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.

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.

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.

“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.