The author and her dad sitting in a 737 cockpit before his last airline flight as PIC.
Like so many of us who love aviation, I was lucky enough to have someone in my life who introduced me to the thrill of flight at a young age — in my case, my father.
As a fighter pilot in the Air Force for 21 years, first flying F-4s and then F-15s, and then as a 737 pilot at Southwest Airlines for the two decades that followed, my dad, Stan Whitfield, belongs to the ranks of professional pilots who have been able to make a life-long career out of flying airplanes.
But thankfully, to my dad, flying was not just a way to make a living. It was something he loved deeply, something he didn’t just do during the workday but on his days off too, when he’d hop in a Cessna 172 or a Piper Warrior for afternoon joy rides spent circling around the local area, enjoying that one-of-a-kind feeling that comes from watching the world sink away beneath your wing. Most importantly, flying was a passion he passed on and introduced to others, an activity whose endless fun and possibilities he felt compelled to share with anyone who would listen.
If it weren’t for my dad and the days we spent together flying around in small airplanes when I was young, I likely never would have seen the possibility of becoming a pilot as an option open to me. I never would have gone on to get my certificate, I never would have known the incredible pleasure that comes from feeling confidently in control of an airplane in flight, and I would have missed out on what has become a life-long love and fascination with all things that fly.
It is to him that I owe these things, and because of that, it makes the flight I got to share with him yesterday all the more special. You see, today is my dad’s 65th birthday, which means he will likely never step foot in the cockpit of a 737 again, at least as PIC. After 21 years with Southwest, he sat in the left seat for the final time yesterday morning on a flight from Grand Rapids to Orlando. I was lucky enough to be on that flight with him, and as I sat in the cockpit with him before the remaining passengers started boarding, I thought back to all the hours we’d spent in smaller cockpits together, all the airport restaurants we’d tried out over the years, all the Saturdays I’d ask him if he wanted to go flying and all the times he’d emphatically answered yes.
Yesterday’s flight went off without a hitch, and I enjoyed the view from the cabin as we climbed out from Grand Rapids at 12,000 feet and were cleared direct to Orlando, about 900 miles away — a great treat from ATC and Southwest’s chief pilots for the occasion. After the wheels kissed the pavement in Orlando, my dad was given a water salute from the fire truck crew, and I watched as he said goodbye to what would be his last batch of paying passengers.
After the airplane emptied and my family finished taking photos, we walked up the jetway together. As my dad stepped into the airport, everyone in the terminal erupted in applause — one final tribute for a man who spent 21 years of his life ferrying passengers all across the U.S. Throughout my dad’s career as an airline pilot, I was always awed by the respect the stripes on his uniform commanded in the airport — respect rightfully deserved by all professional pilots who take on the responsibility for the safety of hundreds of people on a daily basis — but this final farewell from the nice folks at the Orlando airport was truly special.
I am so thankful to them and to the crew at Southwest for making my dad’s last flight so memorable for both him and my family. And, ultimately, I am so thankful to my dad, for the love of flying he shared with me so long ago and that he continues to share with me today. Happy birthday, Dad, and here’s to many more great flights together.