Ten Things I Love About Airports

IMG_6333Let’s do a quick word association. When I say “commercial airport,” what are the first things that come to mind? Getting there and parking? (Ugh!) Going through security? (Double ugh!) Delays and cancellations? (Triple ugh!) The truth is, for most people, commercial airports do not conjure up very pleasant thoughts. Oh how I wish everyone could see the airport the way I see it! Here are some of my favorite things:

1. 05:00

I know what you’re thinking – that’s insanely early!  Yes, I know.  But there’s just something special about this time of day.  I guess it has to do with the contrast between the stillness of the airfield and the hectic activity inside the terminal.

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2. Sunrise

Sunrise is one of my favorite times at the airport. There’s something quite breathtaking about the sun peeking over the horizon and lighting up the sky. I’m blessed to have seen some truly amazing sunrises.

3. Sunset

Like sunrises, sunsets at the airfield can be pretty spectacular.

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4. Deice Pad

The deice pad can be a hectic, crazy place for all involved. But there’s something about being out on the ramp, right next to the planes that makes it completely awesome. Plus there are so many cool photo opportunities!

5. Sunrise on the deice pad

Sunrise. Airplanes. Deice rigs. Airport. Need I say more?

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6. ATC towers

I wish everyone could visit an ATC tower just once. Unfortunately, most travelers will never get the chance. It’s a shame because the activity that goes on there is critical. And the view is phenomenal!

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7. Snow

I know that snow is a giant hassle for everyone involved – believe me, I get it. But at the same time there’s just something special about snow on the airfield. Perhaps it’s taking pride in all the hard work that goes into keeping things up and running, or maybe it’s the way it swirls around the jet engines.

8. K9s

Oh how I love my K-9 coworkers! I’m lucky because I get to see them when they aren’t working, which means I get to pet them and love on them. Recently, however, I got to watch a K-9 demonstrate his skills by searching for explosive materials that were planted for him to find. I was very impressed by his focus and determination – and all he asked for in return was play time with his squeaky ball!

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9. Box of Chocolates

The airport is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates – you just never know what is going to show up! If you read my last post then you know about the visit from the A-10s. A week later two Osprey flew in. Fan-freaking-tastic!!!

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10. Possibilities

Airports represent the ability to get pretty much anywhere in the world in a matter of hours. Think about that for a moment. Consider what it took to go just 100 miles in 1817 (200 years ago). When I see airplanes at the gates, I see the ability to go anywhere and do anything. How cool is that?

11. Stairs trucks

Spinal Tap fans will immediately understand why this Top Ten list has to go all the way to 11. And what better way to wrap things up than with stairs trucks?

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Lies Plane Spotters Tell

IMG_8816It’s a sad truth and it pains me to say this but… plane spotters tell lies.  Yes, we do.  Anyone who says they don’t is… well, probably lying. We don’t mean to lie, it’s just that when you are hanging around the airfield and watching planes come and go, it is so easy to get completely sucked in and say things that you don’t really mean.  For example:

I’m not going plane spotting today. 

IMG_9501Since I work for an airport, the temptation is always there to stop upstairs and do a little plane spotting before I head home. It seems that no matter how firm my resolve to go straight to my car after work, by the time I get to the escalators I feel that irresistible urge to head on up. At that point I move on to lie number two…

I’m only going to stay for ten minutes. 

Half an hour later and I’m still there. The problem is, there’s almost always something interesting to see. In the unlikely event that there’s nothing happening on the airfield, I listen to ATC communications on my scanner. I listen to some of the airline operations frequencies as well, which can often be quite entertaining.

It’s too wet/cold/snowy/stormy for plane spotting. 

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Photo by Andrew Stricker

To be fair, sometimes it really IS too miserable outside for plane spotting. But spotters learn quickly that airplanes can be very cool to watch in rainy/snowy/windy weather. Can you say crosswind landings? On a recent stormy Friday I was able to sneak outside for a few minutes between storms. Listening to the coordination between ATC and the pilots and watching flights navigate around the weather was quite fascinating.

