Captain Freddy’s Final Flight: What Happens When an American Airlines Pilot Retires?

In the movie Up in the Air Sam Elliott plays the chief pilot at American Airlines. He appears in their advertising, and meets customers on board when they hit ten million frequent flyer miles. My own lifetime counter at AAdvantage is only rounding towards 4 million, but I’m pretty sure that doesn’t really happen in real life. One way to see the chief pilot, though, is to retire after a career flying for American.

On May 26, Captain Fred Swaffer flew his last flight for American after 33 years with the airline. It was his second career, retiring from the Air Force in 1986 (though returning for a brief stint to fly C-5s during the Gulf War).

“Captain Freddy” as his friends and family call him flew MD80s, 727s, DC-10s, 757s, 767s, Boeing 777s and most recently 787s.

I was curious what it’s like to pilot a retirement flight, and I was able to learn more about it from Captain Swaffer — and also to talk to one of his daughters — about the experience.

A few weeks prior to his last flight the company mailed Captain Swaffer a catalog to pick his retirement gift from.

For his second-to-last flight the senior pilot’s wife flew out with him as a passenger from Chicago O’Hare to Rome, which is a one-day turn. Crew make it to their hotel around 11 a.m. and fly out the next day at 11. At the hotel celebrations got underway immediately with champagne and breakfast — and a nap after the overnight flight.

Captain Swaffer’s children met up in Rome as well so that the whole family would fly back together from Rome to Chicago. They all spent the day together and met up with much of the crew in the evening. Several crewmembers had flown with their dad before so they told plenty of stories about him.

Credit: Rachel Swaffer

Credit: Rachel Swaffer

The final flight of the Captain’s career was supposed to leave Rome the next the morning, but wound up an afternoon departure — delayed four hours due to a late arriving inbound aircraft which had experienced mechanical problems in Chicago.

Despite reduced ground time in Rome, the Captain’s family boarded early and received a tour of the aircraft. They were especially thrilled to see crew rest.

American Airlines Boeing 787-8 Crew Rest, 2015 Inaugural Flight

Before departure he was greeted by American’s Chief Pilot in Chicago who thanked him for his service.

Credit: Rachel Swaffer

The purser announced to the whole aircraft that it was the captain’s final flight and passengers applauded. His daughter Rachel emphasizes her father’s final landing was flawless. Chicago O’Hare gave the Boeing 787 a water cannon salute on arrival and the purser announced Captain Freddy’s retirement and read a brief biography of his career in aviation.

As passengers disembarked, the captain’s family joined him in the cockpit — but that was ultimately interrupted because the retiring captain was selected for a random drug test after he had just completed his very last flight.

Credit: Rachel Swaffer

Looking back on his career at American Airlines he shared that his father worked for American Airlines part time in reservations when he was six years old. He got to take his first trip to New York and back. He doesn’t remember the trip but the image of the Statue of Liberty from the sky stuck with him. “That was the moment I was hooked.”

And the best thing about being a pilot?

In the air you move in three dimensions – that’s as free as you can feel. Gravity gets suspended. [But it also] requires a great deal of concentration and knowledge to unleash that freedom. There is a serenity when you’re in the air [that] you don’t find in many places, [and] that’s addicting. Aviation doesn’t forgive; make an error and bad things happen fast.

Credit: Rachel Swaffer

The highlight of his career was flying the airlines “most technically advanced aircraft,” the Boeing 787, and seeing places and meeting people all over the world by flying to Tokyo or Beijing. Without being an American Airlines pilot, he’d have never been able to experience being passed on a Delhi freeway by an elephant. Beijing and Delhi were his favorite routes, especially taking a Polar route and the amazing views those provide of the Northern Lights. Beijing was better for the longer layover.

His two most memorable passengers were Mr. T. and country singer Charlie Pride. Mr. T was in first class on a DC-10 “covered in gold chains,” he took the time to talk to every child that came up to him. And Charlie Pride was flying up front to Los Angeles on an MD80 when a concert broke out in the cabin,

I can tell that it’s noisy back there for the second half of the flight, but we’re busy working up front and don’t really think anything of it. Finally we’re descending on the approach and it’s so loud I call back to see what’s going on, and to tell the flight attendants to prepare for landing. What’s all the commotion? Charlie is leading all of First Class in a sing-a-long. Had to tell them to quiet down so we could land.

The Fair Treatment for Experienced Pilots Act went into effect at the end of 2007, raising the mandatory retirement age for pilots from 60 to 65. The theory is that age brings deterioration in depth perception, eyesight, stamina, balance, hearing and other abilities. But we use age instead of the physicals that pilots have to go through.

Those physicals, unfortunately, don’t take advantage of the latest medical advances. Airlines don’t check brain mass with an MRI, we don’t test visual field response through electro retinography, they don’t do audiogram testing or EEGs. Instead they cut everyone off at 65.

Captain Swaffer though is looking forward to his retirement, happy to spend time at home “planning more than three weeks in advance.” He’s going to build a log cabin.

He says he’ll miss the people he worked with at American the most, and the friends he made around the world. Those trump even the views from the cockpit, though he recommends becoming a pilot because “if you enjoy the view from the wing, you should see the view from the cockpit.”

The day after he arrived back at Chicago O’Hare from Rome he returned to the airport, dropped off his badge at the ops center below the H concourse gates, and one of his daughters guested him into the Admirals Club before his flight home. No more ‘eight hours bottle to throttle’ he ordered a Makers Mark. She says “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him look more satisfied.”

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I don’t always agree with your articles. But thanks for this. You nailed it. Great piece.

  2. “if you enjoy the view from the wing, you should see the view from the cockpit.”
    HAH, nice! 😉

  3. In April 2017 flying AA from DFW to SEA, i would be flying over 8 million miles. I was boarded first and the Captain and First Officer both came out of the cockpit and thanked me for my business… AA had a bottle of Champagne and chocolates along with a card with all the flight crew’s signature. I also had the CK treatment that day as i was connecting from a flight out of LBB.. So they do recognize you when you hit milestones…

  4. Nice, wish I had chosen a different career. I’m happy as I am but I miss the thrill of the flight! And retiring at 33 years would mean only another 10 for me…as I stand I’ve got another 25!

  5. Flying AA from Madrid to Charlotte last month that pilot also was retiring and we got the water cannon salute on arrival. Otherwise, it was an unmemorable flight.

  6. Very nice article! I am glad they are staying on longer, I still like to see a gray hair (no offense I am up there myself) in the cockpit! LOL Congrats Captain on a fantastic career, enjoy retirement.

  7. If I were a retiring American Airlines pilot, instead of being greeted by the Chief Pilot in Chicago, I believe it would have been a significantly higher honor for this pilot to be greeted by you.

  8. Nice piece!!! My husband is retiring in September 2019 from American. Flown with America about 35 years. Can’t wait to see what his last flight will be..

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