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!

What is life?

“What is life?”

That’s a phrase I often use to describe situations in which I find myself unable to comprehend how lucky I am.

There is so much bad in the world — bad people, bad places, bad situations — but in my 32 years of life, I’ve somehow managed to avoid most all of it. I don’t know how or why, but I’ve experienced so much of the good… so much that it sometimes feels unfair.

And today… today was yet another really good day.

It all starts with Chicago… a blustery, midwestern city that reeled me in a couple years back and helped me to blossom into the happiest “me” I’ve ever been. It was there that I began working for The Boeing Company, and it was there that I met some truly incredible people, two of whom I had the pleasure of traveling with today.

While I was living in The Windy City, I met a fellow Chicagoan named Stathis. He’s the founder and president of branding.aero — a brand experience management agency — and a marketing professor at SUNY Oswego. He’s good people, and he’s a fellow AV geek.

Through Stathis, I was introduced to Elliot, who had interned with United Airlines and now works for the company at its Chicago headquarters. He too, is good people, and (of course) a fellow AV geek.

A few weeks back, I had posted a photo of the new United CRJ-550 on Instagram — the first regional jet with a three-class configuration. I spotted the 50-seater out at STL, an airport that doesn’t typically offer much in the way of new, exciting airplanes (at least not compared to Chicago). And in the caption, I mentioned how much I’d like to try out first class on the 550 some day…

Shortly after posting the photo, Elliot reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested in coming out to Chicago to fly first class on the newly-configured airplane. My heart rate skyrocketed and I said to Scott, “Oh. My. Gosh.” I was so, so excited.

Before I knew it, Elliot and I were working out the details for what was sure to be an incredible day. Shortly thereafter, he had even more good news for me — Stathis would be joining us!

I waited and waited in anticipation. And before I knew it, the day had arrived. I awoke at 5:30 a.m. with a spring in my step, and headed to the airport for my first flight, which was to depart at 7:45. I flew from St. Louis to Chicago where the three of us met and boarded our first flight on United’s new jet. Next stop: Sioux Falls!

The three of us sat near one another in first class, and let me tell you… there was SO. MUCH. SPACE. Aside from my fluke-of-an-experience flying business class on Turkish Airlines, I’ve always flown economy, so this was quite a treat. After the initial cabin service, we were able to grab additional drinks and snacks from a self-serve bar area, which was super fun and unlike anything I had experienced before.

After landing in Sioux Falls, we had the chance to visit the flight deck, before stepping off the plane for just a few minutes, then getting right back on. Both flights were so smooth and so quiet. What made the trip so special, though, was the fact that I could enjoy it with two awesome people.

After we returned to O’Hare, we spent a bit of time in the United lounge, before Elliot and Stathis saw me off as I boarded my last flight of the day, back home to St. Louis.

Before today, I had never flown standby, and let me tell you… it’s really fun, albeit a little nerve-racking at times. Lucky for me, I live for this stuff and would have been perfectly content if I was “stranded” in Chicago. Alas, I was the very last passenger called to board the flight. I even got seat 1A — go figure!

So, there you have it… in exactly nine hours’ time I flew from St. Louis to Chicago, Chicago to Sioux Falls, Sioux Falls to Chicago, and Chicago back to St. Louis. Spending all day in airports and in the sky isn’t for everyone, but it IS for some folks… like me, Elliot and Stathis. And lucky for us, every now and again the stars align and we have the chance to take to the skies together… the three amigos!

Thank you, Elliot, for making today possible. It was an incredible adventure and I am so grateful for your generosity and thankful to have you as a friend.

And thank you Stathis, for being such a kind, selfless person. It was so great to be able to share in this experience with you!

So, what is life?

Well… simply put, life is good.

Here’s to friends, blue skies and tailwinds.

Be kind, be determined, be gracious and oh, meet your hero two… too…

As far as I am concerned, life is all about the connections you make. I don’t mean “knowing someone” in an industry who will put in a good word for you or having an “in” with someone at a company who will help land you a job. I mean the deep, personal connections you make with the people who are always there to help and support you on your journey.

Earlier this year I finally met my industry mentor, Benét Wilson (Aviation Queen). I first reached out to her almost two years ago, and today I’m lucky to call her my friend. We have a solid, trusting relationship and I certainly wouldn’t be where I am without her—I consider her “Hero One” in the story of my journey.

With Benét’s ongoing support and by working hard toward my goal of becoming an aviation journalist, I was brought on as contributing editor at Airways Magazine. That’s how I met “Hero Two” AKA Chris Sloan, Airways’ Managing Editor. Finally, more than a year after starting that gig, I met Chris in “real life” here in Chicago.

It’s funny, I first connected with both Benét AND Chris while living in Minneapolis… the city in which I lived for nearly all of my 31 years on this planet. However, I first met each of them in person here in Chicago as an employee of The Boeing Company—the company I’d long dreamed of working for and a place I’d never be without their help.

Yesterday, I met Chris in the lobby of Chicago’s iconic Sears—I mean WILLIS… (ugh)—Tower, where he and I toured the United Airlines National Operations Center.

It.

Was.

Awesome.

