Behind the scenes at MCI

Do you know all the ins and outs — and I mean all the ins and outs — of an airport? Me either!

I’d like to think I know the basics of who and what keeps them up and running… I mean, you have your gate agents, ramp agents, pilots, flight attendants and air traffic controllers along with well-maintained runways, taxiways, jet bridges, gates and other facilities and BAM! You’ve got yourself an airport.

There are, of course, dozens of other systems and teams that are essential to keeping things running smoothly on and around an airfield — many of which are quietly and constantly at work in the background. One such team is airport operations.

Think of an airport as an apartment complex… the operations team is more or less the landlord, and the airlines are the tenants. At a high level, the ops team is responsible for ensuring the airport is in compliance with Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

Part of that includes frequently checking runways and taxiways to make sure they’re in good shape and that there isn’t any FOD (foreign object debris). They’ll look at the condition of the lights, signs and pavement, while keeping an eye out for wildlife or any other hazards on or around the airfield.

Last weekend, I had the privilege of spending a few hours at Kansas City International Airport with Nicole Lordemann, Assistant Manager of Operations.

Her team is out on the airfield six times each day performing thorough inspections to make sure everything is in tip-top shape. While we were out driving around, I learned a lot about what to look for, and also started to notice a lot of patterns.

For instance, the pavement markings on runways are always white, while the markings on taxiways are yellow — that’s easy enough to remember because… “and a big yellow taxi took my girl away.” Right?

Looking down crosswind runway 9
“I gotta take it on the other side…” looking down crosswind runway 27
Yellow = Taxiway

The actual signs that stick out of the ground are color-coded also. There are three types of signs that I tend to notice as an airplane passenger: mandatory instruction signs, location signs and direction signs.

  • Common mandatory instruction signs include runway holding position signs and “no entry” signs. These red signs with white text are there to let you know where to stop — whether it’s to pause before you cross an active runway, or to avoid entering a restricted area.
  • Location signs tell you where you are — who’d a thunk? These signs have a black background, a yellow inscription and a yellow border. If you see it head-on, you’re on it!
  • Direction signs are yellow with black text and help guide you. For example, if you see a yellow sign with a black “A” and an arrow pointing to the right, turn right and you’ll be on taxiway Alpha. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy!
Runway holding position taxiway marking
Taxiway location sign collocated with runway holding position sign
Direction sign
Driving down taxiway F… turn left or right and we’d be on D

There’s one type of sign, however, that I just learned about from Nicole: runway distance remaining signs. Next time you’re riding in an airplane, look out the window as you’re charging down the runway (wait… doesn’t everyone do that already?) and you’ll see black signs with white numbers that are counting down. These indicate the number — in thousands — of feet remaining on the runway. I guess I didn’t take any photos of these guys, oops!

As the afternoon was winding down, we made one last stop at the Kansas City Overhaul Base. When I first arrived a few hours earlier, I noticed some big birds just east of runway 19L/1R — everything from Boeing 747s to McDonnell Douglas DC-10s and even a Lockheed L-1011. It seemed odd to me since the only heavy aircraft that fly into MCI on a regular basis are freighters operating for companies like FedEx and UPS. Stranger still — and even a little eerie — was the fact that many of these planes were missing parts and most had a lot of the paint scraped off of them.

Former Zimbabwe Airways Boeing 777-200ER amongst other heavy aircraft
Tails of former Kenya Airways and Zimbabwe Airways Boeing 777-200ERs next to a pair of tri-holers — a Lockheed L-1011 and a Boeing 727

I learned from Nicole that this area, along with the adjacent hangars, is where many older aircraft come to be parted out and/or refurbished. The Kansas City Overhaul Base has actually been around since the golden age of aviation, opening concurrently with the airport in 1957 and employing more than 5,000 people at its peak in the ‘60s and ‘70s — at which time it was the city’s largest employer. Most notably it served as a maintenance facility for TWA, but today it’s leased primarily by MRO (maintenance, repair and overhaul) companies like Aviation Technical Services and spare parts trading companies like Jet Midwest.

