I Like Big Planes (and I Cannot Lie)!

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When I was a teen I went on a beach vacation with a friend’s family. The drive took us past Dover Air Force Base. As we approached the base I was mesmerized by a line of impossibly-huge airplanes that seemed to hang suspended in mid-air, completely defying the laws of physics. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! My friend’s father told me that they were C-5s and I was immediately smitten with them. Thus began my love affair with really big planes.

Here I am many years later, working for an airport authority that not only runs a passenger airport where my office is, but also a nearby cargo airport where the big planes go. Every so often I get a chance to visit the cargo airport, which is always exciting because I never know what I might get to see. One such opportunity arose recently when we had a department outing to visit our new FBO.

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Boeing 747-8: Evading me since 2013

The Boeing 747-8 is a frequent visitor to the cargo airport and is one of my favorite airplanes. I hoped that during this visit I would finally get a chance to see one up close. Unfortunately the 747 that was supposed to be there had been delayed. Darn! The FBO Manager said he’d be happy to take us out to see the Antonov instead. He said a bunch of other things after that, but I didn’t hear a word because OMG THERE’S AN ANTONOV! WE’RE GOING TO SEE AN ANTONOV!!!! AN ANTO-FREAKING-NOV!

IMG_4516Before visiting the plane we took a tour of the newly-renovated FBO facilities. I have only visited a couple of FBOs over the years so I’m definitely not an expert, however I have to say that our new FBO is pretty darn nice. It is spacious, with plenty of places to sit and work, or kick-back and relax. There is a separate lounge for flight crews, off of which is a sleeping room with lay-flat recliners, and a couple of bathrooms complete with showers. Plus there are kitchens everywhere. I swear I saw at least three on the main floor and then another one upstairs by the offices. Oh – and did I mention there’s a fireplace? AND a cookie oven! Yes, you read that correctly – an oven just for baking cookies. I’d never heard of such a thing, but now I’m convinced I can’t live without one.

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After the tour we headed out to the ramp and boarded a shuttle bus. We didn’t drive far before I could see the Antonov, looming in the distance. While the An 124-100M is very similar in shape to the C-5, the white, blue and yellow livery gives it a very distinctive appearance. At any other airport the plane would have stuck out like a sore thumb.  However the cargo airport is big and it doesn’t get much traffic from passenger planes, so the Antonov actually fit in better than I expected. And by “fit in” I mean it dwarfed everything in the vicinity.

 

Since the plane was parked we were permitted to walk up to it and take a look around. Standing under the wing and gazing up towards the cockpit far above us just reinforced how ridiculously huge this airplane is. Everything seems super-sized, including the landing gear which has something like a million tires. OK, actually I think there are 20 tires on the main gear (10 on each side) plus another four on the nose gear, but 24 tires is still a lot!  To put it in perspective, that’s enough tires for four 737s!

 

Why on earth did someone feel compelled to make a plane this big? So it can haul cargo, of course! And people. But mostly lots and lots of cargo. It has a rear door for loading and unloading. Its nose opens up as well and the plane has the ability to “kneel” (lower the suspension) to make the front ramp easier to use. The Antonov also has an on-board crane that is capable of winching items weighing up to 120 tonnes.

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I bet you could fit a bunch of these inside the Antonov…

You might be wondering what cargo this ginormous airplane was delivering to us. Well I’m told that the Antonov is often used to haul jet engines because it is one of the few planes big enough to carry them. However, in this case the plane brought… nothing. And after a week of sitting on the ramp it departed with… nothing. That’s right – the Antonov flew in and out with no cargo whatsoever! The sole purpose for this particular visit was simply to park. It is apparently cheaper to park it here than to fly it home to Russia between assignments.

I wish I had been around to see it take off – that must have been quite a sight! The ramp agents claim it is so loud that it shakes the buildings. Hopefully it will come back again soon. Or perhaps the An-225 Mriya (which is even bigger and has SIX engines) will stop in for another visit. If it ever does, the FBO front desk has my number on speed dial along with strict instructions to fire up the cookie oven and call me right away.

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A350 and the FBO

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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!

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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!

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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.

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Hooray for GA!

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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