To blue skies and tailwinds

It’s been nearly a month since I’ve posted, and this post will be slightly more personal than past entries.

About two months ago I started a new job with the State of Minnesota AND was brought on as a writer for Airways Magazine – two milestones that were pretty big in and of themselves. However, this week alone has brought about (and will continue to bring about) a number of changes… all important and all very different.

On Sunday, we will officially move into our new loft in downtown St. Paul, something I’ve been looking forward to for months. On Friday, I will turn 30 … boy does that sound old! But … nothing compares to having lost my dear, sweet stepmom Carolyn, who passed away Sunday after a long, courageous battle with cancer. We will honor her and her amazing life and legacy this afternoon at a service here in Nashville, Tenn.

To say that Carolyn touched a lot of lives is an understatement. If you had the pleasure of meeting her, I take comfort in knowing you’ll never forget her, because trust me – you couldn’t.

She was one of the most selfless people I’ve ever known, and if I had to think of one word to describe her personality it would be “sparkly” – her presence could be felt the minute she entered a room… it was almost as though she carried sunshine and happiness in her purse with her everywhere she went. She always seemed to radiate a rainbow of colors.

Carolyn and I certainly disagreed on some things… but that’s just what happens when you grow up in different regions and different eras. But I can honestly say that in the nearly 15 years she was a part of my life, I can’t ever remember us being upset with one another. She made me smile … and she will continue to make me smile for years to come.

Carolyn was aptly nicknamed “GoGo” because she and my dad were always traveling. If they weren’t abroad in Japan or Israel or somewhere in Europe, they were going back and forth, and back and forth, and back and forth between their two homes: Nashville and and Indialantic, Fla.

And, she even took her selflessness to a whole new level in opening up her own family practice clinic here in Nashville: Hope Health. She found great pride and joy in her job as a nurse practitioner … showing that even at “work” all she wanted to do was help others.

Those who know me will not be at all surprised by this, but just the other day while sitting on the couch here at my dad and Carolyn’s house in Nashville, I saw a package all sealed up that said “aviator bottle opener” – so I (obviously) tore into it without question, just out of curiosity. 

I asked my dad, “Did you buy this?” and he replied, “No, Carolyn bought that for you … for your birthday.” I’m actually tearing up a bit writing this, but that little bottle opener will hold a special place in my heart forever… she knew me so well.

For those who didn’t get to meet her, I’m so sorry. She was a truly remarkable human being who will be sorely missed, but whose spirit will live on for a long, long time.

I love and miss you Carolyn.

Striving to keep an open mind, a full heart and thick skin

I’ve been quite happy lately. “Why?” you ask? Because I’ve actually been chasing and fulfilling a dream, and have found along the way how good it really feels to accomplish something, especially when you’re very passionate about that something.

“The Great Planes” on Instagram has well over 600 followers – something I never thought I’d see just five months into it. Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP), my home away from home, has shared TWO of my photos on their Instagram account – and just yesterday, Sun Country Airlines posted one of my photos on theirs. These may seem like very minute successes, but they’re actually huge for me.

It wasn’t terribly long ago that I was relaying this dream of becoming an aviation journalist to my husband Scott… thinking nothing would ever come of it. I can even remember SO vividly a time that we were walking through Loring Park and talking about this very subject. Scott said to me, “Why don’t you just write something up and submit it to newspapers or something?” It got me sort of excited, but I didn’t really think I could do something like that. I didn’t think I had the will and the drive to TRY to do something like that.

But lo and behold, just months later, here I am with my second piece published on the Airways Magazine website, thanks once again to the immense kindness of THE Aviation Queen: Benét Wilson.

If you remember, my first piece was about how smaller manufacturers, specifically Embraer and Bombardier, are stepping up to the plate to compete with the big guys: Boeing and Airbus. It was fun to see my family and friends react to my work being published. And it was equally as fun to see the comments and likes on Facebook, and the retweets and favorites on Twitter.

My second piece, though, was a bit different. This one was more of an Op-Ed on a topic that I knew had the potential to cause a bit of controversy. Even though it happened well over a month ago, I didn’t think people had quite gotten over the “dragged doctor” incident on United Flight 3411…

I was right.

