MSP: The Great Airport

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On March 6, Airports Council International (ACI) announced the winners of the 2016 Airport Service Quality (ASQ) Awards, an award that recognizes airports around the globe, both big and small, that dedicate themselves to delivering an excellent customer experience.

Winners are determined based on customer surveys that are given to roughly 600,000 travelers in 84 countries. The survey covers airport access, check-in, security, restrooms, shopping, and dining.

I should have known right off the bat that my home away from home, Minneapolis- St. Paul International Airport (MSP), would have been recognized. I mean… “Minnesota nice,” right?

And lo and behold – they were!

MSP was named Best Airport in North America for its size category (25-40 million passengers per year). A few notable competitors in this size category include Orlando International Airport, Boston’s Logan International Airport, and New York’s LaGuardia International Airport.

In a Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) release, MAC executive director and CEO Brian Ryks said the following:

“Our vision is ‘providing your best airport experience,’ and that is something we can only achieve with the support of the entire Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport community. It is very gratifying to know our customers recognize the tremendous efforts made each day by so many, and our focus to provide a personal touch in order to exceed travelers’ expectations.”

While I don’t get to frequent the airport as much as I’d like to (no, plane spotting doesn’t count), I completely understand why MSP was recognized. I’ve never encountered awfully long lines in security, and I always know that I’ll find something great to eat or a good store to kill some time in if I find myself overly early for my flight.

And again, there’s the “Minnesota nice” factor… the airport is chock-full of kind, helpful employees… from the check-in counter, to the coffee shop, to the gate.

MSP is Delta Air Line’s second largest hub, and is served by 14 airlines, offering service to 155 destinations. More than 37.5 million passengers flew through MSP in 2016.

So here’s to you, MSP. You done good!

View more ASQ award recipients on the ACI website.

Invisible Highways: An Inside Look at Air Traffic Control in the U.S.

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Note: This was originally published on the Aviation Queen blog, where I have been fortunate enough to post as a guest contributor thanks to the immense kindness of Benét Wilson.

While I love music, these days I find myself listening to air traffic control feeds more often than tunes. On average, more than 400,000 landings and takeoffs occur at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport each year, and the fact that the controllers get them all on and off the ground safely never ceases to amaze me.

So when passengers at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport were faced with serious flight delays in early February due to a computer issue in air traffic control, it really got me thinking about our own ATC system.

How exactly does it work? Is there a “backup” plan in the event something similar happened here?

According to a video released by the FAA, controllers have two primary jobs: to make sure planes are properly separated from one another, and to keep air traffic flowing in the most efficient manner.

When planes depart, an initial heading is used and then they fan out into their specific routes. When planes are nearing their destinations, they’re sequenced and merged into “arrival streams.” And in the air, planes have both a minimum lateral and vertical distance they must remain from one another.

Near airports, planes flying at the same altitude must be at least three miles apart, but at higher altitudes that jumps to five miles. And if planes don’t meet those lateral requirements, they must remain a minimum vertical distance from other one another. For commercial aircraft below 41,000 feet, the minimum vertical separation is only 1,000 feet. So when you’re at cruising altitude, the distance between your plane and one that’s above or beneath you could be as small as the length of three football fields.

Departures and arrivals also have numerous crossing routes where they must be separated from one another, so controllers are continually managing and separating them throughout the day.

So how exactly do air traffic controllers do their job?

Derek Sorenson has worked at the Minneapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) for roughly three years, first as a contractor and more recently as a controller. The Minneapolis Center is one of 21 ARTCC facilities in the U.S. and encompasses nearly 400,000 square miles of Midwest airspace.

Sorenson is responsible for an area that covers roughly the northern half of Wisconsin, the upper peninsula of Michigan, and the northern half of the lower peninsula of Michigan. And a lot of planes fly through that airspace on any given day.

“If it were averaged throughout the year, I would estimate something like 2,000 aircraft per day,” he said.

Before departing, pilots file a flight plan with the ARTCC, which includes their requested route and altitude. The controllers do their best to accommodate these requests, but that’s not always feasible. “Sometimes, for traffic situations or a required route to be flown to a busier airport, we need to change things up,” Sorenson said.

There’s no such thing as a “typical day” for Sorenson, and he likes that. “It all depends on many factors such as traffic volume, weather, turbulence, and how many people are working that particular shift,” he said.

