Show Me: A flight to remember

The formidable B-25 Mitchell: a truly great plane and perhaps the most versatile aircraft of World War II.

The B-25 is the only U.S. military plane to be named after a specific person: Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell, the “Father of the U.S. Air Force.”

Built by Boeing heritage company North American Aviation, the B-25 first flew Aug. 19, 1940. Not only was it used for high and low level bombing, submarine patrol, photo reconnaissance and strafing, the heavily-armed aircraft even operated as a fighter. It was regarded as reliable and forgiving by the pilots who flew it.

The B-25 was used in every theater of the war, flown by American, Dutch, British, Chinese, Russian and Australian pilots. It’s perhaps best known for its role in the famous “Doolittle Raid” — the first air strike by the U.S. against Japan. On April 18, 1942, Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle led 16 B-25Bs from the USS Hornet to bomb military targets in and around Tokyo. The mission was a resounding success, boosting American spirits and proving Japan’s vulnerability to air attacks.

Between 1939 and 1945, North American built a total of 9,816 B-25s at its Ingelwood, California, and Kansas City, Kansas, plants. In fact, due in large part to the firm leadership of James “Dutch” Kindelberger, North American built more aircraft during World War II than any other manufacturer, simultaneously building bombers, fighters and trainers — an industry first.

Today, eight decades after the B-25 first took to the skies, 34 are still flying. Among them, a B-25J named “Show Me,” which found its home at the Missouri Wing of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) in 1982. This particular aircraft — SN 44-31385 — was first delivered to the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1945, where it served as a trainer for 13 years.

When I heard that “Show Me” would be flying this year on Halloween, I knew I had to be there. Working as a historian for Boeing, I’ve learned so much about the incredible array of warbirds we built in the 1940s — and that includes those built by our many heritage companies, North American Aviation among them. But I’ve not had the chance to see many in person, and up until Saturday, that was the case with the B-25.

I reached out to the Missouri Wing a few weeks in advance to let them know I planned to be there, and to see if I might be able to take a quick peek inside the aircraft. It was as if I said “Show Me,” and they said “We will!” I arrived bright and early to meet with some of the wing’s members, including its leader, and they were (unsurprisingly) some of the nicest, most passionate people I’ve met in the industry.

There were about 40-50 folks out at St. Charles County Smartt Airport that morning, all for the same reason: to see “Show Me” take to the skies. For those unfamiliar with CAF, they keep these flying monuments airborne by selling seats on the various aircraft. And what better way to support their incredible mission, than to take a flight on one of these beautiful and beastly legends.

The plan that day was to send two flights up, one right after the other. Before the first flight, I had the chance to hop aboard the aircraft to take some photos. Getting on the aircraft was an adventure in and of itself, as was getting around once I made it inside.

There are two entrances: one to the front and one to the rear — both involve climbing up a ladder through a fairly narrow passage. The front entrance was mainly used by the bombardier/navigator, the pilots and the upper turret gunner. The rear entrance was primarily for the radio operator/waist gunner and tail gunner. Despite the two separate entrances, however, it wasn’t unheard of for the crew to crawl on top of the bomb bay to get to the other end of the aircraft during flight.

To get back to the tail gunner’s compartment, I crawled through a seriously narrow passageway known as the “tail tunnel.” To get up to the bombardier’s compartment, I pulled myself through the “bombardier’s crawlway” directly underneath the left side of the cockpit. Getting around was not easy. It was not comfortable. Exploring the inside of the “Show Me” left me with that much more respect for the crew members who flew in B-25s day in and day out during less than ideal conditions.

Shortly after touring the airplane, it was time to see her fly. The first group of passengers boarded, along with the pilot, copilot and safety officer. The rest of us stood in awe, watching the big, beautiful machine fire up. The two sputtering Wright Cyclone piston engines were loud and smoky, and before we knew it, the plane was making its way down to the end of runway 18. It sat idly for a few minutes, before turning due south, speeding down the runway and lifting off the ground.

