Spotter Sins and Fly-Ins

A few weeks ago a friend and I watched airplanes together during our lunch break. We chatted while we snapped photos. During a pause in the conversation we looked up and saw something unusual approaching the other runway. By the time we realized what it was (a KC-135 doing a practice approach) it was too late for us to get to the other side of the garage. We managed to grab a couple of quick pics, but what could have been a great opportunity passed us by.

We looked at each other with dismay as we realized that we both had scanners, but neither of us was listening! Ooops! We had committed a major spotting sin and we paid the price. Make the most of your spotting moments by making sure you’re ready. Here are some classic errors that can cost you the chance to catch that special airplane.

Not Having/Not Listening to a Scanner

Since we’re already talking about it, let’s start here. I didn’t use a scanner for a long time. I just didn’t realize what a valuable tool it can be, especially for catching military flights or private jets which might not show up on flight trackers. Once I started using one my spotting game got a lot better. LiveATC feeds aren’t always available and don’t always capture the most useful channels. For example, at my airport LiveATC covers the approach and tower frequencies, but it doesn’t have the ground frequency which means you can’t hear taxi instructions. A scanner lets you program whatever channels you want and the reception is a lot clearer. If you don’t have a scanner, get one! And if you do have a scanner, don’t make my mistake and leave it in your car!

Forgetting to Check Equipment

How many times have you been set up to capture a long-sought-after livery only to have your camera’s low-battery light come on at the worst possible moment? I’ve had this happen many times! I usually continue with the shot while silently urging the battery to last just a few more moments. Sometimes I get lucky. Sometimes I don’t. The same thing happens with scanner batteries. We can save ourselves a lot of grief by taking a moment to check these things before we head out. And always carry spare batteries and extra memory cards.

Not Connecting with Other Spotters

Belonging to a spotter network is important. It can help you with everything from finding good spotting locations to choosing the right camera settings. Many spotters also work in the aviation industry and they often have really great insider information about rare airplanes or unusual liveries that are scheduled to visit. Plus plane spotting is just more fun with others!

Not Being Respectful

When chasing that perfect pic it can be hard to resist the temptation to sneak onto private property, or stand along the fence outside of the designated spotting area. You tell yourself it’s just this once for that one special airplane. The problem is, it only takes one person breaking the rules one time to potentially shut down spotting for everyone. Don’t be that person! Stick to designated locations. If airport security asks you to relocate, apologize and move right away.

Fly-In Season!

Warm weather and covid vaccinations mean that fly-ins are possible once again. After more than a year of being stuck at home with only virtual events to attend, the aviation world is ready to get back out there. On a recent Sunday I headed to the other side of the state to attend a fly-in that was held by a local EAA chapter. I was excited to be surrounded by airplanes and ready for a great day of photography.

I’ll admit I was a teeny bit apprehensive about crowds (or lack thereof), but I needn’t have worried. There was a wonderful mix of different types of planes and altbough attendance was strong, it never felt too crowded. I grabbed my camera and set off to capture the day. The field is bordered on one side by a raised levy. Not only did it offer a great view of the airfield below, but planes flew right over top as they departed. The perfect spotting location! Seeing an opportunity for some amazing video, I positioned myself carefully, lined up the shot and clicked the record button on my camera. And then the low battery light came on. And I realized I left my spare batteries back in the car.

DOH!!!

A New Perspective

I interrupt your regularly scheduled blog post (OK, semi-regularly – but I do have a new post in the works, I swear) to bring you BREAKING NEWS!

As many of you know, the view from my desk leaves a lot to be desired. When I look up I see a wall. And I can look over into the copy room where the photocopier and supply cabinet are. Except for the occasional sound of airplanes taxiing up to nearby gates, you’d never know I worked at an airport. I could be sitting in any office anywhere.

The view from my desk.

I’ve tried not to complain too much. After all, a desk with a wall view at an airport beats a desk with a wall view anywhere else. However, there has been an open desk by the windows for over four years now. It looks out past one of the jetbridges to the south airfield beyond. It is brighter than my current cube, has more desk space than my cube and I’ve wanted to move into it sooooo badly.

