My Retirement

Sometimes things don't go as you planned

March 1, 2004

Most people, having devoted their adult lives to a vocation, look forward to retirement. Seated in the captain's position of the Boeing 777, at the departure gate for London Heathrow International Airport, I had a multitude of thoughts. Most were focused on the details of the flight, but underlying all those thoughts was the realization that after 34 and a half years and hundreds of ocean crossings, this flight was to be my last as an airline captain.

My career started as a flight engineer on a DC-6. Reflecting back to that beginning in the reciprocating engine-powered Douglas, with propellers and myriad round dials and gauges, makes the modern electronics of the 777 seem almost like magic. An ocean crossing in the DC-6 would have taken 12 or 13 hours. Today's flight, planned with a cruise speed of Mach 0.85, or 450 knots groundspeed, would take only seven and one-half hours. Arrival at Washington Dulles International Airport, just west of Washington, D.C., was estimated for 9 p.m. The arrival weather was forecast to be light snow and cold, but that was typical for a February night in Northern Virginia. The departure from Heathrow was right on schedule, and the smooth flight was illuminated by a bright sun that gave way to moonshine as we descended into the overcast passing Allentown, Pennsylvania, on the arrival to Dulles. The 777 descended below the overcast and with the runway in sight by 1,000 feet above the ground, I pressed the autopilot disconnect switch and flew a manual final approach and landing. I would later say, "I got lucky," but the skill of years of flight contributed to a barely felt touchdown on Runway 1R at Dulles. The aircraft stopped smoothly at the arrival gate and, with no fanfare, I followed the passengers into the terminal and through Customs. I cleaned out my mailbox one last time and without looking back headed for the car and home. Just like that, retirement began.

At the family farm in northern Pennsylvania, there was plenty of work to do and life continued in a normal manner, the exception being that each week's farm work was no longer broken by a three- or five-day sequence of flights to Europe. Winter gave way to spring, and livestock feeding and barn cleaning gave way to fence repairs and hay making.

It was likely the warmth of the spring sunshine that triggered my desire for flight once again. I started browsing the Internet for aircraft. I subscribed to Trade-A-Plane and pored over the hundreds of aircraft for sale, both new and used. I had no desire for a return to jet flying, but instead looked for a taildragger that would take me back to my student pilot days of the 1950s.

By the first of June, my wife, Ade, and I had found an American Champion Scout for sale in eastern Ohio. A deal was struck and the airplane was ours. The Scout is a tandem two-seat aircraft with a 180-horsepower Lycoming engine that makes for great performance. It is a wonderful flying machine. Coupled with farming chores, flying the Scout made retirement a pleasure. Flights with no schedule or rigid plans to follow — yes, that's the ticket.

The spring became summer, and on many mornings I would wake early and head to the airport for an hour's flying before hurrying back home to do the haying and other summertime chores. It seemed the weeks passed like days as the summer turned to fall.

There was no clue that my idyllic retirement was about to take a violent turn. While having some dental work done, I discovered a small lump developing under my right ear. When antibiotics did nothing to diminish the lump, the dentist suggested that I see an internist to discover its cause. The internist called for the consult of a surgeon. The surgeon was concerned that the lump might be caused by a tumor and ordered a tonsillectomy to confirm his suspicion.

A week later, the results were in, and indeed there was cancer, and its origin was in the right-tonsil area. The local surgeon recommended the services of a major cancer center and referred me to the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York. At Roswell, the diagnosis was confirmed. The recommended procedure called for a radical neck dissection followed by 33 radiation treatments. This was the course that experienced head and neck surgeon Dr. Wesley Hicks felt would achieve the best chance for a cure. Since Hicks treats numerous patients each year with similar cancer, Ade and I determined to follow his advice.

With a diagnosis of the Big C, my pilot medical was in jeopardy. Until proven cancer free for at least a year after the last cancer treatment, I had no chance to regain my flight status.

That first winter following retirement was filled with confusion and pain. The pain medication made coherent thought nearly impossible, and the surgery followed by radiation made me so feeble that no work was possible except the chore of recovery.