Once the plane disappeared into the late morning sky, I decided I needed more caffeine, so my husband and I headed to a local coffee shop. What happened when we returned to the airfield was something neither of us could have ever expected. We were greeted by several of the CAF members we had been chatting with earlier, who informed us we (yes, my husband Scott and I) were going to be on the next flight.

Words can’t express the sheer joy I felt upon hearing that news. It was completely unexpected but so very much appreciated. And just like that, Scott and I, along with three other passengers, were sitting inside “Show Me,” preparing to take to the skies. I sat up front and had the opportunity to spend roughly half of the 45-minute flight up in the bombardier’s compartment. Scott was in the back, and spent most of the flight in the tail gunner’s compartment. We flew along the Mississippi River where we got stunning views of the fall foliage and flew just past downtown St. Louis, making two low passes over the renowned Gateway Arch.

After we landed and deplaned, I was smiling so hard — I mean SO hard — that it hurt. I can’t speak highly enough of the CAF Missouri Wing and feel so honored to have been afforded such a unique experience. I know I’ll be spending plenty of time out at Smartt Field in the future, and I strongly encourage all you AV geeks and/or history buffs to check out your local CAF unit to find out how you can support the great work they do. And yes, I already became a proud member myself!

In addition to “Show Me,” the Missouri Wing maintains a TBM-3E Avenger, built in 1945 by General Motors, and an L-3 Grasshopper, built in 1941 by Aeronca. The Missouri Wing is just one of more than 70 CAF units across the globe. Founded in 1961, the CAF boasts roughly 13,000 members and operates more than 170 aircraft representing more than 60 different types. This unique fleet, known as the CAF Ghost Squadron, is the world’s largest flying museum and just so happens to rank as one of the largest air forces in existence today.

The CAF’s mission is simple: to educate, inspire, and honor through flight and living history experiences. The nonprofit organization prides itself on its volunteers, who work to protect these rare, historic warbirds, and relies on donations and memberships to continue its preservation efforts.

Learn more about the ways in which you can support the CAF: https://commemorativeairforce.org/

BLV it or not, there are hidden gems everywhere

On July 4, 2020, I ventured into the great unknown. I drove miles upon miles and crossed lines I hadn’t yet crossed to get to a place I’d heard of, but never seen with my own two eyes.

Yes, I’m clearly talking about MidAmerica St. Louis Airport.

I’ve lived in St. Louis for nearly two years now, and up until recently I thought Lambert was the only airport in the area with regular passenger jet service.

WRONG.

One of my followers on Instagram, whom I recently had the pleasure of meeting, suggested I pay a visit to the “other” St. Louis airport — MidAmerica (BLV) — to shoot some photos of Allegiant Airlines aircraft, which happens to be the only airline with regularly service the airport. Oddly enough, I’d only photographed Allegiant once before, so despite it being a low-cost carrier sporting an all-Airbus fleet, I thought it sounded like a nice change of pace from STL.

My first visit over the Fourth of July weekend was a little “meh” — I shot two Allegiant arrivals and then visited the nearby Heritage Air Park at Scott AFB. For those in and around St. Louis, if you haven’t visited that park, I highly recommend it. It’s just outside the gate of the base and you can get up close and personal with a C-141 Starlifter, a KC-135 Stratotanker and a C-9 Nightingale, among other aircraft.

Despite being a bit underwhelmed by what I had seen at BLV, I was so impressed by the Heritage Air Park that I brought my husband back just a few days later. It was that very evening at Scott AFB that my love affair with MidAmerica St. Louis Airport began. While we were exploring the various military aircraft at the park, I saw something out of the corner of my eye, just above the tree-lined divider between Scott’s and MidAmerica’s parallel runways. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I knew with certainty what it was not: an Allegiant A319 or A320.

I sprinted across the park to my car, grabbed my camera bag and sprinted back to where Scott (that’s my husband Scott) was standing. I was hopeful that maybe, just maybe the aircraft would come back. I know touch-and-goes are fairly common at Air Force bases, so I was hopeful. Lo and behold, it did come back… and despite being a fair distance from the runway it was using, I was able to zoom in far enough to snap a few photos to find out what the airplane was: a U.S. Navy Boeing P-8A Poseidon.

