There are few things in life that are final or a “last opportunity” at something. I just found out that the restaurant my wife and I had our wedding reception at in 2004 and was a longtime fixture on the Rosemont dining scene was razed this week. Irony – the word “raze” when destruction is what happens.

It is with that sense of finality in mind that in my capacity as the President of the IACAC, I had the honor of attending the last arrival in Chicago for one of Lufthansa Cargo‘s MD-11 freighters, flight LH 8188. The final official revenue leg for the fleet is Saturday from JFK to Frankfurt. The event was originally scheduled for late September, but the aircraft were kept in service for several more weeks.

Guests started arriving at 7:30 or so and made their way out to the ramp. The only people there at that point were a German band, accordions and alpenhorns at the ready, set to salute the crew when they stepped off for the final time. An original 20:12 arrival was pushed back slightly to 20:20. 

Shortly before the majority of the guests arrived, the fire department arrived, not because of a problem, but because Lufthansa requested the traditional twin-hose greeting for the plane. The engines took their place.

LH staff, managers and other invited guests began arriving, corralled by the diligent and security-aware staff. Access to air cargo areas is strictly controlled all the time, but add a few dozen VIP’s, some of who don’t have badge clearance to walk around unattended and it’s a field trip for adults herded by strict chaperones who neither wanted their guests arrested nor their company fined.

With a two-minute call, we looked northeastward to watch the plane lane from the west, the tail visible between United and FedEx’s buildings. The excitement mounted, the band began playing not just a few bars but entire songs at this point. 

If you’ve ever traveled as an airline passenger, you’re well familiar with the excitement and anticipation of landing, the gathering of your things because in a matter of minutes, you’ll be at the gate. And then the plane comes to a stop and the captain takes to the intercom, informing you that “there’s a plane in the gate and/or alleyway” and you’ll have to wait just a bit longer. As we stared at the back-end of a departing 747 that seemed to remain motionless forever, the crowd’s excitement grew. 

Finally, the plane left and the aircraft began to taxi towards the gate. As it drew closer, breaking some imaginary trip wire, the sprays of water began and the sirens sounded as the plane passed through the two cannon sprays. A few hundred more yards, a wide left turn and the Lufthansa ground crew slowly brought the plane to a stop.

We relocated from our position close to the alleyway to watch the arrival to the building where the arrival ramp was brought, the band played on, a red carpet was unrolled and three cans of Revolution Brewing Anti-Hero IPA awaited the three-man crew.

After about ten minutes where arriving paperwork was completed, the crew was cleared and the film crew captured interviews and footage in the cockpit, they emerged to cheers, the band struck up a tune and they were greeted by senior leadership from Lufthansa Chicago as well as the pilots taking her back to Frankfurt in just a few short hours’ time.

The ceremony and celebration continued for another twenty minutes or so and then the crowd slowly began to depart and the work of unloading pharmaceuticals and cargo from Frankfurt began in earnest to prepare LH 8189 for her trip back.

I’ve been around planes my whole life. As a child, my father would bring me to handle clearances for a Japanese automobile importer that flew test cars from Tokyo to Chicago, bound for an EPA emissions lab in Ann Arbor, Michigan. To a 10-year-old boy standing inside of an empty Flying Tigers 747 freighter (That’s flight FM 0078 which FedEx still operates to this day), nothing could be bigger. 

That same boy got to sit in the cockpit, nearly 40 or so years later, with the same sense of awe and excitement and joy. A bit of melancholy to be sure, but a memory to be treasured forever. A “last” for this plane, but not for experiences in air cargo.

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