Wings Over Avgeeks

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Photo by Capt Nick Anderson www.nickandersonphoto.co.uk

They say the first time you attend an air show it’s about the airplanes, but after that it’s about the people. For a long time I really didn’t understand this. Hey – I’m here because I love things with wings! (And stairs trucks!) But the more you get into aviation the more you value being able to spend time with other people who love aviation too. And you find that being with them makes air shows and fly ins and other events even better than you ever thought they could be. Such was the case with Wings Over Pittsburgh.

 

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Photo by Capt Nick Anderson www.nickandersonphoto.co.uk

Awesome: The F-22

Ah, the Raptor! It is one hell of a bad-ass airplane. I saw it at an airshow in 2009 and was completely blown away. I saw it again more recently but wasn’t as impressed. The performance that day had to be limited and it just wasn’t as spectacular as I remembered. At Wings Over Pittsburgh, however, the Raptor completely redeemed itself by being even more amazing than it was in 2009. That plane flies in ways and directions that defy all logic. Planes just can’t fly like that! Except somehow this one does!

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Photo by Capt Nick Anderson      www.nickandersonphoto.co.uk

Even More Awesome: Watching the F-22 with people who worked for Pratt & Whitney.

The F-22 is powered by two Pratt & Whitney F119 turbofan engines which have nozzles that incorporate 2D thrust vectoring. I have no idea what any of that means. What it does, however, is allow the Raptor to fly in ways that are, frankly, ridiculous. Max and his wife are retired Pratt & Whitney employees who were with the company during the development of these engines. Watching them watch the F-22 demo was a true highlight of the weekend for me. When I asked how it felt to see their hard work on display the answer was a single word: goosebumps. I couldn’t agree more!


img_5484.pngAwesome:
The F-18 Super Hornet

I have long been a fan of the F-18. Many years ago I had a friend who was a mechanic in the Marines who worked on F-18s. I was unfamiliar with the plane so I looked it up. Woah – what the heck is this? Sweeeeet! I was instantly smitten and have loved the plane ever since. Yes, the Super Hornet is a bit different from the original Hornet, but I don’t care. The F-18 display remains one of my very favorites.

Even More Awesome: Watching the F-18 demonstration with a former F-18 pilot.

I wasn’t standing close enough to hear what Nick had to say during the demo, but just watching his face was enough. It was very obvious that he still loves that plane. And who can blame him!

IMG_9098Awesome: C-130s and paratroopers

I have no desire to jump out of a perfectly good airplane. However, I think it is really cool to watch other people do it. And it’s even more cool when those people are paratroopers jumping out of C-130s. How the heck do so many of them manage to leap out all at once?

Even More Awesome: Watching paratroopers with a skydiver.

I wish I had been able to watch with Steph on Saturday when the weather was better. It was much windier on Sunday and she knew right away that they weren’t going to be able to make the jump. Still, it was interesting to get her take on their performance from the previous day.

IMG_9093Awesome: All the amazing airplanes on display.

The static displays at Wings Over Pittsburgh were impressive and quite varied. They included some of my old favorites like the C-5 and KC-135, as well as the iconic B-52, the way-cool F-35, an Embraer E175 and many, many more. I could have spent hours and hours examining them in detail and still not gotten a good look at everything.

FullSizeRender (68)Even More Awesome: Wandering through the displays with an aviation historian.

David has probably lost count of the number of airshows he has attended. He has spent countless hours on military bases and soaked up more information than anyone I know. All that knowledge was so much fun to be around! I could ask any question and he knew the answer.  I learned a lot and I loved every moment!

Awesome: Spending three days surrounded by airplanes AND by people who are as passionate about them as I am.

Even More Awesome: Actually, I don’t think it gets more awesome than that!