“LET’S GO!” I shouted. And off we were… navigating our way along side streets to the freeway, where we zipped down to the next exit, hoping that upon our arrival we’d get a closer look at the beautiful, all gray, militarized 737-800.

Boy, did we ever…

We saw the Poseidon do a few more touch-and-goes before it was time for us to call it a night. And from that moment on, I was hooked.

I soon learned that Scott’s runway had been closed for some time due to maintenance, meaning any aircraft coming into the base needed to use the parallel runway at MidAmerica. I knew that meant some seriously cool stuff could come into BLV, and that the airport’s cell phone lot would be the prime place to see it.

As usual, the airplane gods did not disappoint.

Over the next several weeks I obsessively checked OpenADSB, hoping I’d see something special pointing in our direction and beginning to descend. And several especially cool airplanes did just that.

My first extraordinary catch was one of two U.S. Air Force OC-135B “Open Skies” aircraft — one of the many variants of the Boeing C-135 family of airplanes, the military offspring of Boeing’s infamous 367-80 or “Dash 80” prototype, which also led to the commercial 707 jetliner. Within another couple weeks I caught two U.S. Navy E-6Bs. With only 16 built, the E-6B Mercury TACAMO (for “Take Charge and Move Out”) is yet another C-135 variant.

Over the course of the next month, I caught countless KC-135 Stratotankers (the most common variant of the C-135), C-21s (a military version of the Learjet 35), and C-40s (a military transport derived from the 737-700). And while these three are all based right there at Scott, they were still new to me, and never failed to disappoint. I also caught a couple C-130Js and a C-17 Globemaster departing, which are always fun to see.


During all of this exciting military plane spotting — a radical departure from the constant Southwest 737s and smattering of feeder RJs out at Lambert — I was also seeing more and more Allegiant arrivals and departures, which gave me a chance to practice my photography in different light with a beautiful tree-lined backdrop quite different from the industrial scene out at STL.

This past week, however, was truly outstanding.

On Tuesday, a 3-year-old United 777-300ER came into BLV as a military charter. I was incredibly fortunate to be able to join my friend Jason on the airfield where we photographed its arrival and then had the chance to go inside the massive jetliner.


And then, as if that weren’t cool enough, we got to explore the inside of an old KC-135 that sits idle outside the terminal — having last flown 27 years ago. We climbed up the ladder, explored all the nooks and crannies, and even got to do a wing walk (it was my first time doing that!).

My experience Tuesday was so unexpected and so much fun, I didn’t think I’d see another wide body commercial airplane back at BLV for quite some time. As usual, my expectations went out the window when I realized a National Airlines Airbus A330-200 was coming in Friday. However, I first discovered the plane was coming in about 45 minutes before it was due to land — a bit of a time crunch.

I zipped down I-64, arriving with only a few minutes to spare. The A330 arrived right on schedule for a picture perfect landing on 32R. I snapped some photos and was getting ready to head back home, when I was given yet another opportunity to go out on the airfield to get up close and personal with the special guest. National very recently took delivery of this plane, and you sure could tell it was new to the fleet by its obviously fresh, sparkling paint job.



Up until receiving this 10-year-old A330 in March, the Orlando-based cargo and charter airline operated an all-Boeing fleet, consisting of five 747-400Fs and a 757-200. Previously, they operated a number of 757s and even a few DC-8s, built by Boeing heritage company Douglas Aircraft Co. As a Boeing historian and diehard fan of the company, I’m of course partial to Boeing airplanes, but I do have to admit I find anything and everything that flies to be stunningly beautiful. So getting the chance to take the obligatory “Look at me next to this huge engine!” photo — even though it was the competitor’s airplane — was still exciting. And, I just so happen to be especially fond of the Rolls Royce Trent 700.

All in all, since my first visit to MidAmerica St. Louis Airport less than two months ago, I’ve had some incredible experiences out there. I’ve seen dozens of Allegiant jets — an airline I’d only photographed once before — and an incredible variety of military planes, and I even had the chance to spend some time on the airfield and hop on board a couple different aircraft.