It seemed that the popular opinion following the incident was that United Airlines is truly, utterly awful. BELIEVE me, I do think United really messed up. I think what happened was awful and that the airline is ultimately at fault. I also think there are two sides to every story. I really just wanted to try to get people to look at what happened in a different light. Trust me, I HATE what happened to Dr. David Dao, as most people do. At the same time, however, I do NOT think it is fair that the lasting impression following flight 3411 has been United = Bad, Doctor = Good. Because it’s just not that cut and dry.

For my story “Is Ignorance Bliss? United Flight 3411 is Part of a Larger Story that Isn’t Being Told” I had the pleasure of interviewing Anthony Roman, president of Roman and Associates, a risk management and investigation firm. Roman, a former commercial pilot himself, noted that even though United was ultimately the catalyst behind this unfortunate incident, Dr. Dao was still at fault to some extent, namely for not obeying the commands of law enforcement personnel. I also spoke with Jamie Horwitz of the Association Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) who provided some background information on the recent congressional hearing on flight 3411 that he attended. Jamie also directed me to the recent Op-Ed written by Bob Ross, president of the APFA, that shed light on bigger issues in the airline industry, including constant pressure from Wall Street to please investors.

I knew some angry people would voice their disagreement after reading my piece, and they didn’t disappoint. Some people respectfully disagreed (thank you), and others said things that were slightly hurtful, including:

“Airways Magazine is known for its interesting and very professional writing about aviation. But this article is totally nonsense. Please, put it offline and save at least your reputation.”

“What a load of absolute bullshit! Sometimes I simply cannot believe the crap you Americans come up with!”

“How much is the writer getting from this?”

“This definitely comes off as a shill piece.”

But, you know what, there were some people who either agreed with the article, or respected and supported the thoughts presented in it. My favorite was:

“Finally someone calls out the fact that the passenger failed to comply with law enforcement. Thank you!”

Those who know me well, know how incredibly sensitive I am. I cry fairly easily, and simply put, I hate to be hated. But… upon reading these comments, both the good and the bad, I realized how much I’ve toughened up. Not only did I not even flinch at the bad comments, I actually giggled and was weirdly thrilled by it. To think that something I wrote and ideas I shared could affect people in a way that compels them to say something, that right there is enough motivation for me to keep doing what I’m doing, and keep doing it with a smile on my face.

I’d like to think I am a good person. In the past, however, I may have been what some people would consider a “pushover” … well, not anymore. Thick-skinned Annie is here to stay. I’ll defend myself, hold true to my words and stand up for what I believe is right. And, as this post’s title alluded to, I’ll keep an open mind and a full heart while I am at it. At least I’ll try my best to. 😉

The phrase “Never meet your hero” is a lie… a big, big lie

AirwaysI read about airplanes and I’m happy. I write about airplanes and I’m happy. But when someone else reads what I write about airplanes… that’s the ultimate – an indescribable feeling of satisfaction and success.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: aviation is in my blood. With parents who met as flight attendants on Eastern Airlines and a dad who spent more than 30 years in the U.S. Air Force, I was bound to love planes… right?

Well, sort of.

I was fortunate to travel quite often as a child, and boy did I love it. But it honestly wasn’t until I was 28 years old that I actually caught the “aviation bug.”

I had been out walking near Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on a crisp fall day, not really realizing how close I was to runway 17/35. I heard a bit of a rumble… and the sound was very obviously getting closer, and closer. Before I knew it, a plane departing on runway 17 was lifting off the ground directly above me – it seemed so huge and it felt so close… like I could reach up and touch it.

I was hooked.

I found myself out at the airport constantly just to watch the planes come and go. My heart pitter-pattered with each departure. And landings? Don’t even get me started. I’d watch ever-so carefully until those back wheels hit the runway and the puffs of smoke dissipated in the plane’s trail… I’d feel this strange sense of satisfaction.

Nothing in my life had made me feel more like a child than the miracle of flight. It instilled in me a sheer sense of wonder – I constantly found myself in awe that something so huge could fly so high. I wanted to learn more.

I began to study the makes and models… big and small. I listened to air traffic control feeds and began to understand their lingo. I started to pick up on the approach and departure paths for the various runways. Heck, I learned the phonetic alphabet: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot … well, you get the picture.

I wanted more though… and I felt stuck.

It was last December when I decided to go out on a limb and reach out to someone who seemed to be doing exactly what I hoped to be doing myself someday. Benét Wilson is a well-respected aviation journalist with a wealth of knowledge on the industry. She is affectionately known as the “Aviation Queen” and runs an aviation/travel consulting firm by the same name.

