My 11 craziest AvGeek experiences
My adventures during the past three and a half months haven’t been as exciting as they typically are. There have been great road trips, home rentals and lots of new outdoor activities.
I'm grateful to be traveling again, even if it looks different that past years.
But I miss flying.
And I’ve used my newfound time at home to reflect on some of the amazing aviation activities I’ve been privileged enough to experience as a journalist in the past decade. And now, I've decided to share them with you.
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The very first 787 Dreamliner flight
Airlines love to mark "firsts." There are big celebrations for most inaugural flights. But nothing quite compares to the first commercial flight of an entirely brand new type of aircraft.
The launch of the Airbus A380 – the world's largest passenger jet – in October 2007 brought a new size to air travel. One that now seems to be coming to an end.
Four years later, the Dreamliner's launch lacked such superlatives but did usher in a new age of travel. It was one where the airlines could profit off specific point-to-point routes that avoided the major hubs. And since Boeing had nicknamed the new 787 the "Dreamliner," everybody was paying attention.
So on Oct. 26, 2011, I found myself buckling in to a window seat, 15A, aboard All Nippon Airways Flight 7871 from Tokyo's Narita International Airport (NRT) to Hong Kong (HKG).
Besides all the journalists, there were tons of aviation enthusiasts that had paid thousands of dollars for a seat on the plane. They carried memorabilia from past inaugural flights and were snapping photos of everything from the overhead bins to the bathroom, complete with a window and bidet.
Of course, TPG's staff loves to document everything they see on flights. Our most-recent look at a Dreamliner came in March when we got on United’s new 787-9.
Awesome airport access
Any AvGeek will tell you that they love looking a planes. But how about walking under the giant belly of an A380? Or standing on the roof of an airport terminal?
During my first ramp tour, my jaw dropped and I was just giddy with the excitement of wearing a high-visibility vest and getting to walk around spots most travelers will never see. By the 20th time – who am I kidding, I was still giddy.
Looking back through my photos, I got to see logos of brands that no longer exist, like US Airways.
And then there are memories, like the time I got to go up on the roof of the American Airlines gates at New York's LaGuarida, gates that are now being torn down as part of the airport's revitalization.
There were also cool trips to see how the Transportation Security Administration screens checked luggage. Trust me, it was not easy to get that sort of access.
And if you are curious, this is how the TSA opens up your locked suitcase.
Las Vegas timelapse project
In July of 2019, TPG's Zach Griff and I went to Las Vegas to bake in the extreme heat of the McCarran International Airport (LAS) and its ramp and runways. It was worth it.
We created an awesome timelapse video of what it is like to operate the airport.
McCarran airport is one of the world's busiest airports and is the gateway to the Las Vegas Strip and Southern Nevada. We spent 36 hours in the desert sun, chasing planes, climbing around outside ramp control towers and getting to see how baggage is sorted.
The secrets of Denver International Airport
Any good AvGeek knows that Denver International Airport isn't just the gateway to the Rockies but also a source of conspiracy theories.
My day started with an amazing airside tour. Denver has six runways and can do more simultaneous takeoffs and landings than any other U.S. airport.
Those with a long-term memory will remember the 1995 opening of the airport and its much-heralded – but not really functioning – automated baggage handling system.
Today, the airport's baggage operating system works like many other major hubs, with tugs carrying carts full of bags around. But in one of the subbasements (one of the many airport conspiracy theories talks about secret bunkers down here) you can still see remnants of the automated system.
It also snows a lot in Colorado.
To help clear those six massive runways, the airport authority has a giant fleet on snow plows and other heavy machines.
It was fun to drive through the airside garage in the middle of summer and see all that equipment waiting.
Aircraft boneyard in Roswell, New Mexico
At the end of 2013, American Airlines let me hop aboard a Boeing 757-200, on its way to Roswell.
After 26,057 takeoffs and landings, the 24-year-old plane was on its final flight, about to be ripped apart for scrap metal.
The best part: since there were no passengers on the jet, I was allowed to sit in the cockpit jumpseat for landing. It was amazing!
Once on the ground, there were hundreds of empty jets sitting in the high desert waiting to – maybe – return to service but most likely waiting to be scrapped.
The next day, the folks operating the yard were nice enough to give us a tour.
(Some TPG staff got to go to Roswell last year to witness the final American MD-80s being retired.)
Let's just say that it is a really cool airport.
