Osh21: Service and Inspiration

Photo courtesy of Hillel Glazer

It has been over a week since I returned from Airventure 2021 and I’m still in recovery mode. Osh is like that. It overwhelms your senses. It’s not just every type of airplane you ever wanted to see all in one place at the same time, it’s 10 or 15 examples of every type of airplane you ever wanted to see. Plus hundreds of other planes you didn’t realize you wanted to see. It’s exhausting – but in the best way possible.

Service emerged as a major theme for me this year. This is perhaps in part because I volunteered for the first time. I got an up-close look at some of the people who put in countless hours of work to make Airventure happen. Trust me, for every volunteer you see – parking cars, on the flight line, driving trams – there are many more behind the scenes that you know nothing about. Airventure would not happen without them.

Service was also front and center on Boeing Plaza. Many of the aircraft on display belong to non-profit organizations providing care around the globe. The Orbis Flying Eye Hospital (MD-10) is not just a place where sight-restoring surgeries take place, but it is also an education center where doctors in remote locations are trained to treat various eye problems.

Samaritan’s Purse (DC-8) delivers portable hospital facilities and personnel where ever help is needed. You can find them assisting during natural disasters and they even helped out in covid hotspots during the worst of the pandemic. Samaritan Air (sea plane) transports people from remote parts of Indonesia to medical facilities for treatment. A five day journey by canoe becomes a two hour ride by plane.

This year marked the first time that Airventure allowed anyone 18 and under to attend for free. Think about that for a moment. How many other events do the same? I guarantee you there aren’t many. The benefits to the aviation community are huge. Where will future pilots, mechanics, controllers, flight attendants, airport operations personnel, etc. come from if children aren’t exposed to the industry? And what better place to learn about every facet of aviation than Airventure?

But perhaps what stood out to me the most are ordinary people doing ordinary things which turn out to be extraordinary. For example, take Jennifer Duffer who is a teacher at Montgomery HS in Texas. Her engineering students built an airplane. No, not a model. Not a piece of a plane. An entire functioning airplane. And Ms. Duffer flew it to Oshkosh!

Her school is participating in the Eagles Nest Project which provided a Vans RV 12 light aircraft kit for the students to assemble. Ms. Duffer, along with a group of mentors, helped her students learn the principals of aviation as well as how to use tools, how to work together, how to read schematics, how to communicate, etc. Eventually the plane will be sold to buy the next kit for the next round of students to build. How cool is that? And what an amazing thing to put on a resume or a college application!

As you can tell, after two years away it was beyond good to be at Osh again. I missed my aviation family so much! Yes, the airplanes were amazing, but only because PEOPLE made them so. Likewise it is the people – old friends, new friends, volunteers, ambassadors and even passionate school teachers that make Airventure special. If you’ve never experienced that kind of aviation community magic, don’t put it off any longer. Make plans now for Osh22. Hope to see you there!

Want more stories from Osh21? Check out the Flying and Life Podcast for additional coverage!

Osh Returns

As I write this we are less than two weeks away from Airventure Oshkosh 2021. With covid still a factor, Osh is going to look a little different this year. Even so, I’m super excited to get back to what is always THE aviation event of the summer.

Travel Plans

If all goes well I intend to head out on the 23rd. I’ll spend the night somewhere along the way and should arrive on the Airventure grounds in the early afternoon of the 24th. My first stop is always the Quonset Hut to grab my media credentials. From there I’ll drop my gear off at my room and then head out to begin the adventure.

Osh Plans

I have compiled a tight schedule packed with specific events I plan to attend… JUST KIDDING! I have tried to stick to a schedule in the past and tossed my plans out the window ten seconds after arrival. Why? For me the magic of Osh is in all those unexpected moments that I never thought I’d get to experience. Like the time I interviewed one of the Blue Angels. And the time I visited the tower. And the time I got to be a passenger as a friend flew the Fisk Arrival. I’ve learned to keep my plans to a minimum and allow myself the freedom to jump into whatever opportunities come my way.

The Activity

That said, there are some things I’m hoping to do while I’m there. (But no promises!) I’ve been wanting to try volunteering on the flight line. Perhaps this will be the year I make that happen. There is a presentation about the Space Shuttle that I’m hoping to attend. I’m looking forward to seeing some of this year’s featured airplanes including the Orbis Flying Eye MD-10 and the Samaritan’s Purse DC-8. I know one of the pilots of the C-17 that is flying in on Saturday. I hope I can be there to watch his landing! And, of course, I’m especially excited to see the A-10 demonstration team.

