Homecoming: Retiring Air Canada pilot shares cockpit with daughter on final flight

Homecoming: Retiring Air Canada pilot shares cockpit with daughter on final flight

Homecoming: Retiring Air Canada pilot shares cockpit with daughter on final flight

Air Canada’s Montreal-based chief pilot for the Airbus A330 jet has retired after nearly four decades, passing the baton to his daughter.

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Captain Jean Castonguay’s retirement began nine minutes early — and it cost him a tie.

Air Canada Flight 879 from Toulouse, France landed at Montreal’s Trudeau International Airport Monday at 2:46 p.m., ahead of a scheduled 2:55 p.m. arrival. That brought the curtain down on the four-decade flying career of the airline’s Montreal-based Airbus A330 chief pilot.

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Castonguay, who will turn 65 in March, had a familiar face beside him in the cockpit for his final transatlantic journey: his daughter Marie-Pierre, 28, a first officer with the airline. While this wasn’t the first time the pair had flown together, the special occasion will live long in their memories.

“It was very emotional. We felt so privileged to be experiencing this moment together,” the younger Castonguay, an Air Canada pilot since 2019 who took her first flying lessons at age 15, said Monday afternoon in Dorval after the pair had cleared customs. “He’s been such a great mentor for me. I’m lucky to be flying the same plane, the A330, which we both love. It’s as if his career is continuing through me.”

Added the beaming father: “I’m very proud to be passing the baton to her. She doesn’t need my advice. She’s very good.”

As he reached the arrivals terminal, Castonguay was greeted by family members and more than 20 current and former work colleagues, who gave him a thunderous ovation. He took time to shake hands and trade smiles with everyone, accepting wishes for a happy retirement.

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He also had to stand stoically as his daughter cut his black tie in half with a pair of scissors, eliciting much laughter from the gathering.

Retiring Air Canada pilot Jean Castonguay holds up half of his tie cut, which was cut off, as per tradition, by his daughter, First Officer Marie-Pierre.
“I’m very proud to be passing the baton to her,” retiring Air Canada pilot Jean Castonguay said of his daughter, First Officer Marie-Pierre. “She doesn’t need my advice. She’s very good.” Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

Flying, the elder Castonguay said after the howling had died down, “is a passion that I will have all my life. Once a pilot, always a pilot.”

International Civil Aviation Organization standards require captains of large transport aircraft to be under age 65.

Castonguay began his career in general aviation, cutting his teeth on smaller planes such as the twin-engine Piper Navajo and the Convair 580 turboprop. He joined Air Canada in 1986, initially flying such jets as the Boeing 727, the Bombardier CRJ and the McDonnell Douglas DC-9.

After being laid off in the early 1990s, Castonguay spent about two years operating Boeing 727s and 757s for the now-defunct Quebec-based carriers Nationair and Royal Airlines, according to his LinkedIn page.

He then rejoined Air Canada, where he worked as a flight instructor, base manager and fleet manager before being named chief pilot for the A330 wide-body jetliner in August 2017.

A chief pilot handles technical issues regarding an aircraft and oversees all pilots qualified on that type of plane. He or she is also responsible for standard operating procedures and fleet manuals, while looking after the airline’s relationship with the aircraft manufacturer.

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Castonguay’s career has taken him around the globe, with stops as distant from Montreal as Hong Kong, Seoul and Singapore.

Even today, he says the A330 — 18 units of which are part of the Air Canada fleet, with two more coming soon — remains his favourite aircraft. He’ll now be able to display a scale model of the plane at home, courtesy of Airbus officials, who gave him one Monday before takeoff. Toulouse is where the European plane manufacturer’s headquarters are located.

“I don’t know how the Airbus people found out about my retirement, but they came to congratulate me” Monday morning, Castonguay said. “I’ve been flying the A330 for about 15 years. I’ve had the opportunity to change for the (Boeing 787) Dreamliner and the 777, but I didn’t want to. I love how the plane behaves. We had a bit of turbulence today, but everything went smoothly.”

Castonguay says technological changes over the years haven’t dimmed his love of flying.

“I had as much fun flying an old DC-9 back then as I do now with an Airbus and its onboard computers,” he said. “Technology today, with GPS and all the navigation systems that we have, is so precise that it’s fascinating to see the predictions the plane gives you. You always end up bang on. With a plane like the old DC-9, It was a lot more haphazard.”

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Now that retirement time has arrived, Castonguay says he plans to spend the next few months relaxing at home before embarking on the first excursion of his post-Air Canada life. A road trip in Italy with his partner, possibly next spring, is in the works.

“All of Europe is fantastic, places like Nice or Toulouse in the summertime are so pretty, but I’m looking forward to driving around Italy,” he said. “Often as a pilot you don’t have time to enjoy the places that you fly to. You get to the hotel and don’t really have time to go sightseeing.”

And if the opportunity presents itself, Castonguay says he would, well, jump at the chance to sit in the cockpit jump seat on a flight operated by his daughter.

“That’s what we’re hoping,” Marie-Pierre Castonguay said. “We talked about it on the flight today.”

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