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Big bird, little birds. Photo by Dr. Stephanie Plummer

For You, Airline Crews

PRMY7206There has been a lot of bad press for the airlines lately. It upsets me because I know that the people involved in these incidents are NOT representative of the vast majority of airline employees. I see crews and gate agents and ground handlers every day. I see them showing up to work at crazy early hours. I see them still working late at night. And even when the day has been stressful with bad weather and canceled flights, they still manage to laugh when I see them on the shuttle at the end of the day.

IMG_8025So this is for you, pilots and cabin crews. I see you in the parking lot heading to the terminal. Most of you are commuting to your bases for the start of your trips. I often wonder just how far you have to go before your working day begins. And let’s face it, in a lot of ways once the uniform is on, you ARE working. I see passengers asking you questions and looking to you for guidance, even though at this point you’re technically just a passenger too.

This is for you, being part of an industry where you aren’t allowed to have a bad day. Any mistake or misunderstanding can be videoed and sent out to the masses in 140 characters or less, which is never enough to really tell the whole story. You deal with thousands of customers every year, doing your job well day after day and almost always with a smile. Then the bad behavior of a very few puts you under suspicion, even when you’ve done nothing wrong.

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By Maarten Visser from Capelle aan den IJssel, Nederland CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

This is for the baggage handlers working outside in the wind and freezing rain. It’s for the gate agents explaining a flight delay to frustrated passengers. And it’s for the pilots waving at excited children who are jumping up and down and pointing at the plane through the terminal window.  This is for the Southwest pilots who saw a military casket being removed from an American plane and out of respect for the fallen soldier, stopped their taxi until after the hearse left. This is for the flight attendants on the shuttle who had me laughing so hard at their stories that I couldn’t breathe. (And if you guys are reading – I continue to support your quest for casual Fridays!) This is for every one of you who works hard every day to make the aviation industry something I’m proud to be a part of:

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And for any of my aviation friends who may be feeling down or discouraged, I strongly encourage you to watch the movie Living in the Age of Airplanes. If you’ve seen it before, then watch it again. Or just watch this trailer. It’s a good reminder of just how amazing and wonderful and special aviation is!

 

 

 

Deice-capades: Behind the Wheel

IMG_8208As those of you who have been regular readers know, this past winter I was given the opportunity to train with the Operations Department to learn how to manage the deice pad. To recap, deice pad management involves being on the deice pad in an operations vehicle and providing taxi instructions over the radio to position planes in the pad. We sometimes also act as a follow-me vehicle and lead planes into the pad. Once in position, the planes are handed off to their deice teams for the actual deicing.

In my last post I discussed getting on the radio for the first time and what that was like. Getting comfortable with radio communications and learning to juggle multiple planes at once takes time and practice. Unfortunately we were cursed (blessed?) with a very mild winter and I was only able to get out on the deice pad once in February and once in March.  However, on one of those occasions I got the opportunity to begin learning the final skill that I need to master: driving.  Yes, you read that correctly. This tug-loving, aviation-obsessed, stairs truck fanatic was turned loose on the ramp in a truck. The world may never be the same!

IMG_8170The lesson began casually enough when my trainer asked, “Do you want to drive?” My out-loud response was a calm, casual, “Sure.” However, as I took the keys to the SUV my internal response was, “OH MY GOD I AM GOING TO ACTUALLY DRIVE AROUND ON THE AIRFIELD WHICH IS COMPLETELY RIDICULOUS AND TOTALLY AWESOME AND IT IS TAKING EVERY OUNCE OF WILLPOWER NOT TO FREAK OUT!”

The Ops SUVs are very big and since my daily driver is a sedan, just being in such a large vehicle took a little getting used to. My trainer asked if I had driven on the airfield before. I told him I had not. He proceeded to give me some pointers, the most important of which was, “Don’t hit any airplanes!” Um… right. I think I’ve got that one!

