The Two (ATC) Towers

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For as long as I can remember I have always dreamed of going up into an ATC tower. I park in the shadow of one every day and I often find myself gazing up at it and thinking about all the activity going on up there, not to mention the amazing view! So you can imagine my surprise and giddy delight when I got to visit not one but TWO ATC towers (at two different airports) in the last month.

Snow Tower

The passenger airport where I work has a lovely tower that was built just a few years ago. Wisely, they don’t allow me anywhere near it. Fortunately, the old tower still exists and is currently used in the winter for snow ops. As part of the deice pad control training I’m currently undergoing, I was given the opportunity to visit the tower to get a better view of the deicing area. Getting into the tower involves either riding up in the world’s tiniest elevator, or walking up roughly a million stairs.  I chose the elevator. When the doors opened, the view that awaited me was worth every claustrophobic moment.

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Old tower at the pax airport, now the snow tower.

My first thought was that I am moving my desk to the tower ASAP, crazy tiny elevator be damned! Being able to see pretty much the entire airport was simply spectacular. But then it was pointed out to me that there is no longer any AC in the tower which makes it unbearable in the summer. Neither is there any heat. The snow team uses portable heaters to stay warm during snow events.

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New tower at the pax airport.

Once I was able to tear myself away from the amazing view out the window I was struck by size of the cab. It wasn’t tiny but it didn’t feel as big as I had thought it would. I tried to visualize all the ATC equipment that would have been in there. I suspect it was a bit crowded. The snow team’s equipment consists of some hand-held radios and a couple of laptops. There’s more than enough room for that as well as every single item currently crammed into my cubicle.

The Cargo Tower

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Old tower at the cargo airport, now gone.

As excited as I was about visiting the snow tower, I was completely beside myself when I found out my department would be getting a tour of the brand-new ATC tower at the cargo airport. Construction was completed this past spring.  The old tower had been built in the 50s when the cargo airport was still an Air Force Base. There was no elevator. To get to the top controllers had to climb stairs most of the way, and then climb ladders the final two floors. Once the new tower was ready it took 6 hours of cautious and steady work to transition over.

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New tower at the cargo airport.

We began our tour on the 5th floor in the snow ops room. In the same way that Ops uses the Snow Tower at the pax airport, they will use this room to coordinate activities during snow events. The view is pretty spectacular but not nearly as awesome as our next stop – the top!

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We were greeted by the two controllers on duty. They are both contractors – one a retired Marine, the other retired FAA. They explained the basics about what they do and showed us some of the equipment – the radar, the AWOS display, the flight strips, etc. They talked about what it was like working in the old tower and how they assisted in the set-up of the new tower.

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KC-135s for the Air National Guard parked behind a UPS cargo plane.

Then they answered questions. I asked about approach control – I suspected that it is located at the pax airport and I was right. I asked about the airspace – the pax airport is Class C. The cargo airport, however, is Class D (as are the other two airports in the area, including our GA airport). I asked about what kind of traffic they typically handle. Obviously there are lots of cargo planes flying in, but I found out that on nice days they see a lot of GA planes as well. Apparently the two 12,000 foot runways are great places to practice touch-and-goes.

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After answering questions the controllers asked if we’d like to go out on the catwalk that surrounds the cab. Would I? Oh hell YES! Coolest walk-around EVER! Thanks to low cloud cover and the fact that most cargo activity happens at night, there were no planes in the pattern while I was out there. That’s probably a good thing. If there had been they’d have had one heck of a hard time getting me back inside.

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Eventually I did (reluctantly) go back in. We spent a few more minutes chatting with the controllers. It turns out the one who is retired from the FAA used to work at the pax airport. He started in the old tower (the snow tower) then moved to the new one. This means he has worked at all four towers at both airports. To my surprise, he spoke quite fondly of the snow tower. He said that the new tower is nice, but it’s somewhat sterile. The old tower felt more comfortable. I completely agree. And I’m still thinking about relocating my desk in there. Or maybe I’ll move to this cute little room at the cargo airport. The view is still great, the HVAC is better and the elevator is substantially less terrifying.

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A bit cramped and a bit lower to the ground, but who cares.  Still a great view!

DeIce Age

img_6539It’s not exactly a secret that I love airplanes and I’m fascinated with airport operations, so when I was offered the chance to help out with deicing this winter you can probably imagine my reaction. “Wait… I get to be on the airfield, in a Follow Me truck, surrounded by airplanes and deicing equipment? Oh. Heck. YES!”

Every airport handles deicing differently. At my airport the airlines are responsible for their own deicing. However, Airport Operations is responsible for the flow of traffic into and out of the deicing area. Ops was looking for a couple extra people to help out and I’m told that they thought of me because I know a bit about airplanes. But honestly, who else are they going to find who is not only willing to be at work at a ridiculously early hour but is actually excited about it?

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“Did someone call the Iceman?” “No, they called DEICE, man!”

For now I’m just riding along while I train – and there’s A LOT to learn. Here’s how it works: Planes call Ops (deice control) when they are ready to taxi and we tell them which deicing pad to go to and how to get there. In some cases (especially if the pilot is new or unfamiliar with the airport) we’ll act as a Follow Me vehicle and either lead them into the deice pad, or park just ahead of where we want them to go so they can see where they need to be. Once in position they contact their own deice team to get sprayed down.  When deicing is complete they call us back and we pass them along to ground control for taxi instructions.

When planes push one at a time, it isn’t too bad. During the morning rush, however, there are many planes pushing at the same time, all of whom need to be deiced. If that weren’t enough, we also have to handle planes that are being moved from parking spots on the apron through the deice area on their way to various gates. Plus we have to watch out for planes at the gates that border the deice pads, who often push back with no notice. Oh, and did I mention we have to mentally juggle all these pieces while driving around, talking on the radio and keeping a log of every plane? It’s tetris on steroids with airplanes! It’s intense! And its also ridiculously awesome.

img_6548For the record, riding in a Follow Me truck is every bit as cool as I thought it would be. There’s nothing quite like looking out the back window and seeing the nose of a 737 RIGHT THERE. And in case you are wondering, deice trucks are just as fun to watch up close as they are from a distance. The airfield is especially lovely in the early morning. I never get tired of seeing airplanes silhouetted by the rising sun.

