Speedbird, Dynasty, Redwood… Oh my!

I have a lot to learn.

I listen to the Minneapolis Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower feed quite often, and have been doing so for the last couple years. I love spotting out at MSP, but you don’t see a whole lot of heavies out there. And despite how much I wish… how much I pray… how hard I cross my little fingers… it never ends up being a 747 flying in over the river, and it’s never an A380 being pushed back from its gate.

So what’s a girl to do?

OF COURSE! Listen to the ATC tower feed out of JFK, close my eyes, and try with all my might to pretend I’m out there watching it live. I’ve been doing this for about a week now on my 45-minute bus rides to and from work. It’s amazing. There is never a dull moment and I’m actually surprised at how well I can picture all the action in my head.

However, I’ve realized as I’ve listened to the feed that I have a lot of learning to do. Nearly every other flight that has been cleared for departure or landing has left me dumbfounded because I have NO clue what airline it is. I knew I’d hear a lot of unfamiliar names… but some were more than unfamiliar, they were simply NOT airlines. What gives?

My “Aha!” moment came this morning… this is what I heard amidst the radio fuzz: “Ee-er 178.”

Excuse me?

I pondered and pondered. Then I picked up on the pilot’s British accent. Still… I was clueless. I then tried to figure out what flight I was hearing simply by its number and knowing it was getting ready to depart JFK. And… BOOM! British Airways 178. I found it.

But I still didn’t understand what the heck I had heard. Believe me… it was NOT “British Airways 178.” And then… it clicked. I thought, “Oh my gosh… Oh my gosh… OH. MY. GOSH.”

SPEEDBIRD!

I remembered that my dad had once told me the British Airways call sign was Speedbird. I was equally as excited as I was proud of myself for solving the mystery. And having figured that out, I wondered if there were any other flights that I was unable to decipher due to not understanding what airline the pilot (or even the controller) had said.

Well, there was one that I knew was getting ready to land, but all I heard through the static was something like, “Ine-see 5322 heavy.” Of course I was intrigued knowing it was a heavy, so I paid closer attention… but I still couldn’t figure it out. Similar to what happened with good old Speedbird, however, something clicked. “Were they saying ‘dynasty’?” I asked myself. Sure enough… China Airlines flight 5322, a Boeing 747-400, had just landed at JFK. And… the call sign for China Airlines? You guessed it. Dynasty.

Bam.

Then I remembered that even earlier I had heard a “Redwood” flight… and after searching and searching, I had given up. But after my epiphany, I did some digging to find out that Redwood = Virgin America.

Sure, this was great. This was incredibly exciting. But… I said it before and I’ll say it again: this all just helped me to realize that I have a lot to learn. I’ve found some interesting forums on the topic of airline call signs, and I even found this helpful list that lays out some of the more common ones: Top 10 Coolest Airline Callsigns.

I’ll never be as knowledgeable as the controllers. Heck, I’ll never even be able to speak as quickly and as effortlessly as they do. But… I think reading up on call signs and studying airport runway and approach maps will really help me to paint an even more vivid picture in my head each time I listen to that bustling hub’s feed.

Sun Country just won my heart

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I’ll admit, I’ve NEVER flown on Sun Country Airlines. I mainly attribute it to the fact that I prefer visiting urban meccas like New York City or London over tropical escapes like Mazatlan or Puerto Vallarta — the warm, sunny destinations they’re most known for flying into and out of. But that’s about to change. I booked my first Sun Country flight for this October  — MSP to DFW for a good friend’s wedding. And with Sun Country recently announcing their Hometown Lakes Project, I have a feeling I may start making a bit more of an effort to fly with them.

Does the name Mark Herman ring a bell to you? If not, I’m willing to bet you’d recognize the Minneapolis-based artist’s work the second you saw it. Minnesotans like myself are likely most familiar with his modern, yet vintage graphic art depicting landmarks and other notable places around the state. And Sun Country recently announced they’d be naming each plane in their fleet after one of our state’s 10,000-plus lakes, and displaying Herman’s depiction of that lake on the aircraft’s interior. How cool is that?

I think with Sun Country’s focus on “summer vacation” type destinations, it’s easy to forget that the airline is actually based here in the Twin Cities. But Sun Country hasn’t forgotten where they came from, and they don’t want you to forget that either. By staying true to their Minnesota roots (as we Minnesotans pride ourselves on doing), Sun Country really won me over.

The Hometown Lakes Project will kick off this spring. And in addition to Herman’s artwork inside the plane, the name of the featured lake will be painted on the exterior of the aircraft under either side of the cockpit, and outside the front boarding door.

Cheers to you Sun Country… for staying true to your Minnesota Roots and for showcasing your love of our beautiful state. I can’t wait to see which lake will be featured on my plane this fall!

All images courtesy of Sun Country Airlines. Learn more on their website, where you can also view all of Herman’s work to be featured in the project.

Through Security in the Blink of an Eye

Note: This was originally published on the Aviation Queen blog, where I have been fortunate enough to post as a guest contributor thanks to the immense kindness of Benét Wilson.

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New biometric screening option offers predictability and convenience, but is it right for you?

It may sound unreal… like something straight out of a sci-fi movie, but for $179 a year you can simply blink your eye or swipe your finger to verify who you are, all while significantly reducing the time it takes you to go through airport security.