As the winter turned again to spring, some of my strength returned, and I was able to ride as a passenger in the Scout and at least fuel my passion for flight. My goal became defeating the cancer and reclaiming my pilot medical certification. As I became stronger, I was able to again take part in the farming chores. By summer, I was able to drive the tractor and do tasks that didn't depend on physical strength.

At first, we made weekly trips to Roswell Park for close observation by the medical staff. After several months, the visits became biweekly, and by summer's end the visits were monthly. To everyone's delight, there was no evidence of the return of cancer. By fall, I felt good enough to take a flight physical and begin the process that would return my third class medical certificate. As expected, the decision was deferred by the medical examiner until the passing of that mandatory year. Following the surgery, my nutrition came from a liquid diet through a stomach tube. I also had a tracheotomy to prevent choking. By late spring of that first year after retirement, with the help of therapists, I was able to swallow again and the stomach tube was removed. However, the tube in my throat was still there and was a constant irritation.

When I retired, I was a hefty guy weighing more than 300 pounds. The eating restrictions had seen to it that by winter, my weight was down to just a little more than 200.

In February, one year after the last radiation treatment, the surgeon removed the trach tube. Soon after that, I was able to stop taking all pain medication and the true recovery was well in progress.

The mandatory year's wait having passed, I resumed the process of getting my medical certification from the FAA. With each application, the flight surgeon at the FAA certification division found a need for additional information. On the third submission, and accompanied by a CT scan that confirmed no return of cancer, a conditional third class medical certificate was issued. The condition is that any return of the cancer voids the certificate.

On a special morning, 27 months after retirement, accompanied by my granddaughter, I took flight in the Scout. As we lifted from the runway into the clear, blue sky, the fog in the valleys looked like a pattern of white lace on an emerald landscape. The air was still and the visibility was unlimited. After an hour of flight, including a pass over the farm, we returned to the airport. I said, "I lucked out" when describing the landing in which the wheels kissed the runway. "Let retirement begin, again," I said. There is life after cancer.


Leo G. Angevine, AOPA 1132051, of Rixford, Pennsylvania, is a retired United Airlines captain.


Medical Certification Help Is Only a Phone Call Away

As Capt. Angevine's experience suggests, the FAA's Aerospace Medical Certification Division and Office of Aerospace Medicine continually work to stretch the limits of civil aviation medical certification. In fact, the FAA has the most progressive and flexible medical certification policies in the world, and as a result allows persons with certain medical conditions to operate in the National Airspace System under special issuance authorizations found in FAR Part 67 ( www.aopa.org/members/files/medical/si_letter.html).

The FAA's willingness to authorize a special issuance is tempered on the other side by the fact that the complexity of these kinds of cases requires much more of the staff physicians' time to review and make a decision. That translates into a long wait, possibly four months for some cases. Thorough, accurate, and complete documentation is the key to minimizing the hassle factor. After you submit your medical records and application, patience becomes a real virtue while sitting on your hands waiting for something to come back.

That's where your AOPA membership can really pay big dividends. The staff in the medical certification section of AOPA's Aviation Services department has more than 20 years of experience in dealing with the FAA's medical bureaucracy, and that experience can be invaluable in making certain you get off on the right foot when applying for a medical certificate. Whether you're looking for a new aviation medical examiner in your area, need to know if a medication your doctor is prescribing is acceptable for flying, or have questions about any medical condition, such as heart bypass surgery, prostate cancer, kidney stones, or refractive surgery to improve visual acuity, AOPA has the resources available to provide you with accurate and complete answers.

If you have any question about how your next visit to the AME might go, don't take a chance on having the application deferred, especially if you'll be reporting a new medical condition or medication to the FAA. Call us before your exam to find out what you will be facing. One short phone call or five minutes on the Web site just might save you from a three-month delay if your medical isn't issued at the time of your exam. And the information is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week via AOPA Online (www.aopa.org) or by calling the AOPA Pilot Information Center, 800/USA-AOPA (872-2672) Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern time. — Gary Crump, AOPA Director of Medical Certification