completed the service, two of Denny’s grandchildren, including my daughter Audrey, played “flight attendant” complete with Southwest Airlines aprons and handed out a special treat to each of the passengers.
Each Snickers bar had a little note attached with a little info about Denny and his career and then had a place for passengers to write a note and return it.
Later in the flight, flight attendants popped corks on several bottles of champagne and handed them out to any passenger who wanted one in the cabin. The champagne was served in plastic Southwest cups–and the flight attendants said that one of the pilots would offer a toast once everyone had a cup.
One of the pilots not flying the aircraft exited the flight deck and offered a toast to Denny’s career. Of course he didn’t have any champagne since he was on duty–this was a really cool touch, and one that many of the passengers really appreciated. Please check out the video of the toast below:
Soon after the toast we were on approach to Phoenix. The landing was smooth like butter, and soon we were taxiing to the gate.
Post flight Celebrations
While we taxied to the gate in Phoenix, another firetruck celebrated with a water arch, and a group of employees were already gathered at the gate to marshall the aircraft to parking.
A group of friends and employees wished him well after the flight while the passengers left the plane. Many of the passengers had big smiles on their faces as they wished him congratulations–I think that most of them thought this was a pretty cool experience.
The Phoenix employees, his family, and his friends were invited into the crew break area for a short celebration complete with cake! The chief pilots in Phoenix thanked Denny for his service and it was very apparent how much he was valued as an integral part of the team. Some of the pilots, flight attendants, and even Denny and his family were visibly emotional as so many nice things were said about him–he was certainly going to be missed.
Finally, the party was winding down. We went to collect our bags that had been put to the side in the baggage claim area and proceeded to our hotel.
The next evening, Denny and his wife held the formal Southwest themed retirement party on the outskirts of Phoenix. The location was beautiful and once again, so many of his friends and family were there to celebrate.
What a fun experience!
I really enjoyed experiencing a commercial airline fini-flight after seeing several as a military pilot. A fini-flight is a pretty rare experience as a passenger, and I think many of the people on this flight really enjoyed being part of the celebration! Denny retired from Southwest Airlines with 23,000 hours of flight–but he still plans on remaining active in the Southwest community as a Flight Simulator Instructor. At his time of his retirement he was Southwest’s longest serving Check Airmen and contributed to thousands of check rides for multiple generations of Southwest pilots. Check out more about him on the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum website.