The Queen of the Skies looking rather… incomplete
This tri-holer has seen better days, though hopefully some TLC can get him back in the sky soon
A rather sad looking former Avianca Fokker 100

For those who haven’t been, Kansas City is a really neat city with a metro area that’s steadily growing, and the airport is doing its part to keep up with that growth. Last year, MCI (yes, that IS the real IATA airport code, stemming from its original name: Mid-Continent International Airport) broke ground on a $1.5 billion project that will replace the airport’s aging three-terminal complex with a single, modern terminal. Dubbed “Build KCI” (remember, it’s actually MCI!), the new terminal is set to open in early 2023.

With that, I want to sincerely thank Nicole for her time and hospitality last week. It’s not too often that AV geeks like me are able to take part in these behind-the-scenes adventures, but it was so much fun and an all-around awesome learning experience. I’ll certainly be back to check out the new terminal, if not before then.

I’ll leave y’all with a few more photos from the day. Cheers!

Happy New Year!

My “top nine” Instagram posts from 2019.

January 1, 2020 marks three years since I started The Great Planes. At the time, I was living in Minneapolis, working as a digital content designer at Xcel Energy. My job wasn’t a great fit and I felt a bit hopeless, unsure as to what the future would hold. One thing was crystal clear though… I loved aviation and space. Then I thought, “Aw, what the heck?” and figured I’d see what could come of pursuing that passion.

What ensued has been nothing short of spectacular.

Through my blog and by sharing my photography on social media, doors I didn’t even know existed were opened. I got to meet, work with and learn from the legendary Aviation Queen herself, Benét Wilson, before covering a slew of incredible stories — on the ground and in the air — for Airways Magazine.

Of course, the grand finale (or what I thought was the grand finale at the time) was getting a job in executive communications at Boeing’s world headquarters in Chicago. It was a challenging and at times frustrating gig, but a rewarding experience nonetheless. And somehow, it got even better.

I had a great manager in Chicago — he told me when and where I fell short, offered praise for a job well done and (most importantly) helped me to learn, improve and grow. He truly wanted the best for me, which I’m eternally grateful for.

The support from him, other colleagues, and my family and friends helped me to land what I still consider to be a dream job, working as a historian and digital communications lead with Boeing Historical Services.

Reporting to our senior corporate historian is pretty flippin’ cool in and of itself, but each day I get to put my skills and passion to good use, telling stories and helping to preserve the legacy of this incredible company I had once only dreamed of working for.

Looking back, I really can’t believe all that’s happened in the last three years — from bad to good, and everything in between.

I lost my dear stepmom Carolyn in 2017 and my sweet cousin Wendy in 2018 — both of whom were champions for me. I still hear their voices, see their smiles and feel their love.

We moved a LOT. Scott and I have lived in four houses in three states — five houses if you count the year-and-a-half that I lived alone in Chicago / St. Louis while he was finishing school in Minneapolis.

And oh yeah… Scott FINISHED school and we’re finally living under the same roof and working in jobs we love. I’m so proud of him!

I traveled a lot… across the U.S., throughout Europe and even to Asia and Africa. I love exploring and am fortunate to be able to do so much of it.

I went under the knife TWICE. I got my appendix out in Istanbul (yes, Turkey) in 2017 and just a few weeks ago had knee surgery.

I flew on the Queen of the Skies — the legendary Boeing 747 — for the first (and hopefully not last!) time.

I got to be part of history when I supported the first Boeing CST-100 Starliner launch from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

I made new friends and strengthened existing friendships.

I took lots of pictures.

I felt stressed and worried, and cried my fair share of tears.

I celebrated lots of successes — personally and professionally — and learned a LOT.

Through all of these highs and lows, my love of aviation, space and all things flight has grown even stronger.

I am so thankful to the nearly 15,000 (WHAT?) people who have decided to share in this journey with me through Instagram. The best is yet to come, though…

Happy New Year!

I need my space

Me in front of the CST-100 Starliner inside the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility where astronauts train.

As I am sure most of you all know by now, I’m here at NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, supporting the CST-100 Starliner Orbital Flight Test. This is history in the making, as it’s the first time a Boeing-owned and -operated human-rated spacecraft has launched into orbit.