Plus at long last I’ve found out where my fellow aviation fans have been hiding – in Ops! I love spending time with coworkers who know what FOD is, who refer to the MD-80 as “the maddog” and who will pause to stare at the Boeing 757 at it takes off because hello – its a Boeing 757! For once I can be my geeky self and no one minds.

img_6527Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while might be a bit concerned about my ability to concentrate in the face of so much avgeek awesomeness. Fear not! I’m honored to have been given this opportunity and I’m going to try to learn as much as I can so I’m able to help out as much as possible. Besides, even though it can be very busy, there are also quiet moments where I’m free to geek out over all the cool stuff going on around me.

So what’s next? Well I’ve got to learn the call signs and ICAO codes for all the airlines at my airport. And I need to learn which regional airlines fly for which major airlines. And I need to get better at telling all those pesky RJs apart. And… well, you get the idea. For now my goal is to get good enough to be able to keep the log and be a second set of eyes, especially during snow events when things really get intense. Will I ever get good enough to go driving around by myself?  We’ll just have to wait and see. Oh, and in case you are wondering, the Follow Me truck is a regular SUV. But don’t worry – I’m already working on a list of reasons why a stairs truck would be vastly superior.

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My Airport Vacations

img_6174I have a confession to make. This may sound crazy but… I vacation at airports. No, I don’t mean I travel through airports on my way to somewhere else. (I haven’t flown commercially in years.) I mean I spend substantial portions of my vacations at airports entirely on purpose. And did I mention that I also work at an airport? Yes, I may be just a wee bit obsessed.

I will further confess that almost any airport will do as a vacation destination as long as it has airplanes coming and going and a decent spot from which to watch. Airports with aviation-related museums or attractions nearby get bonus points. Here are some of my vacation spots from the last year.

Wittman Regional Airport, Oshkosh WI (OSH)

Yeah, this one is a no-brainer and if you know me at all you should have seen it coming. Hundreds of thousands of people spend days just hanging around this airport every July. Coincidentally there’s this little event called Airventure that goes on around that time and brings in thousands of airplanes. There’s even an aviation museum right up the street! Ah, but how many Airventure attendees have been to the airport terminal? Well I have! OK, actually I just drove by. But I went out of my way to find it this past year because given the title of this blog it just seemed like the right thing to do.

img_4345O’Hare International Airport, Chicago IL (ORD)

This airport is conveniently located on the way home from Osh and driving by is always one of the highlights of the trip. But this year I had the opportunity to meet up with some friends and do a little plane spotting. What a wonderful way to wrap up Osh week!  The best part was getting to see several of the big 747 cargo planes. They are just so darn cool and I rarely get to see them at the airport where I work. My only regret is that I wasn’t able to stay longer. I’m hoping to go back soon for an extended visit.

img_4982Cape May Airport, Rio Grande NJ (WWD)

I have to thank David Vanderhoof (Aviation Historian, blogger and podcaster) for turning me on to this one. This airport is the home of the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum. The museum is small but has an interesting collection of airplanes, helicopters, and aviation-related artifacts. The day I visited they brought in several WWII-era planes and were offering airplane rides. Although I didn’t go on a ride, it was awesome to hear those old engines fire up and to see the planes fly. And being the airport junkie that I am, I had fun watching the regular GA traffic as well.

img_6028Charlotte Douglas International Airport, Charlotte, NC (CLT)

This airport is one of my very favorites (next to Osh, of course). For one thing, it has a very nice viewing area which overlooks the center runway. The airport is quite busy and there’s an excellent variety of airplanes to see. That is, as long as you like American Airlines. And Airbuses. But if you pay attention you can catch some non-American non-Airbuses sneaking in. My favorite catch? A Luftansa A330.

img_6104The other nice thing about this airport is the Carolinas Aviation Museum. It has a small collection of interesting airplanes ranging from a Savoia Marchetti S.56B to an F-14 to a Piedmont Airlines DC-3. The centerpiece of the collection is an Airbus A320. What’s so special about that, you ask? Well this particular A320 made an emergency landing on the Hudson river a few years back. Maybe you’ve heard of it?

The Drive-Bys

Not only do I like to spend my vacations at airports, I also like to see what airports I’ll be driving by along the way so I can look out for any interesting traffic that might be flying overhead. (Did I mention I’m a wee bit obsessed?) Some of my favorite “drive-by” airports include:

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Carolinas Aviation Museum

Harrisburg International Airport (MDT) – This is a relatively small airport that has a modest amount of commercial traffic.  In fact, I’m rarely lucky enough to catch airliners taking off or landing – but that just makes it more exciting when I do. It’s like I’ve won a prize.

Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) – My hometown favorite!  There’s always something interesting to see when I drive by this airport. Depending on what runways are in use, I can sometimes see planes on approach from my mom’s house.

Yeager Airport (CRW) – It’s a fairly small airport and, like Harrisburg, I don’t often see airplanes flying in. However, it is always fun when I do because the area is relatively mountainous and the airport itself is perched on top of a hill.

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At Oshkosh. Oh how I love that plane!

Dover AFB – Can you say C-5s?! The first time I ever saw a C-5 was when I was a teenager. There were three or four of them coming in to land at Dover and I simply could not believe what I was seeing. “Wait… are those AIRPLANES? Holy cow – they’re HUGE!” I fell in love with the C-5 right then and there and have continued to be crazy about it ever since.

Sadly, vacations don’t last forever. After seeing so much activity and so many different and interesting airplanes, returning to my airport can feel like a bit of a let-down. It seems quiet by comparison. Fortunately it only takes a day or two before I rediscover my airport’s charms. After all, flying is magic and airplanes are amazing where ever you happen to see them.

