A Bird’s Eye View of a Few Big Birds

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On Tuesday night, I arrived all giddy at MSP Airport. I had a typical “kid in a candy store” expression plastered on my face, but this time it was amplified – my face legitimately hurt from smiling.

I wasn’t going to the dog park or the viewing area or the cemetery or the gold ramp, no… I was going to the Air Traffic Control tower. ATC has ALWAYS fascinated me… one of the first pieces I wrote for Aviation Queen was about the inner workings of air traffic control. And more recently I got to write a piece on the privatization debate for Airways.

Lucky me, one of the many connections I’ve made through Instagram was with an incredibly nice guy named Joe. He works as a controller in the MSP tower, and invited me to shadow him this past Tuesday evening. It was UNREAL. Seriously guys… unreal. Side note: Joe also loves cats – further proof that he’s a good guy.

He told me in advance that he would “put me to work” and I didn’t quite know what that meant. But one of the first things I did upon arrival was plop down in a chair in front of a computer and a machine that was cranking out flight strips. I placed the strips into their holders, went through the flights on the computer to send clearances and then went through them all again to record their gate numbers. Best part? I got to KEEP the strips from the Air France A340 and the Condor 767 – pretty sweet, huh?

We then went over to a different station and worked “ground” – I had a headset on and just listened to Joe interact with the pilots… clearing them for pushback or directing them to their runway for departure or to their gate for arrival. It was boatloads of fun. I wish I was back there right now.

THEN… I had the opportunity to go out on the “catwalk” – a full 360 deck that circles the tower. I got some amazing photos from up there and the view was just stunning. It was fairly close to sunset, so the lighting was beautiful. It was the cat’s meow. See what I did there?

Following my photo session, I got to hang around inside the cab for a bit more before we made our way down to TRACON.

I first learned about TRACON (terminal radar approach control) when I interviewed Jennah Perry earlier this year for my ATC story on Aviation Queen. Jenna is the Program Chair and Assistant Professor of Air Traffic Management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

TRACON is located in the lower level of the MSP tower and looked to me like something out of a movie. It was dark and a little eerie – with a number of computer screens displaying the radar. The screens were divided into 5-mile “rings” of the area surrounding MSP – really bringing to life the whole “invisible highways in the sky” concept.

Joe told me that back in the “old days” the controllers at the top would actually send the flight strips down to TRACON in a contraption similar to those bank tubes that go between the drive-thru lanes and the tellers inside the building. That’d sure be a sight to see, huh?

After the visit down to TRACON, my time was up. Two hours really *flies* by when you’re having fun. Before I knew it, my husband was pulling back into the parking lot to pick me up. I talked his ears off about how much fun I had for no less than two hours straight. It was perfect.

All in all, my visit Tuesday was an exciting, eye-opening experience. As always, I feel incredibly thankful to have been able to meet such a diverse group of aviation enthusiasts through social media… from pilots to mechanics, spotters to photographers, and now even a controller.

So, here’s to you Joe! Thanks for an AWESOME time.

A Very Great Plane: The Douglas DC-3

I just heard one of my favorite sounds in the world – a prop plane flying nearby. That sound tends to bring my mind back to the early days of aviation, and this time was no different.

Over the last few weeks I’ve become mildly obsessed with the Douglas DC-3… would you believe that there are still thousands of those planes flying? December 17, 1935 – that was when the first one took to the skies. Sometimes I actually forget that planes were around that long ago, but they certainly were. The DC-3 was the “cream of the crop” in the aviation industry during those years and is credited today with having revolutionized air travel in a number of ways.

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A Breitling Douglas DC-3, Photo Courtesy: Breitling

Before the DC-3 came around, there were two other planes that had a strong foothold in the market: the Boeing Model 247 and the “Tin Goose” Ford Trimotor.

The Trimotor first flew in June 1926, powered by (you guessed it) three engines – Pratt and Whitney Wasps. Transcontinental Air Transport (which would later become TWA) pioneered coast-to-coast service with the Trimotor. The plane was strong and sturdy, but unfortunately didn’t have what it took to stand up to the two competitors that would enter the market several years later – the 247 and the DC-1.

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A Ford Trimotor, Photo Courtesy: Golden Wings Flying Museum

The Boeing Model 247 is considered to be the first modern airliner and had its inaugural flight in February 1933. It was the first plane that was capable of flying on only one of its two engines – also Pratt and Whitney Wasps. But just months later, the DC-1 was developed at the request of TWA. And even though the DC-1 itself wasn’t perfect, it paved the way to the eventual DC-3, which was as close to perfect as an airplane could be back then.

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A United Air Lines Boeing Model 247, Photo Courtesy: Boeing

The DC-1 evolved into the larger, faster and more luxurious DC-2 and then nixed beds for upright seats to become the DC-3. Powered by two Wright Cyclone engines, the DC-3 was strong, fast, and comfortable. It had capacity to carry two crew members and 21-32 passengers. Back then, flying really was a luxurious experience, namely because it was just that – a luxury. The DC-3 also pioneered inflight movies.