I felt like it was a longshot, but it couldn’t hurt… I sent her an email. I told her how much I loved aviation and I told her about my educational and professional background. I said I didn’t know where to start but that I too wanted to write about planes… simply put, I needed help.

And to my surprise, within a couple weeks she had written back to me and wanted to speak to me on the phone. She wanted to help me. Benét Wilson, THE Aviation Queen, wanted to help ME. I kind of pinched myself and wondered what good deed I had done to deserve this.

Before I knew it, she was reading my work and offering edits and suggestions. I even got to contribute to her blog. I was ON “Team Aviation Queen” – seriously… I was starting to think that the big guy upstairs had me confused with someone else because I KNEW I hadn’t done anything to deserve this kind of help and support.

And after a month or two of working with Benét, she suggested submitting a story of mine to Airways Magazine on my behalf. I pitched an idea – how smaller aircraft manufacturers are “competing” with the big guys: Boeing and Airbus. She liked it, so I wrote it.

I was a little skeptical… I mean – how could Airways possibly consider running one of MY stories? The only published work on the topic of aviation that I even HAD was my own blog and the few stories that were up on the Aviation Queen blog.

Benét submitted my story to their editor on a Tuesday morning, and the next day she called me to tell me that they loved it and would be publishing it.

I died. I went to heaven. I came back to earth and then died and went to heaven all over again.

That Thursday afternoon my story was published – one of the top stories on the front page of the Airways Magazine website. It felt amazing to know that people who are really engrained in this industry were reading my work. I can’t explain how happy I was to know that I actually had a shot in this industry.

I won’t lie – chasing your dream really is a lot of work. I have a full time job (a great one) that has NOTHING to do with aviation, which means I spend a lot of my free time reading about the aviation industry to grow my knowledge base and work toward becoming a true “industry expert.”

But I love it. I wouldn’t trade this for ANYTHING. I really feel like this hard work and dedication will pay off in the end and that I will find a career in aviation journalism someday.

They often say “never meet your hero” – but my story is a perfect example of why that advice doesn’t always hold true. Now Benét isn’t just a hero to me because of what she does for a living, but because of the kindness and selflessness she showed (and continues to show) by taking a chance on me.

I could never thank her enough.

Speedbird, Dynasty, Redwood… Oh my!

“Speedbird” flight 178 progresses on its way from JFK to LHR

I have a lot to learn.

I listen to the Minneapolis Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower feed quite often, and have been doing so for the last couple years. I love spotting out at MSP, but you don’t see a whole lot of heavies out there. And despite how much I wish… how much I pray… how hard I cross my little fingers… it never ends up being a 747 flying in over the river, and it’s never an A380 being pushed back from its gate.

So what’s a girl to do?

OF COURSE! Listen to the ATC tower feed out of JFK, close my eyes, and try with all my might to pretend I’m out there watching it live. I’ve been doing this for about a week now on my 45-minute bus rides to and from work. It’s amazing. There is never a dull moment and I’m actually surprised at how well I can picture all the action in my head.

However, I’ve realized as I’ve listened to the feed that I have a lot of learning to do. Nearly every other flight that has been cleared for departure or landing has left me dumbfounded because I have NO clue what airline it is. I knew I’d hear a lot of unfamiliar names… but some were more than unfamiliar, they were simply NOT airlines. What gives?

My “Aha!” moment came this morning… this is what I heard amidst the radio fuzz: “Ee-er 178.”

Excuse me?

I pondered and pondered. Then I picked up on the pilot’s British accent. Still… I was clueless. I then tried to figure out what flight I was hearing simply by its number and knowing it was getting ready to depart JFK. And… BOOM! British Airways 178. I found it.

But I still didn’t understand what the heck I had heard. Believe me… it was NOT “British Airways 178.” And then… it clicked. I thought, “Oh my gosh… Oh my gosh… OH. MY. GOSH.”

SPEEDBIRD!

I remembered that my dad had once told me the British Airways call sign was Speedbird. I was equally as excited as I was proud of myself for solving the mystery. And having figured that out, I wondered if there were any other flights that I was unable to decipher due to not understanding what airline the pilot (or even the controller) had said.

