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.

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.

MSP: The Great Airport

MSP

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.

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.

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.