The originally planned eight-day mission has been reduced to three days after the spacecraft experienced an off-nominal orbital insertion shortly after launch Friday morning. Having looked forward to this for a long time, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t disappointing. However, even though we’re no longer rendezvousing or docking with the International Space Station, this isn’t done, and the excitement isn’t gone. Now, it’s all about bringing Starliner home safely.

Over the past several days, I’ve been hanging out in a ground level corner office with a handful of incredible Boeing and NASA teammates.

Since we’re working some long, odd hours, there’s an abundance of two-liter soda bottles and a big tub of Christmas cookies here to help sustain us, though adrenaline itself has definitely been keeping me awake and excited.

In preparation for the anticipated landing early tomorrow morning, we’re listening intently to the Mission Control loop – it’s almost like we are actually in the room with the team. Although most of the chatter is far too technical for me to fully comprehend, it is still so fascinating.

Our group here in Houston is just a small subset of a much larger team — from communicators to engineers — all of whom are passionate about space flight. And as both a historian and a communicator, I’m so humbled to be here.

So… roughly 12 hours till our planned landing in White Sands, I ask that you please root for our team, for space and for our future.

What is life?

“What is life?”

That’s a phrase I often use to describe situations in which I find myself unable to comprehend how lucky I am.

There is so much bad in the world — bad people, bad places, bad situations — but in my 32 years of life, I’ve somehow managed to avoid most all of it. I don’t know how or why, but I’ve experienced so much of the good… so much that it sometimes feels unfair.

And today… today was yet another really good day.

It all starts with Chicago… a blustery, midwestern city that reeled me in a couple years back and helped me to blossom into the happiest “me” I’ve ever been. It was there that I began working for The Boeing Company, and it was there that I met some truly incredible people, two of whom I had the pleasure of traveling with today.

While I was living in The Windy City, I met a fellow Chicagoan named Stathis. He’s the founder and president of branding.aero — a brand experience management agency — and a marketing professor at SUNY Oswego. He’s good people, and he’s a fellow AV geek.

Through Stathis, I was introduced to Elliot, who had interned with United Airlines and now works for the company at its Chicago headquarters. He too, is good people, and (of course) a fellow AV geek.

A few weeks back, I had posted a photo of the new United CRJ-550 on Instagram — the first regional jet with a three-class configuration. I spotted the 50-seater out at STL, an airport that doesn’t typically offer much in the way of new, exciting airplanes (at least not compared to Chicago). And in the caption, I mentioned how much I’d like to try out first class on the 550 some day…

Shortly after posting the photo, Elliot reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested in coming out to Chicago to fly first class on the newly-configured airplane. My heart rate skyrocketed and I said to Scott, “Oh. My. Gosh.” I was so, so excited.

Before I knew it, Elliot and I were working out the details for what was sure to be an incredible day. Shortly thereafter, he had even more good news for me — Stathis would be joining us!

I waited and waited in anticipation. And before I knew it, the day had arrived. I awoke at 5:30 a.m. with a spring in my step, and headed to the airport for my first flight, which was to depart at 7:45. I flew from St. Louis to Chicago where the three of us met and boarded our first flight on United’s new jet. Next stop: Sioux Falls!

The three of us sat near one another in first class, and let me tell you… there was SO. MUCH. SPACE. Aside from my fluke-of-an-experience flying business class on Turkish Airlines, I’ve always flown economy, so this was quite a treat. After the initial cabin service, we were able to grab additional drinks and snacks from a self-serve bar area, which was super fun and unlike anything I had experienced before.

After landing in Sioux Falls, we had the chance to visit the flight deck, before stepping off the plane for just a few minutes, then getting right back on. Both flights were so smooth and so quiet. What made the trip so special, though, was the fact that I could enjoy it with two awesome people.

After we returned to O’Hare, we spent a bit of time in the United lounge, before Elliot and Stathis saw me off as I boarded my last flight of the day, back home to St. Louis.

Before today, I had never flown standby, and let me tell you… it’s really fun, albeit a little nerve-racking at times. Lucky for me, I live for this stuff and would have been perfectly content if I was “stranded” in Chicago. Alas, I was the very last passenger called to board the flight. I even got seat 1A — go figure!