One of the planes – a vintage Lockheed Jetstar 1329 once belonging to Elvis - even lives here, waiting for some collector to buy the red jet. The plane has been put up for auction, several times.
Inside, there was a fabulous – for its time – couch and TV set. Oh, how in-flight entertainment has changed.
Flight attendant training
To really understand an industry, you have to know what everybody does to get their jobs.
I have tons of respect for those working in the airline world. There is an industry-wide understanding about safety and how important it is to keep the world flying.
Flight attendants are often misunderstood by passengers. Yes, part of their job is to ensure great service – whether a three-course meal in international first class or helping to keep us hydrated in coach on an hour-long domestic hop.
But safety is ultimately why they are in the cabin with us.
And each flight attendant must go through an in-depth training course and then recertification.
There are lessons on opening and closing doors and how to evacuate a plane during a land or water landing.
And then there is the pool.
I was lucky enough to participate in a MegaDo – a really big frequent flier meet-up – in 2012. (Along for the ride, even though none of us worked together at the time, was TPG founder Brian Kelly and our family travel guru Summer Hull.)
As part of that trip, we practiced getting into the life rafts that would be our shelter until help came to rescue us. After that, I always listen a little closer to the pre-flight safety instructions.
Planespotting in Cuba
Starting up flights in foreign countries is never easy. But there were giant hurdles when U.S. airlines got permission to start regularly-scheduled flights to Cuba in 2016. Many had operated charters for years, but starting normal operations meant figuring out how to scan baggage bar codes into the normal system, charge credit cards for bag fees and a host of other challenges.
One of the airlines invited me along in June of 2016 as it met with Cuban officials at the airport and in downtown Havana to work through the issues.
The best part? We spent nearly two days at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, including plenty of time touring the terminals and driving on the tarmac.
Board games with Spirit Airlines CEO
Ok, so this isn't exactly related to airplanes. But it was a crazy experience.
The CEO of Spirit at the time – back in 2014 – was Ben Baldanza. He was on a jet-buying spree, taking the ultra low-cost airline into many more markets, fighting hard against legacy carriers for vacationers.
I had learned in past discussions with him that he was really into board games. Not just any board games, but strategy games that might give me and my readers insight into how he operated the airline. So we made plans to meet at his house one night and play a board game.
At one point in his life he owned nearly 4,000 games. By the time I visited in 2014, he cut the collection down to 1,500, enough to fill one of the four bedrooms in his house.
Cool items at airline headquarters
Visiting an airline's headquarters is usually a stuffy affair, filled with lots of meetings and then a rush to catch a flight home.
But even once in a while something really cool is spotted during these trips.
Visiting Southwest's headquarters overlooking Dallas Love Field is great for the amazing runway views.
But one of its hallways is filled with old uniforms, giving visitors a time-machine ride through the history of America and travel. And yes, hot pants were once an official uniform for flight attendants.
One of my favorite things to see when visiting offices are the model plane collections on the desks of everybody from entry-level employees to the CEOs. Every once in a while, there is a real gem.
Aircraft manufacturers will sometimes create models of new jets in an airline's paint job, or livery, and then give them to key executives, hoping to win them over to buy the plane.
No U.S. airline ever purchased the Airbus A380, but the model below is still one of my favorites.
There are also some other spots in airline headquarters that you hope will never be activated.
One is crisis command center – basically a fancy boardroom where all the key divisions of the airline can come together to deal with the emergency and let the operations center focus on running the rest of the airline.
Deep down, we all want to fly big jets.
But I chose to become a writer and am almost always on the wrong side of the cockpit door.
So the next best thing is getting some time to fly the flight simulators that major airlines use to train their pilots.
These massive machines that rest of hydraulic legs, move along with you. So if you go into a virtual steep climb, the entire machine pulls up and you actually get the sense of quickly climbing.
Boeing factory floor
Boeing does offer public tours of its massive factory in Everett, Washington.
I've done that twice in my life and also visited the Boeing welcome center and rooftop deck overlooking Paine Field.
But how about getting to actually walk on the factory floor?
TPG's Senior Aviation Editor Ben Mutzabaugh and I got a special tour last July. While I can't share photos of all that we saw, below is one of the few 747s being manufactured in a world that has moved to twin-engine jets.
I've been very lucky to get to travel tons and see some amazing parts of the aviation world.
As I continue to pause my travel, it's nice to look back at these experiences and look forward to new ones when we all start hitting the road again.