I’ve already got several pictures of that airline/livery/aircraft type. I don’t need any more. 

Except they’re landing from the opposite direction today… and on the other runway… and the sky is amazing… and the light conditions are just right…

I’m only going to wait a few more minutes for that flight to push back and then I’m giving up.

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I have to thank my twitter friend Andrew for coming up with this one.  It’s so true! An hour later I’m still there, still waiting for that plane to depart. Of course when I do give up and leave that’s when the plane decides to taxi out. Doh! I swear it does this on purpose just to taunt me! (I’m talking to you, American Airlines Airbus with the America West retro livery!)

I don’t need a better camera/lens/scanner.

Actually, yes I do! I really do! And once I get that new piece of spotting equipment, then of course I have to test it out! But don’t worry – I’m only going to stay ten minutes.

So why do we end up staying even though we swear we’re going to leave? Why do we make liars out of ourselves? Well…

For Moments Like This:

IMG_8472Earlier this week I decided to do a little plane spotting on my lunch break. It was hot and muggy so I told myself I’d only stay a few minutes. I was just about to (for once) head inside early when I heard a military flight contact the tower. I didn’t recognize the call sign but assumed it was probably a KC-135 practicing approaches. They often fly over from the nearby Air National Guard base. I’ve seen them several times before, however I figured I might as well stick around and watch them fly by.

FullSizeRender (70)Then I heard ATC clear the flight for the break. At that point I realized that it couldn’t be a tanker – it had to be fighters. Before I could even begin to speculate on what kind of fighters they might be, a flight of four A-10 Warthogs appeared. I calmly and patiently watched as they circled to land… OK, I’m lying again.  The truth is, I completely lost my mind.  I let out a shriek and sprinted across the parking garage (in high heels no less) while simultaneously attempting to take as many pictures as possible. I was overwhelmed with excitement, laughing, crying, jumping up and down…

IMG_9481Then I noticed that the group of construction workers who had been working nearby were slowly backing away. I must have looked like a complete lunatic. And guess what? I. DON’T. CARE. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time then you know the A-10 is one of my all-time favorite airplanes. I’ve only seen them fly once before at AirVenture Oshkosh last summer. To see them at my airport was absolutely the most unexpected, amazing thing EVER.

So why do plane spotters tell themselves these terrible lies? Because magic moments happen without notice when you least expect them. We just don’t want to miss out. And that’s the truth.

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Author’s note: In April I attended an event at the USAF Museum commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid.  If you want to hear about it and see some pictures I took of the B-25s that participated in the flyover, please check out Episode 24 of the Flying and Life podcast.

Radio Active

fullsizerender-61As you may recall, I have been training to help the Ops Department manage the deice pad on frosty mornings. This process involves driving around in an ops vehicle, giving taxi instructions on the radio, keeping a log of all the traffic through the deice pad and acting as a follow-me when needed. If that sounds like a lot to learn, it is! At this point I’ve gotten pretty good at telling the different RJs apart, I’ve memorized the call signs and ICAO codes for each airline and I can successfully manage the log. I’ve ridden along and watched the deice pad management process enough times now that I have a decent understanding of how it works. So what’s the next step? Talking on the radio.

img_7586Say What???

Yes, you read that correctly. Me. Talking on the radio. To pilots. And deice crews. And even Air Traffic Controllers. It’s unthinkable. It’s ridiculous. But, it’s absolutely true! And it’s actually kinda cool! As a recap for anyone who many not be aware, I am not a pilot. I do not work in ATC. I have zero experience talking on the radio. And if you told me a year ago that I’d be doing this I’d have laughed hysterically.