So, there you have it… in exactly nine hours’ time I flew from St. Louis to Chicago, Chicago to Sioux Falls, Sioux Falls to Chicago, and Chicago back to St. Louis. Spending all day in airports and in the sky isn’t for everyone, but it IS for some folks… like me, Elliot and Stathis. And lucky for us, every now and again the stars align and we have the chance to take to the skies together… the three amigos!

Thank you, Elliot, for making today possible. It was an incredible adventure and I am so grateful for your generosity and thankful to have you as a friend.

And thank you Stathis, for being such a kind, selfless person. It was so great to be able to share in this experience with you!

So, what is life?

Well… simply put, life is good.

Here’s to friends, blue skies and tailwinds.

Just plane thanks…

Earlier this week, I realized I hadn’t blogged for awhile. And with that realization came a bit of stress, because I couldn’t think of what to write about. Thursday morning, however, whilst driving to work… it came to me.

For reference, my commute is roughly 20 minutes. And, as many of you know, my office is just across the street from St. Louis Lambert International Airport. Naturally, I see a lot of airplanes on my drive in, a lot of them throughout the work day, and a lot on my drive home.

And I loooooooooove airplanes.

OK, back to Thursday morning.

Shortly after getting onto I-70, I saw a Southwest 737 coming in from the north. It was flying straight toward me before it banked sharply to the right to line up for a 30R landing. Just a few minutes later, another one crossed overhead, and then another — it was plane after plane on the same approach.

In that moment, I just smiled and let out a big sigh — I was so happy. And that moment wasn’t even out of the ordinary. These simple realizations of how lucky I am come quite often… and for that, I’m incredibly grateful.

With Thanksgiving just around the corner — I thought it’d be fitting to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to the many people who have inspired and supported me over the last several years as I blossomed into the person I am today.

To those who have loved, supported and helped guide me — thank you. Y’all definitely know who you are… and if you’re wondering, “Is she talking to me…?”

YES. I am talking to YOU.

Roughly a decade ago, I had no idea what my future would hold. And — believe it or not — I was deathly afraid of flying. I was also a job hopper. From TV news to communications in the nonprofit, private and government sectors… you name it, I did it. I couldn’t find my place in the sun.

Little did I know that a chance encounter with a big metal bird was about to completely change my life.

It was a cold, cloudy fall day and I was out on a long run in Minneapolis. Unbeknownst to me, I had ventured all the way out to MSP Airport. I was near the south end of runway 17/35 when an airplane took off right over my head.

I was forever changed.

I was fascinated, intrigued and full of emotion. But why?

Then, it hit me: I love airplanes. I’ve always loved airplanes. I will always love airplanes.

Aviation is in my blood, and it took me 20 some years to realize it. My parents were flight attendants on Eastern Airlines (that’s how they met in the ‘80s) and my dad served in the U.S. Air Force for three decades! DUH!

I’ve also always loved things that felt “magical” to me… and this, my friends, was (and still is) the epitome of magic. This epiphany coupled with my long-standing (but completely independent) fascination with space, helped me to identify and realize a dream: to work for The Boeing Company.

Through mentorship, counseling, and unconditional love and support from family and friends, I grew into the aviation nerd / storyteller / history buff / turbulence-loving girl I am today.

So, to all of you, who helped me to look up — literally and metaphorically — thank you.

Happy 100, Big Blue

Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschaapij — Dutch for Royal Aviation Company — is the world’s oldest airline operating under its original name. Known to most simply as KLM, the Netherlands’ flag carrier will forever hold a special place in my heart.

It all started with the 747-400…

I was born June 16, 1987 in the great city of Atlanta, Georgia. Roughly two years later, on May 18, 1989, KLM received its first 747-400. They called it “City of Atlanta” — naturally.

Fast forward to November 2017.

I’m a die hard AV geek. Inked on my left forearm is the outline of a Boeing 747-400. While my day job is doing communications for the State of Minnesota, I spend nearly all my free time at MSP taking photos of airplanes, or in front of my computer writing articles for Airways Magazine or blogging on The Great Planes.

