Aviation Appreciation

DE18EC16-532D-42AA-A67A-4BFB4068CAB2This is not the blog post I intended to write. I originally planned to outline all the things that avgeeks can do to try to cope with Severe Aviation Deficiency (aka S.A.D) brought about by the current pandemic. I may still write that post eventually. But the fact of the matter is, I don’t want aviation subsitutes. I want real airplanes and I want them RIGHT NOW.

I know, I know. I’m being selfish and silly and maybe a bit juevenile. But as I’ve written before, aviation is more than just a passing interest. It’s a passion. It’s therapy. It’s a community. And I’m REALLY missing all of that.

70F3550F-086E-4E78-8740-F6CE7B1D61F3If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile then you may recall that my mother passed away last year. I still miss her a lot. Then a few weeks ago my brother’s wife had a massive stroke. She collapsed suddenly and had to be life-flighted to a hospital for brain surgery. She survived – a miracle in itself – but she’s facing a very long road to recovery. I’ve been helping my brother with his blog, which he is using to keep friends and family informed.

4DB6968B-0768-4B23-ACC9-DBD3DF689890So you see, I’ve been in dire need of a little aviation therapy. Unfortunately, I’m not at the office these days so the only planes I see are those that happen to fly over my back yard. Then I got an email with two small words that brightened my whole week: military charters. TWO of them! A B767 AND a B777 – planes we rarely get to see. Better still, they’re being flown by an airline that rarely visits. This, my friends, was just what the doctor ordered!

But would I be able to catch both flights? After all, I’m working from home so I can’t just take a break and go upstairs for a few minutes. I need at least half an hour to drive to the airport, park and get into position. As luck would have it, the B767 arrived on a Friday evening. It was delayed until well after I had finished work for the day, so I had no trouble getting there in time to see it.

5271AFF1-74D5-4702-A462-63A676D2EEDFThe B777 on the other hand, was much more of a challenge. It was originally scheduled for a Saturday arrival, which would have been great. Then they pushed it back to Thursday morning. Noooooo! Not good! But… a B777! In my nearly six years at the airport I’ve never seen a B777 there. I did NOT want to miss it. What’s an avgeek to do?

I did the only thing I could think of: I took time off work so I could spend time at the office. I know – that sounds completely ridiculous. (Thanks pandemic!) But hey, I did what I had to do. And it was soooo worth it – not just for the airplane (which was fantastic) but for the time I got to spend around other spotters. Thankfully, it is easy to watch airplanes and still maintain an appropriate distance from others.

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A spotter and his dad.

Actually, I was surprised how many people were there, including a number of younger spotters I had never met before. Several parents and siblings had also come along. There were so many faces peering over the wall of the parking garage that it caught the attention of some members of the Airport Operations Department. After the 777 parked, they came upstairs to greet the spotters and talk to them about possible careers in Operations. How cool is that!? I am SO GLAD I work for an airport that appreciates and encourages a passion for aviation!

So, am I feeling better now? Yes! It makes me happy to know that there are still cool airplanes and interesting liveries to see. And if having more free time during the pandemic has encouraged new avgeeks, then that’s a silver lining that makes life’s challenges a little easier to bear. 0004CA7E-79F8-40CD-972A-F03B3C120F0E

The Pandemic and Airport Life

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There has been a lot of discussion about how the covid-19 pandemic is affecting the airlines, but what about airports? As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, every airport is different so the level of impact will vary depending on the types of traffic an airport has, how their financials are structured, etc. That said, there are some commonalities. I can only speak to what I’m seeing but you can probably draw some parallels to the airports that operate near you.

Like most airports, we get revenue through things like parking fees and concessions. We also get revenue from third parties who pay for the right to do business on airport property (like Uber and Lyft, for example) and through advertising in and around the terminal. We get income from the airlines as well, however those fees are structured to cover the cost of actually operating the airport itself. They pay a portion of terminal costs through renting gate/ticket counter/hold room space, and they cover the costs of airfield and ramp maintenance through landing fees.

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So, just how bad are the numbers right now? On a normal day in April we’d typically have around 13,000 enplanements (passengers boarding flights). This April there were days when we didn’t even have 500 enplanements. Let’s look at one of the major legacy carriers – we’ll call them Airline A. They aren’t the biggest operator for us in terms of flights or passengers, but they still do a fair amount of business at our airport. In April 2019 Airline A and its regional partners had just over 800 landings and around 67,500 enplaned passengers. In April 2020 they had 150 landings and 5,700 enplaned passengers. That’s a decrease of about 82% in landings and 91% in enplanements. When we widen the view to look at total passengers across all airlines, there was a decrease of approximately 95% in April 2020 compared to April 2019.