The People

What really makes Osh special, however, are the people. It’s the one place where I can totally geek out and be surrounded by people who feel the same way. I have friends who I only see once a year at Airventure and I’m really looking forward to seeing them again. It truly is an aviation family reunion.

That said, there are a number of international friends who won’t be able to attend this year. It won’t be the same without them – they will be missed! So will Launchpad Marzari, who hosted the annual Podapalooza event at the Pipistrel booth. Launchpad passed away recently in a plane crash. Aviation is a small community and he was such a big part of it. His passing leaves a hole that will be hard to fill.

The Shoes

Oshkosh involves a lot of walking. I mean A LOT. Even when I take shuttles and trams as much as possible, I still find myself walking many, many miles. So even though I’m not one of those people who starts packing weeks (or days, or even too many hours) in advance, I HAVE been thinking a bit about my shoes. I’m breaking in some new pairs and I’m seeking out some new insoles. Hopefully when Osh week arrives, I’ll be ready.

The Question

So what about you? Will you be attending Airventure this year? If so, I hope to see you there! If you can’t make it this year, keep an eye on the many camera feeds that EAA puts up. I know it’s not the same as being there, but it will at least allow you to see some of the action. Also, you can follow me on Twitter and Instagram for lots of pics and videos. And stairs trucks. Of course!

OSH20 – the Week That (sort-of) Wasn’t

It’s my favorite week of the whole year! I spend 365 days looking forward to it. It’s better than Christmas. It’s Airventure Oshkosh! Except… not this year. Thanks to the current pandemic, Osh20 was canceled. There are not enough words to express how devastated I’ve been.

I tried to distract myself by taking a (socially-distanced) day-trip across the lake to a cheerful little island. But I just spent my time lurking around the airport there, looking for airplanes. I went through old photos and shared them online with the other Osh faithful. It was somewhat helpful to know that I was not alone in my grief.

In the absence of our beloved fly-in, the good folks at EAA put together the Spirit of Aviation Week. It consisted of a collection of online events and forums covering a wide-range of topics. I’ll admit I was skeptical about it at first – no virtual event can ever take the place of the real deal. But then I looked over the list of offerings and saw a few that looked interesting. So I decided to check them out. And I’m so glad I did! I carried my ipad outside, plugged in my headphones and as I listened I could almost imagine I was sitting in one of the forum buildings on the Airventure grounds.

The first event I “attended” was a panel discussion with members of the US Air Force Demo teams. Participating in the event were an F-16 pilot, an F-22 pilot, an F-35 pilot and an A-10 pilot. They discussed the challenges of keeping their skills sharp during a season when most shows have been canceled. They also talked about flying at Osh, how it is different from some of the other places they fly and how much they look forward to performing there. I was interested to learn that as a recruiting tool, the demo teams are primarily trying to reach kids ages 8-12. That seems young to me, but they say it is the best age to capture and maintain an interest in becoming military aviators.

The next event I attended was the Airline Pilot Career Outlook, hosted by United Airlines. I am not interested in becoming an airline pilot, but I was curious to get United’s take on the pandemic and the impact it is having on the industry. They reiterated what we already know – this has been the worst year for the airlines, ever. They believe it will likely be two years before they are ready to start hiring again. However, they are very cognizant of the fact that 50% of their workforce will retire in 10 years and 90% will retire in 20 years. Pandemic or not, that is a lot of pilots that will be needed. They are trying to connect with future pilots early on – a fact they emphasized by announcing their sponsorship of EAA’s Young Eagles programs.

I wrapped up the week by attending an FAA seminar entitled “Don’t Let that Airport Fool You!” With a title like that, of course I had to attend! I was curious to know just exactly how airports go around fooling people. The seminar was really about how to avoid wrong surface/wrong airport events. I learned that certain types of airport geometry (parallel and offset parallel runways, complicated layouts, etc.) can contribute to these types of events. It made me wonder how many airport planners are also pilots. Seems like it would be helpful to have hands-on experience when making decisions about taxiway placements, etc.

I really enjoyed attending these sessions and I appreciate everything EAA did to provide a taste of Airventure in the midst of a difficult year. That said, I’m really glad Osh week is over. I’m ready to stop feeling sad about what didn’t happen, and look ahead to better days. Hope to be able to see you all at Airventure 2021!

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Rock Your Wings – Flying at Osh19

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As an airport employee, I am surrounded by airplanes pretty much all the time. And yet somehow I rarely get to fly in them. I haven’t flown commercially in nearly ten years. My one and only flight in a general aviation airplane was over three years ago. Seems ridiculous, doesn’t it?