FAA-ERAMOn the job, he is in constant communication with pilots via radio, and with other controllers via phone. And when it comes to tracking aircraft, he primarily works off of a radar display that runs on En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM). ERAM technology is a vital component of the Next Generation Air Transportation System, commonly referred to as NextGen, and is helping in the transition from an aging ground-based air traffic control system to a more modern satellite-based system. Previously, controllers could only track 1,100 aircraft at a time, but the use of ERAM has increased that capability to 1,900.

Lucky for him, Sorenson has never encountered a significant system failure akin to what happened in Amsterdam, and he isn’t aware of any past incidents at the Minneapolis ARTCC. The most notable event he could recall here in the U.S. was in September 2014 when a contract worker set fire to the Chicago Center early one morning. As a result, thousands of flights into and out of both Chicago O’Hare and Midway airports were delayed or canceled.

atc_ERAM“In the Chicago incident, they lost communication and radar… so they were ATC-Zero,” said Jennah Perry, Program Chair and Assistant Professor of Air Traffic Management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

The Independent reports that in Amsterdam, the fault apparently occurred with radar correlation software, which compares and assesses information from primary and secondary radar. Perry explained that primary radar detects anything that has mass, whereas secondary radar only picks up aircraft that are carrying a transponder.

“I would imagine it is the system that puts them together that failed,” Perry added.

According to Perry, the FAA is supposed to have contingency plans in the event of radar failure. In the Chicago situation, even though there were plans in place, they didn’t work. The controllers didn’t have proper training on following the plans and there wasn’t proper infrastructure.

“Due to the high demand of air traffic and the lack of ability to train and be current on those non-radar procedures, those contingency plans are ineffective in the event they have to be used,” Perry said.

The contingency plans in place in Chicago were designed for short-term use, which created limitations and required controllers to discard the plans and instead work with adjacent centers such as Cleveland, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Indianapolis.

A similar incident happened in October 2015, when record rainfall caused flooding at the Austin-Bergstrom Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), also resulting in an ATC-Zero situation. The damage affected the operations for more than two weeks.

Over the last three years, a number of incidents have revealed a lack of resiliency in the current air traffic control structure, but ultimately, it was the fire at the Chicago Center that led to the FAA’s extensive review of its current contingency plans.

According to a January 2017 report released by the Office of the Inspector General, the FAA’s contingency plans are not yet sufficient to minimize the impact of system disruptions.

Following the Chicago incident, the FAA updated its contingency plan policy to include goals to achieve 90 percent capacity at the top 30 airports with the most passenger activity within 24 hours, and 90 percent capacity at facilities that manage air traffic at high altitude and in the vicinity of airports within 96 hours. But in a crisis situation, that’s just not realistic given the current plans, according to Perry. “The centers will not be operating at normal capacity… they’ll be operating at maybe 30 to 40 percent,” she said.

Additionally, the Air Traffic Organization (ATO) completed a 30-day assessment of the operational contingency plans, which identified five next steps that needed to be completed within one year. However, two of those steps have not yet been fully completed.

“Right now if any major facility went down in the U.S. to ATC-Zero, it would cause major havoc over the whole U.S. airspace system,” Perry said. “It’s a domino effect.”

According to her, our current radar-based system just won’t cut it… the only thing that can bring our centers up to the 90- to 100-percent efficient status they’d need to be at following a crisis is NextGen.

Key site testing for NextGen’s NAS Voice System (NVS) is expected to be complete in 2019. This voice switch capability would allow controllers to talk to any aircraft anywhere in our airspace. So if one facility lost communications, another facility could communicate with their aircraft. Once these systems are certified and available, they’ll be installed in terminal and ARTCC facilities, likely between 2019 and 2026.

Perry said the change in technology is great, theoretically, but it’s timely and expensive.

“It has a lot of advancements that we need in order to keep our system safe and streamlined, but with technology comes failure… redundancy needs to be there.”

So while flying is statistically the safest form of travel, more work needs to be done to keep it that way. The FAA has made progress by establishing goals and working to achieve them, but the January report concluded that until the administration strengthens controller training and implements policies and procedures for transferring traffic within all airspace, they’ll continue to face challenges.