At least while Scott is utilizing the airport’s runway, MidAmerica is a great spot for aviation enthusiasts — especially those who are into large military aircraft. And even for travelers (well at least those heading to Florida!), BLV is most definitely worth looking into as an alternative to STL.

Year-round, Allegiant offers flights out of MidAmerica to a number of cities in the Sunshine State. They also operate seasonal flights to Phoenix-Mesa Gateway (AZA) and Savannah/Hilton Head (SAV). The BLV-SAV route — announced this January as part of a larger Allegiant expansion — took effect in June. And with one-way fares as low as $19 (remember, though, that’s basic economy!), you could end up with a killer deal.

So, here’s to MidAmerica St. Louis Airport — a hidden gem for AV geeks and travelers alike. And a huge thanks to the incredible people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting there — from airport staff, to pilots and plane spotters — it has been incredible getting to know you all. Until next time!

Farewell, Big Blue

I love KLM.

As an aviation historian, of course the Dutch flag carrier is near and dear to my heart — it’s the world’s oldest airline! KLM is special to me for reasons beyond its incredible 100-plus-year legacy, however…

A few years back, just after I had accepted a job with The Boeing Company, my dad and I took a trip to Europe. We had flown across the pond on a Delta A330, but our return flight was what I was most excited for… as my dad hade done everything he could to ensure I’d finally get to ride on a Boeing 747 — the legendary Queen of the Skies.

As the trip was winding down, my anticipation grew… and before I knew it, I was sitting in a port side window seat on a KLM 747-400 “combi” getting ready to depart Schiphol for Chicago O’Hare (which would become my new “home” airport just a month later).

The flight was magical, to say the least. Everything from first setting foot on the aircraft, to watching the General Electric CF6 engines power up, then ultimately lifting off the ground, sky-bound — it was such a wonderful experience.

Since my flight on the “City of Vancouver” (PH-BFV) in November 2017, I’ve loved seeing and photographing “Big Blue” — my collective nickname for the handful of 747s that KLM still flew over the past few years.

There were rumors circulating that KLM had accelerated the retirement of its 747 fleet. And lo and behold, those rumors rang true. The last revenue flight landed today at Schipol at 3:32 p.m. local time.

I’ll miss seeing you, “Big Blue” — and I’ll always cherish my many fond memories, both on the ground looking up, and in the sky looking out.

Note: I took all of the above photos, with the exception of the last one, which was taken by Ben Suskind. That was my flight coming into ORD from AMS on Nov. 7, 2017.

Goodbye sky (at least for awhile)

From the window of our ninth floor apartment, I can’t help but stare at the eerily empty streets below. I can see into a number of nearby apartments where others are doing the same thing.

Everywhere you look, you see it. And in everything you touch, you feel it.

This novel coronavirus has brought us together in a very strange way — by forcing us into isolation. No one is immune to this beast, so we must defeat it together… by remaining apart.

People are frightened and panicking.

People are sick and dying.

And even though it’s unclear when or how this all will end, the solution — at least for now — is clear as day: listen to the experts and STAY HOME.

These are especially trying times for those of us working in the aviation industry, but we have to remember that regardless of how tough we think we have it, nothing can compare to the struggles of those who have been infected, those whose loved ones have been infected, or the medical professionals working around the clock to treat patients and curtail the spread of this awful disease.

Personally, things haven’t been too bad for me. I’m healthy. My family and friends are healthy. I spent a week with my dad in Florida earlier this month, and this past weekend my mom visited us here in St. Louis. Having seen both of them recently brings me a great deal of comfort.

Both my husband and I have been working remotely for the past week, and let me tell you… our two fuzzy friends couldn’t be happier to have us around all day.

I will say that I really, really miss flying. I’m especially sad knowing I have to cancel my trip to Chicago this weekend. I’m also sad that my best friend likely won’t be able to come visit next month. Come to think of it, all of my upcoming travel plans will likely be impacted by this… but I can’t dwell on that. I am very fortunate to be safe and healthy, and I wish the same good fortune to all of you.

To blue skies, tailwinds and clean hands…