LiveATC and Radar Contact

One of the biggest things that has helped me prepare to talk on the radio has been listening to others do it. I discovered LiveATC.net many years ago and was instantly addicted. I like to listen to the feeds from LAX, ORD, ATL and CLT. These days I find myself listening to ground controllers a lot. There are many similarities between what a ground controller does, and what we do when we manage the deice pad – we clear pilots to push back, give taxi instructions and hand them off to other frequencies. img_7523

Another wonderful resource has been ATCCommunication.com and, more specifically, the Radar Contact podcast. I’ve been listening to the show for awhile now – it is very informative and I’ve learned a lot. When I realized that it was time for me to start talking on the radio, I was pretty darn nervous about it. What if I screw up? What if I say something wrong? Then I went back and listened to the episode “Making Mistakes on the Aircraft Radio.” Although the focus is on pilots, it was a good reminder for me as well. I don’t have to be perfect on the radio. I just need to be as clear as I can and not beat myself up if I make mistakes. img_7594

So Far, So Good

I haven’t done a whole lot of radio work yet, but what I’ve done so far has gone OK. The airplanes got into and out of the deice pad successfully and everyone seemed to understand me. When I get nervous I tend to talk quickly, so I try to force myself to speak slowly and carefully. I’ve learned that it’s OK to ask questions if I don’t understand or if I miss a piece of information I need – like what gate the plane is pushing back from. I promise I’m being good and sticking to standard phraseology. I won’t lie though, there are some things I wish I could say…

I CAN say: “Southwest 123, push back at your discretion, give us a call when you are ready to taxi.”

I CAN’T say: “Hey Southwest, just how fast do you taxi anyway?”

I CAN say: “American 456, taxi eastbound via the ramp.”

I CAN’T say: “Please don’t retire the maddog! Please! Please! Please!”

I CAN say: “Delta 789, contact Ground on 121.9 and let them know you’re on the north side of the pad, ready to depart.”

I CAN’T say: “Hey – can I borrow your stairs truck?”

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You never know what interesting things you might find sitting around the office

Texts from the Airport

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Have you ever had one of those needy friends who only contacts you when things are going wrong? They’ll be silent for months and then all of a sudden you’ll get a flurry of texts about this issue or that problem. I have a friend kind-of like that. It’s called the airport. The texts are actually part of an employee notification system designed to keep us up-to-date on matters that could impact us.  A friend who only texts when there are problems is somewhat annoying.  The airport’s texts, however, are both informative and interesting.

Weather Warnings

The first time the airport ever texted me it was to send me a tornado warning. This would have been useful had I not already taken refuge in one of the airport hotels. (I sat a bit too long in the parking lot watching airplanes dodge the storm clouds and nearly got blown off the road when I tried to leave.)

More recently I got this:

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Fortunately for passengers it came in the wee hours of the morning when there weren’t any flights scheduled anyway. Unfortunately for me, I was awake to receive this text because I was due in for deice pad training in just a couple of hours. Ultimately the training ended up being canceled.

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While I’m Away

Have you ever noticed that things tend to happen whenever you’re out of town? That happens to me a lot.  The airport is no exception.  While I was in Oshkosh last summer I got this text during one of the afternoon airshows:

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Well a blown tire is certainly inconvenient, especially considering the airport only had one runway at that time. However, since I was at Osh I had more important things to attend to. I hoped that would be the end of the texts, but in the middle of the night I got yet another message:

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A fire alarm in the ATC tower? That’s definitely a bummer, but its 01:40 and I’m nowhere near the tower. I’m going back to sleep!

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K9 on Patrol

Its no secret that I’m a big fan of the airport K9s. As a result, this text definitely caught my attention.

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I received several other texts after this one with updates on the situation. It took more than two hours to finally get the all-clear. Fortunately the cargo facility isn’t attached to the terminal so the passengers were unaffected and no flights were disrupted.

Oops!

One day I was busily working away at my desk when the fire alarm went off. There had been no announcement ahead of time to tell us this was a drill so we took it seriously and evacuated the building. We stood out on the ramp and watched as ARFF came zipping up in fire trucks and entered Concourse A in full gear. We all wondered what on earth was going on. Finally we got the all-clear to go back inside. Later the airport texted this explanation:

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DOH! I have to imagine the poor chef at Chili’s was just a wee bit embarrassed!

