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.

Flying to Pass the Time

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Time really does fly… but come this weekend, you’d think I was flying just to pass the time. Something big, something HUGE, something SO exciting is happening. BUT.. I’m keeping my lips sealed for now. I’ll just tell you this – two days, four states, five flights. That’s all you get for now. You’ll hear more from me Monday or Tuesday.

ANYWAYS… those who know me well, know I stress out pretty easily. But oddly enough, since I’ve started to really hone in on my aviation journalism and photography, I’ve gotten a heck of a lot busier AND a heck of a lot happier. Who’d have thought there’d be a positive correlation between the two? Not me. Not in a million years.

June brought a lot of changes in my life… I hit the big 3-0, we moved from Minneapolis to St. Paul and I lost my dear, sweet stepmom. With that being said, my apologies for being MIA in the blogging world, but I’m sure you can understand why I was.

However, my love of planes helped keep me sane and grounded throughout that time. And, over the last month I’ve hit a couple milestones that were quite exciting for me:

1. On my birthday, June 16, I hit one THOUSAND Instagram followers on @thegreatplanes (currently, I’m creeping up on 1,300 – it’s a good feeling).

2. I’ve had my third and fourth stories published on Airways Magazine’s website, both of which feature several of my own photos (and even one of my husband’s):

Where Planes Go, They Follow: The Rise of Plane Spotting and How Airports Are Embracing Their Biggest Fans

Fight For The Skies: The Air Traffic Control Debate

3. My Instagram friends, @jfkspotting, hit 7,000 followers and in doing so, named my page the ninth best of all those followers. Thanks guys!

4. I found that there is a bus that takes me directly from my new apartment to my favorite spotting location at MSP – the gold parking ramp. I was asked to leave by airport police, which I calmly and apologetically did. BUT, after a few days I didn’t feel quite right about it. I reached out to a contact of mine at the airport who in turn spoke with the police chief who confirmed I CAN be up there. The chief passed the message along to his officers and now I go three to four times a week. Now THAT’S a “great planes” win!

Thank you all for the love and support. To think that six months ago I went out on a whim and just thought I’d “take a shot” at pursuing something that I love… and seeing where I am now – it’s pretty incredible. The things I’m learning, the people I’m meeting, the stories I’m writing and the places I’m going… I’m very thankful and cannot wait to see where this love takes me in the years to come.

The phrase “Never meet your hero” is a lie… a big, big lie

AirwaysI read about airplanes and I’m happy. I write about airplanes and I’m happy. But when someone else reads what I write about airplanes… that’s the ultimate – an indescribable feeling of satisfaction and success.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: aviation is in my blood. With parents who met as flight attendants on Eastern Airlines and a dad who spent more than 30 years in the U.S. Air Force, I was bound to love planes… right?

Well, sort of.

I was fortunate to travel quite often as a child, and boy did I love it. But it honestly wasn’t until I was 28 years old that I actually caught the “aviation bug.”

I had been out walking near Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on a crisp fall day, not really realizing how close I was to runway 17/35. I heard a bit of a rumble… and the sound was very obviously getting closer, and closer. Before I knew it, a plane departing on runway 17 was lifting off the ground directly above me – it seemed so huge and it felt so close… like I could reach up and touch it.

I was hooked.

I found myself out at the airport constantly just to watch the planes come and go. My heart pitter-pattered with each departure. And landings? Don’t even get me started. I’d watch ever-so carefully until those back wheels hit the runway and the puffs of smoke dissipated in the plane’s trail… I’d feel this strange sense of satisfaction.

Nothing in my life had made me feel more like a child than the miracle of flight. It instilled in me a sheer sense of wonder – I constantly found myself in awe that something so huge could fly so high. I wanted to learn more.

I began to study the makes and models… big and small. I listened to air traffic control feeds and began to understand their lingo. I started to pick up on the approach and departure paths for the various runways. Heck, I learned the phonetic alphabet: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot … well, you get the picture.

I wanted more though… and I felt stuck.

It was last December when I decided to go out on a limb and reach out to someone who seemed to be doing exactly what I hoped to be doing myself someday. Benét Wilson is a well-respected aviation journalist with a wealth of knowledge on the industry. She is affectionately known as the “Aviation Queen” and runs an aviation/travel consulting firm by the same name.

I felt like it was a longshot, but it couldn’t hurt… I sent her an email. I told her how much I loved aviation and I told her about my educational and professional background. I said I didn’t know where to start but that I too wanted to write about planes… simply put, I needed help.

And to my surprise, within a couple weeks she had written back to me and wanted to speak to me on the phone. She wanted to help me. Benét Wilson, THE Aviation Queen, wanted to help ME. I kind of pinched myself and wondered what good deed I had done to deserve this.

Before I knew it, she was reading my work and offering edits and suggestions. I even got to contribute to her blog. I was ON “Team Aviation Queen” – seriously… I was starting to think that the big guy upstairs had me confused with someone else because I KNEW I hadn’t done anything to deserve this kind of help and support.

And after a month or two of working with Benét, she suggested submitting a story of mine to Airways Magazine on my behalf. I pitched an idea – how smaller aircraft manufacturers are “competing” with the big guys: Boeing and Airbus. She liked it, so I wrote it.

I was a little skeptical… I mean – how could Airways possibly consider running one of MY stories? The only published work on the topic of aviation that I even HAD was my own blog and the few stories that were up on the Aviation Queen blog.

Benét submitted my story to their editor on a Tuesday morning, and the next day she called me to tell me that they loved it and would be publishing it.

I died. I went to heaven. I came back to earth and then died and went to heaven all over again.

That Thursday afternoon my story was published – one of the top stories on the front page of the Airways Magazine website. It felt amazing to know that people who are really engrained in this industry were reading my work. I can’t explain how happy I was to know that I actually had a shot in this industry.

I won’t lie – chasing your dream really is a lot of work. I have a full time job (a great one) that has NOTHING to do with aviation, which means I spend a lot of my free time reading about the aviation industry to grow my knowledge base and work toward becoming a true “industry expert.”

But I love it. I wouldn’t trade this for ANYTHING. I really feel like this hard work and dedication will pay off in the end and that I will find a career in aviation journalism someday.

They often say “never meet your hero” – but my story is a perfect example of why that advice doesn’t always hold true. Now Benét isn’t just a hero to me because of what she does for a living, but because of the kindness and selflessness she showed (and continues to show) by taking a chance on me.

I could never thank her enough.