Weightless in Seattle: Behind the scenes with Zero G’s 727

All photos taken by author unless otherwise noted.

“G Force One” coming in to Seattle’s Boeing Field on April 15, 2022. The Zero Gravity Corp. Boeing 727-200 allows passengers to experience weightlessness.

The legendary 727. It’s an airplane that aviation enthusiasts love to see and hear, and one that pilots love to fly. It’s the only Boeing jetliner with three engines, so it really stands out amongst the others in the company’s famous “7-Series” family of commercial airplanes. I recently had the opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes tour of one of the few remaining airworthy 727s, but before I dive into that, let’s take a quick look back at how the original “Baby Boeing” came to be.

In 1952, Boeing “bet the company” on the future of jets by investing $16 million of its own money on a prototype called the Model 367-80 or “Dash 80.” Yes, for all you history nuts, that’s the plane that Boeing’s flamboyant test pilot Tex Johnston famously barrel rolled (twice!) at Seattle’s 1955 Seafair. The Dash 80 prototype led to two production airplanes: the military KC-135 tanker and the commercial 707 – the latter became the world’s first successful commercial jet. Pan Am introduced the 707 in 1958, and two years later United Airlines introduced the 720 (not to be confused with the 727). The 720 was a 707 derivative designed for use on shorter runways and shorter routes – a stopgap between the larger 707 and whatever smaller jet would come next.

The Boeing Company’s 1958 Annual Report listed a handful of potential major programs for its Transport Division. Among them, a supersonic commercial aircraft, an airborne early-warning and control aircraft, and the Model 727. The Model 727 was a short-range transport to supplement the present Boeing “family” of jets, which already included the 707 Intercontinental, the 707 Jet Stratoliner and the Model 720. The 727 would find itself as the “baby” of the bunch. It was designed to compete with overseas jetliners like the Sud Aviation Caravelle, the British Aircraft Corp. BAC-111 and the de Havilland Trident. In fact, Boeing’s 727 would end up looking strikingly similar to the British Trident. 

The first Boeing 727 on display at Seattle’s Museum of Flight. The plane flew its entire career with United Airlines before retiring in 1991.

United expressed interest in the new jet in February 1960, and 10 months later, on Dec. 5, Boeing announced that the airline had placed an order for 40 of the new jetliners. Better yet, Eastern Airlines also put in an order for 40 of its own. The new airplane would be powered by three rear-mounted Pratt & Whitney JT8D turbofan engines, developed specifically for the 727. That engine would in and of itself become an aviation icon, known for its dependability, its power and (though annoying to some) its loud – almost ear piercing – roar (that’s why I say the 727 has a “whiney heinie!”). It became the most popular low bypass turbofan engine in history, with nearly 15,000 built.

Early estimates put the “break-even point” for the 727 at 200 airplanes. To help spur sales, the company sent the new jet on a world tour spanning 76,000 miles and covering 26 countries. Boeing originally planned to build 250 727s, but little did anyone know, the company would end up building nearly seven-and-a-half times that. In its 22-year production run, Boeing built 1,832 727s at its Renton, Washington, factory – nearly three times more than the combined total of Caravelles, BAC-111s and Tridents built in Europe.

A USA Jet 727-200 coming in to land at Boeing Field on April 5, 2022. USA Jet is one of only a few U.S. cargo airlines that still fly the 1960s-era trijet.

The 727 was an airplane of many firsts, in addition to its record-breaking sales. It was the first Boeing jetliner to have completely powered flight controls, the first to utilize triple-slotted flaps and the first to have an auxiliary power unit or APU. Many of the smaller airports that the 727 was designed to serve didn’t have sufficient starting equipment. The APU, a small gas turbine in the right wheel well, could start up power requirements like the air conditioning while the airplane was sitting on the ground.

The 727 first flew on Feb. 9, 1963 and entered service the following year. Since then, it has flown with roughly 300 operators in a variety of roles. Today, more than 30 remain in service worldwide, mainly as freighters, though there are a few flying in transport roles for various military, government and VIP operators. Additionally, Raytheon operates one as a flying testbed, and then… there’s G-Force One. Arguably the most unique (and I’ll just say it, COOLEST!) 727 out there, Zero G’s 727-200 has been specially modified to fly parabolic arcs, which allows passengers to experience true weightlessness – just like an astronaut in outer space.