Well, there was one that I knew was getting ready to land, but all I heard through the static was something like, “Ine-see 5322 heavy.” Of course I was intrigued knowing it was a heavy, so I paid closer attention… but I still couldn’t figure it out. Similar to what happened with good old Speedbird, however, something clicked. “Were they saying ‘dynasty’?” I asked myself. Sure enough… China Airlines flight 5322, a Boeing 747-400, had just landed at JFK. And… the call sign for China Airlines? You guessed it. Dynasty.

Bam.

Then I remembered that even earlier I had heard a “Redwood” flight… and after searching and searching, I had given up. But after my epiphany, I did some digging to find out that Redwood = Virgin America.

Sure, this was great. This was incredibly exciting. But… I said it before and I’ll say it again: this all just helped me to realize that I have a lot to learn. I’ve found some interesting forums on the topic of airline call signs, and I even found this helpful list that lays out some of the more common ones: Top 10 Coolest Airline Callsigns.

I’ll never be as knowledgeable as the controllers. Heck, I’ll never even be able to speak as quickly and as effortlessly as they do. But… I think reading up on call signs and studying airport runway and approach maps will really help me to paint an even more vivid picture in my head each time I listen to that bustling hub’s feed.

Sun Country just won my heart

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I’ll admit, I’ve NEVER flown on Sun Country Airlines. I mainly attribute it to the fact that I prefer visiting urban meccas like New York City or London over tropical escapes like Mazatlan or Puerto Vallarta — the warm, sunny destinations they’re most known for flying into and out of. But that’s about to change. I booked my first Sun Country flight for this October  — MSP to DFW for a good friend’s wedding. And with Sun Country recently announcing their Hometown Lakes Project, I have a feeling I may start making a bit more of an effort to fly with them.

Does the name Mark Herman ring a bell to you? If not, I’m willing to bet you’d recognize the Minneapolis-based artist’s work the second you saw it. Minnesotans like myself are likely most familiar with his modern, yet vintage graphic art depicting landmarks and other notable places around the state. And Sun Country recently announced they’d be naming each plane in their fleet after one of our state’s 10,000-plus lakes, and displaying Herman’s depiction of that lake on the aircraft’s interior. How cool is that?

I think with Sun Country’s focus on “summer vacation” type destinations, it’s easy to forget that the airline is actually based here in the Twin Cities. But Sun Country hasn’t forgotten where they came from, and they don’t want you to forget that either. By staying true to their Minnesota roots (as we Minnesotans pride ourselves on doing), Sun Country really won me over.

The Hometown Lakes Project will kick off this spring. And in addition to Herman’s artwork inside the plane, the name of the featured lake will be painted on the exterior of the aircraft under either side of the cockpit, and outside the front boarding door.

Cheers to you Sun Country… for staying true to your Minnesota Roots and for showcasing your love of our beautiful state. I can’t wait to see which lake will be featured on my plane this fall!

All images courtesy of Sun Country Airlines. Learn more on their website, where you can also view all of Herman’s work to be featured in the project.

Through Security in the Blink of an Eye

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.

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New biometric screening option offers predictability and convenience, but is it right for you?

It may sound unreal… like something straight out of a sci-fi movie, but for $179 a year you can simply blink your eye or swipe your finger to verify who you are, all while significantly reducing the time it takes you to go through airport security.

Biometric screening is becoming more and more commonplace at airports across the country thanks to New York-based CLEAR. In February, Minneapolis-St. Paul International became the 21st U.S. airport to employ the technology, joining the likes of Hartsfield-Jackson, LaGuardia, JFK and Washington Dulles, among others.

CLEAR eliminates the need for a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent to manually check boarding passes and identification. Instead, CLEAR subscribers step up to a station where they blink their eye or swipe their finger to prove their identity. From there, it’s on to the standard TSA physical screening or TSA PreCheck for members of the government program.

CLEAR CEO Caryn Seidman-Becker says members love the service because it provides them with a consistently fast and predictable experience at the airport. “They know they’re going to get through security in five minutes or less every time,” she said.

Enrollment in CLEAR is processed onsite at participating airports. CLEAR will digitally authenticate your driver’s license or passport, confirm your identity, and create your account all in roughly five minutes. After signing up, your membership is effective immediately.

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You may be wondering… “Is it really worth it?” In short, it all depends on your travel habits and how much money you’re willing to spend.