Realistically, in a situation similar to what happened in Amsterdam, we probably wouldn’t fare much better than they did. But in the next 5-10 years, once NextGen is fully implemented, a center’s response to a crisis will almost certainly be much smoother and more effective, making our skies even safer than they are today.

A Truly Great Plane: The Boeing 747

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Photo Courtesy of Boeing

Two hundred and sixty-four days… it sounds like a long time, but I know it will come quickly. Just about eight months from now I’ll be soaring through the clouds aboard the Queen of the Skies: a Boeing 747. While it may not sound incredibly exciting to some, it will be truly monumental for me, as it will be my first time flying on one of my favorite aircraft of all time.

Sure, I love plenty of airplanes: the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, the McDonnell-Douglas MD-11, but those aircraft, or at least the passenger versions of them, are obsolete. My only chance to fly on one of my favorite planes was to snag a ticket on a Boeing 747. And with the help of my dad, I did just that.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:

I consider only one man made “thing” on this earth to be as truly remarkable and awe-inspiring as Mother Nature herself: the airplane.

And the Boeing 747 was the inspiration behind that quote by yours truly. It’s hard not to love that plane – don’t you think?

Let’s start with how this beauty came to be. Of course the roughly 50,000 people who worked on this plane in the late 1960s are called “the Incredibles” – how could they not be given such a nickname? The engineers, the mechanics, the secretaries… they all contributed to aviation history when they seemingly “whipped up” the world’s largest civilian airplane in a mere 16 months.

The final design was offered in three different models: all passenger, all cargo, and a convertible passenger/cargo model. And I’m over the moon that my dad and I are getting to fly on the convertible model, often referred to as a “combi.”

The 747 is also the reason the largest building (by volume) was even built. The Boeing Everett Factory in Everett, Washington is where the manufacturer’s largest planes are constructed. Some equate the size of the facility to that of a city; workers even use bicycles to get around.

And it’s no wonder they had to construct that beast of a building – the 747 is huge. I work on the sixth floor of an office building in downtown Minneapolis, and knowing that if a 747 was parked on the street below, its tail would be at eye level with me, is just astounding to say the least.

While the 747’s iconic “hump” makes it so easily identifiable, the plane has been modified a number of times over the last several decades. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) modified two 747s into shuttle carriers (the first in 1976 and the second in 1988), in 1990 two were modified to serve as Air Force One, and in 2007 Boeing introduced the “Dreamlifter” – a specially modified version of the 747 used to carry large composite structures, including fuselage sections of the 787 Dreamliner. Additional modifications over the years such as an extended upper deck and the addition of winglets on some models have continued to shape the look, feel, and functionality of the plane.

Nearly three years ago, the 747 became the first wide-body airplane to reach the 1,500 milestone, when number 1,500 was delivered to Germany-based Lufthansa. And while that was reason to celebrate, the truth is – these planes may not be around much longer. Both United and Delta airlines are retiring the jumbo jet this year, and that news was what fueled my desire to catch a ride on one while I still had the chance.

The plane is gorgeous. It’s iconic. It’s a symbol of a special era in flight. And I’m ecstatic that I’ll have the privilege to fly in one. A flight in a 747 is certainly a “bucket list” item for me, as I’m sure it is for countless aviation enthusiasts. And you can bet your bottom dollar that come November 6, when I set foot on that plane and we lift off the ground, I’ll be overcome with joy as I check that item off.

Where Luxury Lacks, Savings Abound with “Basic Economy” Fares; United to Test Low-Cost Option at MSP

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Photo Courtesy of United Airlines

Note: This was originally published on the Aviation Queen blog, where I was fortunate enough to post as a guest contributor thanks to the immense kindness of Benét Wilson.

As one of three major U.S. airlines committed to offering travelers low-cost tickets with fewer amenities, United will soon test its basic economy fares in Minneapolis.

And while signs point toward these fares becoming a regular fixture in commercial aviation – mainly as a way for larger airlines to compete with low-cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier – flying has certainly transformed over the last several decades.

Having worked as a flight attendant for Eastern Airlines in the 1970s and 1980s, when donning more fashion-forward uniforms and serving meals on china in first class were the norm, my mom says flying was more “glamorous” back then.