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Needless to say, those numbers are not enough to support the airport ecosystem. Most of the food vendors and shops have closed. At least one has closed permanently. Some of the parking lots had to be closed as well because there were so few cars it made no sense to continue to staff lot attendants or shuttle drivers. As you can imagine, revenue for the month of April was way down.

To try to mitigate the loss of income we’re doing what many other businesses are doing – cutting expenses where we can, and revising the budget to reduce spending as much as possible. We are also scaling back on capital projects, focusing only on those that are essential to the continued operation of the airport. We will be getting some assistance in the form of funds from the CARES act, which will help keep things moving, for awhile at least.

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Then there is the challenge of trying to meet social distancing and other health mandates while being mindful of expenses. Take parking, for example. Anyone who parks in a lot must ride a shuttle to get to the terminal. In order to meet social distancing guidelines, half the seats will need to be blocked off. This may not be such a big deal while passenger counts are low. However, as people return to flying it will become increasingly difficult to accommodate everyone. Do we buy more shuttles? They aren’t cheap.

With so few flights currently, we’ve considered combining the airlines into two concourses and closing the third. On the surface this sounds like a good idea. It would allow the airport to concentrate the efforts of the custodian teams and perhaps allow for reduced utility usage in the unused concourse. Except it isn’t that simple. Lease agreements take time to work through – how do you reassign the gates? How would this affect the baggage systems? And what would it mean for social distancing if employees and passengers are concentrated into two concourses instead of three?

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Cargo has been a bit of a lifeline for the airlines, and the same is true for us. While traffic at the passenger airport has been anemic, our nearby cargo airport has seen traffic levels hold nearly steady. Interestingly, many of our regular international cargo carriers did not have any landings in April. However we saw an increase in charter flights which made up most of the difference.

So what does the future hold? Given the unprecedented impact the pandemic has had on the travel industry, it’s hard to say. We will need to be patient and thoughtful. And we’ll need to continue to maintain good relationships with the communities we serve as well as our airline partners. We are, after all, in this together.B0C32904-4CFF-4A2D-94F7-847327DF1BAB

Battleships, Blackbirds and Tough Times at the Airport

C7A82B02-1E14-4212-88E2-1DC5FB1C1808Before the stay-at-home orders for the Covid-19 pandemic started, I was able sneak out to Pensacola Beach, Florida for a quick vacation. I had hoped to make a return visit to the Naval Air Museum while I was in the area, but it was not open to the public. Instead I drove over to Mobile, AL to visit Battleship Memorial Park.

Tough Ship (and Planes)

C851E28E-A66C-47A2-8098-EDDAD82E98F1As the name suggests, the main attraction is the USS Alabama, a World War II-era battleship. Parked right next door is the USS Drum, a Gato-class submarine. Both were open for self-guided tours. I have never been on any kind of military vessel before… oh my goodness the crazy steep stairs! I cannot imagine what it must have been like to climb up and down them while out at sea. Needless to say I have an even greater appreciation for our Navy and Marine service members .

Of course, what I was most excited to see were the airplanes. There were a number of them scattered around the park grounds, including a B-52, an F-15, an F-16, and a C-47. However there was also an aircraft pavillion where the REALLY cool planes are stashed. First to catch my eye when I walked through the door was a Blackbird – more specifically, an A-12. They look virtually the same , but the A-12 could fly a little faster and a little higher, and was used by the CIA for spy missions.BC68A85C-ABE6-4FBE-9C81-A3891C485F77

On the opposite side of the pavillion was an F-14 Tomcat. Oh how I love that plane! It looks fast and mean just sitting on the ground. There are several other fascinating airplanes and helicopters on display including a P-51 Mustang and an F-18 Hornet. Over-all I found Battlefield Memorial Park to be well worth the visit. If you are ever in the area I strongly recommend you stop by and give it a look.

