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!

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.


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.




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.”