Outdoor Engine Switcheroo

4CE6D16A-71B3-4FC9-A95B-C612029B1C08I see a lot of the smaller commercial airplanes around every day. I love them but let’s face it, seeing the same planes all the time can get a little boring. So it’s always fun when something new and different stops by. On a recent Tuesday morning I heard that a Boeing 767 had diverted with mechanical trouble the night before. The 767 might be a common sight at some airports but it is a rarity for us, so I made a point of searching it out.

I finally tracked it down at a gate on the east side of the airport. There were no obvious signs of trouble, but I’d heard that there were oil pressure issues and that it might require an engine change. I shrugged that off. The airline doesn’t have maintenance facilities here and the available hangars would be much too small. No, I figured they’d send a mechanic to patch it up enough so it could be flown to a base. No one would try swapping out engines on the ramp, Right?

1844742E-6323-411E-B61B-8E17EBDC7C28Wrong! When I checked on the plane the next day I found that it had been moved from the gate to a parking spot on the ramp. Sitting nearby, covered in protective wrap, was the unmistakable shape of an engine. What the… Oh my goodness! They really ARE going to swap engines on the ramp!

I have witnessed my fair share of gate-side airplane repairs. It isn’t unusual to find mechanics tinkering with engines or landing gear. I’ve even witnessed a nose cone swap. But changing engines on a B767 is a different story. You can’t just dispatch one guy with a wrench to take care of it. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit two of American Airline’s maintenance hangars, so I’ve seen the equipment that is usually needed to do this kind of job. How on earth were they going to pull this off outside?

39113392_UnknownI decided right then and there that I was going to stalk the heck out of this airplane. For the next several days I spent every spare moment watching as the work progressed. I got to the office early so I could check in before heading to my desk. I spent my lunch break outside. I stayed late after work. I was kind-of obsessed. OK, actually I was TOTALLY obsessed. How often does an engine change happen out in the open for the whole world to see?

The swap began when a small army of mechanics showed up with ladders and a big blue truck with a crane on it. I could see they had opened up all the panels that surround the engine and it looked like they were busy disconnecting things. They used the crane to lift the cowling off the front of the engine and place it on the ground. When I headed home Wednesday night, they were still hard at work.

IMG_4178When I returned Thursday morning I discovered that they had managed to remove the old engine before calling it quits the previous day. The plane looked pretty strange sitting there with one engine missing! It did not stay that way for long. By mid afternoon the new engine had been hung on the wing and when I left work Thursday night they were still busily reconnecting the hydraulic, fuel and electrical lines.

I wondered how long this engine swap would have taken and whether it would have been handled differently if they could have done it in a hangar. My friend Mike from the Flying and Life podcast put me in touch with AJ, a mechanic for a major legacy carrier in the US. AJ has done plenty of engine changes both at the maintenance facility and on the road. He walked me through the basics of the process and explained that a typical engine swap on a 767 takes around 10-11 hours.

39113904_UnknownAJ told me that weather presents the biggest challenge when working on the ramp. He has completed engine changes in the rain (which doesn’t sound like fun AT ALL). He also said that they will sometime construct a temporary shelter for protection while they’re working. If the weather is really bad they’ll stop work altogether. Equipment can present another challenge. If something breaks then a replacement will have to be brought in which can take time and cause delays.

39114464_unknown.jpgIn this particular case the mechanics were blessed with lovely weather and (apparently) no equipment issues. Friday morning I watched as they closed up all the access panels and began moving the ladders and cranes away from the plane. I had spent so much time watching the work that I felt really invested in the outcome. I wanted to see the engines start up! I NEEDED to see the plane take to the sky!

39114880_UnknownI spent the rest of the afternoon sweating it out as my desk. A departure time was scheduled and then pushed back and then pushed back again. That was the longest afternoon EVER. I dashed upstairs as soon as I finished work, just in time to witness the engine start. Hooray!