My dad and I are about to fly back home to the U.S. from Amsterdam after a weeklong cruise on the Rhine.

The plane? A 747-400 Combi.

The airline? KLM.

The destination? Chicago.

This is a particularly exciting flight, not just because it’ll be my first time flying aboard the beautiful Queen of the Skies, but because in just a few weeks I’ll move from Minnesota — the state I’ve called home for nearly three decades — to Chicago, where I’ll start a new job working in executive communications for Boeing at the aerospace giant’s world headquarters.

Fast forward even further to today, October 7, 2019. I still work for Boeing, but earlier this year I relocated to St. Louis where I now work in Historical Services as both a historian and a digital communications specialist. To say I’m in my dream job would be an understatement. I’m putting my skills and passion to good use on a daily basis — and no two days are the same. It’s incredible.

Most recently I got to do some research on — and writing about — you guessed it… KLM. And let me tell you… it’s been one heck of a fun project to work on. Learning more about the airline’s rich history and discovering so many unique, fun facts — for instance, did you know KLM is the only airline to have operated every airplane in the Douglas DC series? — has been awesome. As I think back on my own “coming of age” story in the world of aviation, KLM has been there every step of the way.

When I was still living in Minneapolis, Air France and KLM were the “biggies” that all of us AV geeks would get excited about. Even after moving to Chicago, I’d go nuts for those big blue 747s out at O’Hare. When my dad and I took that river cruise in 2017, we flew into Amsterdam and were fortunate to spend an entire day touring Schiphol inside and out. And, of course, there’s the 747-400… the whole “City of Atlanta” thing, my tattoo, my first (and still only) flight on the classic jumbo jet… this love of mine for the Flying Dutchman just keeps growing stronger.

So, here’s to you, KLM, on your 100th birthday. Your legacy is incredible and I’m so humbled to be able to help celebrate this amazing milestone with you, both personally and professionally.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles: Our African Adventure

Sunday night, I snuggled into my own bed for the first time in 10 days. It was 9:30 p.m. CT when my head hit the pillow, which oddly enough marked exactly 24 hours since I had woken up across the pond. That early wakeup (3:30 a.m. West Africa Time) was followed by 18 hours of traveling from Casablanca, Morocco to both JFK and LaGuardia airports in New York, and ultimately back home to St. Louis.

This trip came to be when my husband Scott and I decided to celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary in Morocco. The itinerary we planned for ourselves — which I’m quite proud of, I might add — took us up the beautiful Atlantic coast to the country’s northwestern most region, across the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain, back into Morocco and on to a picturesque village in which nearly all the buildings are painted blue, farther south to the country’s “cultural” capital before venturing even farther south into the world’s largest hot desert, a mere 30 miles from the Algerian border.

Our 9-day adventure exceeded my expectations… the people were so kind and selfless, the scenery was simply breathtaking and every city had such rich culture and history. Of course, our JFK-CMN flight on Royal Air Maroc’s 787-9 and the return on the 787-8 were reason enough to take this trip (my first Dreamliner!), but throw in a full week of exploring North Africa and all its beauty… what could be better?

I hope you enjoy these photos… I sure enjoyed taking them.

Day 1: Friday, overnight from JFK to CMN on AT201 / Saturday, exploring Casablanca

Day 2: Sunday, bullet train from Casablanca to Tangier

Day 3: Monday, ferry from Tangier to Tarifa, Spain

Day 4: Tuesday, car ride from Tangier to Chefchaouen (the “Blue City”)

Day 5: Wednesday, car ride from Chefchaouen to Fes

Day 6 (1): Thursday, car ride (8.5 hours!) to Sahara

Day 6 (2): Thursday, sunset camel ride through Sahara’s sand dunes

Day 7 (1): Friday, sunrise hike and morning camel ride

Day 7 (2): Friday, car ride from Sahara back to Fes (w/ stops in Rissani and Midelt)

Day 8: Saturday, train from Fes to Casablanca

Day 9: Sunday, racing the sun from CMN to JFK on AT200

Oh yeah, the cats…

Until next time, Morocco…