I started my quest by dropping subtle hints. (“That desk over there has been open a long time now…”) When that didn’t work I became a little more obvious. (“Sure, I’ll take on that additional task. What are the chances I can move to that desk?”) Evenutally I resorted to straight-up stating my desire on my annual review. (Question: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Me: “Sitting at a desk by the windows.”) It has become something of a joke. “Oh, we can’t give Jennifer a window desk – she’d never get anything done!” I’ve tried to argue that I’d actually get more done because I wouldn’t have to get up and run to the window every time something interesting taxies by. Sadly, I got nowhere. I hadn’t given up all hope, but I was close.

In the meantime, several rounds of reorganization have occurred. The department that shared part our space moved upstairs. We downsized. More and more offices and desks went unusued. Then in a recent meeting my new boss announced that since there are so many open offices, they decided to allow people to move into them. She went on to say that unfortunately there aren’t quite enough offices for everyone. Would I be willing to take a desk by the windows instead?

Me: Squeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

Her: Are you OK?

Me: *dances*

Her: *looks confused*

Once I calmed down enough to be coherent I assured my boss that I have ZERO desire to have an office (most of which don’t have windows) and that I am not only willing to take a desk by the windows, but that it’s pretty much the only work-related thing I’ve wanted for the past six years.

Eeeeeeeeeee!

And so, after years of patiently (or maybe not-so patiently) waiting, I HAVE A DESK BY THE WINDOWS! Yes, my view is somewhat obscured by the jetbridge, and even more obscured when a plane is there, but I do not care! This is the beginning of a whole new era! I’m not saying I’m going to post a million pics of what I see out my window… but then again, I might.

Airport Love Connection

Have you ever gazed across a crowded concourse and suddenly found yourself totally smitten? Well I have. More than once. Smitten by AIRPLANES, of course! Sure, I’ve always had a list of favorite planes, but since I started working at the airport I’ve fallen in love with a number of other airplanes that I might never have met otherwise.

T-38 Talon (The movie star.)

Oooh – look! It’s that plane who played the MiG-28 in Top Gun! OK, fine – so the T-38 wasn’t actually in Top Gun (the MiG-28 was played by F-5s), but it is strikingly similar. It isn’t unusual to see several Talons at the airport over the course of the summer. Like any fan-girl I love to take pics of them, but it isn’t easy. They are nimble little jets that can easily evade the paparazzi if they want to.

C-130 (The hypnotist.)

These planes also stop by my office regularly. It is not unusual to see them practicing approaches or doing touch and goes. I had seen C-130s on static display at air shows before, but it wasn’t until I got the chance to see them flying that I really fell in love. Let’s just say I have a thing for big… propellors. There’s something about them that is completely mesmerizing. And the sound they make… music to my ears!

Mooney (That tail!)

I did my discovery flight in a Mooney so I’ll admit I’m partial to them. With a tail that looks like someone accidentally installed it backwards, what’s not to love? It gives them a distinctive appearance that makes them easy to spot on the airfield.

Antonov 124 (Bigger is better!)

As you may already know, I LOVE big airplanes. (Yes, size matters!) The An-124 is the largest commercial airplane to regularly visit our cargo airport. Every time I’ve had the opportunity to get close to one I’m reminded of just how ridiculously huge it is. Even the tires seem abnormally large.

Gulfstream (Bond. James Bond.)

If Gulfstreams drank martinis they’d prefer them shaken and not stirred. Suave, smooth, flashy… they are sure to steal any avgeek’s heart! There’s just something about the sweep of their wings that makes me go all a-flutter.

Starship (Out of this world!)

I remember the first time I saw a Starship. It was being towed out from behind some other planes and as it slowly came into view, my jaw nearly hit the floor. I had absolutely no idea what it was, but I was hooked. It is one of the most unique airplanes I’ve ever had the pleasure to see at work and I do hope it comes back to visit some day.

Your Turn!

So what about you? Have you made any love connections lately? If not, then get yourself to the nearest airport ASAP. You never know what you might find hiding out amongst the hangars. Just be prepared to have your heart stolen!

Aviation Inspiration in an Unlikely Location

So much of my aviation inspiration comes from being immersed in it – at the office during the week and at air shows and fly-ins on weekends. This year, however, the pandemic has taken a lot of that away. I’ve found myself in a bit of a funk and searching for ways to keep the passion for aviation going. Recently I found a bit of inspiration in a highly unlikely location… the dentist office.