They let the new engine run for a bit and then they fired up the other one. Then the plane eased forward and began to taxi out to the runway. Now came the moment of truth: how would the new engine perform on departure? The plane rolled down the runway, lifted up into the sky, executed a graceful turn to the left and disappeared into the distance. Wow! From broken to restored again in less than three days – what an epic journey!  Major kudos to the mechanics involved – and to ALL the mechanics everywhere for all they do to keep planes flying safely.

Author’s note: A very big thank you to AJ and to all my mechanic friends on twitter for answering my many questions! Also, check out season 3, episode 14 of The Traffic Pattern Podcast where Derek Vento and I talk all things aviation!

39114976_Unknown

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!

incheon_airport3

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!

37775296_unknown.jpg

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

 

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!

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)

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.

img_7437

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

img_7499

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

img_7505

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.

img_7391

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

Columbine IIIimg_7500

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!

img_7369

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

img_7502

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!

img_7501

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.

img_7414

 

The Two (ATC) Towers

img_6483

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.

img_6802

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.

img_6789

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

old-tower-cargo-airport

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.

img_6698

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!

img_6726

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.

img_6715

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.

img_6717

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.

img_6721

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.

img_6727

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?

iceman

“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 line to park on in the deice pad 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 pad, 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.

img_6556

My Airport Vacations

img_6174I have a confession to make. This may sound crazy but… I vacation at airports. No, I don’t mean I travel through airports on my way to somewhere else. (I haven’t flown commercially in years.) I mean I spend substantial portions of my vacations at airports entirely on purpose. And did I mention that I also work at an airport? Yes, I may be just a wee bit obsessed.

I will further confess that almost any airport will do as a vacation destination as long as it has airplanes coming and going and a decent spot from which to watch. Airports with aviation-related museums or attractions nearby get bonus points. Here are some of my vacation spots from the last year.

Wittman Regional Airport, Oshkosh WI (OSH)

Yeah, this one is a no-brainer and if you know me at all you should have seen it coming. Hundreds of thousands of people spend days just hanging around this airport every July. Coincidentally there’s this little event called Airventure that goes on around that time and brings in thousands of airplanes. There’s even an aviation museum right up the street! Ah, but how many Airventure attendees have been to the airport terminal? Well I have! OK, actually I just drove by. But I went out of my way to find it this past year because given the title of this blog it just seemed like the right thing to do.

img_4345O’Hare International Airport, Chicago IL (ORD)

This airport is conveniently located on the way home from Osh and driving by is always one of the highlights of the trip. But this year I had the opportunity to meet up with some friends and do a little plane spotting. What a wonderful way to wrap up Osh week!  The best part was getting to see several of the big 747 cargo planes. They are just so darn cool and I rarely get to see them at the airport where I work. My only regret is that I wasn’t able to stay longer. I’m hoping to go back soon for an extended visit.

img_4982Cape May Airport, Rio Grande NJ (WWD)

I have to thank David Vanderhoof (Aviation Historian, blogger and podcaster) for turning me on to this one. This airport is the home of the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum. The museum is small but has an interesting collection of airplanes, helicopters, and aviation-related artifacts. The day I visited they brought in several WWII-era planes and were offering airplane rides. Although I didn’t go on a ride, it was awesome to hear those old engines fire up and to see the planes fly. And being the airport junkie that I am, I had fun watching the regular GA traffic as well.

img_6028Charlotte Douglas International Airport, Charlotte, NC (CLT)

This airport is one of my very favorites (next to Osh, of course). For one thing, it has a very nice viewing area which overlooks the center runway. The airport is quite busy and there’s an excellent variety of airplanes to see. That is, as long as you like American Airlines. And Airbuses. But if you pay attention you can catch some non-American non-Airbuses sneaking in. My favorite catch? A Luftansa A330.

img_6104The other nice thing about this airport is the Carolinas Aviation Museum. It has a small collection of interesting airplanes ranging from a Savoia Marchetti S.56B to an F-14 to a Piedmont Airlines DC-3. The centerpiece of the collection is an Airbus A320. What’s so special about that, you ask? Well this particular A320 made an emergency landing on the Hudson river a few years back. Maybe you’ve heard of it?