IMG_8410He then went over some of the many markings on the ramp and what they mean. The yellow lines bordered in black are the aircraft taxi lines. He told me not to follow them because they would lead me to places I shouldn’t be. Like active runways. Yikes! He had me drive straight out towards one of the taxiways which, I must admit, was a little disconcerting. Hello – aren’t we supposed to be avoiding airplanes? However, before we actually got to the taxiway he had me stop and he pointed out markers on the pavement. He explained that this is as far as we are allowed to go. We cannot cross that line without clearance from ATC. OK – good to know!

IMG_7957I then spent time getting familiar with the drive lanes and where the deice lines are, as well as the best places to sit with good line-of-sight for monitoring activity on the pad. And did I mention we were directing planes this whole time? Well actually, my trainer was. I figured since it was my first time behind the wheel, I should focus on driving. Once the basic instruction was completed I was on my own to decide where to go and when. Sometimes I parked along the back of the pad.  Sometimes I sat on a line just in front of the t-stops to be a visual reference for pilots so they could see where to position. An added benefit of this is it gives you some really awesome photo opportunities. Which my trainer got to enjoy because I was driving. Doh! At one point we paused to take a pic of a Southwest plane, only to realize that someone on the plane was taking pictures of us!

All too soon deice was completed and it was time to park the SUV. Did I mention that it is roughly the size and shape of a tank? Thank goodness the parking spaces are big! I know what you are wondering and no, I didn’t attempt to hijack any stairs truck.  Sadly all the stairs trucks are at the other airport! But I’ve taken another step closer to being able to drive one some day. Next up? Passing the airfield driving test. Stay tuned!

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The (Mad)Doggie in the Window

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Ask any aviation enthusiast about their favorite airplane and you’ll almost certainly get a list. My list includes the Boeing 747-8, the A-10 and the F-18. However, since I’ve started working at the airport I’ve added one more – the MD-80/88/90. Why? Well why do any of us love the planes we love? It’s not always easy to explain.

IMG_8030The Plane Next Door

For me the love affair began when I saw it parked outside my department every day. Actually, to be more specific I should say when I HEARD it park outside my department. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it’s pretty much impossible to miss the sound of an MD-80 roaring up to the gate. Naturally the first time I heard it I had to investigate. What I found was a decidedly old-school t-tail airplane that looked like it had been around the block a time or two.

Having grown up in a very old house, I appreciate old things. They have character. And the MD-80 certainly does as well. It’s not sleek and pretty like the newer Boeings and Airbuses. It’s not dashing and cute like some of the RJs. It’s a working-man’s airplane. It doesn’t BS around. When it takes off it really takes off – it looks like a rocket and it sounds like one too. And it has a cool nickname: The Mad Dog.

IMG_5133For two years now I’ve been watching it through the window. I’ve watched countless numbers of bags loaded and unloaded and countless numbers of meals delivered. I’ve watched mechanics tinkering with the engines. And I watched when an MD-80 brought a fallen soldier home last year. The Mad Dog has been a central part of my airport experience in so many ways.  So you can imagine my reaction when I was given the opportunity recently to tag along on a pre-flight walk-around. Are you kidding me? Oh. Heck. YES!  (Have I mentioned lately how much I love working for an airport?)

IMG_7999Up Close and Personal

When we went outside my first thought was that there are roughly one million things to trip over/bash your head on during a walk-around. Yikes! Major kudos to the ground crews and pilots who successfully navigate this obstacle course every day. Needless to say I was very careful while we were out there. I was also very busy absorbing every detail of the plane – the tires, the wheel wells, the cargo compartments, the pitot tubes the engines, the wings… and everything in between. After all the time I’ve spent staring at the Mad Dog through the window, it was beyond awesome (not to mention a tremendous privilege) to get such an up close look!

