Here We Snow Again!

33651840_UnknownI hate this time of year. I work long hours and it’s a struggle to get away from my desk.  When I do get a moment free it is either too wet, too cold or too dark to go outside. Just the other day an Osprey flew in and all I could do was watch sadly through the office window. This is so not OK!  Maybe the lack of airfield action is why I’m a little obsessed with winter operations.  OK, actually, I’m a lot obsessed. But let’s face it – no other season allows me to get my fix of airplanes and big, awesome ground support vehicles all at the same time!

img_6528If you have been reading this blog for awhile then you know that last year I got the opportunity to help the Ops department manage the flow of traffic into and out of the deice pad. There was a lot to learn and it was kind-of stressful, but it was also incredibly cool.  Unfortunately I’ve been unable to help out this year and I miss it SO MUCH!  Wait… did I just admit that I miss being at the airport at 5am in freezing weather? Yes, I did. I know it sounds crazy, but I really enjoyed making a hands-on contribution to keeping the airport up and running.

33651488_UnknownPreparation for the winter season actually begins in August. That’s when the airport starts stocking up on the chemicals and other supplies needed to aid in snow removal. In early fall we start hiring winter seasonal employees and the Airfield department recruits for additional snow warriors from among the other departments. I know what you’re thinking.  If they allow other airport employees to help out in the winter, why on earth have I not jumped all over this opportunity? Please refer back to paragraph number one.  Sadly, winter is the busiest time of year in accounting and it just isn’t possible to take on anything else.

IMG_2504This year we added serious muscle to our snow removal capabilities with the purchase of six multi-function machines. These ginormous vehicles have a plow on one end and a broom on the other. They are capable of moving huge amounts of snow in a fairly short amount of time. When it comes to ground support vehicles, these are the biggest and baddest of the bunch. Only the full-time airfield employees are allowed to drive them – no seasonals or helpers from other departments. Not surprising when you consider they cost three quarters of a million dollars each!

33651984_unknown.jpgOnce the snow starts falling, keeping the airport open is a collaborative effort between Operations, Airfield Maintenance and ATC. One of these days I hope to score a ride along so I can get a first-hand look at the process. But for now I do what so many other avgeeks do – I bring up Flight Radar 24 and tune in to the tower on Live ATC. Listening in on winter operations at any airport can be fascinating. However, when it’s my airport it becomes quite personal.  I know the people who are out there working, and when the weather conditions are bad I know what they are up against.

33651568_Unknown (1)Our most recent big storm was quite a challenge. It started with temps well above freezing and torrential rain. These conditions can make it hard to pre-treat the runways to get ahead of the frozen participation to come. The temps fell through-out the day hovering at the freezing mark for a few hours and coating everything in ice. As the temps continued to plummet the ice turned to snow and the winds began to pick up.

Our runways have an east-west orientation.  During this storm the wind was from the north gusting up to 32kts. Keeping the runways and taxiways plowed in these conditions is incredibly difficult to say the least. The crosswinds, in combination with snowy runways (rated at 3/3/3 on the RCAM scale), proved to be too much for most flights. For a good two hours I watched as every single plane had to divert. Ouch!  This is never what any airport or airline wants. However, sometimes there’s just no winning against Mother Nature.

IMG_3338I was surprised at first to hear the deice pad frequency up and running so late at night. Under normal winter conditions – a frosty day or light snow – Ops will run the deice pad only during busy departure times. Otherwise the ramp remains uncontrolled and pilots work directly with the ground crews to get positioned for deicing. However, I found out that any time the airport is in snow operations, the Ops Department will take charge of the deice pad. This way they can keep the parking lines clear of snow, improve traffic flow and minimize the risk of collisions. Plus it allows them to relieve some of the burden on ATC since Ops will take over issuing some of the taxi instructions.

During a storm the snow removal teams focus on the runways and the main taxiways.  It can take several days after the snow stops falling to clear the rest of the paved surfaces. (Airports have A LOT of paved surfaces!) Fortunately we’re in the midst of a mid-January thaw so the temps have warmed up, the snow has melted and the snow warriors are getting a much-needed rest.  However, I have a feeling winter isn’t done with us yet.  The snow will return, and when it does you know I’ll be watching!

33651504_Unknown (1)

A350 and the FBO

IMG_3067

Photo by Andrew Stricker

I recently had one of those weeks that reminds me just how lucky I am to be able to work where I do. Any time I get out onto the airfield is exciting, but getting onto the airfield twice in one week at two different airports? That’s nothing short of total awesomeness!