Meanwhile at the Airport…

As I mentioned in my last post, I am working from home these days. However, I had to stop by the office recently to pick up a few items. I thought I was prepared for what I was going to see. I wasn’t. Empty parking lots. No shuttles or buses or ubers. No traffic at all, really. And, except for a few bored agents at the ticket counter, no people. The restaurants are closed. The stores are closed too. And yet, upbeat music played over the PA system, along with routine announcements – as if nothing at all was amiss. But then there were also recorded reminders about social distancing and quarantines. Actually it was quite eerie.FE9B9EE7-B639-4F06-9C1D-AB34B85949D3

It was equally disturbing to see all the empty airplanes sitting around. A regional airline has parked nearly three dozen ERJs on the south cargo ramp. Each unused airplane represents dozens of people in the aviation and travel industries who aren’t working right now. For the airport, those idle airplanes mean no passenger parking  income, no concession income, and very little in the way of landing fees or PFCs. Things are tough all over.905AFDC8-5B18-48EC-B32A-D4E2E3DD5A55

But there is a little bit of good news in the midst of the gloom. Although the passenger airport is unbearably quiet, the cargo airport has managed to stay busy. There has been a reduction in flights by some carriers, but there’s been steady traffic from others like Cargolux and Cathay Pacific. Chartered cargo flights have actually increased. Many of those flights have been delivering medical supplies and other items that are critically needed.2DA3F260-D25E-422E-9940-A72A0B9FDF09

From a financial standpoint, the activity at the one airport cannot begin to make up for the lack of activity at the other. But right now we’ll take whatever we can get. And having those cargo planes overhead helps calm my aviation withdrawal symptoms. Unfortunately, my serious case of stairs truck deficiency continues.
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In Sickness and in Health

B840FCF8-EF57-4FE3-A150-E3D37EC8AA15There’a an ancient curse (of unclear origins) that says: May you live in interesting times. Sadly, times are very “interesting” right now. The impact of Covid-19 has hit the world like a steam roller.

This potentially fatal illness has shuttered businesses from beauty salons to the DMV. It has closed schools and restaurants. People have been forced into quarantine. Sports have been put on hold. Gatherings and events have been canceled. Airlines and airports (and all the businesses that support them) have been decimated. It’s awful. It’s ugly. And then things REALLY took a turn for the worse. Why? Because I’m WORKING FROM HOME. What??? Nooooooooooooo!

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I miss this sooo much!

Yes, I know – there are many people who would love to work from home right now but they can’t. I get it. But… being stuck in the spare bedroom, far away from my beloved airport is breaking my heart. It’s been a grand total of one week so far and things are NOT going well.

First of all, my new coworkers suck. They constantly want to be let outside. And back in again. And then back out. And in. They start screaming for a lunch break at 9:00am. And one of them ripped my potted plant out by the roots for the FOURTH time. Even worse, they know NOTHING about airplanes. They couldn’t care less.

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This is what should be outside my window.

Then there’s the view out the window. BORING!!! There’s not one airplane outside. Parking a large jet out front would probably not go over so well with the neighbors. However, at this point I’m seriously considering ways to sneak a bizjet or two out there. A Gulfstream would fit in my driveway, wouldn’t it?

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This is what is actually outside my window. So not OK!

And then there’s the lack of plane spotting. The only planes I can see from my garden are the ones that fly over when the 28s are in use. But it has been really cloudy so the airplane count has been an appaling 0. You read that correctly – Z.E.R.O! Even on the quietest days there is usually some activity on the airfield to watch, but now I’m deprived of even that.

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Yes, I do have a large aerial photo of an airport in my home office. Doesn’t everyone?

So what is a poor avgeek going through aviation withdrawal supposed to do? Well I’ll tell ya – it isn’t pretty. I’ve got model planes lined up by the window to try to make myself feel a little better. I staged a toy stairs truck race during my coffee break this morning. I’m monitoring Live ATC and listening to aviation podcasts. Sadly, nothing helps.

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Not as good as the real thing. Totally better than nothing

I guess all I can do is what millions of other people are doing – wait it out. One way or another Covid-19 will eventually be defeated. People will be ready to fly and the airlines will be back strong again. Until that time you can find me flipping through my absurdly-huge collection of airplane photos and dreaming of stairs trucks and jetbridges.

Author’s note: I want to give a special shout-out to the many, many people in the aviation industry who are showing up each day and putting in the hours to make sure air travel remains safe. I want you to know how very much you are appreciated. Hang in there, stay strong and be well. We will get through this.

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What in the World?!

I’m not a big fan of surprises. Surprise party? No, thanks. Surprise audit? Yikes! What about surprise airplanes? Ah! That’s the one kind of surprise I actually DO like! Over the last few years I’ve gotten to see some pretty unusual and unlikely airplanes lurking outside the office.38045232_unknown Tracking down these rare and different visitors takes a lot of practice, skill and a keen eye for… OK, fine – mostly it just takes luck. And a knack for being in the right place at the right time. However, there are a few things you can do to increase your chances.

If commercial aviation is your thing, I recommend JetTip.net. For a long time I resisted the urge to add yet another tracking service to my already large collection. But after a friend gave it a try and got a lot of useful alerts about unusual liveries and charter aircraft, I gave in. Now my problem is trying to schedule my lunch break to catch the planes I most want to see and hoping I’m not in a meeting when they arrive.

