AK Airlines capt. retires

Friends and family accompany pilot on his last flight

Posted: Thursday, December 08, 2005

After his last landing as an Alaska Airlines pilot Wednesday morning, Capt. Dennis Nolder hugged his 87-year-old mother, making her first visit to Juneau.

"This is the most wonderful day of my life," he told her.

It was the people who made it special, not finishing his job, he said, retiring after 16 years in the cockpit. Nolder called it "the best job in the world."

Twenty-four of the passengers on Wednesday's Flight 61 from Seattle were friends and family members, including his mother, Ann Wagner, who left the plane in a wheelchair, and his wife, Donna.

"The pressure was really on for a smooth landing," Nolder said.

"It was marvelous," said his mother, who had flown with him before. She said she always encouraged him to do what he wanted to do and never doubted he would be a great pilot.

Nolder, a Tacoma, Wash., native and Juneau resident who entered the Air Force as a mechanic, said even passengers on more typical flights have shown their appreciation. He has heard applause at the end of other flights. Once, passengers applauded him even before he took off.

"A 5-year-old girl was crying," he said, recalling the occasion about three years ago when he was beginning to leave a gate in Anchorage. The girl had left her Beanie Baby in the boarding area, he explained. Nolder stopped the push-back from the gate and sent someone to get the girl her doll.

Nolder said there was joy on the girl's face and wild clapping among the passengers. Later he got a touching thank-you letter from her parents. The thank-you letters have always been special to him, he said.

He has shown many children where he works, and given them pictures he takes of them with a Polaroid camera in the cockpit, he said. On a flight from Fairbanks to Anchorage four years ago, after inviting a boy named Ryan to have his picture taken, he talked to the boy's attractive red-haired grandmother, he said.

"We exchanged e-mails for a year and a half," Nolder said. They found they had much in common. Donna Herbert had a 38-foot Bayliner in Juneau and Nolder had a 32-foot Bayliner in Seattle. They shared a love for fishing and outdoor sports.

Nolder ended 58 years as a bachelor when he married her in March 2004, he said. He and Donna Nolder live on Fritz Cove Road, in a home where, from the front deck, they can see the planes come in. He figures she probably watched him land for 13 years.

Wednesday's landing was just what she expected, she said.

"I always said I only had smooth landings with you," she told him.

Southeast Alaska can be tricky, Nolder said. "The winds in Juneau, the winds in Ketchikan," he said. But he loves flying in Southeast Alaska. He plans to get a single-engine Cessna, fitted with floats in the summer and wheels in the winter.

Even while piloting Boeing 737-400s for Alaska Airlines, flying was a hobby, he said.

A former flight instructor, charter pilot and corporate pilot, he flew tours between Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon at his first airline job. He said he has flown for a lot of airlines "that went into Chapter 11."

While weighing offers from two major airlines in February 1989, he got a call from Alaska Airlines, he said

"It took me 10 airlines to land a good job, with the best airline," Nolder said.

"I'll miss the crew members, the people," he said. "I'll miss taking pictures of kids in the cockpit."

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