The Drive-Bys

Not only do I like to spend my vacations at airports, I also like to see what airports I’ll be driving by along the way so I can look out for any interesting traffic that might be flying overhead. (Did I mention I’m a wee bit obsessed?) Some of my favorite “drive-by” airports include:

img_6105

Carolinas Aviation Museum

Harrisburg International Airport (MDT) – This is a relatively small airport that has a modest amount of commercial traffic.  In fact, I’m rarely lucky enough to catch airliners taking off or landing – but that just makes it more exciting when I do. It’s like I’ve won a prize.

Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) – My hometown favorite!  There’s always something interesting to see when I drive by this airport. Depending on what runways are in use, I can sometimes see planes on approach from my mom’s house.

Yeager Airport (CRW) – It’s a fairly small airport and, like Harrisburg, I don’t often see airplanes flying in. However, it is always fun when I do because the area is relatively mountainous and the airport itself is perched on top of a hill.

fullsizerender-59

At Oshkosh. Oh how I love that plane!

Dover AFB – Can you say C-5s?! The first time I ever saw a C-5 was when I was a teenager. There were three or four of them coming in to land at Dover and I simply could not believe what I was seeing. “Wait… are those AIRPLANES? Holy cow – they’re HUGE!” I fell in love with the C-5 right then and there and have continued to be crazy about it ever since.

Sadly, vacations don’t last forever. After seeing so much activity and so many different and interesting airplanes, returning to my airport can feel like a bit of a let-down. It seems quiet by comparison. Fortunately it only takes a day or two before I rediscover my airport’s charms. After all, flying is magic and airplanes are amazing where ever you happen to see them.

img_6246

Beautiful Noise

usaf_c-5_galaxy_engine

By Landmark9254 Creative Commons

Close your eyes for 15 seconds and just listen. Did you hear any airplanes? I did. I hear them all the time. You’d think I’d get used to them or that I’d tune them out but I don’t. In fact, I LOVE the sound of airplanes! No, I can’t tell a GE engine from a Rolls Royce but I know what awesome sounds like – it sounds like 140+ commercial flights each day with a bunch of GA mixed in! (Well OK, awesome REALLY sounds like a C-5 screaming past as it takes off, but sadly we don’t have any of those at my airport, so cut me some slack.)

IMG_3601At My Desk

I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t a teeny bit disappointed on my first day at the airport when I discovered that my desk isn’t near a window. Then as I was getting settled in I heard a muffled roar. And then after a bit I heard it again. And then again. And then I realized the south runway was just outside the department and the muted thunder I was hearing was the sound of airplanes taking off and landing. Sweet!!! Maybe I couldn’t see airplanes from my desk, but hearing them was just as cool!

IMG_1440What Time Is It?

There are three gates outside my office – one usually hosts Airbuses (A320s mostly), one handles RJs and you can often find MD-80s parked at the third. I don’t always notice the Airbuses coming and going. I think its because that gate is a bit farther away from where I sit. I do notice the RJs though. One in particular has an APU that has such a high-pitched whine it makes my teeth hurt. (Fortunately I haven’t heard that one in awhile.)

There is, however NO mistaking the sound of the mighty Maddog pulling up to the gate. I can hear it coming from the far end of the airfield, quiet at first but then louder and whinier and louder and whinier… “wheeeeEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.” God I love that sound! No, really! The only thing better than hearing it taxi to the gate is hearing it take off. It sounds rather like a mini space-shuttle launch. Well, OK – maybe not THAT loud, but you get the idea

IMG_1445There are several MD-80s that come and go during the day. There’s an early morning flight that usually departs around the same time I get to the office. Another arrives around 10am-ish and another shows up around 3pm. They’ve become such a part of my routine that if I don’t hear them I become completely confused about what time it is. Hey American Airlines, do you have any idea what your devious scheme to retire the Maddogs will do to me? I may never get to a meeting on time again and it will be ALL YOUR FAULT! Not long ago operations did some concrete repair on the ramp and the Maddogs had to go elsewhere for a week. It was hell. Would someone make an alarm clock with MD-80 sounds, please?!?!