39382640_unknownIf you are interested in non-commercial planes then you really MUST listen to a scanner. There have been several instances where I’ve been watching traffic on one runway when an exchange with ATC alerted me to something interesting on approach to the other. Also, make sure you really look around carefully. I pull out my camera and zoom in on the hard-to-see places at the far end of the airfield. More than once what I thought at first glance to be just another plane turned out to be something special when I took a closer look.

So, what kind of unusual and unlikely airplanes have I spotted hiding out on the airfield? Well, my favorite catches lean towards the military, but there are some good GA aircraft on the list as well.

CT-155 Hawk

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I know I’ve found something fun when I have to stop what I’m doing and research the plane to figure out what the heck it is. Such was the case with the Hawk. Google tells me it is an advanced jet trainer – this particular one belongs to Canada. What was it doing flying around the Midwest? No clue but I’m so glad I got to see it!

Widgeon

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I had heard from one of my friends that there is a Widgeon hangared at my airport. Wait… a what? I looked it up and discovered tbat it’s a type of amphibious aircraft first built in the 1940s. I was skeptical that such a special airplane would make its home here. Then one day I spotted it parked on the ramp. I really hoped I would get to see it take off, but it was eventually towed back into the hangar. Glad I got a glimpse of it at least.

NASA T-38

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The T-38 is a fairly regular visitor to my airport, so I don’t consider them to be rare or unusual… unless it happens to have the NASA livery! Not sure how many Talons NASA has these days, but I had only seen one previously and it was at an air show. I definitely didn’t expect to see one at work!

Beechcraft Starship

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I was scanning the area around the FBO one afternoon when I noticed an unusual shape being towed across the ramp. As it gradually emerged from behind the other airplanes I became and more and more perplexed. What in the heck is that? It was the most crazy and the most excellent general aviation airplane I’ve ever seen parked outside of the office. My friends on twitter informed me that it was a Starship, one of very few still flying. Definitely one of my most favorite catches!

Navy T-6 Trainer

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As I mentioned, it isn’t unusual to see T-38 and other Air Force trainers around. But when a Navy trainer shows up you bet it caught my attention. A quick check of the map confirmed that there are no oceans in the area. No Navy bases either. That made this T-6 a special catch.

P-8 Poseidon

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I was listening to the scanner one evening when I heard ATC clear someone for a practice approach. Curious, I headed over to the runway in question just in time to see a Poseidon doing a touch and go. Um… wait… a Poseidon? Here??? I’m really starting to wonder if the Navy has a secret ocean stashed nearby.

E-9A Widget

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I almost didn’t notice this plane hanging out across the airfield until I zoomed in with my camera and saw the unusual markings. I did some digging online and discovered that this is one of only two Widgets owned by the USAF. Guess what they’re used for? That’s right – ocean surveillance!

OK, that does it. Clearly there’s an ocean hiding here in the Midwest. Thank goodness I love looking for unusual airplanes or I might never have known! Now I just need to find the hidden seaplane base – maybe then I’ll finally get to see the Widgeon fly!

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Wrapping Up 2019 with Helicopters and Airbuses

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It is late January and I finally have a few moments to catch my breath from the chaos of the holidays and the busy season at work. I am definitely looking forward to a new year filled with plenty of avgeekery! However, there are a few loose threads from 2019 that I want to tie up before I jump into 2020.

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2019 Airport Challenge

Regular readers will recall that at the beginning of last year I issued a challenge to myself (and anyone else who was interested) to  spend time at 5 general aviation airports not previously visited. So how did I do? I’m pleased to report that I met the goal! The airports I visited are:

Grimes Field I74
Chester County MQS
South Valley Regional U42
Zanesville Municipal ZZV
Brandywine Regional OQN

I only stayed long enough at Chester County and South Valley for a quick look around and a few moments of plane spotting through the fence. I spent quite a bit of time at both Grimes Field and Zanesville and have written separate posts about my visits. The Brandywine Regional airport had been on my list to visit for quite some time, in part because many of the general aviation airplanes that fly over my childhood home are based there, but mostly because it has a really cool aviation museum.

img_5171American Helicopter Museum

The American Helicopter Museum opened in 1996 after I had already moved out of the area.  The mission of the museum is to educate the public on the development and history of rotary wing aircraft, and to celebrate all things helicopter.  I confess that while I find helicopters to be quite interesting, I don’t know much about them so I really enjoyed expanding my knowledge while examining the museum’s impressive collection.