YAY 350!

A friend at Delta gave me a heads-up that one of their brand-new A350s would be doing some training flights into my airport. Sweet! We rarely see airplanes that large or that new, so this was definitely a big deal. Naturally I planned to go upstairs and watch it come in. Then I got an email from the Operations Manager asking if I’d like to ride out onto the airfield to see the arrival. Would I? Are you kidding me? Hell yes I would!

IMG_3143

We hopped into one of the Ops vehicles about 15 minutes or so before the A350 was due to arrive. With a little help from our friends in the ATC tower we confirmed which runway would be used and got permission to position ourselves on a taxiway not too far from the anticipated touch-down point. We had to wait another few minutes before the A350 finally appeared in the distance. It got closer and closer and before we knew it the plane was roaring by us in all its glory. Best plane spotting moment EVER!

 

The plane wasn’t scheduled to stay long but thanks to that magic radio connection to ATC we were able to recommend a good parking spot on the east pad… which we immediately drove to so we could take more pics. There were several other vehicles circling the plane like sharks. Plus there were observers in the old snow tower and there was even someone from Ops on the terminal roof!

FullSizeRender (88)

After about ten minutes the A350 was ready to leave. We decided that just off the end of the runway would be the ideal location for viewing the departure.  We hopped out of the truck and watched as the plane came straight at us. Then it lifted into the air and flew directly over our heads.  There’s only one word to properly describe the entire experience: Wow!

FB-OH!

FullSizeRender (87)So how do you top off a week that had such a stunning beginning? Why with a visit to the FBO, of course! At the cargo airport the FBO is run by the Authority so we are very involved with paying their bills and invoicing the airlines for their services. Getting to spend a few hours there was an important learning experience. And, of course, the avgeek in me was a kid in a candy store.

The original plan had been to help work a flight. Sadly the plane was delayed so that didn’t happen. But you know me – I wasn’t about to let that stop me from enjoying every moment I was there. We spent some time reviewing spreadsheets and other administrative items. Then we spent time chatting about life at the FBO. I learned that some airlines require four star hotels for their crews. Others have extensive catering requirements. Still others want flexible transportation options. And who makes all of this happen? Yep – your friendly FBO staff. It can definitely be a challenging job at times.

 

Then we headed out for a tour of the facilities and (at my request) the ground equipment. We got to see the large loaders they use for big cargo pallets and the tail stands they use to protect planes from tipping backwards during unloading. We got to examine tugs and fuel trucks. We even got to look inside the containers used for shipping horses. But then we got up close and personal with two of my favorite support vehicles…

Deice Trucks

 

We have two deice vehicles – one open bucket and one enclosed. I thought for sure that the enclosed one would be preferred. However, the FBO staff informed me that operating the enclosed deicer can be challenging. It’s hard to see out the windshield so they often have to open the side window, which means they get just as wet as they would in the open bucket. Plus they claim that using the hose is easier than using two joysticks. Since none of them were crazy enough to let me give the deicers a try I guess I’ll have to take their word for it.

STAIRS TRUCK!!!

 

Then came the moment of all moments: I got to open the door of the stairs truck and sit inside! I got to take pics! I got to touch the controls! I GOT TO SIT IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT! Sadly, I didn’t get to drive it. Doh! That’s OK though – I am one giant step closer to achieving that dream.

Do I have an awesome job or what? I may not love every aspect of what I do, but I sure love the heck out of where I work and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

IMG_3142

Hooray for GA!

IMG_2245

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.

IMG_2209

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.

IMG_2236

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.

IMG_2261

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.

IMG_2256

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!)

IMG_2264

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.

32856032_Unknown

 

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.

IMG_1543 (1)

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

AAmazing AAviation Day!

IMG_1159In the United States, National Aviation Day is held on August 19.  Here’s how I’ve celebrated at work the last couple years:

  • I bring in cookies.
  • Everyone eats them.

Yeah… not very exciting or inspiring. This year, however, I lucked into a very coveted ticket to attend AAviation Day at one of my favorite places – Charlotte Douglas International Airport! No, that’s not a spelling error – the extra “A” in “AAviation” is a nod to American Airlines who, in conjunction with the Airline Geeks, put together an awesome behind-the-scenes tour at the nation’s 5th busiest airport. Can you say avgeek heaven? Oh yeah!