The icing on the cake, however, was the visit to the cockpit. I never in my life expected to be able to walk down a jet bridge, board an airplane… and turn left!  I looked out the cockpit window at the terminal and thought, so THIS is what it is like to be outside looking in! Sweet! Then I turned my attention to the cockpit itself.  I was able to examine many of the instruments and learn which knobs turn on which displays. I was in avgeek heaven! In an effort to be a polite guest I IMG_6525tried really hard not to ask too many questions. (What does this button do? What about this one? And this one?)  Trust me, it wasn’t easy!  However, I was very aware that the crew was preparing for a flight and I didn’t want to be in the way. All too soon it was time to go. I walked back up the jet bridge with a whole new understanding of the MD-80.  And I love it even more than I did before!

Sadly, this love affair is destined to be short-lived since the plane is being retired at a brisk pace. The afternoon flight that used to park outside my office is gone. The early morning flight is gone too.  You can imagine my disappointment to see an Airbus pop around the corner instead of the expected Mad Dog during a recent morning on the deice pad. I know modern planes are quieter, more fuel efficient, more comfortable and have better technology. But that doesn’t change how I feel. After all, who can explain love?

Authors Note: I’d like to extend a very special and heart-felt THANK YOU to the FO (along with his captain and crew) who allowed me to visit.  You made my day/week/month/year!

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For the Love of Airports

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By Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz (Mariordo) (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

I love airports. I mean I really LOVE airports. I vacation at them. I go out of my way to drive by them. And, of course, I work at one. So when I heard about the scheduled closure of the Santa Monica airport, and read stories about the closure of other airports like Meigs Field, it really tears my heart out. Surely my airport isn’t at risk of being closed. It couldn’t happen here, could it?

img_6278The sad truth is, it could happen anywhere. Check out http://www.airfields-freeman.com. This website lists defunct airports by state. I was surprised to learn that there used to be several airports nearby that no longer exist. As much as I hate to admit it, sometimes closing an airport is the right thing to do – if there are true safety issues that cannot be corrected or if there are other more suitable airports nearby. But too often airport closures come down to one main reason: lack of community support.

When airports try to explain their value to the community they often do so in economic terms. They talk about the number of jobs created, or the amount of revenue generated. These are important factors and worthy of consideration. However I don’t think those statistics really resonate with most people, unless they happen to work in one of those created jobs. In the end it comes down to this: people are more likely to value a place where they spend time.

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Gratuitous stairs truck photo. Oh – and an airplane as well.

Notice I said “spend time” – not “travel from.” There are lots of people who live near airports who won’t ever have the occasion to fly commercially. For those who do travel, the experience is often filled with the stress – not exactly ideal conditions for developing a bond with the airport itself. That’s why I believe public viewing areas are so incredibly important. If those areas include walking paths or a playground, that’s even better. The more ways that can be created to invite the community in, the more people will visit. The more people visit, the greater the chance that some of them will decide that airports aren’t so bad after all.

img_6174The only airport I have visited with an official viewing area is CLT. It is perched on a hillside overlooking the center runway and it is one heck of a busy place! When I was there the benches were almost always filled with people of all ages. Not only do they get to watch airplanes take-off and land, but they get a chance to see what goes on behind all those tall fences.

Smaller GA airports are generally more accessible to the public than big commercial airports, but most people don’t know this. So the GA airport nearest me hosts 5Ks and kid-friendly festivals to encourage the community to stop by. And it works! I know several people who have attended these events and were surprised by how much they enjoyed the experience.

img_5609I realize that creating public viewing spaces or organizing community events isn’t easy. Airports are tasked with the very important responsibility of ensuring the safety of travelers. This can be extremely challenging. Additionally, space at airports is often at a premium. It can be difficult to find room for viewing areas or playgrounds. But I think the potential reward is worth the hassle.

The burden isn’t entirely on airports, however. Those of us who love and value aviation have a responsibility as well. We have to educate those who aren’t familiar with the industry. We have to clarify misleading news reports and refute the latest sensationalized stories. And we should invite friends and neighbors (especially kids) to go with us when we head to the airfield.

