FLYING Magazine

Keith Rosenkraz has always been a self-described “aviation buff.” A Southern California native, the 33-year Delta Air Lines pilot and U.S. Air Force veteran said he dreamed of flying as he gazed out of a second-story window of his high school located on the north side of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).

Decades later, Captain Rosenkranz returned to LA, where he commanded a specially chartered Airbus A330-900neo for his final flight at Delta. On board were 112 of his friends and family, including fellow pilots who didn’t get a proper retirement send-off due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

“Back when COVID hit, some of my friends…couldn’t get a final flight,” Rosenkranz told FLYING. “My one friend, all he could do was an Orlando [Florida] turn instead of a nice international trip. And I remember thinking, you know, I don’t want to do that. I want to fly where I want to fly.”

To set his plan in motion, Rosenkranz said he pulled some strings in Delta’s charter department. The Atlanta-based airline regularly charters aircraft for sports teams and other special events, but never for one of its own team members.

“I sat down with the charter director…I think it was around October 2022, and I told him my idea, and he says I’ve never done this before,” Rosenkranz said. “I said, ‘Well, I’ll be the first.’”

Although Rosenkranz wasn’t turning 65 until June, a weekday in late February—often a lull for airline demand—proved more ideal for taking a widebody jet out of commercial service. Having become an Airbus A330 captain three years ago, he asked the airline for an A330-900neo, which is the latest-generation variant of the jet.

Not only did he receive his requested aircraft type, but Rosenkranz also asked for the special “Team USA” livery on N411DX, which Delta also obliged.

The Special Trip

Rosenkranz and his hand-picked passengers jetted off for Kona International Airport (PHKO) in Hawaii on February 27 for a daylong, overnight trip. The chartered A330 flew from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (KDFW) to LAX, where it made a roughly one-hour stop.

Then, the aircraft departed Los Angeles for Kona, arriving at approximately 2:30 p.m. HST. On February 28, the A330neo completed the same routing on the return, arriving back in Dallas-Fort Worth at 10:10 p.m. CST.

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Joining Rosenkranz in the flight deck were longtime friends, one of whom he knew from a high school job at Safeway. The duo were once box boys together for the supermarket and now fly one of Delta’s largest aircraft.

“We had four pilots because you can’t fly a domestic leg and an ocean crossing in the same day,” Rosenkranz said. “So I had two of my friends fly the domestic portions from Dallas to LA, LA to Dallas.”

Rosenkranz said he flew both oceanic crossings to serve as his final two flights. Roughly 50 guests joined him in DFW, while the rest boarded in Los Angeles.

“We showed up in the terminal here at DFW, and about 50 friends and family were already there,” he said. “And it was very emotional for me just seeing everybody there clapping and giving me hugs. When we got to the gate there in LA, and my wife and I walked into the terminal in the gate area, another 60 friends and family were there. I started crying all over again.”

In Kona, Rosenkranz took care of his guests’ transportation to and from the airport, only asking them to pay for their one-night stays at a Hilton resort. The experience was made complete with a customary luau and a surprise renewal of wedding vows with his wife of nearly 42 years.

‘Fini’ Flights: Marking a Milestone

The tradition of the so-called “fini” flight dates back decades, finding its roots in the military. During their final flights, retiring pilots are met with fanfare. For the military side, this send-off can include an affectionate hose-down upon exiting the aircraft for a final time.

But in commercial aviation, retiring captains—who often wrap up their careers with decades of seniority under their belts—are met with grand gate parties and water cannon salutes by local firefighter crews. Some airlines allow captains to select their final flight and allow family members to join with free confirmed tickets.

Rosenkranz’s charter came with three different water cannon salutes, including in Kona, DFW, and most notably LA.

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The city of Los Angeles—which runs LAX—has long maintained a moratorium on water cannon salutes, citing local water shortages. By a stroke of luck, though, Delta was able to convince the city to make an exception for Rosenkranz’s special flight.

“So a week later, [a member of Delta’s charter team] calls back and said, ‘Well, the pilot’s name is this, and he grew up in Southern California. [He] and the other pilot were box boys at Safeway. His high school’s here,’” he said. “And whoever that person was said, ‘You know what? Let’s make it happen.’ So the FAA approved, the airport authority approved, and the fire department approved. I think I was the second one in nine years to get a [water cannon salute]. So, wow, just great.”

As the pandemic ravaged the airline industry, many retiring pilots lost out on the opportunity for a proper send-off flight. This was especially the case for widebody captains, who primarily flew long-haul flights, which were some of the first to be scuttled in 2020.

With his charter flight, Rosenkranz also sought to provide an additional opportunity for a proper sendoff to some of these pilots, all of whom he knew during his tenure at Delta.

A Decorated Career

Rosenkranz boasts a long and well-decorated aviation career, starting in the Air Force after graduating from an ROTC training course. In the military he flew the F-16.

Later, he would go on to write a book about his experiences flying during the Gulf War titled, Vipers in the Storm: Diary of a Gulf War Fighter Pilot.

“You know, I’m not Tom Clancy or Stephen King, so it certainly didn’t allow me to retire, but I’ve received thousands of letters from all over the world and kids in grade school, high school, and college will read the book and send me a note,” Rosenkranz said.

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His airline career began in July 1991 when he started at Delta as a flight engineer on the Boeing 727. Throughout his time at the airline, he flew the 757/767, the Airbus A320, and most recently the A330 in the left seat.

“So, I would tell any new person…your love of aviation is going to carry you through anything, and then enjoy the job,” he said.

Rosenkranz said the No. 1 question about his retirement charter was the cost. Without going into too much detail, he said it was “probably a good year’s salary.”

“I mean, to be able to go out with your own jet and fly all your family and friends to Hawaii for a big luau, you just can’t put a price on it,” he said. “And you don’t want to be the richest man in the graveyard one day. So, I would do it again a hundred times and never look back. And so, I’ll be OK in life. And my wife and I will never forget this trip.”

This feature first appeared in the May 2024/Issue 948 of FLYING’s print edition.

The post Delta Air Lines Captain Makes the Ultimate ‘Fini’ Flight appeared first on FLYING Magazine.

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