IMG_1013I kicked things off early by parking on the very top level of the garage. No way was I going to pass up the chance to do a little pre-event plane spotting! (And lets face it, if they handed out diplomas for plane spotting from parking garages, I’d have a PhD!) My dedication paid off – I got my very first look at Amazon’s Prime Air 767. Sweet!

From there I made my way to the terminal to meet up with the rest of the group. There were about 12 of us altogether. I expected that most attendees would be from the Charlotte area. Wrong! In fact only one of the group lives near CLT. The rest were from places like New York, Texas, Florida and even California and Washington! Some of us work in aviation and some don’t, but all of us were kids in a candy store the whole day.

IMG_1189The tour began with a visit to the Operations Tower. Wow – what a view! And what a lot of computer equipment! The Operations Tower is responsible for all aircraft movement on the ramp. I wish we had a set-up like that for deice pad control in the winter! But then again, the ramp at CLT is a MUCH busier place with 600+ flights per day. We were allowed to wander around the room, examine the different work stations and ask questions. I honestly could have stayed for hours!

Our next stop was out onto the roof where we had a fabulous view of the ramp. The entire group went camera-happy, snapping pics almost non-stop. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many American airplanes all in one spot! Good thing there wasn’t deck furniture and a cabana (and drinks) up there or they might have had some trouble convincing me to leave!

From the roof we went all the way down to the ground level for a walking tour of the ramp (with ear plugs and high-viz vests, of course). Being around the airplanes and crews and ground equipment was simply spectacular. There was so much going on – it’s much busier than what I am used to! Alas, there was not a single stairs truck in sight! Fortunately there were so many airplanes and so much to see that I didn’t mind.

After the ramp tour, we visited the American Airlines offices and enjoyed lunch in a cool, comfortable conference room. (Did I mention that the temps were a toasty 90F+ outside?) Several executives from American joined us and we were able to chat with them about how the company has grown over the years, as well as some of their future challenges.

FullSizeRender (81)After lunch, the awesomeness continued with a tour of the training facility. We met in a conference room first to learn a little about the training program itself and watch a video about the history of American Airlines. Then we visited the egress training area where Flight Attendants learn how to operate various types of emergency exits. Seeing the cut-away plane interiors was actually quite fascinating. They even had an E145 fuselage (minus the nose, wings and tail).

From there we moved into one of the flight simulator rooms. There were three Airbus A320 sims in this particular room, all of which were in use.  (The facility has approximately 13 sims of various types.) It was fascinating to watch the sims move around and to speculate on the scenarios that the pilots inside might be facing.

Our last stop of the day was the American Airlines maintenance facility. The first thing I noticed when I walked in the door is how big it is. Similar to the Boeing factory in Seattle, employees use bikes to get around. We walked through fabrication areas and past the parts room on our way out to the hangars where there were three planes undergoing maintenance. I can tell you this – I do NOT want to be the person assigned to work on the top of the tail! Then again, climbing up and down all those flights of stairs would definitely be good exercise!

Our last event of the day was a visit inside one of the planes in the hangar (an A320). We examined the cockpit and then lounged in first class for several minutes. I also checked out the seats in the back and found them to be roomier than expected.

All too soon, however, it was time to exit the plane, take our final group photo and catch a shuttle back to the terminal.  I couldn’t believe it was time to say goodbye already! We were so busy the day just flew by.  Fortunately we had new friendships, amazing memories and some cool swag to take away with us.

IMG_1113

Look!  I found the motorized stairs!!!

As a passionate aviation enthusiast who happens to work in the industry, I have had many amazing avgeek experiences. However, I can honestly say that AAviation Day ranks right up at the top. A HUGE thank you goes out to Ryan Ewing and the Airline Geeks for all they did to plan and organize the event, as well as the wonderful staff at American Airlines for making the day so special!

IMG_1131

So what do you think? Are you crazy jealous and wondering how you can experience AAviation Day for yourself? Check out the Airline Geeks website and follow them on twitter. Events were held at all of American’s hubs, as well as two locations overseas. And the ticket cost? Zero. Zip. Nada. Free! But you have to pay attention if you want to score one. If this year was any indication, next year will be even bigger and better. Hope to see you there!

OSH17 – Mind Blown

IMG_0622EAA’s Airventure runs for a full seven days. I was there for five of them. This sounds like it should be plenty of time to see everything, but it isn’t. Not even close! However, I can say with full confidence that I made the most of the time that I had.