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Great Stairs Truck Drivers in History

[Note from the Blogger: I recently had the tremendous honor of being a guest on the Plane Talking UK Podcast.  It was so much fun!  A huge thank you to Carlos and Matt! And if you haven’t watched/listened to this podcast, check it out! I promise you’ll love it!]

fullsizerender-56It occurred to me recently that it has been a while since I’ve written about my favorite ground support vehicle.  I am, of course, talking about the mighty stairs truck!  I would like to start with a bit of clarification.  There seems to be some confusion about the differences between the various types of stairs typically found at the airport: air stairs, mobile stairs, motorized stairs, etc.  I attempted to consult the world’s foremost airport stairs experts on the best way to explain the differences… but alas, I couldn’t find any.  So I am afraid you’re stuck with me.  Here’s how I see it.

These are air stairs:

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They are stairs that are built into an airplane.  Because they are actually part of the plane itself, they are not part of the ground support vehicle family.

These are mobile stairs:

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They are essentially metal stairs on wheels that can be pushed by ground crew or towed by a tug.  They are NOT motorized.  They are at the bottom of the airport stairs food chain.

These are motorized stairs:

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These stairs do have a motor and can be driven around as needed.  The driving compartment, however, is open to the elements, similar to the way some airport tugs are.  These stairs are far cooler than simple mobile stairs, but they are definitely NOT the coolest of the airport stairs.

This is a stairs truck:

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As the name suggests, it’s a truck with stairs on the back.  The truck looks like any other utility truck that you might see on the road.  Technically stairs trucks are not street legal… at some point I’ll have to work on changing that.  It’s fairly easy to see why the stairs truck is king of the airport stairs.  Because it’s a truck.  With stairs on the back.  Enough said.

I wanted to clarify that point because it bears heavily on the subject at hand: the greatest stairs truck drivers in all of history! OK fine, so most of these people didn’t actually drive stairs trucks. But they would have if they could have! (Yes savvy reader, you read that correctly. I did say “most!”)

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By Billy Hathorn (National Portrait Gallery, Public domain) [CC0]

Benjamin Franklin

If ever there was an historical figure who would appreciate a good stairs truck, it’s Benjamin Franklin. I mean hello – he signed the Declaration of Independence! Nothing says revolutionary quite like a stairs truck. Oh – you wanna fly kites in storms? I know the perfect place!

Hatshepsut

I know what you’re thinking – what the who? Hatshepsut. She was a pharaoh in ancient Egypt. No, not like Cleopatra. Cleopatra was queen. Hatshepsut was actually pharaoh. And to drive home that point she wore a fake beard and everything.  A woman with that kind of determination is sure to immediately grasp the advantages (and awesomeness) of a stairs truck. Why ride in a noisy chariot around the city when you could perch your throne on top of a stairs truck where the whole world would be sure to see you?

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By Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0]

Captain Jack Sparrow

But Jenn! He’a a fictional character – he’s not real! Ah but if he WAS real you know he’d have been all over the stairs truck. He understands that stairs trucks aren’t about tires and fuel and wiper blades – that’s what a stairs truck needs. What a stairs truck is, what it REALLY is, is freedom. And it’s a way to get into places you probably shouldn’t be.

Michelangelo

No, not the Ninja Turtle – the renaissance painter! He’s the guy who painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I’m sure when he got the call from the Pope he looked up and thought, “The ceiling? You gotta be kidding me!” Then when he saw the system of ropes he was supposed to hang from while painting he said “Oh heck NO!” and built his own platform to use. Now if he’d had access to a stairs truck you can bet he’d have immediately grasped the potential. Remove a section of wall, drive in and paint with ease! Just think of all the amazing ceiling paintings there might have been if only stairs trucks had been invented a little sooner.

Tom Chilton

For those of you who are fans of motorsports (or if you’ve been following this blog for a while) the name might ring a bell.  Tom Chilton is an auto racing driver who has spent a good portion of his career racing in the British Touring Car Championship series, the World Touring Car Championship, Formula One… blah blah blah.  Whatever.  What REALLY matter is, he has driven a stairs truck!  And not just driven it, RACED it! That automatically makes him one of the coolest people of all time.

 

 

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Nope, this picture has nothing to do with stairs trucks.

The Little Air Show That Could

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When you think of air shows, what comes to mind? I typically think of big spectacle, big noise, lots of airplanes and lots of people. In fact, that pretty much sums up every air show I’ve ever been to. So when I first heard about the little air show, I shrugged it off. I’d see bigger and better at Osh. What could a small-town air show in the middle of nowhere possibly have to offer? As it turns out, quite a bit more than I ever expected.

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The Road To Where?

It took an hour and a half of driving deep into a very rural part of the state to get to the show. Given the rugged terrain I expected a very tiny airport perched on the top of a hill. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was a good size and situated in a nice, open area surrounded by fields and forest.

Easy Breezy

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The view of the runway from our seats.

I began to realize that I had stumbled onto something special when the police officer helping to collect admission fees noticed my airplane necklace and told me how much he liked it. My normal air show concerns – bad traffic, lousy parking and expensive tickets – were not a factor. From the time we pulled off the main road until we paid admission and parked took all of five minutes. It only took another two minutes to walk to the show grounds. And the ticket price? $10 per person!

img_5355I figured we’d spend the day jammed in the middle of a crowd, with only premium ticket buyers allowed anywhere near the flight line. Wrong! There were lots of people in attendance, but somehow it never seemed crowded. We set up our blanket and chairs in the grass facing the runway just behind a roped-off area. Yay! Front row seats! Then I realized, EVERYONE had front row seats. Well played, small-town air show. Well played!