 

It is impossible to pick a favorite exhibit, however I liked the Bell AH-1F Cobra and the V-22 Osprey quite a lot. The only thing better than seeing all the rotorcraft was getting to spend time with my friend David Vanderhoof, co-host of the Airplane Geeks and UAV Digest podcasts. If you find yourself in the Philadelphia area I highly recommend making the trip to West Chester to visit the museum. And if David is there, tell him I sent you!

First Commercial Flight in Ten Years

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Does anyone know what the record is for most time spent in an airport without actually flying anywhere? I don’t even know if such a record truly exists, but if it does then I imagine I’m a contender. Between my job and my airport vacations I figure I’ve spent around 9500 hours at airports over the last few years without getting on a commercial airplane. All that changed last October when I took my first commercial flight in over ten years.

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At the risk of stating the obvious – a lot has changed in the last decade! For one thing, there are so many more little fees now. Ten years ago you picked your seat when you booked your ticket and there was no extra charge for it. There was no cost to check a bag either. If airlines had apps ten years ago then they were fairly new and not widely used. Now you can do almost everything via the app.  And yes, I paid a little extra to pick my seat ahead of time because no way in heck I was going to miss the chance to sit by a window! It was TOTALLY worth it.

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What about the flight itself? Well this was my first flight with seat back info-tainment screens. (The last time I flew they still had air phones on the back of the seats!) While most people watched movies, I spent the time tracking the flight. What a fun feature for an avgeek like me! There has been a lot made of the smaller seat pitch, tiny bathrooms and rude passengers. I wasn’t bothered by any of those things and I quite enjoyed the trip.

What’s Next?

So what’s ahead for me in 2020? More commercials flights and more aviation museums! I’m considering a return visit to the Udvar Hazy center in the spring and maybe a trip out to LAX to attend Dorkfest over the summer.  Plus I’ve booked my room for Oshkosh in July. And, as always, I’ll be keeping an eye out for those fun airport moments that make every day an adventure. Stay tuned!
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Five years!

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December 1, 2019 marked five years since I started working for the airport. That’s right – I’ve been running around like a kid in a candy store for five whole years now. How is that even possible?  I knew I was going to love working in aviation, but I didn’t anticipate how much I was going to fall in love with the airport itself. And I never dreamed that I would get to see and do as much as I have.

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I have always wanted to sneak my way into an ATC tower. This probably explains why the FAA added another set of “No Trespassing” signs around the tower fence right after I started my job. To my surprise, however, in the last five years I’ve visited all four towers at the three airports where I work plus the tower at Oshkosh. ATC towers are every bit as cool as I thought they would be.  The only thing cooler than the towers?  The TRACON! I’m still shocked that they not only let me in, but showed me around and explained what they were doing.

Being the avgeek that I am, I bring my scanner to work every day so I can listen when I’m plane spotting during my breaks. I sometimes listen to Live ATC at my desk too –  I just really like knowing what is going on. At this point I’ve listened to hundreds of hours of ATC communications dealing with all kinds of scenarios in all kinds of weather. Some of the most memorable conversations have also been the most amusing, like the pilot who threatened to do donuts on the uncontrolled ramp and another who was afraid of his 666 squawk code and requested a new one.

IMG_3142Airport Vehicles

Airport ground vehicles for the win! Who knew they were so cool?  From belt loaders to tugs to baggage trolleys and deice trucks – I’m a fan. The really crazy thing is how many I’ve been allowed to examine up close.  I’ve been able to sit in a snow plow and a fire truck, gotten to take a close look at a deicing rig and I’ve ridden around in broom truck.  I haven’t driven a stairs truck yet (the coolest of all airport vehicles), but I’ve sat behind the wheel and that’s a start!

Airplanes!

I’m not going to lie – being around airplanes every day is awesome. It doesn’t matter how many take-offs and landings I’ve seen – flying is still magic. I knew I’d see a lot of RJs and 737s around, but I had no idea I’d also get to see the occasional B767 and A330 as well.  Plus I’ve seen an incredible assortment of military airplanes including T-38s,  A10s, F18s, KC135s,  and C130s.  I’ve even seen Airforce One on multiple occasions. I also didn’t anticipate how much I was going to fall in love with business aviation.  Gulfstreams, Globals, Falcons… they stop me in my tracks every time I see them because they are just so darn gorgeous.

IMG_5307Really BIG Airplanes!

When I accepted the job with the airport authority I was excited to be working at a passenger airport, however I was even more excited to be affiliated with a cargo airport.  Why?  Because 747s!  And 777s!  And Antonovs!  There is ALWAYS something interesting to see.  On my very first visit I got to stand on the ramp and watch an Emirates 777 land and then taxi over to be unloaded. I’ve gotten up close and personal with an An124 more than once now.  Oh yes, I LOVE big planes!

