US Airways shared flight operation at Frankfurt with British Airways. They were mostly German nationals who were highly professional and did a great job. Over time I got to know them and they knew they could count on me to help them in any way that I could. An aloof or uncooperative captain could screw up an on-time departure in countless ways and imprecise flight planning would sacrifice revenue.
Flights from Frankfurt west were always up to maximum gross takeoff weights because of the extra fuel needed to counter the prevailing easterly jet streams. US Airways computerized weight and balance system limited the gate release weight to 351,000 pounds, the maximum certified gross takeoff weight. The computer simply didn’t understand that the maximum certified taxi weight is 352,200 pounds and that the additional 1,200 pounds is always burned off taxiing out to the runway. That additional weight could translate to six or seven passengers or revenue freight being left behind. The only one with the authority to override the computer was the captain and I did it routinely.
The bottom line is that by doing my job properly I enabled others to do theirs. That’s the kind of captains I tried to train as a line captain and for a while as a line instructor/check airman. As was taught to me, authority must be coupled with responsibility and leadership to be successful.
At any rate, the guys at operations were very thoughtful. I wound up with a basket of trinkets and memorabilia, but had no idea what else the station manager had up his sleeve. I would find out soon enough.
In the meantime, cabin crewmembers had their own ideas. The flight was full and I know those passengers didn’t have any idea in the world what they were in for. The crew had prepared for a party across the Atlantic: papier-mâché, cake, the whole works.
Now you have to understand that a pilot is only as good as his last landing. Last flight or no, it would be safe and professionally conducted. The cockpit routine was done by the book, except that I asked Larry, the first officer, to handle the PA welcome aboard and so forth. He needless to say mentioned the significance of the flight. Fortunately, nobody asked to get off!
I thought it was sweet that the station manager personally gave the wave off salute, although I thought his grin was a little shit- eating. I would soon learn why. As we turned down the taxiway toward runway 07L, the ground controller asked us to deviate to a parallel taxiway, and then politely suggested that the Frankfurt Airport Fire and Rescue Crew would like to salute the captain. Up came fire engines abreast of the aircraft on both sides of the taxiway; out came a bridge of water over the aircraft. Somewhat further down was the commander standing at attention with a dress salute.
Now you have to understand: I was commanding a U.S. flag carrier at Frankfurt, Germany. Such a tribute had never been given before.
Abeam of the fire chief, I stopped the aircraft and with tears in my eyes returned a military salute that General Patton would have been proud of. Wow! It is a memory I will always cherish. Thank God for Larry. I asked him to assure the passengers that we weren’t on fire and tell them what had occurred. I sure couldn’t have done it right then.