But now, she says, plane rides almost feel more like bus trips, which isn’t too surprising with the rise of discount airlines, and more recently with these low-cost fares. Delta is already offering the no-frills option, and recently American announced that they’ll begin offering basic economy fares in 10 select markets starting this month.

United first announced plans to offer basic economy fares last November, and in mid-January, President Scott Kirby said they would debut at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. “When you think of the number of flights coming in, the number of customers choosing United, and the airports… MSP was a great market to test this in,” United Spokesman Jonathan Guerin said.

United basic economy fares provide the same onboard experience as standard economy with a few exceptions, most notably: you can’t choose your seat and full-sized carry-on bags are not permitted. But you are allowed one personal item that you must store underneath the seat in front of you.

Brett Snyder, who runs the popular Cranky Flier blog, sees basic economy as a good way for legacy airlines to offer low fares while stripping out amenities for those who don’t need them. “While this might mean an increase in the lowest selling fare that allows for carry-on bags and advance seat assignments, those fares aren’t really sustainable today,” he said.

And it’s no surprise that basic economy has received some pushback. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) recently voiced his concerns in a press release, citing the cheap fares as just another way for very profitable airlines to nickel and dime passengers. Through an upcoming FAA bill, he’ll push for new customer protections that “undo unfair policies” such as “banning” the free use of overhead bins.

The only issue is – the major airlines aren’t banning the free bin space because they’re not making you purchase a basic economy fare… it’s simply another option. These days, customers want choice and they want control, and that’s exactly what these fares are providing.

“There will always be pushback anytime the airlines do anything, even if it’s not bad,” Snyder said. “The reality is that you really shouldn’t buy these fares if you want a carry-on or a seat assignment, and the airlines will tell you that multiple times before you buy the ticket,” he added. “But people will still make that mistake and then complain.”

Another concern has been how airlines will keep track of those flying on basic economy fares. For United, Guerin said it shouldn’t be difficult, as it will be noted on your boarding pass and you’ll be in the last boarding group. This provides several opportunities for airport employees and gate agents to see if you have a full-sized carry-on, which will need to be checked and will be subject to the standard checked-bag fee. For domestic flights, you’ll pay $25 for your first checked bag and $35 for your second. But basic economy passengers who arrive at the gate with a full-sized carry-on will also need to pay a $25 gate handling fee.

United’s basic economy fares will go on sale during the first quarter of 2017, for travel during the second quarter. They’ll be available for routes between MSP and the airline’s seven U.S. hubs, eventually rolling out into other domestic markets.

Ultimately, while flying may not be the lavish experience it once was, it’s clear that the airlines have done their research in targeting this price-sensitive niche. Many people are just looking to get from point A to point B on the cheap, and now they have options outside of simply choosing a low-cost carrier.

“Big Flo” Helps Scientists Study the Mechanics of a Plane Crash in Real Time

There’s just something about watching a roughly 200,000-pound remote control airplane glide over the desert… it’s both eerie and beautiful. And that’s exactly what the scientists, pilots, and standby emergency responders did as they purposefully crashed “Big Flo” in April 2012.

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Big Flo, the 727 used in the experiment.

The crash of the 170-seat Boeing 727 near Mexicali, Mexico was conducted to learn more about what actually happens during a plane crash. The experiment was captured by Channel 4 (a British public-service television broadcaster) in a documentary film appropriately titled The Plane Crash.

“Where should passengers sit to increase their chances of survival?”

“Is the standard ‘bracing’ position really the safest?”

Those are just a couple of the questions that the research team set out to answer.

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Hybrid III dummies involved in the crash.

On board the plane were three Hybrid III crash test dummies, which very accurately simulate human movement and responses while collecting data at a rate of 10,000 samples per second. The plane was piloted by Captain Jim Bob Slocum; he was joined by other crew members and a small group of passengers.

After taking off from General Rodolfo Sánchez Taboada International Airport in Mexicali, the flight made its way toward the Sonoran Desert as those on board gradually parachuted out through the plane’s ventral airstair. Slocum was the last to leave the plane, just four minutes before impact, at which point Chip Shanle controlled the 727 remotely from a small chase plane.

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Big Flo after the crash.

Big Flo hit the ground at 140 miles per hour and broke up into several pieces; she had been descending at a rate of 1,500 feet per minute.