If you’re a frequent traveler and often find yourself rushed at the airport, it’s probably worth it to give CLEAR a try. It’s quick and predictable, and you’ll no longer need to juggle your ID and your boarding pass in that stop-and-go line waiting for a TSA agent to check them.

“I signed up because I value my time,” Shane Rixom said. Rixom, a civil engineer living in Abingdon, Va., enrolled in CLEAR three years ago at Orlando International Airport. He travels roughly three weeks each month.

He says that while sometimes his membership hasn’t had much of an impact on his experience going through security, there have been a few times where CLEAR has made a huge difference.

In addition to CLEAR, Rixom is enrolled in TSA PreCheck. The two services complement each other nicely and together will almost certainly make the time between your arrival at the airport and your arrival at your gate a whole lot quicker and a lot less hectic.

A five-year TSA PreCheck membership costs $85, which breaks down to $17 annually. PreCheck speeds up the physical security screening process by allowing you to keep on shoes, belts, and light jackets. Another perk? You don’t need to rummage through your bags – laptops and liquids don’t need to be unpacked.

A CLEAR membership will set you back $179 a year, with the ability to add additional family members for $50 and add children for free. Delta SkyMiles members who want to enroll will receive a special rate, bringing an annual CLEAR membership down to $79 or $99 depending on your membership status; Diamond Medallion members can enroll in CLEAR for free.

When Rixom signed up, he was paying a discounted fee through a credit card deal outside of Delta, but has since earned Diamond Medallion status with the airline, so his CLEAR membership is now free.

But again, whether or not CLEAR makes sense for you depends on how often you travel and how much you’re willing to spend – it’s not for everyone.

Brett Snyder runs the popular Cranky Flier blog and flies once or twice a month on average, but doesn’t see enough value in CLEAR to justify signing up. “I would be interested if it truly meant a faster, quicker screening experience, but for now, this is just a pass to cut to the front of the line,” he said. “I have PreCheck and while there can sometimes be lines, it’s never all that bad.”

But as an incentive to at least try it out, CLEAR offers a one-month free trial. When that month is up, you can choose to cancel the membership, or continue it and pay the $179.

Currently, CLEAR has roughly one million members. And although they have plans to launch at a number of new airports this year, CLEAR isn’t limiting the technology to air travel alone, as they expect to announce expanding to different types of facilities in the near future. The biometric service can already be found at a handful of sports venues. Learn more at clearme.com.

Top Fun: A Hidden Gem for Aviation Enthusiasts of ALL Ages

I love airplanes.

I bet you didn’t see that coming.

Of course, I prefer the real deal to a model or a toy of any sort. But alas… I’m not fortunate enough to find myself actually in an airplane or out at the airport as often as I’d like. So, I’ve expectedly gathered an aviation trinket or two… or twenty.

A few of my favorites?

  • A plush Boeing 747 (who wouldn’t want to snuggle an airplane at bedtime?)
  • A shabby chic seaplane that hangs in our living room
  • A model FedEx Boeing 777
  • A vintage Eastern Airlines magazine ad

The list goes on, and on, and on.

But I recently heard about someone whose “collection” puts mine to shame – I mean really puts mine to shame.

The city of Fitchburg, Mass. boasts a hidden gem for aviation enthusiasts of all ages: Top Fun Aviation Toy Museum. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never even been to Massachusetts – but now I really have a reason to visit the Bay State.

The Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise highlighted the museum and its curators earlier this week. In a nutshell, nearly 20 years ago Deborah Scheetz earned her private pilot’s license. And at the time, her friends jokingly gifted her a number of toy airplanes to “‘make up” for not being able to give her a real plane.

Today, Scheetz and friend Rosalie Dunbar act as cocurators, volunteering their time to keep this all ages “wonder of flight” museum running. And get this – Top Fun boasts nearly three thousand aviation toys. That’s unreal!

The two friends say that it wasn’t necessarily the toy collection, but rather aviation history and a fascination with flight that inspired them to open the museum. They knew kids would be interested and curious, so they first opened Top Fun in 2000 in Winchendon. About six years later, the nonprofit museum relocated to its current spot in Fitchburg.

In addition to the overabundance of toys and the brightly painted murals, the museum’s annual “paper airplane contest” is a huge draw.

Well… I know where I’m headed when I finally make it out to Massachusetts!

Learn more about Top Fun on their website.