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When my friend Mike (host of the Flying and Life podcast) found out that he could leave his campsite at Airventure, go for a flight, then return to the same camping spot, he immediately decided to give it a try. He asked if I’d be interested in going along. Wait… do I want to fly at Osh? During Airventure? The busiest airport in the world? THE FISK ARRIVAL? Are you kidding me??? OF COURSE I DO!

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One of the nice things about being fairly small in size is that I left room on the weight and balance chart for Mike to bring along a couple of other passengers as well. Our friends Dr. Steph (co-host of the Airline Pilot Guy podcast) and RH (co-host of the Opposing Bases podcast) were happy to join us. Both are pilots themselves and RH is also an air traffic controller. 

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To say I was excited would be an understatement. Even taxiing out to the runway felt like an adventure. The 18s were in use which meant we taxied along the primary flight line, right past Boeing plaza. I NEVER get tired of that view! Then I saw all the people along the edge of the airfield, watching the activity on the runways and I realized that we were about to become part of the show ourselves.

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There were a lot of planes in line to depart so we had to wait our turn. Finally we were cleared to take off. The next thing I knew we were headed down the runway and I could hear Mike doing his checks to confirm everything looked good. Then we were in the air. Such a great feeling to be off the ground! Flying free! Zipping along! And… getting passed by other planes that had taken off next-to and behind us. Fine, so Mike’s Musketeer isn’t the fastest plane ever. Who the heck cares! All that mattered is we were flying over Airventure It. Was. Spectacular.

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From there Mike flew south over Fond du Lac and then west to the southern end of Green Lake, which was where the approach into Oshkosh was starting on that day. We joined the approach and headed towards Fisk. Shortly after that came the moment I had been waiting for: the command from the Fisk controllers to rock our wings. I’ve heard them say it to a million other airplanes via LiveATC and I always wondered what it would be like. Let me tell you – it did not disappoint! And Mike did not mess around – he gave the wings a good, solid rock.

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The controller asked Mike if he had a runway preference. Mike requested the 18s. I found myself with a perfect view of Airventure as it came into sight below. Mike’s downwind leg provided another spectacular look along the flight line and at all the activity in the plaza. (That view just never gets old!) He was cleared to land on the pink dot and he made his turn to final.

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About that time we all noticed a plane sitting on the runway. Mike wondered aloud if it was going to hold in position until after we landed. Just then the tower controller came on the radio and with a sense of urgency told Mike to stay in the air, maintain his altitude and not descend. The controller directed us farther down the runway at which point he cleared Mike to land.  Which he did, nicely and smoothly and without breaking a sweat. Piece of cake!

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Oh my goodness that was tons of fun! And I learned so much – about following the NOTAM, about watching for traffic, and about how good friends can make great flight even better. Perhaps most importantly, I learned that three years between GA flights is far too long. Guess I need to do something about that!

Want more? You’re in luck! A flight with podcasters and writers naturally leads to lots of content.

Full in-flight audio can be found on the Opposing Bases podcast Airventure 2019 Bonus Episode #5.

A post-flight discussion with Mike can be found on the Opposing Bases podcast Airventure 2019 Bonus Episode #6.

And OF COURSE I took lots of video! Check it out!

 

 

The Tower, The TRACON, and Me, Oh My!

36062608_UnknownI’ve got a thing for ATC towers. Who doesn’t, right? They’ve got the best view in the world! I’ve been staring longingly up at the tower at my airport since I started working there, wishing that I could get inside. I think they are aware of this because they keep adding more and more “no trespassing” signs along the fence.

Taking the hint, I’ve turned my attention elsewhere. There are three other towers under the jurisdiction of the airport authority, and I’ve visited all three. I’ve also managed a visit to the ramp tower at CLT. And earlier this year I reached the pinnacle of my tower-visiting career by spending time in the tower at Oshkosh during Airventure. It was amazing!

36062672_UnknownBut… there’s still that tower at work. The one I park next to every day. The one whose controllers I listen to all the time. I’ve heard them handle emergencies and bad weather and single runway ops. Heck, I’ve even spoken to them when I helped on the deice pad. I feel like I know these people! I’m their biggest fan! And yet, this tower has remained out of reach…

UNTIL NOW!

Oh yes, you read that correctly! I FINALLY got inside the tower and let me tell you – it was AWESOME! Ready for pics? OK, here you go!

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Yeah, that’s it. Sorry. We weren’t allowed to take photos. We weren’t even allowed to have our phones on. So the pics in this post are from other towers. You’ll still get an idea of what it was like though.