Following the experiment, it was concluded that sitting in the back of the plane really does increase your chances of walking away without injury in the event of a crash. Also, passengers who adopt the brace position are far more likely to survive than those who don’t; the brace position involves getting your torso as low as possible by cradling your head on the seat in front of you, or by lowering your head and hugging your knees.

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More wreckage from the crash.

So for those of you who suffer from some form of flight anxiety, it might not be a bad idea to snag a seat toward the back of the plane to help calm your tensions. But rest assured, your chances of dying in a plane crash are a mere one in 11 million. So sit back, and enjoy the flight.

All photos courtesy of Channel 4.

Discovering my Aviation Roots: Part 2

This is the second entry of a two-part blog I did in an effort to learn more about my parents’ history in aviation. Last week, I posted about my dad’s ties to flying, from college (when his interest in aviation first began) through his careers in both the U.S. Air Force and with Eastern Airlines.

This week, we’ll learn more about my mom. She was with Eastern Airlines for about 14 years in the 70s and 80s and that’s where she and my dad met. I’ve always known how much she loved flying (and planes), but I knew there was still a lot I didn’t know about that love. She is a great storyteller with an ability to paint very vivid pictures through her words.

Enjoy!

When and how was your interest in aviation first piqued?

When I was very young, early grade school age, we lived in a rural area. Next door was a farmhouse and barn, and across the fields in the back of our house there was a small airfield. My oldest brother was often there, talking to the owner (Whitey) and the pilots, and taking an occasional lesson. I loved watching the windsock, and the planes would usually take off in the direction of our house. I loved being around my brother Steve and would often walk to the field with him. I think this is where my brother’s love of flying began.

We lived in northern Indiana, and many times planes that took off from (or were going to land at) O’Hare or Midway in Chicago, would fly over our house. I remember on cold nights being cuddled under a red and black Hudson Bay blanket in the bedroom with knotty pine walls that I shared with my brother Bob. When it was very very quiet, I could hear a distant deep hum which would grow steadily louder until I knew that the airliner was right over our house. And then I would listen until I could no longer hear even a trace of the powerful propeller sound. I imagined the people in the plane sleeping or reading; I wondered where they were going. I also wondered about the people that got to work on those planes.

What years were you a flight attendant and what was that job like? Do you have a favorite memory?

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Mom as a flight attendant with Eastern Airlines

I was hired by Eastern Airlines in the fall of 1973. I went through training and after graduation my class was furloughed. We were called back in the fall of 1974 and went through an abbreviated training refresher (one week instead of the typical six weeks). I chose New York as my first base station and was with Eastern until I resigned in late 1987.

I was based in Chicago after a short time in NYC, and in Atlanta after that. Considering who I was when I started, I grew up with Eastern Airlines. I can not single out a favorite memory, there were so, so many. Being a flight attendant is a unique lifestyle, and also a very physical job. I feel like when I was working as one, there was still a small element of “glamour” attached to the job, but nothing like the years before.

What is your favorite thing about flying?

I have always loved skimming clouds… just the beauty of the clouds and the realization of how fast you are going.

What is your least favorite thing about flying?

Windy landings were my least favorite aspect of flying; I mean really windy, not just a gentle buffet now and then. Seated in the rear of the plane you could hear the throttles being adjusted, and in the front of the plane “glide slope” and the other infamous voice alarms were things I was never fond of hearing.

Tell me about the most frightening experience you ever had on an airplane.

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Mom in front of a Concorde

I had a few, but not one stands out as being the most frightening. Shortly after takeoff in an L-1011 from Atlanta to San Juan, I was seated at the third door back on the left. As the gear was coming up there was a very loud “BOOM!” The plane shuddered a bit and lots of overhead bins flew open. There was not a lot of communication from the crew except that we were returning to the airfield. As we were coming in, I could see emergency vehicles on the ground with their lights flashing. We landed safely, but apparently some kind of mechanism in the gear had let go.

Another one was during an overnight flight from Seattle to Atlanta. Service was done, lights were out, and passengers were sleeping. The senior flight attendant and I were sitting together in a couple of seats in first class when a loud rumbling and vibration occurred; the sound was just like the sound of something meant to slow the plane down, like the flaps or speed brake, except we were at cruising altitude. The captain came out and talked to us shortly after. He explained what had happened and his other comment was, “I almost had to change my pants with that one.”