Missed Approaches and other “Emergencies”

The first time I saw an airplane go around it was fascinating.  Five years later I’ve seen dozens of missed approaches I have to say… they are STILL really fascinating. They happen for all kinds of reasons, most of them entirely mundane.  Same with aborted take-offs.  I’ve seen several and they were far less dramatic than I expected.  I have also witnessed several emergency landings over the years.  They’re a bit more intense, but thanks to the efforts of ATC, ARFF, Airport Ops and the pilots, they all ended smoothly and uneventfully.

XLBSE1167Favorite Experience

It is hard for me to single out a favorite moment from the past five years because there have been so many.  As a general rule, the coolest experiences happen out on the airfield.  That’s where all the action is.  It’s also where the ground support vehicles hang out.  And it’s where the airplanes are!  If I absolutely HAD to pick a favorite, it would be the winter I trained to assist Ops with managing the flow of traffic into the deice pad.  I got to drive around on the ramp in an ops vehicle and talk to airplanes and ATC on the radio. I mean seriously –  it doesn’t get much cooler than that!  It was a mild winter so I never got signed off to manage the pad by myself but who knows – maybe one of these days I’ll get another chance.

IMG_5310 (2)On the Wish List

What would I like to do that I haven’t done yet?  Well I still haven’t driven a snow plow or gone out with the airfield team during a snow event. I’d really love to go up in the bucket of a deice rig just once.  Of course driving a stairs truck remains a goal. And I still really, really want to ride around on the baggage belt. However, I’ve recently added a new item to my wish list: making an airport-wide page. If you ever find yourself wandering through the terminal and you hear someone paging Captain Oveur to the white courtesy phone… let’s just say I’ll deny all knowledge.

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C-47 Ride – Keep ‘em Flying!

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Back in January I issued a challenge to myself to check out at least 5 general aviation airports that I haven’t been to before. The passing of my mother earlier this year forced me to put a lot of my plans on hold. As a result I haven’t been able to focus on the challenge as much as I would have liked. However recently I was able to add airport #3 to my list when I attended a cruise-in/fly-in at Zanesville Municipal Airport (ZZV).

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Adding another airport towards my goal was actually a secondary reason for wanting to attend this fly-in. The primary reason was that they were offering rides on a C-47. Normally the ticket price would have been around $200, however for this event they were offering a shorter version of the flight for less than half the price. How could I say no?

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The first thing I noticed upon arriving at ZZV is that there is a Republic F-105 Thunderchief on display out front. That’s right – this small, unassuming airport in the middle of nowhere has a totally bad-ass military plane sitting  outside the front door. That, my friends, is the GA airport equivalent of a mic drop.  Bam!

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Want!!!

Any time I have the chance to stop by an FBO, I always do. The FBO at ZZV is nicely appointed with the requisite comfy chairs, computer access and meeting rooms. The bathrooms were clean. The staff were welcoming. And they have the coolest weather vane EVER!  Seriously – I want one!

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There was a nice assortment of airplanes parked on the ramp, including a couple of bizjets and a stunning Great Lakes biplane. The star of the show, however, was Hairless Joe. Delivered to the military in 1945, this C-47 was too late to see service during WWII and so spent most of its life performing other roles. The Yankee Air Museum recently refurbished it, gave it a military paint scheme and named it Hairless Joe in honor of the C-47 that Lt. Col. Dick Cole flew in the China/Burma/India theatre.

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The C-47 is probably best known for its role during D-Day when it dropped around 13,000 paratroopers into Normandy. This was very much on my mind as I boarded the plane and took my seat, especially since Hairless Joe has a military seating configuration. This means we sat on benches along the sides of the plane rather than in seats bolted down the middle.

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I watched the engines fire up, and as we started to taxi could see the excitement on the faces of the people sitting around me.  I imagined how it must have been for the paratroopers on D-Day. I am sure there was excitement then too, but an entirely different kind.

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The flight involved a couple of laps around the airport traffic pattern, which meant lots of turns. There was also a fair amount of turbulence. The combination of the two was a bit unsettling for my stomach at first, but I focused on the view outside the window and that helped a lot. I looked across the left wing as the plane gracefully maneuvered through the sky and I thought again of the paratroopers who flew in these planes 75 years ago. Did they try to look out the windows too? Or were they so focused on the mission that they could think of nothing else?