Enlight38 (1)First stop was the cab. Wow. Just… wow! No other way to describe it! The view was spectacular. The planes look so small from up there! Getting to see the airport from that vantage point was both incredible and informative. For example, I learned that the tower does not have a good view of the deice pad because it is hidden by the terminal building. I didn’t realize that before.

The flight activity was fairly light during our visit, however the airport was on single-runway ops at the time, which is always fun to watch. We got an overview of the different tower positions, then we got to chat with the clearance controller for a bit who told us about the position and what it does. He showed us the flight strips and explained how to read them. I noticed that the “Bird Stike” box on his computer screen was lit up red. He said there had been a bird strike earlier that morning. (It is migration season so there is increased bird activity right now.)

FullSizeRender (87)All too soon our cab visit ended and as you might expect, I REALLY didn’t want to leave. I was prepared with a whole list of reasons why they should let me stay:

  • I’ll wash the windows
  • I’ll fetch coffee and snacks
  • I won’t get in the way
  • I promise not to unplug anything

However, before I could start begging and pleading, the ATC folks quite wisely tempted me with an offer I couldn’t refuse: a visit to the radar room. Sweet! I’ve always wanted to visit a TRACON!

IMG_2256The first thing I noticed when I entered the room was that it is dark. Really dark. It took a minute for my eyes to adjust. When they did, I saw lots of computer stations. The controllers who work here not only handle approach and departure for my airport, but they handle all the traffic below 10,000 feet for most of the state. (There apparently used to be two TRACONS that got combined into one, which is why they cover so much territory.)

We got to spend time with two controllers who were handling the airspace right around the airport. Their manager explained what they were doing and helped us to understand the information on the radar screens. One of the controllers got a call from the tower at the cargo airport with a heads up that two military tankers were about to take off. Sure enough they popped up onto the screen a few moments later. I was a bit alarmed to see that their targets were both flashing red. The controller explained that flashing red means the airplanes are too close together. If they had been civilian flights then he would have had to act quickly to separate them. However, military flights handle their own separation, so in this case it was OK.

IMG_8431There was definitely a different vibe in the TRACON vs. the cab.  In the TRACON the focus is entirely on the computer screens. The controllers have a lot of airspace to manage and the atmosphere felt a little more intense.  In the cab the focus is on the world outside the windows. The most important thing, however, is how it all fits together to keep things running smoothly and safely.

I would have happily stayed all day, but after a few more minutes it was time for us to go. Wow! What an epic visit! I still gaze longingly up at the tower, but now it’s with a better understanding of what’s going on in there. Oh – and the window washing and snacks thing? I’m still available. Any time. Seriously.

 

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Hooray for GA!

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For me, one of the biggest perks of working for an airport is getting to learn about what goes on behind the scenes. I got another opportunity recently when my department went on a tour at our GA airport. Surprise! I bet most of you didn’t know we ran a GA airport. Well we do! And guess what? It’s awesome!

The tour began with lunch at the BBQ restaurant. Every GA airport needs a good restaurant and this one fills the bill. The food wasn’t fancy, but it was tasty and filling. Plus the service was excellent.

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After we finished eating we headed over to visit the local community college.  The classrooms for their A&P Mechanic program are located right on the airfield.  I really wasn’t sure what to expect – I figured we’d see some white boards and books and maybe an airplane or two. It turned out to be so much more amazing than that!

 

The classrooms were just like any other classroom… except they were full of airplane parts!  We got to see the  avionics workshop and the sheet metal and composite materials fabrication lab. And we saw engines.  Lots and lots of them, from piston engines to turbo props to jet engines. They were in all stages of assembly so you could get a really good look at the inner workings.  There were big engines and small ones and engines for helicopters.  I’m pretty sure I could have spent all day just looking at the engines! Fortunately the school had something even better out back… a hangar!

 

The college hangar is stuffed full of planes ranging from your basic Cessna all the way up to a Lear 25. They even have a helicopter. They all have working engines for the students to practice on, however none of the planes are airworthy. Most were donated to the school by their former owners who wanted their planes to continue to have useful lives even though they couldn’t fly any more.

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Our tour guide opened the hangar and out on the ramp were even MORE planes, including a Boeing 727 that had once been owned by FedEx. It must have been a sight to see that big plane land at that little airport. I have to admit it made me a little melancholy to see so many gorgeous planes that will never again lift off into the sky. Then I remembered that these planes play an important role in training future mechanics who, in turn, will keep other planes flying.

 

After our visit to the college we headed over to the FBO and spent time checking out the various amenities including the pilot lounge, flight planning facility and conference rooms. We also visited the hangar and talked with the FBO manager. He told us about what it is like to run an FBO and about some of the challenges they face.  The GA airport is one of 5 airports within the greater metropolitan area so they are always working on ways to attract pilots. It sounds like they have some fun events planned. They are also considering opening a flight school.