My husband Scott captured me in my element during the golden hour as I photographed a USA Jet 727 at Boeing Field.

My parents met as flight attendants on Eastern Airlines in the early 1980s, and they frequently worked the 727. My mom loves that plane and often reminisces about the sound of the airplane’s flap sequence. As such, the 727 holds a very special place in my heart. Anytime I see that one is coming into Seattle, I don’t waste a second. It’s as though I snap my fingers and I’m out at the airfield, standing at attention with my camera around my neck.

G Force One arriving at Boeing Field on a warm spring day in Seattle.

Of course all 727s were created equal, but the Zero G plane is really something to see. It incites a particular excitement among aviation enthusiasts. And this plane itself has quite the history. 

Line No. 1197, a 727-200, first flew April 8, 1976, and was delivered to Braniff International Airways two weeks later, wearing registration N442BN. Braniff traces its roots back nearly a century to 1926, and became well known for its unique, vibrant paint schemes. This particular jet (topmost in the below photo) was painted bright red with a gold belly, as was its sister ship N441BN (bottom). The middle plane, N443BN, was painted green, with an olive green belly.

As was the case with many airlines of the time, Braniff sadly fell prey to the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act, suspending operations in 1982. A year later, the airplane was re-registered N567PE on delivery to its new operator, People Express Airlines. The low-cost airline had begun operations a year earlier and only existed through 1987, when it was merged into Continental Air Lines, which in turn assumed ownership of the plane.

A lineup of Braniff 727s on the ramp at Boeing’s Renton, Washington, factory. The one at top is the same aircraft Zero G flies today. (Boeing Archives photo)

Over the next decade, through various lease agreements, the 727 operated with Pan American World Airways, which flew it till they ceased operations in 1991 – and Delta Airlines, where it remained through 1993. The following year, it was converted to a freighter and fitted with a large main-deck cargo door for service with Amerijet International, where it was re-registered as N794AJ. In fact, the cargo door has proven quite useful to Zero G, as it allows for easier loading and unloading of scientific and educational experiments that are frequently brought on board.

Zero G’s 727-200 sits on the ramp at Boeing Field during a June 2022 visit to Seattle.

Zero G began leasing the airplane in 2004, and purchased it outright in 2011, at which time Alaska’s Everts Air Cargo began operating it. Throughout its nearly 20 years in operation, the Zero G crew has hosted thousands of individuals, including many high-profile clients like renowned physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and musical superstar Justin Bieber, among others.

The 727 also serves as a flying laboratory of sorts, providing a number of organizations and educational institutions the rare opportunity to perform experiments in a zero gravity environment. To date, these include everything from testing solar array deployment systems, to experimenting how to brew and pour beer in zero gravity. As someone who loves a good IPA, I can say the latter really piqued my interest.

Throttle levers for the three engines that power Zero G’s 727-200.

You might be wondering why Zero G chose a relatively old airplane like the 727 to serve in this role. Well, when simulating zero gravity, the 727’s trio of rear-mounted engines gives it a unique advantage over today’s standard commercial jetliners which typically have two or four engines placed beneath the wings.

Old School: A portion of the pilot’s instrument panel as seen in N794AJ.

When performing the parabolic arc maneuvers, precision is key. The 727’s number two engine – the middle one mounted on top of the rear fuselage – is the perfect source of thrust to maintain precise balance while the airplane pitches up and down. In fact, during zero gravity flight, the numbers one and three engines on either side of the fuselage are set to idle, while the number two engine is set to provide a very specific amount of thrust. In doing this, the pilots are trying to avoid forward and aft drift that could cause passengers to all float toward the front or rear of the airplane. The flight crew can measure success by the way their zero gravity indicator – a yellow rubber duck – floats in the cockpit.

Sitting on the left in the Zero G 727 cockpit. Note the rubber duck toward the top right.