Talk to me Goose

img_5302Once we claimed our viewing spot, we went to check out the static displays which consisted primarily of the planes that would be performing that afternoon. These included a Cessna 172, three Yak 52s and a Pitts. Oh – and did I mention two F-18 Super Hornets? Yes, you read that right! Super Freaking Hornets!!!! As unlikely as it sounds, this small-town show had managed to bring in a couple of big-time airplanes! I also have to give major kudos to whoever set up their sound system. Not only did they have speakers everywhere, they also played the ENTIRE Top Gun soundtrack (minus the love song). Oh Hell YES!!!  Because seriously, what’s an air show without the theme from Top Gun?

Kickstart My Heart

img_5485The show itself was only a couple hours long but included a nice variety of acts. There were three solo aerobatic performers, one of whom flew the aforementioned Pitts (one of my faves). The Aerostar team flew their Yaks in a beautiful demonstration of precision and grace. There was also an all-female sky diving team who performed not one but two jumps during the show.

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One of the Misty Blues (an all-female skydiving team) handing out stickers and signing autographs

I’ve seen all these acts before, or at least I’ve seen other performances very much like them, but what made this show special was the intimacy of the setting. The seats along the flight line made you feel like you were right in the middle of the action. Better still, when they finished performing, many of the pilots and some of the skydivers walked through the crowd, greeting people, signing autographs and posing for pictures. As you might imagine, this was a HUGE hit with the kids.

Military MIght

img_5484There was one kid, however, who wasn’t especially impressed. She was one of the neighborhood teens I brought with me. She sat patiently, watching the proceedings but without any real interest. That is until one of the Super Hornets fired up its engines, at which point she perked up a little. When it took off she actually looked interested. And when it did its first high speed pass she was completely hooked. I don’t think I’ve EVER seen this kid get so excited in all the years I’ve known her. Suddenly she was laughing, pointing and taking pictures. Sure an F-18 can fly into hostile territory, engage the enemy then land on the tiny, pitching deck of an aircraft carrier. Whatever.  No big deal.  But fire up the passion of a disinterested teen?  Now THAT’S impressive!  img_5481

As I drove home that evening I thought about what we had just experienced – not just the airplanes and performances, but all those excited kids shaking hands and chatting with pilots. Is is possible that a small show could inspire, encourage and engage  future aviators every bit as well as a big show (and maybe even better)?  I can’t speak for all small-town air shows everywhere, but I can say for sure that this little air show could!

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Photo by L.O’Connell, who now thinks F-18s are pretty cool.

 

This Airport Has Gone to the Dogs

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By Martin Greeson via Wikimedia Commons

Ever have a co-worker who slobbered all over the place and was always poking their nose into things? Well I have. No, I’m not talking about my fellow accountants. (Thank goodness!) I’m talking about the airport K9s. My airport has several of them and they’re awesome.

Awww – Doggies!

Currently on staff we have three German Shepherds, two German Shorthaired Pointers and one Belgian Malinois. Four of them are trained for explosive detection and the other two handle narcotic detection. Two of them are new and just joined the airport police this year. These breeds are fairly common in law enforcement because they are intelligent, strong and have a very good sense of smell. Other popular breeds include Labrador Retrievers and Beagles. (The airport used to have a Lab but he retired a few years ago.)

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Not a police dog but he gave me this sad face until I agreed to include him. How could I say no?

Work Hard, Play Hard

As you might expect K9s go through A LOT of training before they start working. In addition to learning to detect specific substances, they are also taught obedience and to be comfortable in busy, crowded, noisy environments. Once matched with a handler the two go through roughly ten weeks of training together. Then the dogs spend another 30 days becoming acclimated to the airport. During this time they are exposed to all the areas where they will be working, including baggage handling areas and cargo buildings.  Once that is completed the K9s and their handlers go through final certification and then they are ready to work. And by “work” what I actually mean is play. For a K9 work is fun. If they aren’t having fun then they won’t work as hard, so handlers make sure that every day at work is exciting and interesting for their canine partners.

Retired MWD comes home

By Sgt. Barry St. Clair via Wikimedia Commons

Pampered Pooches

Well… I guess you wouldn’t exactly call them pampered, but K9s are a huge investment and a huge asset for the airport, so we want to take good care of them. Since they burn a lot of calories every day, they get special food to make sure they get the right nutrition. They get regular visits to the vet for everything from routine vaccinations to grooming and nail clipping. We also make sure they have good quality toys to play with. (K9s love their Kong toys as much as any dog!) Even their transportation is special – they ride in SUVs which have K9 inserts with window guards, door panels and even heat sensors to make sure they stay safe when they travel.

img_1941K9s in the Crowd

These days K9s are becoming more and more valuable for their ability to detect explosive materials in crowds of people. Over the last few months I have participated in several big events at the airport which have been attended by city and state officials. The K9s were there as well, mingling with the crowd and keeping their eyes… well, OK, their NOSES on the event. I also see them in and around security lines.

The Nose Knows

How sensitive is the K9 nose? I recently read about an incident at an airport in which a K9 detected an explosive substance in a briefcase. When the briefcase was opened they discovered a business card that had belonged to someone who worked with fertilizers and other hazardous substances. The K9 was able to smell those substances on the card INSIDE the briefcase – their noses are THAT sensitive! Last weekend a K9 working in a cargo facility at my airport detected an explosive substance. The facility was evacuated and the bomb squad was brought in. It turned out to be a similar situation – the K9 had hit on very small traces of potentially explosive elements that at some point had come into contact with non-hazardous cargo. Even though there was no threat this time, I feel safer knowing that super-sensitive K9 noses are on the job!

MOD Police Search Dog

By Harland Quarrington via Wikimedia Commons

Ambassadors

Although it’s not an official part of their responsibilities, in many ways the K9s also serve as good-will ambassadors. There’s just something about seeing dogs at work that never fails to make me smile.  Even though their role at the airport is an incredibly important and serious one, they make the place seem a bit more friendly somehow.  And I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that way.  As I was leaving work the other day I saw a female passenger sitting in one of the pre-security waiting areas.  Normally passengers look bored or maybe a little anxious, but she caught my attention because she had the biggest smile on her face. Then I saw what she was looking at – one of the K9s was nearby.  Awww – who’s a good doggie!