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The flight lasted just under ten minutes. After we landed we were able to walk up to the cockpit and take a look at all the gauges and dials. As we disembarked we saw that people who hadn’t bought tickets for the flight were being allowed to climb the stairs and take a look around. There was a long line of people eager for a chance to visit the plane and touch history. It occurred to me how fortunate we are that there are organizations like the Yankee Air Museum who keep these planes flying.

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Four days later a B-17 owned by the Collings Foundation crashed at Bradley Airport in CT. Seven people were killed including both pilots and several passengers. The loss of life was devastating. The loss of the airplane was heartbreaking. The cause of the crash is still being investigated, but already there have been calls by some to end vintage plane rides.

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All airplanes require regular maintenance and  well-trained pilots. I believe that as long as the proper procedures are followed, vintage warbirds are as safe to fly as any other plane. There’s just something special about these old birds. They have character and personality that modern planes do not. Perhaps most importantly, they can bring history alive in a way that books and museums can’t duplicate. I hope they will continue flying for many years to come. Would I fly on one again if given another opportunity? Heck yes I would! In a heartbeat!

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Outdoor Engine Switcheroo

4CE6D16A-71B3-4FC9-A95B-C612029B1C08I see a lot of the smaller commercial airplanes around every day. I love them but let’s face it, seeing the same planes all the time can get a little boring. So it’s always fun when something new and different stops by. On a recent Tuesday morning I heard that a Boeing 767 had diverted with mechanical trouble the night before. The 767 might be a common sight at some airports but it is a rarity for us, so I made a point of searching it out.

I finally tracked it down at a gate on the east side of the airport. There were no obvious signs of trouble, but I’d heard that there were oil pressure issues and that it might require an engine change. I shrugged that off. The airline doesn’t have maintenance facilities here and the available hangars would be much too small. No, I figured they’d send a mechanic to patch it up enough so it could be flown to a base. No one would try swapping out engines on the ramp, Right?

1844742E-6323-411E-B61B-8E17EBDC7C28Wrong! When I checked on the plane the next day I found that it had been moved from the gate to a parking spot on the ramp. Sitting nearby, covered in protective wrap, was the unmistakable shape of an engine. What the… Oh my goodness! They really ARE going to swap engines on the ramp!

I have witnessed my fair share of gate-side airplane repairs. It isn’t unusual to find mechanics tinkering with engines or landing gear. I’ve even witnessed a nose cone swap. But changing engines on a B767 is a different story. You can’t just dispatch one guy with a wrench to take care of it. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit two of American Airline’s maintenance hangars, so I’ve seen the equipment that is usually needed to do this kind of job. How on earth were they going to pull this off outside?

39113392_UnknownI decided right then and there that I was going to stalk the heck out of this airplane. For the next several days I spent every spare moment watching as the work progressed. I got to the office early so I could check in before heading to my desk. I spent my lunch break outside. I stayed late after work. I was kind-of obsessed. OK, actually I was TOTALLY obsessed. How often does an engine change happen out in the open for the whole world to see?

The swap began when a small army of mechanics showed up with ladders and a big blue truck with a crane on it. I could see they had opened up all the panels that surround the engine and it looked like they were busy disconnecting things. They used the crane to lift the cowling off the front of the engine and place it on the ground. When I headed home Wednesday night, they were still hard at work.

IMG_4178When I returned Thursday morning I discovered that they had managed to remove the old engine before calling it quits the previous day. The plane looked pretty strange sitting there with one engine missing! It did not stay that way for long. By mid afternoon the new engine had been hung on the wing and when I left work Thursday night they were still busily reconnecting the hydraulic, fuel and electrical lines.

I wondered how long this engine swap would have taken and whether it would have been handled differently if they could have done it in a hangar. My friend Mike from the Flying and Life podcast put me in touch with AJ, a mechanic for a major legacy carrier in the US. AJ has done plenty of engine changes both at the maintenance facility and on the road. He walked me through the basics of the process and explained that a typical engine swap on a 767 takes around 10-11 hours.

39113904_UnknownAJ told me that weather presents the biggest challenge when working on the ramp. He has completed engine changes in the rain (which doesn’t sound like fun AT ALL). He also said that they will sometime construct a temporary shelter for protection while they’re working. If the weather is really bad they’ll stop work altogether. Equipment can present another challenge. If something breaks then a replacement will have to be brought in which can take time and cause delays.

39114464_unknown.jpgIn this particular case the mechanics were blessed with lovely weather and (apparently) no equipment issues. Friday morning I watched as they closed up all the access panels and began moving the ladders and cranes away from the plane. I had spent so much time watching the work that I felt really invested in the outcome. I wanted to see the engines start up! I NEEDED to see the plane take to the sky!

