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!

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!

I need my space

Me in front of the CST-100 Starliner inside the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility where astronauts train.

As I am sure most of you all know by now, I’m here at NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, supporting the CST-100 Starliner Orbital Flight Test. This is history in the making, as it’s the first time a Boeing-owned and -operated human-rated spacecraft has launched into orbit.

The originally planned eight-day mission has been reduced to three days after the spacecraft experienced an off-nominal orbital insertion shortly after launch Friday morning. Having looked forward to this for a long time, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t disappointing. However, even though we’re no longer rendezvousing or docking with the International Space Station, this isn’t done, and the excitement isn’t gone. Now, it’s all about bringing Starliner home safely.

Over the past several days, I’ve been hanging out in a ground level corner office with a handful of incredible Boeing and NASA teammates.

Since we’re working some long, odd hours, there’s an abundance of two-liter soda bottles and a big tub of Christmas cookies here to help sustain us, though adrenaline itself has definitely been keeping me awake and excited.

In preparation for the anticipated landing early tomorrow morning, we’re listening intently to the Mission Control loop – it’s almost like we are actually in the room with the team. Although most of the chatter is far too technical for me to fully comprehend, it is still so fascinating.

Our group here in Houston is just a small subset of a much larger team — from communicators to engineers — all of whom are passionate about space flight. And as both a historian and a communicator, I’m so humbled to be here.

So… roughly 12 hours till our planned landing in White Sands, I ask that you please root for our team, for space and for our future.

Our Moon

I can tell just by looking out the window that the air outside is warmer than the air in my living room.

And no matter how hard I try — no matter how captivating the television dialogue is and no matter how loud my cats meow to try to get my attention — I can’t take my eyes off the Moon… our Moon. It feels like there’s a magnetic force between the two blue orbs protruding out of my head and that one massive, majestic orb hanging in the sky… and I don’t know why, but it’s so strong.

The sun shines on it and it glows golden and more vivid with each minute — but I know that without that massive ball of fire there to light it up, our Moon is just a gray, rocky, dusty satellite. That’s it.

Sometimes I wish we had more than one moon. I wonder what the sky would look like at night if we had two moons like Mars. I wonder what it would look like during the day if we had 60-some moons like Jupiter or Saturn. I know how excited I get when I notice mid-afternoon that the small, round, seemingly perfect cloud I’ve affixed my eyes to is actually our Moon. What if I saw dozens of them all at once?

But then, as night falls and the Moon gets higher and brighter — almost pure white against the dark blue sky — I realize just how much I love our one Moon. Of the eight planets that orbit our sun, there are two that don’t have any moons (Mercury and Venus), there’s one that has two moons (Mars), one that has 14 moons (Neptune) and one that has 27 moons (Uranus), there are two that have more than 60 moons (Saturn has 62, Jupiter has 67), but there’s just one planet that has only one moon… and that’s us: Earth.

How different would the space race have been if we had multiple moons? What would the space race have even been if we had no moons at all?

As the 50th anniversary of humankind’s first lunar landing approaches, I’m so thankful for Earth’s one and only satellite: our Moon. And knowing that 2022 will mark the 50th anniversary of the last human foot leaving that crater-filled ground… I’m so anxious and hopeful to see what the next generation of lunar exploration holds — for Americans and for the world.

Photo: NASA