Of course some of today’s airlines still offer that touch of glamour, but with the rise in low-cost carriers and even the legacy carriers offering stripped down “basic economy” fares, it’s not as common. Flying today is, for most, a means to get from point A to point B. Why else do you see people rapt with magazines or computers, and not with the fact that they’re FLYING? I mean… HELLO – you are six miles in the sky, soaring amongst the clouds in a 100,000-pound METAL TUBE. WHY AREN’T YOU STARING OUT THE WINDOW IN SHEER AMAZEMENT?

OK – I think I’ve made my point. I love flying, and I don’t take it for granted. I need to be in a window seat so I can constantly look out at the sky we’re in and the ground below, because I am amazed that we as humans were able to pioneer this concept. We figured out how to DEFY gravity. It’s remarkable! But the message I really want to convey to all of you is that the planes we fly on today were in some way, shape or form derived from the sturdy workhorse Douglas DC-3. It’s a legend. Why else do you think some 2,000 of the planes still fly? I can only hope that someday I’ll have a chance to fly in one of those time capsules myself.

Living in the Age of Airplanes

NAT GEOIs it any wonder that people from all walks of life are fascinated with airplanes? Think about it… these massive hunks of metal fire up their engines and FLY… I mean, how can you not look up at the sky each time you hear one soaring overhead?

But planes have done more than just defy gravity, they’ve changed the world by connecting us to people and places in a way that simply wouldn’t have been possible in the days before their existence.

And that, my friends, is why I love the movie “Living in the Age of Airplanes.”

The 47-minute National Geographic documentary was filmed in 18 countries on all seven continents. Released in 2015, I actually planned a trip to Florida around seeing this flick on the big screen at the Orlando Science Center. Call me a sap, but I was tearing up within the first two minutes.

I watched the movie again recently, and was reminded of the real reason I love these humble beasts. I say humble because not all airplanes are built to “show off” and please us aesthetically, in fact, most of them aren’t built for that purpose at all… their beauty is just an added bonus. They’re really here to serve as workhorses that get us to and from the places we need to be. So, let’s all pause, take a step back and give a collective “thanks” to our flying friends.

If you love planes, you’ll love this movie. And if you hate planes? This movie will make you love them. Admit it – you take air travel for granted. You don’t need to feel ashamed though… most of us take flight for granted. But this movie is a work of art that will inspire you to look at aviation in a different light and will leave you with a newfound appreciation of how miraculous flight truly is.

I recently interviewed the CEO of Cape Air, Dan Wolf, and he said something that really struck me… “You can build a mile of runway and go anywhere, you can build a mile of road and go a mile.” This movie really drives home that point, so if you haven’t seen it… please check it out and let me know what you think!

To blue skies and tailwinds…

 

I’m leaving on a small plane…

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See that plane up there? It’s one of 12 Cessna 208B Grand Caravans that make up Air Choice One’s fleet. And you know what else? I’m flying on one… THIS FRIDAY.

I recently had the privilege of interviewing the airline’s CEO for an Airways Magazine story (more to come on that at a later date), and having never flown on a small plane myself, I completely lucked out… as they were willing to send me on a there-and-back jaunt from Minneapolis to Mason City.

You guys… I’m stoked. The only problem is, I’m kind of… well, nervous.

You see… most of you know that I have an unhealthy incredibly large obsession with airplanes – it doesn’t matter if I’m on the ground looking at one or flying at 30,000 feet, I love the HECK out of those magical metal beasts.

But what a lot of you might NOT realize is that only within the last year or so did my INTENSE FEAR OF FLYING dissipate. Back in my television news days (2010-2014), WSMV in Nashville flew me out to interview for a position, and wouldn’t you know it, some intense turbulence rocked our 737 so hard that we suddenly dropped and nearly hit the ground.

That obviously was an exaggeration, but you guys… all of us on board SCREAMED. And that in and of itself was enough to instill an incredible fear of flying in my little head that plagued me for years to come.

Once I really started following my dream of aviation journalism/photography, though, that fear waned. I actually would rather be in the air flying through heavy chop than doing much of anything else.

So… having never flown on a small plane before, I don’t know WHAT to expect. Help me out guys! I’ve heard horror stories of people getting sick due to “feeling” every. little. movement. I’ve watched every episode of every season of May Day Air Crash Investigation… and lo-and-behold, a LOT of the planes that crash are… you guessed it: LITTLE PLANES.

Honestly though… I am really, really excited. I know I’ll be in excellent hands (Air Choice One has a perfect track record) and I know that it will be a lot of fun. Not a lot of people get to take a “just because” flight, so I consider myself very lucky.

So… stay tuned for a full report Friday evening, if I make it back. Dun dun DUN.