Tell me about the most magical and/or amazing experience you ever had on an airplane.

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Mom in the cockpit

So much about flying was amazing to me, it is hard to pinpoint. However, when we had an empty airplane that needed to go to another airport for positioning (a “ferry” flight), I would always accept the captain’s offer to sit in the cockpit jump seat. Takeoffs and landings up there were so exciting to me, and the view from there, with just basically the sound of the wind slipping by, was indeed magical.

Do you have a favorite model of airplane? If so, what is it and why is it your favorite?

We had six different aircraft during my time with Eastern, from the prop-jet Lockheed L-188 Electra to the Boeing 757… I loved all of them. As much as I love the sound of jet engines, the sound of the four big prop-jet engines on the Electra gave me goosebumps. The nimble little DC-9, the steady workhorse 727, all the way to the long, long 757 with the back end that would sway a bit during flight… I really did love them all.

What do you miss most about your career in aviation?

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Mom with friends and coworkers Lucinda and Beverly

I miss the airplanes of course, and the crew members that I got to know, and the ability to fly almost anywhere for a minimal amount of money. Eastern was like a huge family… everyone was there because they loved airplanes and the industry. It is very sad that the company doesn’t exist anymore after such a long, proud history.

What is the most drastic change you’ve seen over the years between when you first started your aviation career and today?

Like I said earlier, I flew in the days when there was still something special about air travel. We served full meals in coach even on short flights, and served several-course meals on china and crystal in first class on longer ones. Toward the end of my career with Eastern, the “no frills” seats were starting to appear, but they were nothing like many of today’s flights that have more of a bus trip feel. Besides a seat, you got real service with your ticket when I worked for Eastern.

And that’s that. I set out to learn more about my parents’ ties to aviation, from their careers to their favorite (and least favorite) memories, and I’d say I succeeded.

As I mentioned, my mom has a way with words… everything she says and writes allows me to effortlessly envision exactly what she is referring to just like I am right there alongside her in her past.

I knew she would have great things to say about her aviation career and her love of planes, and she most certainly didn’t disappoint. 

Discovering my Aviation Roots: Part 1

I really do think aviation is in my blood. My parents met as flight attendants on Eastern Airlines in the early 80s and my dad spent more than 30 years in the U.S. Air Force. Simply put, planes are near and dear to my family. So I figured, why not learn a little more about my parents’ ties to flying… from how they began their aviation careers to their most exciting (and scariest) memories. 

We’ll start with my dad. As I’m sure is the case for a lot of daughters, my dad is a hero to me. I loved learning more about his past, and I hope you will too.

When and how was your interest in aviation first piqued?

I had zero interest in flight until I was a junior in college at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. One of my friends and I decided to hitchhike from Jackson to Knoxville to see a Kentucky vs. Tennessee football game. We got one ride all the way to Nashville, which was 120 miles, and then stood on the freeway for a couple of hours with no luck. We were right at the exit for the airport, and thought, “What the heck, let’s see how much it costs to fly to Knoxville!” We walked to the terminal and found that a one-way ticket was $18, but with our student discounts it was only $13. That was the first flight for both of us, and I was hooked from that moment on.

What years were you a flight attendant and what was that job like? Do you have a favorite memory?

I was with Eastern from the spring of 1978 until the fall of 1987, when we moved to Minnesota. Of course there were many good memories, especially having come across a long list of well-known personalities, but my biggest thrill was spending a whole day with Ted Williams.

It was during the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike during the Reagan era. As a result of the strike, there were very few qualified controllers, and many flights were cancelled for a number of weeks… maybe months. Because of this, a lot of previous nonstop flights now had multiple stops before reaching their final destination. I was on one such flight from Boston to Atlanta. I had worked that morning, and was “deadheading” back to Atlanta. Fortunately, I was given a first class seat on this three or four leg flight. Ted Williams sat next to me. We talked about everything from baseball to fishing to single malt scotch that day. I recall almost every detail of that flight.

What years were you in the Air Force and what exactly did you do? Do you have a favorite memory?

I was a navigator having completed my many prerequisite schools in the spring of 1973. Briefly, it was off to Loring, Maine until the summer of 1976, flying B-52s.