Many years ago when I was a brand-new mom I had a really bad tooth. I’d put off going to the dentist for… well, longer than I should have. I didn’t even have a dentist in town. So I picked one and went. I was told that I needed a root canal. They’d be happy to schedule one for me at the earliest possible availability, which turned out to be a month away. A month!

If you’ve ever had a bad tooth you know waiting a month is NOT an option. So I called another dentist and was impressed when they told me to go back to the first dentist, grab the x-rays and come to the office – no appointment needed! I appeared on their doorstep with x-rays in hand and awaited their verdict. The dentist looked them over and told me that the problem was a wisdom tooth. A root canal would be expensive and unnecessary – let’s just pull it! OK… how long was I going to have to wait for that? The dentist looked at me and smiled. “What are you doing tomorrow?”

Thus began my most long-standing health provider relationship. I’ve gotten to know several of the dentists in the practice over the years and they’re all great. Plus they give you coupons for free ice cream. No, I’m not kidding! But I haven’t even told you the best part. The best part is… the airplanes! You see, the man who founded the practice was a pilot. You could tell by the model planes and photos around the office that he was passionate about flying. Seeing airplanes everywhere made going to the dentist a little less awful.

Sadly, about 8 years after my first visit the founder died. He was killed in a plane crash in North Carolina. The accident happened in his plane but a friend of his was at the controls. The cause of the accident was fuel exhaustion. NTSB determined that there was fuel in two of the tanks, but for some reason the selector switch was on a tank that was empty.

I can only imagine how devastated his family must have been. But to her credit, his wife decided to keep the practice going. There aren’t as many model planes around as there used to be, but there are some. And it is still a great place filled with great people.

I was a bit hesitant to schedule my regular dentist appointment in the middle of a pandemic, but eventually I decided I ought to go ahead. The dentist who handled my cleaning was not one I had met before. He asked where I work and I told him I work for the airport authority. A few minutes later he surprised me asking about my job again. “I don’t want to make you talk about work if you don’t want to, but I’m really interested in aviation…” That was all I needed to hear. I LOVE to talk about work!

For the rest of the appointment we talked about airports and airplanes and flying. (Or at least we talked as much as it is possible to during a dentist appointment.) He’s never been to Airventure so I told him he MUST go. He’d like to learn to fly but he’s a little unsure about it. I recommended a discovery flight. He’s fascinated by military planes. I suggested several nearby museums.

I left the appointment with clean teeth and a renewed sense of enthusiasm. I was the happiest I’ve been in a while. Amazing what a little bit of avgeek conversation will do! And it just goes to show that you never know where or when that passion for aviation will pop up.

Wacko for Waco

It has been a rough year for avgeeks. Pretty much every major air show and aviation event has been canceled or posponed until 2021. Aside from a few isolated fly-overs, aviation enthusiasts have had to make due with whatever airplanes happened to stop by the local airport.

In recent weeks, however, a few small events have popped up. I shrugged most of them off – we’re in a pandemic, after all. Who is going to show up? The chance of any event being worth attending seemed pretty low. Then last month I found out about a Waco fly-in being held a couple hours away at Waco Field. The day was gorgeous – blue skies, perfect temps. I had nothing better to do so I decided to take a chance and make the trip.

During the drive I mentally prepared myself to be disappointed. However, when I arrived at the destination and saw row after row of bi-planes and other vintage airplanes I nearly burst into tears for sheer joy. Finally! After more than a year I was once again surrounded by airplanes and avgeeks and it felt wonderful!

I started the afternoon by working my way along the rows of planes. Since this was a Waco fly-in, I was not surprised to see several of them in attendance. However, there were plenty of other types of planes on hand as well. One that caught my eye was the Grasshopper. It is actually a Piper J-3 Cub which was adapted for service in WWII. Another plane that grabbed my attention was a Great Lakes bi-plane. I just love the stance, the big round tail and splashy colors.

Next I visited the small museum located on the field. Inside were a number of exhibits dedicated to the history of Waco airplanes. Originally the Weaver Aircraft Company, the name changed to Waco around 1929. They developed a number of different airplanes including both open and closed cockpit bi-planes. During WWII they manufactured gliders which were used by the US Army Air Force as well as the RAF. The company folded after the war when the demand for civil aircraft didn’t increase as hoped.