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Beautiful Noise

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By Landmark9254 Creative Commons

Close your eyes for 15 seconds and just listen. Did you hear any airplanes? I did. I hear them all the time. You’d think I’d get used to them or that I’d tune them out but I don’t. In fact, I LOVE the sound of airplanes! No, I can’t tell a GE engine from a Rolls Royce but I know what awesome sounds like – it sounds like 140+ commercial flights each day with a bunch of GA mixed in! (Well OK, awesome REALLY sounds like a C-5 screaming past as it takes off, but sadly we don’t have any of those at my airport, so cut me some slack.)

IMG_3601At My Desk

I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t a teeny bit disappointed on my first day at the airport when I discovered that my desk isn’t near a window. Then as I was getting settled in I heard a muffled roar. And then after a bit I heard it again. And then again. And then I realized the south runway was just outside the department and the muted thunder I was hearing was the sound of airplanes taking off and landing. Sweet!!! Maybe I couldn’t see airplanes from my desk, but hearing them was just as cool!

IMG_1440What Time Is It?

There are three gates outside my office – one usually hosts Airbuses (A320s mostly), one handles RJs and you can often find MD-80s parked at the third. I don’t always notice the Airbuses coming and going. I think its because that gate is a bit farther away from where I sit. I do notice the RJs though. One in particular has an APU that has such a high-pitched whine it makes my teeth hurt. (Fortunately I haven’t heard that one in awhile.)

There is, however NO mistaking the sound of the mighty Maddog pulling up to the gate. I can hear it coming from the far end of the airfield, quiet at first but then louder and whinier and louder and whinier… “wheeeeEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.” God I love that sound! No, really! The only thing better than hearing it taxi to the gate is hearing it take off. It sounds rather like a mini space-shuttle launch. Well, OK – maybe not THAT loud, but you get the idea

IMG_1445There are several MD-80s that come and go during the day. There’s an early morning flight that usually departs around the same time I get to the office. Another arrives around 10am-ish and another shows up around 3pm. They’ve become such a part of my routine that if I don’t hear them I become completely confused about what time it is. Hey American Airlines, do you have any idea what your devious scheme to retire the Maddogs will do to me? I may never get to a meeting on time again and it will be ALL YOUR FAULT! Not long ago operations did some concrete repair on the ramp and the Maddogs had to go elsewhere for a week. It was hell. Would someone make an alarm clock with MD-80 sounds, please?!?!

IMG_4822At the Run-Up Wall

We are fortunate to not only have the south runway within earshot of my department, but there’s a run-up wall right outside. Airplanes pull up next to the wall to test their engines. The wall blocks the sound from traveling across the airfield and bothering the neighbors. Thankfully, it does not stop the sound from traveling right to me. Some of the regional airlines have maintenance facilities at my airport and they are the ones who use the wall the most. Every time I hear that breathy roar of a plane running its engines I find an excuse to sneak over to the window and snap a pic. I have about a hundred million pictures of RJs at the wall. Equally fun are the propeller planes. Buuuuzzz buzzz bizzz bzzz bzzzz bzzzz!!!!! They sound like flies caught in a spiderweb, only a million times more excellent!

IMG_1504Up top

Of course airplanes generally sound their best during take-off and landing. The aforementioned Airbus, while relatively quiet at the gate, has a delightfully buzzy, growl on take-off. Many of the bizjets are deceptively loud. “Awww, look at cute little jet! It’s taking off now and… OH MY GOD MY EARS ARE BLEEDING!!!!  How can such an awesomely huge noise could come from such small engines?

IMG_3696Probably one of my most epic airplane noise moments happened earlier this summer. For months I had been stalking a P-51 that stays in a hangar at my airport. I once caught a glimpse of it hiding behind another plane, but was unable to get a good look at it. Then one day as I stepped out onto the top level of the parking garage I heard the unmistakable sound of a WWII airplane firing up its engine. I sprinted across the parking garage like a mad woman and sure enough, there was the Mustang taxiing right in front of me. I screamed. I jumped up and down. I excitedly pointed it out to a lady who was standing there. She looked at me as if I was completely possessed and quickly hurried her children away. Whatever. I not only got to see the long-sought Mustang right there in front of me, but I got to watch (and listen to) it take off as well. Two words: Total. Awesomesauce.

IMG_2810Noise Monitoring

I’ve been told that not everyone likes noisy airplane engines. I’m sorry… what? How is that even possible? However, since these people apparently do exist, my airport has a noise abatement program which includes things like sound proofing nearby homes, installing noise monitoring equipment, blah, blah, blah.  I’ve got a better idea.  I think they should give me the CEO’s house, which is located right next to the north runway. (And I do mean right next to it. Most people have a street address – she has taxi instructions.) From there I will monitor the noise levels and contact airlines as needed.  “Dear Southwest Airlines, Flight 3597 which departed from my airport last Tuesday night was unacceptably quiet. You can do better! Thanks for your cooperation.”

 

 

Airport Olympics

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Photo by Aero Icarus, Zurich Switzerland, Creative Commons

Editor’s note: Hello friends! Just a quick note to encourage you to give a listen to the latest episode of the Aviation Careers Podcast. I was honored to be the special guest discussing careers at the airport. Hope you’ll check it out!

Welcome sports fans! I’m thrilled to be reporting live from the Olympics! I’m sorry… Who? Michael Phelps? Oh no… Not THOSE Olympics! The AIRPORT Olympics!  They go on every day at airports around the world. Let’s go live to the ramp for our first competition!

Synchronized Push-back

IMG_4554Here we see two Southwest airplanes doing their best to “stick the landing” in the synchronized push-back competition. What they are hoping you don’t notice is that one of them actually pushed back one minute before the other. So while they look beautifully synchronized at the moment, the truth is that they actually weren’t synchronized at all. Not even a little bit. As a result the judges had to deduct 9 points (from a 10 point scale). However, the planes were awarded one point each for actually departing on time.