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Of course the highlight of any airport tour has got to be visiting the ATC tower. This one is open 12 hours each day. It is a contract tower which means it is privately run (as opposed to being staffed by FAA controllers). It did not appear to have radar, although it did have weather data and an excellent view of the airfield. The controller said that most traffic is VFR so sunny days are the busiest and rainy days are pretty quiet.

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Our last stop was the Airfield Maintenance Facility. It is very similar to other facilities that I have visited, only much smaller. I saw a plow and a broom truck but sadly no stairs trucks. I also got to sneak into the sand barn where the deicing materials are kept. (This involved climbing up and then back down a set of very steep, very sandy wooden steps. Yikes! Glad I don’t have to do that on a regular basis!)

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The most important thing I learned from our day on the airfield is that small GA airports are every bit as fun and fascinating as large airports. Plus they are a lot more visitor-friendly! You can stop by almost any time – no badge needed! If you haven’t checked out the GA airport near you, what are you waiting for? These airports want and need local support so trust me – they’ll be thrilled to see you. And I promise you’ll be glad you went.

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Double Trouble

IMG_1661I realized something wasn’t right when I saw the Southwest Boeing 737 flying low and slow over my neighborhood. It was much lower than it should have been. Plus it was coming from the wrong direction, completely outside the normal approach and departure patterns.

Being the dedicated (OK, obsessed might be a better word) avgeek that I am, I quickly looked up my airport on FlightAware. I could see from the flight tracker data that the airplane in question had taken off from the south runway and immediately circled back around. It proceeded to do two low approaches, first over one runway and then the other. Then it turned sharply to the northwest, which is what had brought it over my house.

IMG_0831Hoping to pick up some information from ATC communications, I listened intently to LiveATC while my brain went over a list of potential scenarios. Bird strike? Flap issue? Gear or tire problem? Then I heard one of the Southwest pilots come on the radio and use a word that caught my immediate attention: emergency. I have listened to a lot of ATC communications over the years, but this was the first time I have ever heard that word used concerning a flight from my airport.

Over the course of the next few minutes I learned that the plane had apparently blown one of the nose gear tires on take-off. They needed to hold for awhile, so ATC directed them into a holding pattern to the east of me. A friend who is a captain on the 737 explained that the pilots needed to burn off fuel to get the plane as light as possible to lessen the load on the remaining tire for landing.

FullSizeRender (83)At this point I had a decision to make. Should I drive the 15 miles to the airport to watch the flight come back in? I was tempted.  But I was afraid that while I was driving I might miss out on important communications or other developments. I consoled myself with the fact that when the plane made the western arc of its holding pattern I could see it from my back yard. Granted, I had to stand on the patio table. On my tiptoes. Doesn’t everyone watch airplanes that way? Actually… don’t answer that.

Anyway, it’s just as well I decided to stay put because right at this time I heard the pilot of a Cirrus call up ATC. He announced that they were losing oil pressure and needed to land right away. Suddenly the controllers were handling not one, but two emergency aircraft. Emergencies happen – ATC and airports are well trained to deal with them.  But two emergencies at once?  Definitely less common, especially for an airport the size of mine.

IMG_1361During the time that the Southwest flight was holding, ATC had allowed other planes to take off and land. However, when the pilot of the Cirrus called in, the Southwest flight had just left the hold and was preparing to do a final low approach before landing. As a result, ATC had stopped departures and was clearing traffic from the area around the airport. This presented something of a problem for the emergency Cirrus, who had requested immediate clearance to land.

IMG_1360Fortunately, we have a large cargo airport located just a few miles to the south of the passenger airport.  ATC recommended landing there and the Cirrus pilot agreed. ATC then proceeded to give him vectors to the airport. The Cirrus landed without incident.  Shortly afterwards, the Southwest flight completed its final low approach and circled around to a safe landing. They were even able to taxi to the gate with no issues.

I’ll admit – following along while these two events unfolded was quite riveting, but not for the reasons you might think. You may have noticed that my account does not contain any of the following words: panic, terrified, frantic, dire. These are words often used by the media to describe emergency situations in aviation. And occasionally they might be warranted, but not in this case. In fact, not in the majority of cases. More appropriate words would be: calm, professional, efficient, collaborative. It was an excellent example of the training and hard work by pilots, ATC, ARFF and Operations that goes on every day at airports around the world.

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Note: The planes featured in the photos on this post are not the planes that were involved in the incidents described.

© http://www.talesfromtheterminal.com 2017

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