Changing of the Guard

By Capt. Richard Thompson II (Envoy Air)

Capt. Richard Thompson (United), left, welcomes his son, Capt. Richard Thompson II (Envoy Air), to the rank of captain.

I was lucky enough to upgrade to captain at Envoy this year, and for the captain’s upgrade dinner for my class I brought my father, my mentor, my best friend, my flight instructor, and an airline icon—and only one chair was needed. My father is currently the oldest Newark Liberty International Airport-based Airbus pilot at United Airlines, although for only a little more time. He turns 65 this December, so this year will be a changing of the guard for our family.

Flying is in my genetics, and it started with my grandfather, who joined the Navy during World War II. He flew in the Pacific, serving on the last ship that was hit by a Japanese kamikaze. He saved a man’s life that day, treading water holding onto an injured sailor until a rescue ship came hours later. After the war, my grandfather was hired by TWA, retiring as a captain on the B-747.

My dad’s brother went to the Naval Academy, became the head commander on the F-14, and has close to 20 years at Delta Air Lines. His son, my cousin Robby, is finishing his time in the military flying E-2s and is dreaming about a career with Delta. Rob and I have always been very competitive. I beat him to the left seat of an airliner, but he most likely will beat me to a major airline. We’re also taking bets on whose kid will be the family’s first fourth-generation airline pilot. My mother earned her wings, too, working for Aeromec (later Wright Air), an Allegany Commuter.

I can still remember all the nonrev trips we went on when I was a kid. I was so excited the night before that I couldn’t sleep. I was excited about what airplanes we would be on, and I could tell you numerous facts about every airplane in United’s fleet. The B-727 didn’t have any audio entertainment while the -737 did. The -757 and later A320s were my favorites because of the TVs. And when they put the -777 on the Newark–Denver route, I felt like I won the lottery.

It was clear to everyone what I wanted to be when I grew up, and my father gave me that gift. He took me out weekly when I was 14 years old. He soloed me on my 16th birthday, signed off for my private pilot’s license on my 17th birthday, and gave me every solid piece of advice he could.

We both have lived the ups and downs of this industry. My father earned a battle star on the picket line during the Eastern strike, and at three years old I was by his side with a sign saying, “Frank Lorenzo stole my toys.” He was there to give me advice and guidance during the bankruptcy proceedings when I was just starting out at American Eagle, because he, too, earned the Chapter 11 merit badge. He also was there to guide me when my patience paid off and I upgraded to captain. He probably would have been able to retire a few years earlier if he just charged me $1 per phone call every time I called for advice.

It’s hard for me to imagine my father no longer a line pilot for United Airlines. It’s all I’ve ever known, so this will be bittersweet. But he’s excited to retire—excited to go skiing at Snowbasin in Utah all winter, excited to spend time on the water in the summer, and, most of all, excited to finally have the extra time to spend with me and be the world’s best grandpa to my daughter, Kylie.

We plan on exchanging some final jumpseat rides before the clock strikes midnight, and I will be there with Kylie for his retirement flight. It’s going to be hard seeing Dad turn in his wings. I can’t remember a single moment of my life when he wasn’t a pilot for United Airlines. But for the first time in my life, my father won’t have to tell me, “I can’t. I’m out on a trip that day.” That’s something I’ll be able to get used to.