No More Water Salutes for Retiring Pilots

Jim Tharpe writes in the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the passing of an aviation tradition. This is just one of the ways the airport is trying to limit its water use in the face of a stubborn drought in the south.

“In Georgia, the drought has not only curtailed water use in North Georgia — it’s killed a tradition. Commercial airline pilots on their last flight into Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport no longer will be greeted by an end-of-career “water salute” courtesy of the City of Atlanta Fire Department.

For as long as anyone at the world’s busiest airport can remember, two fire trucks would spray giant arcs of water over an aircraft to salute a retiring pilot as the veteran aviator taxied to the gate on a final career flight. The lingering drought, however, has put an end to that rite of passage in a region that aviation largely built.

“It’s just one of the things we’re doing to conserve water,” said fire department spokesman Capt. Bill May. “The fire department had to look at what’s essential, and what’s not.”

Each salute, or “wash-down,” consumed about 500 gallons of water. They were used not only for retiring pilots, but occasionally to greet dignitaries or launch new aircraft. The last one took place a few months back to greet the world-champion Warner Robins Little League team on its return flight.

Retired Delta Air Lines pilot Ken Adams of Cartersville said the water salute was something many pilots cherished. Adams was saluted on his return trip aboard a McDonald Douglas MD-11 after a 13-hour flight from Tokyo in 2002 as he closed the book on his Delta career.

Some pilots, he said, would frame photos of the water salutes as a prized keepsake of their airline careers. “It’s just another tradition that’s gone away,” Adams said. “It’s understandable given the drought, but it’s still a little sad.

It was a nice going away present.”