Seriously, the combination of meeting Chris AND seeing the ins and outs of how United keeps their (mostly Boeing!) fleet flying was ridiculously cool. I loved it. My favorite part? Chris and I were in the social media/de-escalation area where they had huge screens displaying real-time social data, and one of the screens had on it incoming conversations that were considered “positive” interactions on Twitter.

Chris: Hey it’s you!

Me: What?

Chris: @thegreatplanes – that’s you!

Me: Como se WHAT!? Whoa!

I looked at the screen and saw my very tweet ABOUT this tour, and the subsequent response from Ben Bearup saying I was living my “best life” (SO TRUE!). It was pretty awesome.

Aside from that, I saw firsthand the many people who are hard at work 24/7 to keep the airline up and running… air traffic controllers, meteorologists, pilots (yes, pilots!), the Airbus team and the Boeing team, among others. I also saw more pie charts, bar graphs, numbers and maps than my geeking-out brain could even handle.

All in all, my biggest take away from that tour was that even though it is extremely frustrating if your flight gets delayed or canceled, just know that whenever something isn’t 100 percent perfect in terms of an airline’s operations (so essentially… always), there are hundreds of dedicated people working to make things right.

Yesterday was a truly great day. I’m so happy to have finally met Chris, and I so much enjoyed spending my lunch hour with the kind folks over at United. The icing on the cake was doing some work from home later that evening as the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds zipped past my apartment window over, and over, and over again in preparation for this weekend’s Chicago Air and Water Show.

This year’s two-day event will include parachutists, fighter jets, a C-130 and even an AMERICAN AIRLINES DREAMLINER (pinch me, please). I’ll be attending the show both days, one of them on behalf of Boeing, and as I look forward to that… I think my teammate Jane best captured my excitement in her own words:

“Annie, you’re going to lose your mind.”

Long live the Queen: VC-25A is now officially the longest serving presidential aircraft

SAM 28000, one of two current VC-25As (photo: Wikipedia)

It’s official: the Boeing VC-25A—two modified 747-200Bs with tail numbers 28000 and 29000, more commonly referred to as Air Force One—is now the longest-serving presidential aircraft. I’ve been tracking this milestone for awhile now, and to be quite honest, I actually botched it at first (don’t judge… I’m not a mathematician!).

Because I also have a strange fascination with the Kennedy family (who doesn’t?), I knew that JFK’s two modified 707s with tail numbers 26000 and 27000 (the Boeing VC-137C) were most certainly the longest serving presidential aircraft of all time… I didn’t, however, realize just how soon today’s Queens of the Skies were going to steal the crown from those two planes that first entered service when Kennedy was in office.

I originally (and mistakenly) did my calculations as follows (using the entry-into-service date for the VC-137C as opposed to the first time it actually flew as Air Force One). This had VC-25A officially becoming the longest serving presidential aircraft on Aug. 5, just a couple days ago.

VC-137C (two different modified 707s:  SAM 26000 and SAM 27000)

10,194 days between Oct. 9, 1962 (VC-137C first entered service) and Sept. 6, 1990 (VC-25A first flew as Air Force One)

VC-25A (two different modified 747-200Bs: SAM 28000 and SAM 29000)

10,195 days between Sept. 6, 1990 (VC-25A first flew as Air Force One) and Aug. 5, 2018

However, upon realizing my mistake and finding the actual date when VC-137C first flew with Kennedy on board (therefore using the call sign Air Force One), November 10, 1962, I realized that my timeline had moved up roughly a month and that this milestone actually happened on July 4 of this year (pretty cool date for an American milestone, eh?).

VC-137C (two different modified 707s:  SAM 26000 and SAM 27000)

10,162 days between Nov. 10, 1962 (VC-137C first flew as Air Force One) and Sept. 6, 1990 (VC-25A first few as Air Force One)

VC-25A (two different modified 747-200Bs: SAM 28000 and SAM 29000)

10,163 days between Sept. 6, 1990 (VC-25A first flew as Air Force One) and July 4, 2018

It is important to note, however, that this doesn’t mean the 747 (generally speaking) is the longest serving presidential aircraft… that honor still goes to the 707, at least for now. Dwight D. Eisenhower was actually the first to fly in a modified Boeing 707 using the call sign Air Force One (VC-137B) when he departed Dec. 3, 1959 on his “Flight to Peace” goodwill tour to 11 Asian nations.

The 747 won’t officially take the crown from the 707 for another three years, on June 11, 2021.

Boeing 707

11,235 days between Dec. 3, 1959 (707 first flew as Air Force One) and Sept. 6, 1990 (747 first flew as Air Force One)

Boeing 747

11,236 days between Sept. 6, 1990 (747 first flew as Air Force One) and June 11, 2021

I want to give a special thanks to our incredibly awesome historian here at Boeing, Mike Lombardi, for reminding me that it’s important to make these distinctions. And, I’ll add… that June 2021 milestone is a surefire thing since the new Air Force One planes currently on order are two 747-8s expected to be delivered (last I heard) by 2024. So even if they were delivered tomorrow, they’re still 747s and the math still works… so there.

With that, there’s only one thing left to say: Long live the Queen.

Boeing: Air Force One (read about past, current and future presidential aircraft)