I headed back outside in time to watch the RC air show. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from RC planes. Turns out it was pretty darn cool. They started with an aerobatic helicopter which did some pretty fancy flying that made me a little dizzy. This was followed by an aerobatic plane which performed the same loops and spins that one would expect from the full-sized version. Last was an RC plane built almost entirely for speed. It had a jet engine and they weren’t kidding when they said it was fast!

Once the RC show was over, the families moved off to the other side of the field for the candy drop. This was accomplished with another RC helicopter. I had never seen a candy drop before. It sure did look like fun! I opted not to get too close – in part to maintain social distance, but mostly because the Wacos and several other planes were taking off in preparation for the parade of planes.

The parade consisted of a series of fly-bys. An announcer provided details about each type of Waco as it made a low pass up the grass strip. Once the parade was over, the two bi-planes that had been giving rides all afternoon took back to the air. I’ve always been a bit hesitant about flying in an open cockpit, but I have to admit it looked like a lot of fun.

I headed home at the end of the day exhausted and sunburned but very happy. It was wonderful to be around airplanes again! Plus I found the perfect souvenir to remind me of all the fun. Perhaps best of all, I was able to support a small aviation museum and hopefully help keep it up and running for years to come.

The Bad, the Ugly and… the Good?

Its been a struggle lately to find something encouraging to write about. Things are quiet. Too quiet. Every aviation event I planned to attend has been canceled. Many shops at the airport remain closed, parking lots are empty and there are few passengers wandering the concourses.

The Bad

The outlook for the travel industry continues to be pretty bleak. The number of enplanements at my airport increased over the summer from the shocking low numbers we saw in the spring, but they haven’t rebounded as strongly as everyone hoped. Total passengers are down 65% from 2019. Unfortunately, now that the summer travel season has ended, enplanements appear to be sliding backwards again. In response, the airlines have trimmed flights and we currently expect to see around 60 flights per day in September – down from 70 per day in July and August. (That’s compared to around 140 flights per day in 2019.)

The Ugly

The CARES Act funding ends at the end of September. Unless additional funding is provided, the airlines will begin downsizing. Thousands of people will lose their jobs. Whole fleets will be parked. Once this happens the airlines will be much smaller. Even if the demand for travel suddenly comes roaring back, it is unlikely they’ll be able to scale up quickly enough to meet it. Sadly, it seems that there won’t be any real recovery any time soon. And the longer this drags on, the slower it will be. Current predictions are for a possible recovery in 2024. Ouch!

The Good?

In the midst of all the bad news and discouragement I got to wondering: is there anything good going in aviation right now? It can’t be ALL bad, can it? So I set out to find if there are any silver linings hidden in the gloom.

1. Cargo

In June our cargo-dedicated airport managed to have one of the best months it has EVER had. The airport handled 31 million lbs of freight compared to around 19 million lbs in June 2019. Some international carriers haven’t returned since the pandemic began, but others have increased flights. We even picked up a new carrier – Korean air announced that they will be starting regular flights this month. Domestic charters have increased as well. It is encouraging to see that at least one sector of the industry is doing OK.

2. General Aviation

General aviation flights are down a bit from 2019, but not nearly as much as I expected. In June and July commercial carrier operations were down about 6,000 flights/month, which is a drop of around 63% from the same period in 2019. However, general aviation operations were only down about 300 flights/month, which is a drop of only 28% from the prior year. As a plane spotter, I think it is great that general aviation planes are getting more time in the spotlight. I’ve enjoyed seeing more Bonanzas, Mooneys and Cessnas around.

3. Airport Life

Regardless of what may be happening in the industry, life at the airport goes on. Airfield inspections still have to happen, the winter season has to be prepared for and unusual visitors still drop in. Last week the airport held its tri-annual emergency preparedness exercise. This year it involved a simulated aircraft fire using a replica fuselage with actual flames. I was able to leave my desk for a few minutes to go upstairs and watch. I often see ARFF practicing on the airfield, but it was cool to be able to see them in action in a more realistic situation.