Runway 10,000K

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Waiting for their turn to antagonize competitors

If I can direct your attention to the airfield, it’s time for the start of the Runway 10,000K. This event combines the speed and endurance of a marathon (a really, really long marathon) with the ability to manage pyrotechnics. There’s the starting gun… and there’s a flock of birds! The competitors are sprinting to the approach end of the runway where they will pause and fire the bird cannon. Ah, nicely done! But now the birds are at the departure end of the runway. The competitors are sprinting the 10,000 feet necessary before they can fire their cannons again. This event is going to take awhile – we will check back in a bit later to see how things are going.

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Crowds of athletes preparing for the Gate Dash. Photo by 周一楠 (Own work) Creative Commons

Your-Gate-Is-At-The-Other-End-Of-The-Terminal Dash

The action continues inside the terminal where we see crowds preparing for the “Your-Gate-Is-At-The-Other-End-Of-The-Terminal Dash” (commonly referred to as the “Gate Dash”). This event is a perennial favorite – no matter whether you are entering through ticketing or making a connection, the gate you need is always the gate farthest away from where you happen to be. In fact, you may have participated in this event yourself on your last trip. At my airport this is considered a sprinting event. At other airports, such as Atlanta, it falls under the marathon category.

Luggage Toss

And now it’s back again to the ramp where scores of competitors brave the elements to compete in this well-known event.  It involves IMG_4604grabbing awkward, heavy pieces of luggage and tossing them onto the mobile conveyor. Points are awarded for actually getting them onto the conveyor.  Bonus points are awarded if the bags survive the journey up the conveyor and actually make it into the airplane.  Fail to make the conveyor too many times and hopes for winning this competition are dashed… along with every fragile item inside the suitcases.

Runway 10,000K (part two)

Let’s go back to the airfield for an update.  It looks like the birds have moved over to the other runway now, forcing the athletes to cross the ramp.  Woah!  One of them almost got hit by a suitcase from the Luggage Toss competition! Another had to hurdle over one of the mobile conveyors. It looks like they’ve finally made it safely to the second runway… but wait! The birds have flown back to the first runway again!

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Airport gymnasts wait their turn to compete. Photo by By Danpaluska (Own work) [CC0]

Security gymnastics

Inside the terminal its time for everyone’s (least) favorite event: Security Gymnastics! The first competitor steps up to the mat. He’s going to attempt to remove change from his pocket while simultaneously removing his loafers. Although nicely executed, the difficulty level is low which limits the number of points he can be awarded. Now the next competitor steps up to the mat. It looks like she is going to do the exact same routine… but wait! She’s doing it in high heels! And she’s removing a laptop from her carry-on while maneuvering a stroller and carrying a screaming baby! That’s an unbelievable level of difficulty which really maximizes her points potential!

Stairs Jousting

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A big thanks to Ken Hoke (Aerosavvy) for recommending this gif!

I saved the best and most daring competition for last! Of course I can only be talking about Stairs Jousting! And if you are looking at the footage, no, that’s not me on the fourth step waving a pitchfork. I don’t know what you are talking about. I disavow all knowledge! Besides, we all know that true Olympic Jousting Masters use STAIRS TRUCKS. Because nothing intensifies competition like horsepower!

Stair Truck Jousting

My trusty stairs-jousting steed.

OSH16 is P.A.S.T.

IMG_4431The last week of July I once again ventured forth to the aviation mecca that is Airventure Oshkosh. My happy place! This was my third year going and every year I’ve stayed longer and done more. (Yet I still missed things I really wanted to do and see. How the heck does that keep happening?) As you might have guessed from the title of this post, P. A. S. T. stands for more than just days gone by. It’s my way of summarizing what Oshkosh means to me.

A is for Airplanes (Yes I’m going out of order.)

IMG_4433OK, EAA – have you been stalking my twitter feed or reading my private diary? (I don’t keep a private diary, so that would be really weird.) The planes on display at this year’s show featured pretty much all of my faves including:

-The C-5 Galaxy
-The A-10 Warthog
-The F-18 Hornet
-An Alaska Airlines 737-900ER
-A Cathay Pacific 747-8 (which I missed because I left the day it arrived)
-More WW II era planes than I ever thought I’d see all in one place

FullSizeRender (49)I walked in, around, under and through as many of these planes as I possibly could. But even better than the planes on the ground were the planes in the air. The F-16 and F-18 demos were spectacular. The aerobatic performers were breath-taking. The Martin Mars water bomber was so unbelievable I just stood there with my mouth open. Team AeroShell in the night show was absolutely gorgeous!

IMG_4434Although it’s nearly impossible to pick a favorite out of all the performances, I’m going to have to give a nod to the Canadian Snowbirds, who put on a show that I struggle to put into words. If the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels demonstrate power, then the Snowbirds demonstrate poetry. Lyrical isn’t typically how I’d describe an air show performance, but it’s the only word that really fits.

P is for People

IMG_4184This year I finally learned why Airventure is often referred to as an aviation family reunion. For me it began with Laura, my travel companion, who is an awesome friend that I hadn’t seen in almost two years. She’s not an #avgeek but she is a photographer who found a ton of material to capture at Osh. She fell in love with the warbirds and their nose art. When we stumbled upon the WWII encampment she was in heaven. Day two of our visit she embarked on a “chicks that rock” campaign whereby she got her picture taken with every female service member she came across.

The reunion theme continued with all the great online IMG_4029friends that I got to meet face to face, many for the very first time. It started on Tuesday at the fabulous Oshbash, hosted by Dan Pimentel and Airplanista. I don’t want to try to list names because I know I’ll leave someone out, but I was almost overwhelmed by all the hugs and friendly faces. This continued through-out the week. One friendly face that I got to see for a second year in a row was Kevin Lacey from Airplane Repo. I told him about my first flying lesson and he encouraged me to get my butt back in a plane for lesson number two.