IMG_4822At the Run-Up Wall

We are fortunate to not only have the south runway within earshot of my department, but there’s a run-up wall right outside. Airplanes pull up next to the wall to test their engines. The wall blocks the sound from traveling across the airfield and bothering the neighbors. Thankfully, it does not stop the sound from traveling right to me. Some of the regional airlines have maintenance facilities at my airport and they are the ones who use the wall the most. Every time I hear that breathy roar of a plane running its engines I find an excuse to sneak over to the window and snap a pic. I have about a hundred million pictures of RJs at the wall. Equally fun are the propeller planes. Buuuuzzz buzzz bizzz bzzz bzzzz bzzzz!!!!! They sound like flies caught in a spiderweb, only a million times more excellent!

IMG_1504Up top

Of course airplanes generally sound their best during take-off and landing. The aforementioned Airbus, while relatively quiet at the gate, has a delightfully buzzy, growl on take-off. Many of the bizjets are deceptively loud. “Awww, look at cute little jet! It’s taking off now and… OH MY GOD MY EARS ARE BLEEDING!!!!  How can such an awesomely huge noise could come from such small engines?

IMG_3696Probably one of my most epic airplane noise moments happened earlier this summer. For months I had been stalking a P-51 that stays in a hangar at my airport. I once caught a glimpse of it hiding behind another plane, but was unable to get a good look at it. Then one day as I stepped out onto the top level of the parking garage I heard the unmistakable sound of a WWII airplane firing up its engine. I sprinted across the parking garage like a mad woman and sure enough, there was the Mustang taxiing right in front of me. I screamed. I jumped up and down. I excitedly pointed it out to a lady who was standing there. She looked at me as if I was completely possessed and quickly hurried her children away. Whatever. I not only got to see the long-sought Mustang right there in front of me, but I got to watch (and listen to) it take off as well. Two words: Total. Awesomesauce.

IMG_2810Noise Monitoring

I’ve been told that not everyone likes noisy airplane engines. I’m sorry… what? How is that even possible? However, since these people apparently do exist, my airport has a noise abatement program which includes things like sound proofing nearby homes, installing noise monitoring equipment, blah, blah, blah.  I’ve got a better idea.  I think they should give me the CEO’s house, which is located right next to the north runway. (And I do mean right next to it. Most people have a street address – she has taxi instructions.) From there I will monitor the noise levels and contact airlines as needed.  “Dear Southwest Airlines, Flight 3597 which departed from my airport last Tuesday night was unacceptably quiet. You can do better! Thanks for your cooperation.”

 

 

OSH16 is P.A.S.T.

IMG_4431The last week of July I once again ventured forth to the aviation mecca that is Airventure Oshkosh. My happy place! This was my third year going and every year I’ve stayed longer and done more. (Yet I still missed things I really wanted to do and see. How the heck does that keep happening?) As you might have guessed from the title of this post, P. A. S. T. stands for more than just days gone by. It’s my way of summarizing what Oshkosh means to me.

A is for Airplanes (Yes I’m going out of order.)

IMG_4433OK, EAA – have you been stalking my twitter feed or reading my private diary? (I don’t keep a private diary, so that would be really weird.) The planes on display at this year’s show featured pretty much all of my faves including:

-The C-5 Galaxy
-The A-10 Warthog
-The F-18 Hornet
-An Alaska Airlines 737-900ER
-A Cathay Pacific 747-8 (which I missed because I left the day it arrived)
-More WW II era planes than I ever thought I’d see all in one place

FullSizeRender (49)I walked in, around, under and through as many of these planes as I possibly could. But even better than the planes on the ground were the planes in the air. The F-16 and F-18 demos were spectacular. The aerobatic performers were breath-taking. The Martin Mars water bomber was so unbelievable I just stood there with my mouth open. Team AeroShell in the night show was absolutely gorgeous!