Biometric screening is becoming more and more commonplace at airports across the country thanks to New York-based CLEAR. In February, Minneapolis-St. Paul International became the 21st U.S. airport to employ the technology, joining the likes of Hartsfield-Jackson, LaGuardia, JFK and Washington Dulles, among others.

CLEAR eliminates the need for a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent to manually check boarding passes and identification. Instead, CLEAR subscribers step up to a station where they blink their eye or swipe their finger to prove their identity. From there, it’s on to the standard TSA physical screening or TSA PreCheck for members of the government program.

CLEAR CEO Caryn Seidman-Becker says members love the service because it provides them with a consistently fast and predictable experience at the airport. “They know they’re going to get through security in five minutes or less every time,” she said.

Enrollment in CLEAR is processed onsite at participating airports. CLEAR will digitally authenticate your driver’s license or passport, confirm your identity, and create your account all in roughly five minutes. After signing up, your membership is effective immediately.

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You may be wondering… “Is it really worth it?” In short, it all depends on your travel habits and how much money you’re willing to spend.

If you’re a frequent traveler and often find yourself rushed at the airport, it’s probably worth it to give CLEAR a try. It’s quick and predictable, and you’ll no longer need to juggle your ID and your boarding pass in that stop-and-go line waiting for a TSA agent to check them.

“I signed up because I value my time,” Shane Rixom said. Rixom, a civil engineer living in Abingdon, Va., enrolled in CLEAR three years ago at Orlando International Airport. He travels roughly three weeks each month.

He says that while sometimes his membership hasn’t had much of an impact on his experience going through security, there have been a few times where CLEAR has made a huge difference.

In addition to CLEAR, Rixom is enrolled in TSA PreCheck. The two services complement each other nicely and together will almost certainly make the time between your arrival at the airport and your arrival at your gate a whole lot quicker and a lot less hectic.

A five-year TSA PreCheck membership costs $85, which breaks down to $17 annually. PreCheck speeds up the physical security screening process by allowing you to keep on shoes, belts, and light jackets. Another perk? You don’t need to rummage through your bags – laptops and liquids don’t need to be unpacked.

A CLEAR membership will set you back $179 a year, with the ability to add additional family members for $50 and add children for free. Delta SkyMiles members who want to enroll will receive a special rate, bringing an annual CLEAR membership down to $79 or $99 depending on your membership status; Diamond Medallion members can enroll in CLEAR for free.

When Rixom signed up, he was paying a discounted fee through a credit card deal outside of Delta, but has since earned Diamond Medallion status with the airline, so his CLEAR membership is now free.

But again, whether or not CLEAR makes sense for you depends on how often you travel and how much you’re willing to spend – it’s not for everyone.

Brett Snyder runs the popular Cranky Flier blog and flies once or twice a month on average, but doesn’t see enough value in CLEAR to justify signing up. “I would be interested if it truly meant a faster, quicker screening experience, but for now, this is just a pass to cut to the front of the line,” he said. “I have PreCheck and while there can sometimes be lines, it’s never all that bad.”

But as an incentive to at least try it out, CLEAR offers a one-month free trial. When that month is up, you can choose to cancel the membership, or continue it and pay the $179.

Currently, CLEAR has roughly one million members. And although they have plans to launch at a number of new airports this year, CLEAR isn’t limiting the technology to air travel alone, as they expect to announce expanding to different types of facilities in the near future. The biometric service can already be found at a handful of sports venues. Learn more at clearme.com.

Top Fun: A Hidden Gem for Aviation Enthusiasts of ALL Ages

I love airplanes.

I bet you didn’t see that coming.

Of course, I prefer the real deal to a model or a toy of any sort. But alas… I’m not fortunate enough to find myself actually in an airplane or out at the airport as often as I’d like. So, I’ve expectedly gathered an aviation trinket or two… or twenty.

A few of my favorites?

  • A plush Boeing 747 (who wouldn’t want to snuggle an airplane at bedtime?)
  • A shabby chic seaplane that hangs in our living room
  • A model FedEx Boeing 777
  • A vintage Eastern Airlines magazine ad

The list goes on, and on, and on.

But I recently heard about someone whose “collection” puts mine to shame – I mean really puts mine to shame.

The city of Fitchburg, Mass. boasts a hidden gem for aviation enthusiasts of all ages: Top Fun Aviation Toy Museum. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never even been to Massachusetts – but now I really have a reason to visit the Bay State.

The Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise highlighted the museum and its curators earlier this week. In a nutshell, nearly 20 years ago Deborah Scheetz earned her private pilot’s license. And at the time, her friends jokingly gifted her a number of toy airplanes to “‘make up” for not being able to give her a real plane.

Today, Scheetz and friend Rosalie Dunbar act as cocurators, volunteering their time to keep this all ages “wonder of flight” museum running. And get this – Top Fun boasts nearly three thousand aviation toys. That’s unreal!

The two friends say that it wasn’t necessarily the toy collection, but rather aviation history and a fascination with flight that inspired them to open the museum. They knew kids would be interested and curious, so they first opened Top Fun in 2000 in Winchendon. About six years later, the nonprofit museum relocated to its current spot in Fitchburg.

In addition to the overabundance of toys and the brightly painted murals, the museum’s annual “paper airplane contest” is a huge draw.

Well… I know where I’m headed when I finally make it out to Massachusetts!

Learn more about Top Fun on their website.