I also got to meet the entire Canadian Snowbird team. First they impressed me by taking time to join the crowds who were applauding the honor flight veterans. Then they came over to the fence and chatted with everyone while signing posters and posing for pics. They were extremely friendly and open – terrific ambassadors for aviation.

IMG_4438Probably my biggest “people moment” actually involved two complete strangers. The A-10 is one of my very favorite airplanes and although I have seen an A-10 before, I have never gotten to see one fly in person. I just happened to be in a good spot relatively near the flight line when they arrived. I was so excited and overwhelmed that I was in tears. There were a couple of guys there who, instead of thinking I was crazy, totally understood how I felt and talked with me for a bit about why A-10s are so awesome. That moment really epitomizes why I love Osh so very much. Not only am I surrounded by amazing planes, I’m surrounded by amazing people who share a passion for aviation and who understand each other. For at least one week each year I don’t have to explain why airplanes are so cool.IMG_4303

ST is for Stairs Trucks 

You knew I wasn’t going to leave them out! Don’t worry – all the Oshkosh stairs trucks are present and accounted for. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t take every opportunity to get up close and personal with them. I’ve even discovered yet another reason why stairs trucks are awesome – they’re an excellent way to get a birds-eye view of all the airplanes in Boeing Plaza!

OSH17

IMG_4432I never knew four days could go by as quickly as my four days at Airventure 2016 did.  It seemed like we had just arrived when suddenly it was time to say goodbye. And oh how I hate saying goodbye!  Leaving Oshkosh was really, really hard to do.  But a stop by O’Hare for a little plane spotting with a couple of twitter friends sure helped a lot.  And looking ahead to Osh17 helps too.  As Chris Palmer put it on his post-Osh podcast: whatever it is that you love about aviation, Oshkosh has it.  IMG_4440Commercial airplanes? Vintage? GA? Helicopters? Balloons? Yes, yes, yes, yes and YES! So how about it?  Will YOU be at Osh17? Sure hope to see you there!

Special thanks to my Osh16 partner in crime, Laura Kenneson, for walking a million miles on blistered feet, for not laughing when I suggested we stop by O’Hare on the way home and for allowing me to use some of her awesome pictures on this post.  

Also, if you haven’t listened to Airplanegeeks podcast #412, check it out.  Not only does Rob Mark provide an excellent Osh wrap-up, but David Vanderhoof shares his story “Suzy Goes to the Stars” which happens to feature a couple of cameos by a stairs truck with a very familiar name…

 

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Airport Tales: Captain Al

 

By RHL Images from England (Busy Holding Points) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsAnd now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for: the third installment of Airport Tales! This time around we’ve hopped “across the pond” to chat with Captain Al Evans.  Al flies with a major UK airline, but over the course of his career he’s flown pretty much everywhere and has some great stories and insight to share.

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Background:

Tell us a little about your background as a pilot, how you got started, what you do now and where your travels typically take you:

Captain AlLike many aviators, my passion for flying came from my Dad. He was and still is an inspiration to me on many levels. Coming from a rural background in wartime Britain his opportunities were limited but he grasped the opportunity to join the Royal Air Force with both hands. He started out as an apprentice radar engineer and showed great promise, not only in his trade but on the rugby pitch (being Welsh and fast he was a natural selection). An unique set of circumstances led to him leaving the air force, unable to fulfill his ambition of transferring to air crew. He had all the skills and acumen but lacked one thing – colour vision! Despite having umpteen Air Force medicals this small hiccup had been undetected, and what’s more, scuppered his current trade as engineer too. After many deliberations the Air Force accepted that they had caused his colour blindness and he left. Many years later, when I was six, my father reignited his passion for flying by undertaking his Private Pilots License (PPL), paid for by my grandmother who very astutely wanted to see her children enjoy their inheritance whilst she was still alive! My dad was a natural and went on to represent Great Britain in Precision Flying and Rallying for many years.

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By Valder137, Creative Commons

As for me the spark was ignited, but when I was old enough flying jobs were as abundant as rocking horse dung. So I fell into other careers: radio presenter, audio engineer, music producer, videotape editor and finally special effects compositor for feature films and commercials. This created the income and one day in a high street newsagent I saw a copy of Pilot magazine and bought it. At the back of the magazine was a full page advert for a UK PPL in 21 days in the Florida sunshine for the grand sum of £1999. The spark turned into a flame and 2 weeks later I started in Ormond Beach, Florida. Part-way through the course I telephoned my dad and told him what I was doing and he said “great, let me know how you get on”. The following week he turned up completely out of the blue on the day of my General Flight Test and congratulated me face to face for my initiative and hard work. For me there was no going back and with my parents backing and support (something they have always given regardless of my plans) the journey to commercial aviation began.

Chuck Yeager, NF-104

Chuck Yeager is a great guy, but sadly he’s not a natural Al. (U.S. Air Force photo)

I completed most of my training in Florida with the odd bit in the UK. I worked exceptionally hard to achieve the required standards and some failures (with the subsequent retests) were necessary but on reflection they made me a better Captain – not everyone is a natural Chuck Yeager!

Having flown in the Caribbean for a while, I returned to the UK and started in the right-hand seat of a Jetstream 41 flying domestic and international flights ostensibly from Cardiff. There is no doubt in my mind that flying a 29 seat turboprop is the perfect way to cut your teeth in European commercial flying, a career route that is fast becoming defunct!

Within the same airline, albeit after a rebrand, I flew the Embraer 145, the Jungle Jet, named after its Brazilian heritage. It was a wonderful aircraft, a junior B757, but it wasn’t well suited to British short runways or crosswinds!

