Be Brave Like Ukraine

On July 28, 2022, Ukrainians celebrated “Statehood Day” as a national holiday for the first time. Coinciding with the holiday, Ukrainian aircraft designer, manufacturer and service company Antonov announced the naming of nine aircraft to honor the heroism and resilience of the Ukrainian people following the invasion by Russia earlier that year. The aircraft involved include seven An-124s, one An-128, one An-158 and one An-178, all of which are named after fallen cities.

The An-124 Ruslan has been a frequent visitor to Paine Field Airport in Everett, Washington, as of late, where it’s been delivering large parts to The Boeing Company. The planes have typically flown in before dawn, quickly unloaded their cargo, and departed mid-morning. However, one of the massive freighters flew in mid-afternoon yesterday during some outstanding winter light. It was on the ground 2-3 hours and departed just before sunset. And let me tell you… our local community of aviation enthusiasts showed up in full force.

Yesterday’s aircraft was UR82008, “Be Brave Like Okhtyrka.” And while these large Ukrainian jets have always been known to draw a crowd, there’s something different now that the country and its people and their freedom have been attacked. To all Ukrainians: your bravery is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

Be Brave Like Ukraine.

These are a few of my favorite Queens

“Noses that open and high bypass engines

Big upper decks you could practically live in

They start just like emeralds, the brightest of greens

These are a few of my favorite Queens”

The Boeing 747 changed the world the second the very first airplane lifted off the runway at Paine Field in Everett, Washington, on Feb. 9, 1969. Many people doubted that an airplane two-and-a-half times the size of the 707 could even fly. Little did they know…

I was fortunate to attend the rollout of the last 747 (L/N 1574) earlier this month, and a week-and-a-half later I made it up to PAE just in the nick of time to see her first flight. Soon she’ll return to Seattle with a shiny new coat of paint, before being delivered to Atlas Air early next year. I’m grateful to be supporting the delivery event, but am quite honestly dreading the moment I wave goodbye to that big, beautiful bird. 

Many of you know I meticulously track the airplanes I photograph — each one is tagged with the registration, airline, manufacturer, model, variant and airport. It takes time, but it is well worth it to me. As the 747 program comes to a close, I started to think about the many Jumbo Jets I’ve spotted over the past several years. I did a little digging and discovered I’ve shot 132 of the 1,574 747s produced (roughly 8%). Those airplanes represent 35 different airlines, with Atlas, China Airlines Cargo and Kalitta Air as the top three, with 17, 13 and 10 airframes photographed, respectively.

I’ve of course seen some of these airplanes multiple times, and all in all, I have roughly 3,500 photos of 747s in my collection. With that, I decided to celebrate and honor this remarkable airplane program by choosing some favorites to share with all of you. Of the 20 airplanes in these photos, one was written off, one was scrapped, three are in storage and seven now wear different liveries. Please know that some of these photos were taken when I was just getting started as a plane spotter, so I kindly ask that you forgive the poor quality.

Long live the Queen.

Click photos to view larger.

The Three Keys

I realized the other day that it’s been more than four months since I posted here, which isn’t like me. Typically, I’ve held myself to a pretty high standard when it comes to how often I post on social media: once a day on Instagram and once a month here on my blog. In fact, that high standard has typically applied to all facets of my life… I’ve always been “go, go, go!” at home, at work and here on The Great Planes. But there’s been a lot going on in my world lately, so I thought it would be best to take that pressure off myself, slow the pace and embrace more of a “go with the flow” lifestyle. It’ll take awhile to get there, but I’m trying!

With that… I suppose it’s time for a story. This one isn’t ALL about airplanes, but I hope you enjoy it nonetheless. I call it, “The Three Keys.”

Last month, I became the owner of a very special key. It was special not only because of the door it would unlock, but because of what it symbolized. It was the third of three keys that now hang together on the same keyring… jingling in my purse while I am out and about each day, and hanging on the wall silent and still each night while I sleep. By themselves, each one means something, but collectively they represent a sense of fulfillment in my life, and for that I am truly grateful.

Standing on top of “Red” to photograph a Boeing 727 coming into Seattle’s Boeing Field.