I saw that rubber duck when I toured the plane a couple weeks back… in fact, I noticed it right away. It stood out just as you’d expect a bright yellow “toy” to stand out among the dozens of gauges, knobs and levers in a 50-year-old cockpit. We had boarded the plane via the rear airstairs – one of the 727’s most notable features made famous by the 1971 D.B. Cooper skyjacking.

Passenger seats at the rear of G Force One.

The cabin is unique. Toward the back there are several rows of typical airline seats, and in front of that… there’s just a whole lot of nothing. And I mean that. It’s empty, with bright white padding on the floor, walls and ceiling, and very few windows. It’s that nothingness, however, that makes this plane so special. The “float zone,” as it’s called, is divided into two sections, each of which can accommodate 14 people. That’s where passengers experience the magic of weightlessness. A Zero G flight lasts about an hour-and-a-half, and in that time the plane performs 15 parabolas, each one giving passengers about 30 seconds of weightlessness. 

Hanging out in the “float zone,” looking aft toward the passenger seats.

Flights aren’t cheap, but that’s to be expected when your only alternative is to actually go to outer space. The Zero G Experience starts at $8,200 per person and includes the flight itself, a flight suit and other swag, and photos and video of the experience. As someone who would much rather spend money on experiences as opposed to things, I can see why people are drawn to this.

Before heading out to the airplane for my tour, I was sitting in the lounge area of Modern Aviation as passengers were returning from their flight. They were excitedly talking about the experience… exclaiming how much fun it had been and asking one another if they had felt any motion sickness. The popping of champagne bottles and the hissing of just-opened cans of ginger ale echoed throughout the building.

It was fitting for me to hear them celebrating, because I too, was celebrating something. 

This blog post marks my 100th since launching The Great Planes in 2017, and I couldn’t think of a more perfect topic to write about than my first time setting foot on an airworthy Boeing 727. The three-engine workhorse will always be my baby (Boeing) – gotta love 90s Mariah Carey! And I know countless other aviation enthusiasts show similar affection toward the 727. And even though I’d admittedly drop everything to see any one of the few that are left flying, I have to say… there’s just something special about G Force One.

I’m a frequent “golden age thinker,” meaning I often think things like, “I wish I could have lived in the 1960s.” I guess that’s why I get so much joy from being a historian. On the contrary, I’ve always been fascinated by outer space and oftentimes find myself pondering what else (and who else!) is out there, and daydreaming about what the future of space travel holds.

The Zero G 727 arriving at Boeing Field on a clear, mild afternoon last November.

With that, I truly can’t think of an airplane that better encapsulates everything I love about this industry, than N794AJ. I am so proud to work for the company that built the 727 – a company that has long been a pioneer in aviation and in human space flight. And having lived in a number of different cities over the past decade, I consider myself extremely lucky to have finally made it to my forever home, Seattle, an aviation mecca that quite frequently sees unique birds such as this one.

I want to sincerely thank the Zero G team for their kindness and hospitality. I sure look forward to photographing G Force One next time it’s in town!

Photos: Air Force One at SEA

This blog post contains photos and video from U.S. President Joe Biden’s April 21-22, 2022, visit to Seattle, posted in the order in which they were taken. Interspersed within the imagery is the story of why this event was especially meaningful to me, both personally and professionally. -Annie

On the evening of Thursday, April 21, I got to experience something extra special… something I feel like I’ve been waiting for my entire life. On behalf of my blog, The Great Planes, I was granted White House press credentials to cover the arrival of President Joe Biden aboard VC-25A, better known as “Air Force One,” into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. I was among roughly a dozen other local journalists (mainly television news reporters and photographers) who were perched atop a platform roughly four feet high, situated on the airfield just next to where the big, beautiful presidential jet would soon park. This was my first time seeing Air Force One, so naturally it was a very special day for me as an aviation blogger and photographer. But as an aviation historian, this particular airplane and the legacy of presidential air transport has always been of interest to me, and in fact, played a large part in how I got to where I am today.

