As regular readers know, I love working at the airport. Aside from all the amazing airplanes I get to see every day, I’ve had the chance to learn about (and participate in) some of the fascinating operations that go on behind the scenes. However, my experience is primarily with the airport where I work. I rarely get the chance to travel and check out the goings-on at other airports. For a change in perspective I thought it would be fun to bring in some guest posters to share their experiences. First up is Ken Hoke, aka Aerosavvy. Ken is currently a captain with a major cargo airline. Over his career he has had plenty of interesting airport adventures and he was gracious enough to share some of them!
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.
I started flying in 1983 as a civilian. After earning my ratings, I was a flight instructor and a pilot for the Tennessee Department of Forestry where I relentlessly hunted down pine beetle infestations and the occasional forest fire. My most interesting mission for the Forestry Department was airborne surveillance of a suspected arsonist (we caught him). I also flew a variety of charter flights hauling car parts, people, and freshly harvested human organs (eyes, hearts, and heaven knows what else). My next stop was flying live humans for a regional airline.
I currently fly international routes on the 757 and 767 for a package express company. Most of my flying these days is in Asia.
Favorite airport to fly into/out of (in terms of approach/departure) and why:
One of the prettiest arrivals that I fly is to the island of Penang in Malaysia. Gorgeous. I also like Hong Kong. The controllers are some of the best in the world and the approach/departure scenery is stunning.
Most challenging airport you have flown into/out of and why:
Shanghai is my number one. It’s supremely busy, and to make matters worse, the controllers speak Mandarin to Chinese pilots and English to everyone else. I usually have a headache by the time I get to the hotel. (China ATC will be changing to all English by 2017 – I’m glad they didn’t go the all Mandarin route!)
Favorite airport to visit (in terms of facilities) and why:
Hands down, Singapore. Changi is one of the most pilot and passenger friendly airports in the world. They have a complex grid of taxiways made super easy to navigate with a computer controlled taxi light guidance system. Following the green centerline lights will guide you to the correct runway or parking bay. And the terminal… a passenger can spend hours wondering Changi; plenty of shopping and activities (including Singapore’s tallest sliding board!).
In your opinion, what qualities make for a good airport (as a pilot and as a traveler)?
Clear signage to gates, baggage claim, and ground transportation. More importantly, a variety of restaurant and coffee choices!
Airport/FBO you’ve been to with the best coffee? food? Other amenities?
It’s not very exotic, but I’ll take any airport terminal with a Starbucks open at odd hours. The staff at the KIX Starbucks (International Gates, Terminal 1) is awesome.
Strangest airport-related incident:
While flying a Metroliner (twin engine turboprop) for a regional carrier we hit a dog (maybe fox or coyote?) while taking off from a small airport. The animal ran onto the runway as we rotated. We heard and felt a thump as it struck the bottom-rear of the fuselage. Tower confirmed the mishap after takeoff. A ground crew was dispatched to remove the deceased victim from the runway. No damage to the aircraft. My first (and only) dog-strike.
Best airport-related moment:
We’ll file this under “Most Interesting” instead of “Best.”
I’m a brand spanking new first officer on a Metroliner loaded with 19 passengers. These smaller planes don’t have flight attendants so the first officer does the safety briefing over the PA from the cockpit. As I begin the briefing (“Welcome aboard XYZ Express with non-stop service to Nashville…”) the gate agent hands the captain his paperwork, pulls the cockpit curtain closed, and places her tongue inside my left ear, swirling it in a counter-clockwise fashion. As would be expected of any professional pilot, I finished the briefing without missing a beat. The captain said my face was red for the entire flight. Ah, the good ole days!
Worst airport-related moment:
I was a young J-31 Jetstream Captain (I looked about 16, and really wasn’t much older). It was the first flight of the morning in Tri-Cities, Tennessee (TRI). The airport had been hit with an ice storm, leaving our aircraft encased in ice. Even after deicing, the maintenance technician was unable to get the aircraft door open. The flight was cancelled and I was rescheduled to fly later in the afternoon. Now the fun part…
After the announcement was made that the flight cancelled, I made my first mistake by venturing to the gate to talk to the agent. I was met by a well dressed man with a briefcase. He asked me if I was the pilot for the Nashville flight. My second mistake of the day was answering “yes.” He was the only passenger scheduled on the flight and had convinced himself that we cancelled to avoid flying only one person. Explaining the problem didn’t help. He proceeded to throw the mother-of-all tantrums for the benefit of the gate agent, myself, and the custodial staff. If I had an iPhone, the video would have been internet gold. If it had been post 9/11, he would have been hauled off in handcuffs.
I should mention that he was an exception; most of our passengers were awesome.
Prettiest airport and what criteria did you use to make that decision?
As far as terminals, I love the old TWA Flight Center at JFK. Designed by Eero Saarinen, the building was the future in 1962. Saarinen also designed the St. Louis Gateway Arch – he was a genius.
Is there anything airport staff can do to better support you?
Provide unlimited coffee for all crew members and airport personnel.
If you could operate any piece of airport equipment/vehicle, which would it be?
I would love to drive a monster snow plow; the kind airports like Anchorage or Minneapolis use. They’re awesomely HUGE. A firetruck would be fun, too!
Anything else you’d like to share?
I’ll save the story about two kids barfing in the aisle of a Jetstream for another day. 🙂
Wow! Thanks SO MUCH for taking the time to share with us Ken! Ken has an awesome blog full of interesting and useful aviation information that you won’t want to miss. Check it out at Aerosavvy.com. You can also follow him on twitter – @Aerosavvy.