1. November 2020: The key to our first new car

For the majority of our first 10 years together, Scott and I had just one car between the two of us: a bright red 2008 Toyota Yaris that I bought used in 2010. Her name was “Littler” (for “Littler Red”) as she followed “Little Red” — a 1998 Ford Escort that was unfortunately totaled in 2010. The accident wasn’t my fault, and I suffered only minor injuries, but it was traumatic nonetheless. Also, it meant that I needed to find a new set of wheels, and that for the first time in my life I would be taking on a car payment (yikes!). Littler had no bells and whistles… She didn’t have cruise control or a sunroof, there were no powered windows and no automatic locks — she was as basic as they come. But she was special to me and to us. 

In fall 2020, Scott and I came to the difficult realization that we seriously needed to consider buying a new car. Littler had been in and out of the shop, and it was no longer practical to keep fixing the seemingly endless issues that were popping up. In choosing our next vehicle, I had only one requirement: it had to be bright red to carry on the legacy of Little Red and Littler. We found a 2021 Subaru Crosstrek as bright as a brand new fire engine, and immediately knew it was the one. This car was the biggest of the three, so naturally, we just called her, “Red.” I love that car to pieces as it was our first “big purchase” as a couple and it is such a big part of our lives today — I drive it to and from work, Scott drives it all over the state to go hiking, and I climb atop it to get the best vantage point when taking photos at local airports.

Me and my Boeing Archives teammates prior to our flight on B-29 “Doc.”

2. May 2021: The key to the Boeing Archives

When I started The Great Planes almost six years ago, I really didn’t know how big a part of my life aviation would become. I’m a natural storyteller (at least I like to think I am) and I went to journalism school to build on those skills and that passion. So when I discovered my love of airplanes, I figured aviation communications was the way to go. Until that point, I had been job hopping like crazy. I felt like I had no “calling” and started to feel a bit hopeless. But aviation changed all of that… I suddenly felt hopeful. Just about the same time I started my blog, I found an industry mentor (thank you Benét!) and soon started picking up freelance writing gigs. Eventually, I began applying like mad to full-time communications positions with airlines and manufacturers.

I got my first job with Boeing in 2017, and after only a year of working in executive communications in our Chicago office, I was fortunate enough to snag a position on our Historical Services team in St. Louis. Even though Scott and I didn’t necessarily see ourselves staying in St. Louis long term, I loved my job so much that the location didn’t matter all that much. But then, after a couple years, we got our long-awaited opportunity to move to Seattle — the Mecca of commercial aviation and the home of the Boeing Archives. I’ll add that we do have three archives locations, one of which is in St. Louis, but the Seattle collection is by and large the biggest (and in my opinion, the best). I can’t explain the feeling I had when I took possession of the key to our collection… I guard it with my life!

Scott and I the day we received the keys to our first house.

3. October 2022: The key to our first house

To say the last two months were a whirlwind would be an understatement. Scott and I, along with our good friend Jiho, took a 2-week trip to South Korea in early September. A few days after returning home, Scott and I went to see a couple houses. We had been looking casually for a few months, but hadn’t seen anything that was “just right.” After living in Seattle for just over a year, we realized we couldn’t afford to rent much longer — if we were going to be spending this much on housing, it had to be going toward something.

When we stepped into the small single-family home that we now call ours, we knew it was the one. We put in an offer, took part in a small (but still stressful!) bidding war, and ultimately got the email from our realtors we had so longed to receive, “Congratulations! You got the house!” That set into motion weeks upon weeks of doing “all the things” that new homeowners do: selling old furniture that was too big, visiting the new house to take measurements, buying new (smaller) furniture, listing and showing our apartment, canceling and setting up utilities, yada yada yada. We talked with our realtors or the credit union almost daily before signing what felt like 75,000-pages worth of closing documents. But the moment we got our keys, we breathed huge sighs of relief. We knew we had done it, and we couldn’t be happier.

So… will there ever be a fourth key? Maybe a fifth? Who knows. For know, I’m happy with the ones I have. Besides, great things come in threes!

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!