Next January will mark the 80th anniversary of U.S. presidents relying primarily on Boeing and heritage company airplanes. The first time a sitting president traveled by air was in January 1943, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt flew to Casablanca, Morocco, on a Boeing Model 314 Clipper flying boat operated by Pan American Airways. The Model 314 was the “jumbo” of her time and the original Queen of the Skies – the “Grandmother” of the Boeing 747, if you will. Over the next two decades, the presidential fleet was continually upgraded and included military versions of the Douglas DC-4 and DC-6, designated VC-54C and VC-118A, respectively. In these designations, the “V” stands for “VIP” and the “C” for “transport.” The VC-54C was the first airplane specifically built for use by the President of the United States, and was nicknamed the “Sacred Cow” by Roosevelt.

In 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower broke the mold when he assumed office and brought with him a customized Lockheed Constellation, designated VC-121E. In fact, it was that airplane in that year that became the first to use the “Air Force One” callsign. In 1954, he upgraded to a Super Constellation. Toward the end of his second term, the administration acquired the first of three customized Boeing 707-120s, designated VC-137A, bringing the presidential fleet into the Jet Age. Although President Eisenhower often flew aboard the 707s – known as SAM (for Special Air Mission) 970, 971 and 972 – he still relied primarily on his Super Constellation. The U.S. Air Force “Special Air Mission” provides air transport for the sitting president and other high ranking officials. Whenever the president is on board one of the airplanes, that flight assumes the callsign “Air Force One.”

In 1962, John F. Kennedy became the first president to fly in a jet designed and built specifically for presidential use. The airplane – SAM 26000 – was the first of two highly modified Boeing 707-320Bs, designated VC-137Cs, to enter service. The second aircraft, SAM 27000, entered service in 1972. These two VC-137Cs were the first presidential planes to sport the iconic blue and white Raymond Loewy livery, still worn on today’s presidential 747s. SAM 26000 is perhaps best known for its role in one of the most tragic events in American history. On Nov. 22, 1963, President Kennedy flew on SAM 26000 to Dallas, where he was assassinated. Lyndon B. Johnson was then sworn in as President on SAM 26000 before it departed for Washington, D.C., with Kennedy’s body on board.

The VC-137C served as the primary presidential airplane until 1990, when the VC-25A – a modified Boeing 747-200B – was introduced. The 747 first flew in 1969 and over the last 50-plus years has served in a multitude of roles, both civil and military. However, I think most aviation professionals would agree that the 747’s most famous role in history has been that of “Air Force One.”

I began my career with Boeing toward the end of 2017, and shortly thereafter I attended a presentation by our senior corporate historian, Mike Lombardi. I was fascinated with the stories he told and did whatever I could to stay in touch with him, thinking maybe, just maybe, one day I’d be fortunate to join his team. In the summer of 2018, I was reading about Boeing’s rich history of transporting U.S. presidents, and realized that the 747 was getting close to taking the reins from the 707 as the longest serving “Air Force One” airplane. I put pen to paper and did the math, down to the day. One could take a number of different approaches to these calculations, but I chose to base mine on delivery date.

The first VC-137C was delivered to the U.S. Air Force on Oct. 10, 1962, and the first VC-25A on Aug. 23, 1990, meaning nearly 28 years (or 10,179 days) separated the two dates. I calculated that July 7, 2018, marked 10,180 days since the first VC-25A was delivered. That was it. July 7, 2018, would be the day when the 747 would become the longest serving presidential aircraft. I excitedly shared my findings with Mike, and the rest, as they say, is history. I was fortunate to join Boeing’s Historical Services team the following year, and there’s been no looking back.

I’ve been running this blog and social media accounts by the same name for five years now, and never in my wildest dreams did I think it would take me this far. I found out that my application for press credentials was approved just hours before President Biden’s arrival into Sea-Tac. Upon my arrival at the press check-in location, I was instructed to empty my bags and lay everything out across the pavement so that the Secret Service could inspect it and the security dogs could sniff it. I was patted down from head to toe, then instructed to repack my bags, before being escorted onto the airfield. The anticipation was almost as exciting as the arrival itself. The weather wasn’t great – temperatures hovered around 50 degrees and rain clouds lingered for most of the afternoon. In fact, just moments after Air Force One’s 5:11 p.m. PT arrival, it began to drizzle, and it slowly grew into a steady shower. By the time the fanfare had come to an end, I was completely unphased by the fact that I was soaking wet and freezing cold. I was actually much more concerned about my camera equipment than I was about myself.