I had a tour to Guam in G model B-52s and another to Thailand in the D model. After that, I flew C-141s out of McGuire Air Force Base outside of Trenton, N.J. from June 1976 until May 1982. Next was the C-130, first at Dobbins Air Force Base in Marietta, Ga. until Sept. 1987.

Coming up with a favorite memory is really a tough one, but I’m going to go with my first C-141 flight to Europe. I believe it was to Royal Air Force Mildenhall, just outside of London. After years in the B-52, and almost always landing where we took off, it was great to finally get to see the world.

What is your favorite thing about flying?

It has to be the experience of visiting so many countries, and observing the different peoples and their cultures. You cannot learn that from any book.

What is your least favorite thing about flying?

I’m going to say it was the pressure of being in the B-52 during the height of the Cold War. It wasn’t actually flying itself, but rather, the fear of running out to the airplane during an alert drill, not knowing if it was another test, or the start of a nuclear war.

Tell me about the most frightening experience you ever had on an airplane.

That would have to be on a C-141 flight to Greenland sometime around 1978-79. There were multiple mistakes made by the pilots, the loadmaster, and myself. We were going to Thule, Greenland, and after a stop there we were to fly south to Kangerlussuaq Fjord (Danish: Søndre Strømfjord). The weather in Thule was the pits so we tried to land, and after not being able to, we went into a holding pattern.

After a while, it became obvious that we had to press on to Sondrestrom Air Base as an alternative. It was about two hours away, and we had just over 25,000 pounds of fuel. The C-141 burns about 12,000 pounds per hour.

We knew it would be close, so to keep spirits up, we all guessed how much fuel we’d have when we landed. On the ground, fuel is measured by a “dipstick” where the flight engineer walks on the wing, removes the fuel cap, and places the dipstick in.

We landed safely, without flaming out the engines for lack of fuel. I won the guessing game of how much fuel we would have: I said 2,000 pounds (about 12 minutes worth). When the engineer took his reading, he didn’t get anything… it was too low to measure.

Tell me about the most magical and/or amazing experience you ever had on an airplane.

I guess that would be the Ted Williams story I mentioned earlier. I’m certain that experience wasn’t something that many people had – outside of those associated with Ted Williams in baseball.

Do you have a favorite model of airplane? If so, what is it and why is it your favorite?

I’d say the C-141. As much as I loved the C-130 and all the missions I flew in it, the C-141 could take you a lot further on a tank of gas, and at faster speeds. The range and cargo capability of the C-141 made it a strategic airlifter, while the C-130 had more “tactical” airlift capabilities. That said, the C-130 could get you into airports (or grass strips) that the C-141 (or any other aircraft) couldn’t even consider.

What do you miss most about your career in aviation?

The people I worked with in each of the aircraft, as well as the relationships I tried to develop with all of our support personnel: maintenance, refuelers, life support, etc.

What is the most drastic change you’ve seen over the years between when you first started your aviation career and today?

That’s an easy one: the overall technology changes that have taken place. When I first started in the B-52, we primarily relied on celestial and radar to get from point A to point B. And while we had external navigation aids like Tacan, VOR, Loran, etc., we weren’t allowed to use any of those on check rides because they wouldn’t be available in a time of war. The only difference between that era and the ancient mariners on the sea was that we had radar!

Then came along Inertia Navigation Systems (INS) followed by all of the satellite based navaids, so the career of the navigator was quickly brought to the point of extinction. There are still navigators around in a lot of military airplanes, but that probably won’t be true for much longer.

I came along at a perfect time. I was able start out “old school” with not much technology, but I also experienced all of the modern technology that would eventually kill my career field. And my timing allowed for a long career… folks who worked much earlier than myself never saw the marvels of GPS, and those that came along 20-30 years later would never get the benefits of having a complete career in the field of navigation.

So there you have it, folks. My dad was spot on when he told me his answers would likely result in more questions on my part, but I loved learning more about his career, especially his time in the Air Force.

I remember spending a lot of time on the Air Force Base here in Minneapolis when I was a little kid, and I remember back then it wasn’t always my favorite place to be. Thinking back on it now, I wish I hadn’t taken those visits for granted, but hindsight is 20/20, right?

I can’t afford to dwell on the past, though. Here I am, nearly 30 years old, and with my love of planes I’ve come to realize just how lucky I am to have someone in my life who can tell me such incredible, special stories about flying.