Will these efforts stop people from wanting to close perfectly good airports? Of course not. But the more airports are able to connect with the communities around them, the more likely they are to be valued by the people in those communities.  And that means better chances that your favorite airport will be around for years to come.

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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

All the Presidents’ Planes (and Potties)

img_7503As you probably know by now, I’m a big fan of aviation museums. One of my favorites is the USAF Museum near Dayton Ohio. I first made the journey a couple of years ago and as soon as I stepped inside I lost my mind over the sheer number of completely awesome airplanes. It was my first time seeing an A-10 up close. And the Blackbird. And the amazing Bird of Prey (yes, named after the Klingon ship from Star Trek). And… well, you get the idea. This time, however, it was the Presidential Airplanes exhibit that caught my attention.

img_6349When you think of Presidential Airplanes, the first thing that probably comes to mind is the current Air Force One – a Boeing 747. I’ve had the fortune of seeing it a couple of times recently. However, there have been a number of different planes used to transport the President over the years, and the USAF Museum has several of them including the Lockheed VC-121E, the Douglas VC-118 and the Douglas VC-54C. Perhaps the most well-known plane in the collection is the Boeing VC-137C that flew 8 Presidents – Kennedy through Clinton.

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OK, so not a Presidential Plane. But if I was the President it would be!

One of the best things about the Presidential Airplanes exhibit is being able to tour the inside of each plane. Some of the passageways are really narrow, but it’s worth fighting off claustrophobia for a chance to see how the Presidents used to travel. I found it quite interesting to compare cockpits and kitchens and seats and beds. Oh how things changed over the years! Take, for example, the Presidential Thrones. You know… potties. Toilets. Loos. Each one as unique as the plane it was on.

 

The Sacred Cow

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The very first aircraft built specifically for the purpose of transporting the President was the Douglas VC-54C Skymaster. It’s official name was “The Flying White House” but it was nicknamed the “Sacred Cow” (for obvious reasons). The accommodations were luxurious for its day. Actually, they’re still luxurious even by today’s standards. Sit on a couch instead of a tiny seat crammed next to a zillion other tiny seats? Yes please! I wish I could tell you about the Presidential Potty, but sadly it wasn’t on display. I did, however, get to see the elevator used to lift President Roosevelt into the plane in his wheelchair.

The Independence

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The second Presidential airplane was a Douglas VC-118 (a modified DC-6) called The Independence. I have to admit I was a bit amused to see an old-school pencil sharpener affixed to a wall just outside the cockpit. I guess the pilots and navigators needed lots of sharp pencils so they could write on the paper navigational charts in use back then. Or maybe President Truman just liked doing crossword puzzles.

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The Presidential Commode is a pretty fancy affair. It is connected to a private dressing room with comfy couches and plenty of space.

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President Eisenhower’s plane is a “Super Connie” that he named Columbine after the state flower of Colorado. The kitchen technology took a big leap forward with a very roomy and well equipped galley that includes not one, but TWO toasters. Because heaven forbid the President be without toast!

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As for the Presidential Bathroom, it is bigger and better equipped than the one I had in my first apartment! Even the bathroom for the President’s entourage was roomier than expected.

“Going” on a Boeing

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The Boeing VC-137C is largest and perhaps the most impressive plane in the Presidential collection. It carried 8 sitting Presidents and set the standard for Presidential livery in a lovely blue-and-white designed by Jacqueline Kennedy. One of the things that struck me about this Air Force One (other than the size) is the sheer number of telephones it has. There are phones everywhere!

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When it came time to view the Presidential Commode you can imagine my disappointment to discover that the bathroom doors were shut! Noooooo! Thankfully the USAF Museum website has a lovely 360 photo that will allow you to see the bathroom in all its golden glory.

Since I’ve already dragged this post into the toilet, it seems only fitting to close out with one last potty pic. Located near the Presidential Airplanes display is a C-141C which has a lavatory that is… well, let’s call it well-decorated.

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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!

DeIce Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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