IMG_4434Although it’s nearly impossible to pick a favorite out of all the performances, I’m going to have to give a nod to the Canadian Snowbirds, who put on a show that I struggle to put into words. If the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels demonstrate power, then the Snowbirds demonstrate poetry. Lyrical isn’t typically how I’d describe an air show performance, but it’s the only word that really fits.

P is for People

IMG_4184This year I finally learned why Airventure is often referred to as an aviation family reunion. For me it began with Laura, my travel companion, who is an awesome friend that I hadn’t seen in almost two years. She’s not an #avgeek but she is a photographer who found a ton of material to capture at Osh. She fell in love with the warbirds and their nose art. When we stumbled upon the WWII encampment she was in heaven. Day two of our visit she embarked on a “chicks that rock” campaign whereby she got her picture taken with every female service member she came across.

The reunion theme continued with all the great online IMG_4029friends that I got to meet face to face, many for the very first time. It started on Tuesday at the fabulous Oshbash, hosted by Dan Pimentel and Airplanista. I don’t want to try to list names because I know I’ll leave someone out, but I was almost overwhelmed by all the hugs and friendly faces. This continued through-out the week. One friendly face that I got to see for a second year in a row was Kevin Lacey from Airplane Repo. I told him about my first flying lesson and he encouraged me to get my butt back in a plane for lesson number two.

I also got to meet the entire Canadian Snowbird team. First they impressed me by taking time to join the crowds who were applauding the honor flight veterans. Then they came over to the fence and chatted with everyone while signing posters and posing for pics. They were extremely friendly and open – terrific ambassadors for aviation.

IMG_4438Probably my biggest “people moment” actually involved two complete strangers. The A-10 is one of my very favorite airplanes and although I have seen an A-10 before, I have never gotten to see one fly in person. I just happened to be in a good spot relatively near the flight line when they arrived. I was so excited and overwhelmed that I was in tears. There were a couple of guys there who, instead of thinking I was crazy, totally understood how I felt and talked with me for a bit about why A-10s are so awesome. That moment really epitomizes why I love Osh so very much. Not only am I surrounded by amazing planes, I’m surrounded by amazing people who share a passion for aviation and who understand each other. For at least one week each year I don’t have to explain why airplanes are so cool.IMG_4303

ST is for Stairs Trucks 

You knew I wasn’t going to leave them out! Don’t worry – all the Oshkosh stairs trucks are present and accounted for. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t take every opportunity to get up close and personal with them. I’ve even discovered yet another reason why stairs trucks are awesome – they’re an excellent way to get a birds-eye view of all the airplanes in Boeing Plaza!

OSH17

IMG_4432I never knew four days could go by as quickly as my four days at Airventure 2016 did.  It seemed like we had just arrived when suddenly it was time to say goodbye. And oh how I hate saying goodbye!  Leaving Oshkosh was really, really hard to do.  But a stop by O’Hare for a little plane spotting with a couple of twitter friends sure helped a lot.  And looking ahead to Osh17 helps too.  As Chris Palmer put it on his post-Osh podcast: whatever it is that you love about aviation, Oshkosh has it.  IMG_4440Commercial airplanes? Vintage? GA? Helicopters? Balloons? Yes, yes, yes, yes and YES! So how about it?  Will YOU be at Osh17? Sure hope to see you there!

Special thanks to my Osh16 partner in crime, Laura Kenneson, for walking a million miles on blistered feet, for not laughing when I suggested we stop by O’Hare on the way home and for allowing me to use some of her awesome pictures on this post.  

Also, if you haven’t listened to Airplanegeeks podcast #412, check it out.  Not only does Rob Mark provide an excellent Osh wrap-up, but David Vanderhoof shares his story “Suzy Goes to the Stars” which happens to feature a couple of cameos by a stairs truck with a very familiar name…

 

IMG_4172