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!

Up for the challenge…

As some of you may know, I had the pleasure of spending most of Saturday out at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

I arrived a few minutes past 11 a.m. on Southwest Airlines flight 1095. And since my return flight was at 7:40 p.m., I knew I had to take advantage of every last second on the ground. And boy… did I.

I was up on the roof of the parking garage by 11:30, and had a solid two to three hours for photography before storms rolled in. I welcomed the opportunity to escape the heat and sat inside for an hour or so where I loaded, edited and tagged my photos.

By the time I got back outside, I only had a couple hours left. And that’s when I saw it… an inbound Challenge Airlines 747-400F.

Belgium-based Challenge Airlines (previously ACE Belgium Freighters) operates only two aircraft, both 747-400Fs. The carrier — which began service in April 2019 — was forced to change its name due to a dispute with another ACE: Alaska Central Express.

And yes, for those familiar with Israel’s CAL Cargo Airlines, the two airlines are related. CAL also operates a fleet of just two 747-400F aircraft, both of which bear an all-white livery with “Challenge Accepted” written on the side. I knew there had to be a connection, and lo-and-behold, they’re sister airlines.

Originally, the aircraft (OO-ACF) was slated to land at ATL at 6:30 p.m. However, being at the world’s busiest airport, an hour and 10 minutes before my flight seemed to be pushing it just a smidge… at least for a stress-prone person like myself. But, I was (of course) willing to risk it.

As the hours past, however, the aircraft’s ETA kept getting later, and later, and later. Realistically, this bird was going to touch down a few minutes after 7 p.m. Remember… my flight is at SEVEN FORTY.

Was it risky? Yes.

Did I stay? Yes.

I saw its beautifully kelly green nose when it was still several miles out. My heart was racing… both from nervousness and excitement. I snapped as many pictures as I could in just a minute or two, before packing my camera and beginning what may have been the craziest “race“ of my life.

I sprinted — and I mean SPRINTED (I ran the 100, 200 and 400 on my high school’s varsity track and field team, so THERE!) — across the parking ramp. I scurried down a wet flight of concrete stairs (of course, I nearly fell) and stormed through the crosswalk and into the terminal. I ran up to TSA PreCheck where I was the ONLY human being in sight, zipped right through security and ran down the escalator to the Plane Train where I hopped on for a swift ride over to the C concourse where my gate was luckily the nearest one to the train stop.

I arrived at my gate at 7:20 p.m. and got right into the airplane.

I was huffing and puffing, and drenched in sweat… but underneath my purple mask was one of the biggest smiles one could imagine.

I did it.

So thank you, Challenge Airlines, for challenging ME to pull something off that many people would have thought impossible.



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.

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!