Times may be stressful and the outlook rather gloomy, but airplanes are still cool and flying is still magic. It will take more than a pandemic to change that! As long as there are C-17s on the ramp and a Maules in camo, there is never a dull day at the airport. And that’s very good indeed!

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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Aviation Appreciation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A spotter and his dad.

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

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

What in the World?!

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

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

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

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

CT-155 Hawk

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

Widgeon

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

NASA T-38

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

Beechcraft Starship

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

Navy T-6 Trainer

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

P-8 Poseidon

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

E-9A Widget

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

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

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The Numbers Behind the Passenger Numbers

37774304_unknown.jpgAccording to a quick Google search, Pittsburgh International Airport saw around 9 million passengers in 2018. Chicago Midway had 22 million. Tampa had around 21 million. My airport saw just over 8 million passengers – the most ever. That’s great! Or is it? How does an airport know whether the number of passengers they are serving is good or not?

Load factors 

One useful metric is the load factor. You may have seen this used to determine how well an airline is performing in general, but in this case airports are looking specifically at the load factors for flights into and out of their cities. In the simplest sense, the load factor is a measure of how full the flights are. It is calculated by comparing the number of paying passengers against the total number of seats that were available. For example, if ABC Airlines had 5 flights in and 5 flights out of the airport and used airplanes with 100 seats each, that’s a total of 1,000 seats available. If each plane had 75 paying passengers on board, then there were 750 passengers total, and the load factor is 75%.

IMG_1207I can’t speak to how other airports collect passenger data, but my airport does it via monthly reports that are submitted by the airlines. Each report includes the type of planes used, the number of landings for each, the number of passengers, etc. From that information we can determine the total number of seats and, in turn, calculate the load factors for each airline, as well as an average load factor for all flights during the month.

Higher load factors mean fuller airplanes which means better profit margins for the airlines. When flights aren’t profitable guess what usually happens? Yep – they go away.  Not good! While the monthly load factors are useful, it is also important to look at trends over time. Comparing the numbers from the last few years I noticed that the average monthly load factor at my airport has increased more than 5% – and it was fairly strong to begin with. We definitely like to see that!

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Photo by Jnpet, Creative Commons License

Heavier metal

Of course load factors are just one piece of the story. Another metric to look at is the types of planes that are being used, and how that usage shifts over time. A high load factor on a small plane is good. But when the number of passengers becomes strong enough to justify moving up to a bigger airplane, that’s better. And when the load factors start growing on the bigger airplane, that’s better still!

Let’s take the humble CRJ for example. To keep it simple I’ll combine the stats for the 200, 700 and 900 together. In February 2019 there were roughly 100 fewer CRJ landings than in February 2018. However, there were 100 more Airbus 319/320 landings, and 50 more Boeing 737 landings. Some of those increases were due to added flights and Mad Dogs being retired, but many were the result of a shift to bigger mainline planes and fewer regional ones. That comes out to several thousand more seats available in February 2019 vs 2018. At the same time, the load factors remained strong. Yes! That makes us very happy! (Don’t you worry – we still love the CRJ!  Although the number of flights may have decreased, we still see PLENTY of them around.)

37509824_UnknownMax effect

You may be wondering what kind of impact the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max is having on all this. That’s a fairly complex matter. Certainly there have been some cancellations. Looking just at the airlines that fly the Max into my airport and comparing the number of flights that were scheduled against the number of flights that actually happened, there was a drop of about 3%. That may not seem like a high number, but then again, that was just for half the month. It remains to be seen what the long term implications will be.  If you are curious to know how an airline copes when some of its planes are grounded, the Flying and Life Podcast gave a really good overview of what steps they have to take to re-book stranded passengers and rework their schedules. I strongly encourage you to check it out!37507712_Unknown

Lies, Damn Lies and…

The numbers are, of course, just a snapshot in time and there are a whole lot of factors that the airlines consider when deciding which planes to fly on what routes. Things can change from month to month and season to season. That’s why the airport has people much smarter than myself who track and analyze all this data. But every now and then I like to take a peek and see how things are looking. Maybe one of these days I’ll see an A350 on the stats sheet. Or a 777! OK, so it’s not very likely.  But, hey – an avgeek can dream!

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Not an airliner.  I just couldn’t resist adding a pic of this sweet bizjet!