39114880_UnknownI spent the rest of the afternoon sweating it out as my desk. A departure time was scheduled and then pushed back and then pushed back again. That was the longest afternoon EVER. I dashed upstairs as soon as I finished work, just in time to witness the engine start. Hooray!

They let the new engine run for a bit and then they fired up the other one. Then the plane eased forward and began to taxi out to the runway. Now came the moment of truth: how would the new engine perform on departure? The plane rolled down the runway, lifted up into the sky, executed a graceful turn to the left and disappeared into the distance. Wow! From broken to restored again in less than three days – what an epic journey!  Major kudos to the mechanics involved – and to ALL the mechanics everywhere for all they do to keep planes flying safely.

Author’s note: A very big thank you to AJ and to all my mechanic friends on twitter for answering my many questions! Also, check out season 3, episode 14 of The Traffic Pattern Podcast where Derek Vento and I talk all things aviation!

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Seeing Red (Arrows)

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When I heard that the Red Arrows were coming to the United States I really hoped I’d be able to see them. It isn’t often that the famed British jet team makes the trip across the pond. An initial glance at their schedule was disappointing – none of the venues were close to me. Then I noticed Thunder Over the Boardwalk in Atlantic City. Not only is the location near my mother’s house in Pennsylvania, but hello – it’s at the beach! Watch an air show while relaxing in the sand? Count me in!

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Then I saw that the show date was a Wednesday. Wait… Wednesday? Who holds an air show in the middle of the week? Awkward! Whatever – I wasn’t going to let that deter me.  I had to work Tuesday so I traveled late into the night to get to PA. Then I got up at the crack of dawn the next morning to drive another hour and a half to Atlantic City. Exhausting? Yes. But completely worth it because hello – it’s the Red Freaking Arrows!

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Atlantic City is… well, to be honest, it’s a not my favorite beach destination. I’ve always preferred the family-friendly seaside towns farther south over the glitter and grit of the casinos. As a result this was my first visit. I had no clue where to set my beach chair but by dumb luck I managed to situate myself at show center.

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As I waited for the show to start I couldn’t help but notice all the boats that were anchored just offshore. Watching the show from the beach was cool but watching from a boat must have been even cooler! I wondered how the event organizers maintained the required safety areas. Then I saw a Coast Guard ship keeping an eye on things.

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I realized pretty quickly that while the beach is a great place to watch an air show, it is not necessarily the best place to take photographs. The combination of the sun directly overhead and the glare off the water made the lighting pretty horrible. Then there was the wind, sand and the ocean spray that constantly threatened to muck up my camera lens. Still, the opportunity to get some pics of the Red Arrows made it worth the risk.

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The show began with the US Army Golden Knights Parachute Team. I noticed that one of them jumped with a British flag, which I thought was very classy. This was followed by some old favorites in the form of a refueling demonstration by a KC-135 and several F-16s and a very cool EC-130.

The next two performers were a bit of a surprise. First was a Shorts Tucano. The plane is small and fast and I struggled to get a good look at it. This was followed by the strangest jet I have ever seen. It had a twin tail and an odd, bulbous canopy. It was absolutely mesmerizing. I couldn’t take my eyes off it! I found out later that it was a de Havilland Vampire. After it completed its display, it was joined by the Tucano and they flew several passes together. They were an unexpected highlight of the show for me.

Then came the moment I had been waiting for – the Red Arrows! They started their display by approaching from behind the crowd and flying out over the ocean with red, white and blue smoke trailing behind.

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In many ways they reminded me of the Canadian Snowbirds, in part because there are nine of them and in part because they exhibit much of the same grace and beauty in their performance. However, they have a distinct style and flavor all their own. For one thing they fly trainers rather than fancy fighters like the American jet teams. For another the planes are red, which automatically makes them awesome. Then there’s the colored smoke. It doesn’t sound like a big deal but it brings a bit of splash and pizzaz to the performance that the other teams just don’t offer.

I wasn’t sure how the American audience filled with vacationers and families would react, especially since most were there to see the Thunderbirds. However it quickly became apparent that the Red Arrows were a hit with the crowd.  I think it is safe to say they gained quite a few new fans.

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What about the remainder of the show? Well I couldn’t tell you. I was just there for the Red Arrows and when they were finished, so was I. Was it worth traveling all that way, dealing with the crowds and the difficult photography conditions just to watch nine red planes put on a 20 minute show? Oh. Heck. YES! If you ever have the opportunity to see the Red Arrows, I strongly encourage you to go. I promise you won’t regret it!

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