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…

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…

TWA lives on in Kansas City

I landed my first full-time job — assignment editor at KCTV in Kansas City — in August 2011. Yes, it took me more than two years after graduating from college to find a 40-hour-a-week gig in my field, but I did it, and I was more than willing to make the nearly 450-mile move to begin that new chapter in my life.

During the 15 months that Scott and I lived there, I hadn’t yet realized my passion for aviation. In fact, I was straight up terrified of flying — every second I spent on an airplane was an anxiety-inducing nightmare filled with sweat and tears (luckily no blood).

Not long after moving back to Minneapolis, I was out jogging near MSP Airport when an airplane lifted off of runway 17 right above me. I looked up and watched it grow smaller and smaller, until it was no more than a speck in the gray autumn sky. That moment changed my life — I decided to face my fear of flying head-on.

I started seeing a counselor for my anxiety, spent as much time as I could out at my new “happy place” (the airport) and began educating myself on the physics of flight, which helped me to look forward to — not dread — flying.

Throughout this personal transformation, I realized how big a part of my life aviation had always been. My dad served more than 30 years with the U.S. Air Force, and my parents met as flight attendants on Eastern Airlines. To this day, both my mom and dad are “AV geeks” in the truest sense, and if it weren’t for Eastern bringing them together, I wouldn’t be here today.

It was through my parents’ own stories about their time as flight attendants that I realized how much of a family affair the airline industry really is. There is an undeniable, inextricable bond between an airline and its current and former employees. From pilots to flight attendants… mechanics to ground crews… it seems that most people who work for an airline have a unique love for their employer — one that endures the ups and downs, the mergers and acquisitions, the dreaded bankruptcies and everything in between. That’s certainly the case with my parents and Eastern, and it seems to ring true with the former employees of TWA too — especially those who now volunteer at the airline’s museum at the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport in Kansas City.

Like Eastern, TWA was one of the earliest commercial airlines to be founded in the United States. It started as Transcontinental & Western Air in 1930 and became Trans World Airlines in 1950. The airline endured until 2001 when it was acquired by American Airlines.

Just about 88 years ago, TWA relocated its headquarters from New York to 10 Richards Road in Kansas City. Fittingly, that’s where the TWA museum opened in June 2012, marking the fifth and likely final location for the volunteer-run exhibit that houses artifacts spanning seven decades of aviation history.

TWA holds a special place in my heart, as one of my favorite airplanes — the Douglas DC-3 — came to be because TWA needed a new airplane. The airline had grounded its Fokker F-10s after one was involved in a tragic crash that killed all eight on board, including esteemed Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne. Unfortunately, the first 60 Boeing 247s were all going to United Airlines, but that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. TWA’s president, Jack Frye, made a call for a new aircraft and ultimately selected Douglas, who built the DC-1, which evolved into the DC-2 and then the incredible workhorse DC-3. The DC-3 was the first airplane to make money simply by flying passengers, and is regarded by many as the greatest airplane of all time.

Later, TWA requested a bigger, more efficient airplane which led to the development of the Lockheed L-049 Constellation or “Connie” — the triple-tail, four-engine prop plane quickly becoming a TWA icon. Into the Jet Age, TWA flew the Boeing 707 and later the famous “Queen of the Skies” Boeing 747.

In 1988, with its Boeing 747s and 767s, and the three-engine Lockheed L-1011 Tristar, TWA “peaked” in a sense — carrying more than half of all transatlantic passengers. Fun fact: Today marks 100 years since the world’s very first transatlantic flight. On this day in 1919, the U.S. Navy’s Curtiss NC-4 flying boat landed in Lisbon, Portugal after a nearly three-week stop-and-go flight from the U.S.

The 1996 crash of TWA flight 800 really left a permanent scar on the airline. On the evening of July 17, flight 800 departed New York’s JFK Airport headed to Paris and ultimately to Rome, but a center-fuel-tank explosion caused it to crash into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 230 people on board. The airline flew its final flights — both revenue and ceremonial — on Dec. 1, 2001. The MD-80 used in the ceremonial final flight now rests at the TWA Museum.

“The mission of the TWA Museum is to provide information to the public emphasizing the story, history and importance of the major role TWA played in pioneering commercial aviation.

From the birth of airmail to the inception of passenger air travel, to the post-WWII era of global route expansion, TWA led the way for 75 years.”

This intro to the “About Us” section of the museum’s website very accurately captures the overall vibe of the exhibit itself. These days, it’s not often you can learn history firsthand from people who lived it, but that’s what sets the TWA Museum apart. Honestly, I’m still not sure what I enjoyed more — actually seeing the models, photos, equipment and other historical artifacts, or witnessing the pure, unfiltered joy among the former employees who are tasked with keeping the TWA story alive.

To all my AV geek friends, I highly — and I mean highly — recommend you visit the museum next time you’re in the Kansas City area. In and of itself it’s an incredible experience, but factor in the location (IT’S AT AN ACTIVE AIRPORT!) and the fact that just across the airfield is another great tourist attraction: the National Airline History Museum, which boasts more artifacts and a huge hangar full of iconic birds. Make a day of it — trust me, you won’t regret it!

To blue skies and tailwinds…