Friday was equally exciting. I was able to spend the morning airside at King County International Airport (Boeing Field) to watch a fleet of four MV-22 Ospreys and two VH-60N Whitehawks – part of HMX-1 (Marine Helicopter Squadron One or “Marine One”) – depart for Auburn, Washington, to pick up President Biden. I then zipped down to Sea-Tac to cover Biden’s arrival on Marine One, and subsequent departure on Air Force One. The afternoon ended up being quite eventful, as a suspicious vehicle at Sea-Tac caused the prompt relocation of the 747 to the middle of the airfield, where the fleet of helicopters met it. Biden was swiftly transferred to the airplane, before it and the support helicopters departed to the south. Air Force One was headed cross-country to Philadelphia, and the Marine One fleet was going back to Boeing Field where it would spend one more night. All support equipment had left the Seattle area by lunchtime Saturday.

Everything about the President’s visit was exhilarating and inspiring. Until Thursday, I had never in my life seen a sitting president in person, and had never seen so much security in one place. I am eternally grateful for this unique opportunity and I truly hope you get even half the satisfaction from seeing these photos as I did taking them. Cue “Hail to the Chief.”

Thanks and Giving

It’s hard to believe that another Thanksgiving has come and gone. Black Friday and Cyber Monday are (thankfully!) past us too. Now, for the good stuff.

Today is Giving Tuesday, a “global generosity movement unleashing the power of people and organizations to transform their communities and the world.” The movement began in 2012 and almost a decade later is still going strong.

Personally, I have a lot to be grateful for. I’m happy and healthy, working my dream job in a city I love, and surrounded by the greatest family and friends (and fuzzy friends!) on Earth. With that, I feel it’s my duty to give back, and I’m very grateful to be able to do so.

I just wrapped up my second annual fundraiser, and am so proud to announce that thanks to the kindness of those who helped spread the word and those who purchased 2022 The Great Planes calendars, we raised $750 for Los Angeles-based Pet Rescue Pilots! I am beyond thrilled to have been able to make this donation on behalf of myself, my family, my friends and my fellow Av Geeks, on this Giving Tuesday.

Friends… I can’t stress enough the importance of giving back. If you’re in the position to do so, I highly encourage you to give your time or money to an organization near and dear to YOUR heart. And if you don’t have one in mind, consider showing some love to my friends at Pet Rescue Pilots.

Again, thank you so much. May your hearts be full and your holidays warm!

Help animals in need, order a 2022 TGP calendar!

I love aviation. Whether it’s flying, taking photos of airplanes, or watching aviation-themed movies – it’s something that brings me great joy. 

I’m also a huge animal lover. I’ll always go out of my way to help an animal in need, and in fact it was my love of animals that led me to become a vegetarian five years ago. I grew up with cats and dogs – all rescues – and today I couldn’t imagine life without my two best friends: Beans (top) and Buddy.

One of my all-time favorite animal-related experiences was back in my hometown of Minneapolis in 2014, helping to kick off the Animal Humane Society (AHS) “Community Cats” program. Community Cats works to improve the lives of free-roaming and feral cats and reduce the unnecessary euthanasia of healthy cats that are not suitable for adoption.

The program was already in the works when I stumbled upon a litter of kittens outside the parking garage of my Loring Park apartment. Working with AHS, I was able to safely live-trap all of the kittens, who were subsequently spayed/neutered and adopted, as well as the mother, who was spayed and then released back into the wild – the first of roughly 250 cats to be released in the program’s first five months.

You can read more about my experience with Community Cats on page 16 of the Spring/Summer 2015 Animal Tracks magazine.

Last year, I sold calendars featuring my aviation photography, with 100% of the profits going to Wings of Hope – we were able to donate $1,000! Since it was such a success, I figured we needed to do something again this year, which is why I’m selling 2022 calendars with 100% of the profits going to Los Angeles-based Pet Rescue Pilots, a fantastic organization that flies pets out of shelters and brings them safely to rescue groups, fosters and forever homes.

Calendars are $25 each and available to order through Monday, Nov. 15. Please, if you’re able, support this great organization and help get these animals to their forever homes!

Buy a 2022 The Great Planes calendar now