More Blue Angels

I mentioned in my last post that in addition to interviewing the pilot of Blue Angel #4, I also interviewed one of the enlisted men. Petty Officer First Class Jamichael (Jay) Semien is one of the crew coordinators on the team. Along with overseeing the ground operations, he is responsible for all the safety equipment on the planes. When I asked him how that is accomplished he explained that with some systems, like the oxygen system, there are tests that can be run. However for other systems, like the ejection seats, the only way to test them is to deploy them. Obviously no one wants to do that, so they have a rigorous maintenance schedule that they follow to ensure everything remains in perfect working order.

I really have to take a moment to once again thank the Blue Angels team members for being so gracious and generous with their time. These are men and women who are serving their country 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and who step up to defend our freedoms at a moment’s notice. I cannot thank them enough for their service.

Days 4 & 5

Thursday started with a visit inside the KC-135. This was a huge treat for me because I see these planes quite often and had been longing to get a closer look at one. From there I hustled over to the EAA radio center where I had the tremendous honor of being interviewed by Amy Laboda and Jeb Burnside for the Attitude Adjustment show. To be completely honest, I was pretty darn nervous! Thankfully Amy and Jeb made it easy. Give it a listen!

Other notable events on Thursday and Friday included a tour of an RAF A400, an interview with an official from Airbus, and an interview with the director of NASA Langley. If you haven’t already done so, you MUST go check out the Flying and Life Podcast. Mike did a great job with these interviews – you REALLY don’t want to miss them.

FullSizeRender (74)

Friday afternoon I attended a media briefing with Gene Kranz, Walter Cunningham and Jim Lovell from the Apollo space program. What a tremendous honor that was! I also heard them speak at the NASA presentation on Friday night. As I listened to them swap stories and share behind-the-scenes insights, it really brought home to me the breadth of the aviation world that is present at Airventure. You can find it all, from ultralights to the space program and everything in between.

The Rest of the Story

You might be thinking, hey Jenn – weren’t there daily air shows? Didn’t you watch any of them? Yes, there was an air show every afternoon. And most days I caught bits and pieces of them as we dashed from one event to the next. We were so busy running around that it wasn’t until Friday that I had time to just sit and watch a full show. And what a spectacular show it was! I was especially pleased that the Heritage Flight included not one, but TWO Warthogs! Rock on! EAA really does it right.

Other notable moments included attending several meet-ups, including one with Captain Jeff from the Airline Pilot Guy show who was visiting Airventure for the first time. I also finally made it to Camp Scholler and was able to spend some time with the amazing folks of Camp Bacon. And I paid my respects at the coffin. What is that you ask? You’ll just have to come to Osh18 and find out!

Final thoughts

FullSizeRender (79)

As I write this I am still decompressing from the week, however there are two major things that stand out to me. The first is all the amazing people I had the pleasure of meeting/seeing again this year. I cannot begin to list names (there are far too many!) but I just have to say how absolutely awesome it was to connect with every one of you. You are proof that aviation people are without a doubt some of the best people in the world.

IMG_0628

Hey look – there goes my new best friend, Lt. Benson!

The second thing that stands out to me is how incredibly blessed I am to have been able to find a place inside an industry that I love so much. If you had told me at my first Airventure four years ago that by 2017 I would be working at an airport, writing a successful blog and that I would have so many amazing aviation friends, I never would have believed it. Yet here I am – proof that really cool things CAN happen to ordinary people who happen to love airplanes.

So what do you think? Want to have your mind blown? Airventure Oshkosh 2018 is less than a year away. Are you in?

IMG_0645

PS: You thought I forgot about the stairs trucks, didn’t you. Go ahead, admit it! You’ve read through this post and there has been no mention of them. Well fear not, intrepid readers, I NEVER forget the stairs trucks! The photos below are an example of what happens when a stairs truck is left unguarded in my vicinity.

Authors note: Special shout-out to Mike Karrels (FlyingAndLife Podcast) and Dan Pimentel (Airplanista) – thanks for all your help and support. Shout out also to Rob Mark (Flying Magazine/Jetwhine) – thanks for inviting me to be on Attitude Adjustment. You were very much missed! And thanks to David Abbey, Daniel Dusome and John Brown who took the people/group photos.

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.

IMG_7185

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.

IMG_6589

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?

IMG_6944

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!

IMG_7885

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!

img_9527.jpg

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!!!

IMG_9669

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?

FullSizeRender (72)

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. 

IMG_9529

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.

IMG_9091

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.

img_9469.jpg

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.

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!

IMG_8216

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?”

fullsizerender-62

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