FullSizeRender (48)There was an employment bubble, the world of aviation is cyclical, and I seized the opportunity to join a major player in the UK aviation world. The interview was a chat with two management pilots – no computer tests or HR trickery, and the deal was struck, or at least I thought so! A phone call later gave me an unexpected option Boeing or Airbus? Truthfully one look at the the beautiful A330 made the decision easy and the course date was set. A period of time flying the company A320/1s was required before I could get a go of the Big Bird, that time was quick and the delights of stormy nights in the Greek Islands was soon replaced by stunning visual approaches in the Indian Ocean! I still flew the narrow bodies but my time was mainly A330, it was a wondrous period of my life – I think I got married round about now but I’m not sure!

Command beckoned and a return to narrow body flying became the norm. Being a Captain in an airline that empowers its Captains brings many challenges and joys, but I can truly say not a day goes by where I don’t learn something new and enjoy myself.

Airport stuff

Favorite airport to fly into/out of (in terms of approach/departure) and why:

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By StromBer (own work) Creative Commons License

My favourite airport of flights past is Malé International in the Republic of The Maldives.  Why? Because after flying for over 10 hours through the night the beauty of the world is presented in a plethora of beautiful colours, as the sandy atolls poke out of the azure waters. The airport itself was a joy and visual approaches were often the norm. The airport has a long tarmac runway and a somewhat shorter water runway. I can honestly say I only ever landed on the long one! The ability to call visual with over two hundred miles to run and hear the gentle squeak of rubber on tarmac as 11 hours clicked over was unforgettable.

Most challenging airport you have flown into/out of and why:

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By Ayala (Own Work) Creative Commons License

Currently my favourite airport is also one of the world’s most challenging, Gibraltar. A short runway clinging to the side of a rock with sea at each and and no instrument approaches focuses the mind on a regular basis. There is nothing more satisfying than achieving a smooth touchdown after spending many minutes battling with horrible orographically produced winds. Gibraltar often has a tailwind on both ends of the runway!

Biggest airport-related hassle:

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Hey now… that’s a Boeing! How did it sneak in here? Oops! Sorry about that Al!

Security is now part of our lifeblood in aviation but standards vary greatly, not just from country to country but airport to airport. It is time that ICAO mandated that whilst no pilot is perfect, of can of Pepsi in the hands of a pilot is not a security risk. Many pilots these days judge airports more on their practical and common sense approach to the landside/airside transition than more aeronautical related facilities. Some airport genuinely view pilots as part of the problem and not part of the solution! I do not need a 330ml can of Pepsi to cause harm when there is a fire axe on the flight deck and within my reach!

Airport/FBO you’ve been to with the best coffee? Food? Other amenities?

My turnarounds are often short (less than an hour) so my interface with terminals/FBOs is minimal but any handling company that provides free doughnuts gets a thumbs up from me (thank you Calgary)!

Strangest airport-related incident:

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Virginia State Parks, Creative Commons License

The strangest airport experience I ever had was when I was deadheading from New Dehli to Dabolim (both in India) when we were asked to evacuate the aircraft via the forward doors only. Once outside and fearing the worst we could see what the problem was – a huge swarm of hornets had covered the entire tail section of the aircraft, there must have been millions of them! From the relative safety of an airport bus the fire brigade tried to disperse them by spraying them with water – it didn’t work and the flight was eventually cancelled! I know not what happened to the hornets or indeed the aircraft but I did make it to Dabolim, eventually!

In your opinion, what qualities make for a good airport (as a pilot and as a traveler)?

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Ha ha ha Boeing, very funny. Now cut it out!

As an industry we have faced many challenges in the past 20 years or so, but airports must become more open minded and become ‘user friendly’, nobody likes queues and often they are as a result of poor design and poor implementation. Our customers face huge delays in proceeding landside to airside with little justification. Our airports have become soulless people processors. Once airside opportunities are missed, does your airport offer a choice of full service restaurants? Very few do, favouring a selection of fast food & fast eat options. Not everyone is in a rush! We need to put some soul and passion back into our airports – no more grey or beige corridors please!

If you could operate any piece of airport equipment/vehicle, which would it be?

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Pushback tug. Hey.. wait just a minute! Thought we wouldn’t notice, huh Boeing? Well we did. Now stop it!

I have often mused about taking a pushback tug down to my local pub! No parking spaces? No problem! Some years ago when Milan Malpensa airport opened its new terminal they provided crew with electric scooters to get to the gate – there is nothing more surreal than watching 3 pilots and 14 cabin crew racing down the concourse on scooters!

Is there anything airport staff can do to better support you?

If I could ask airports to provide one thing it would be a courtesy filter, nobody should be allowed at an airport unless they can be courteous. Every week I find myself dealing with rude and disrespectful people and it seems to be getting worse. My industry once led the world in service and style alas no more or perhaps I’m just getting old!

Anything else you’d like to share?

MarkJHandle by Creative Commons

OK Boeing, now you’re just showing off.  Seriously that’s enough! Cut it out! (Photo by MarkJHandel, Creative Commons)

I don’t want to end on a negative so I shan’t! Aviation is a vocation or perhaps the worlds strongest drug – either way it is a truly wonderful industry and not a day goes by when I remind myself how lucky I am. And finally (if you’ve made it thus far thank you) our industry is in good hands for the future as just last night I had the pleasure of meeting Jess. She was one of my cabin crew, and at young age of 19 has embarked on learning to fly. Her commitment and enthusiasm are an aviation viagra to us old pilots.

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Getting better.  Now remove the flag…

So at this point I bid my passengers farewell, my crew adios and my wife and son hello!

Captain Al out.
Captain Al Evans

A320/1 Fleet Manchester (MAN) and Birmingham (BHX)

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Yay! Thank you SO MUCH for taking the time to share this with us Al! I completely agree with your observations about some of the challenges facing airports today. And I LOVE your choice of airport vehicle! Of course now I’m going to be sorely tempted to “borrow” the nearest tug next time I plan a night out!

One other interest that Al didn’t mention is his desire to help people who have a fear of flying.  Check out his awesome website: flightfearsolutions.co.uk!

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Ah, there we go!