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Good To Know

As luck would have it I had not one but two pilot friends at the airport the day this text came through:

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Since both fly out of the concourse that is serviced by the South Matrix I was able to give them a heads up about the potential for delays with baggage. Fortunately the problem was quickly resolved and neither were affected.

OK, I admit it – I like getting texts from the airport. It gives me an interesting glimpse into some of the things going on behind the scenes. Plus it’s a good reminder about all the people (and K9s) who are working hard around the clock to monitor operations and make sure everything is going smoothly. But just once it would be nice to get a text message that’s a little more upbeat.  Something like: “Hey Jenn, how are you? Just wanted you to know we’re using runways 10L and 10R this morning. Have a nice day!” Is that really so much to ask?

Note: I finished the rough draft of this post on a Sunday with the intent to publish the next day.  I suppose it should come as no surprise that I woke in the wee hours of Monday morning to discover I had a text.  You’ll never guess who it was from!

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Year Two In Review

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The beginning of December marked two years of writing this blog as well as two years working for the airport. Wow! Seems like just yesterday I was wide-eyed and new, geeking out over all the activity on the ramp. Well… OK, I STILL geek out over the activity on the ramp. I just can’t help it! Here’s a look back at some of the things that happened (good and bad) in the past year.

img_5481Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first. 2016 began with the passing of my father in early January. He had been ill for a couple of years so it wasn’t unexpected, but it definitely started the year on a down note. Then in June and again in December I had to deal with health issues. The first put me in the hospital for several days and kept me away from work for another week after that. The second didn’t keep me from working, but the three weeks it took me to recover were incredibly trying and discouraging. Yeah, in some ways this was a rough year. But thankfully there were many good things that happened too.

IMG_2335 (2)First and foremost, in April I got to fly an airplane! I still don’t quite know how that happened.  Me? Fly a plane?  I half expected the FAA to show up and put a stop to it. Thank goodness they didn’t because it was a truly amazing experience. For those of you wondering when I’ll have lesson #2, I don’t know. But I do know that I will definitely get back behind the controls at some point.

Another amazing thing that happened this year was getting to be a guest on THREE aviation podcasts:the Airplane Geeks, the Aviation Careers podcast and Plane Talking UK. Talk about completely unexpected! I never in a million years thought I would end up on a podcast, let alone three of them. It was a tremendous honor to be invited and so much fun!

IMG_4440In July I made the return trip to Oshkosh. Oh how I love that place! Being around so many airplanes is always awesome, but this year I got the chance to connect with several of my online aviation friends as well. I’m beginning to understand why people refer to Airventure as an aviation family reunion!  One of the wonderful people I had the pleasure to meet was Rob Mark, one of the hosts of the Airplane Geeks and publisher of the Jetwhine blog (among other things). Earlier this month he invited me to write a guest post about my efforts to get my daughter interested in aviation. Yet another tremendous honor! If you aren’t a regular reader of Jetwhine, I strongly recommend you check it out.  It’s always filled with great aviation content.

It was a big year for me at the airport too. If you told me when I started two years ago that I’d be learning deice pad operations I never would have believed you. (But I’d have secretly hoped you were right!) And getting to visit two ATC towers earlier this month was a dream come true. I also got to see Air Force One (twice), celebrate the re-opening of the north runway, visit the cargo airport (three times) and listen to John Glenn speak at a gathering in his honor.

img_6726I am so truly blessed to work at a place and in an industry I love so much, and to have connected with so many wonderful people. A huge thank you to everyone who helped make this such an amazing year.  A special shout-out to Aerosavvy, JR and Captain Al for their guest posts. They were fantastic!  And, of course a very big thank you to all of YOU for reading and commenting on this blog!

So what does 2017 have in store? Well if 2016 taught me anything it’s that you never know what might happen. However there are some awesome things in the works, including a return trip to Oshkosh in July and a visit to Wings Over Pittsburgh in May. And maybe, just maybe, airfield driving privileges! Stay tuned!

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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!