How I took to the skies on Sept. 11 in an antique airplane

One of the ways I’ve come to mark the anniversary of Sept. 11 is to do what I could not in the days after that horrific Tuesday: fly. In 2011, 2014, 2017, and 2019, conferences provided reasons to get on planes, while last year, I booked a miniature mileage run starting at National Airport and ending at Dulles. This year, there was no way I would mark 20 years since that brutal day by staying on the ground.

How, then? I started looking up United fares from DCA to EWR and back, but I also recalled a friend’s post this summer from an airshow in Pennsylvania that offered rides in World War II-vintage airplanes. Searching online for more such opportunities revealed one airshow taking place in Hagerstown, Md., on Sept. 11… at which I could spend $450 for a roughly 30-minute hop in a B-25 Mitchell bomber named “Panchito,” maintained by the Delaware Aviation Museum Foundation and restored after a similar model that flew combat missions from Okinawa in the summer of 1945.

How could I not? Well, first I asked an avgeek friend if he could look up the maintenance history of this 1945-vintage B-25J (after checking the records, he commented, “this aircraft looks pretty clean to me”), and then I called the foundation to inquire about their policies if weather or mechanical issues forced a cancellation (they would either refund the money or rebook me on a future flight). And then I put down my reservation for a seat at one of the waist gun positions and hoped for good flying weather.

Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 obliged, arriving as clear and sunny as a certain Tuesday two decades ago.

I met no traffic on the way to Hagerstown and got to the airport in time to take the first of some 200 pictures (a slideshow of my Flickr album featuring 50 or so of them awaits below) before the preflight briefing. To sum up its instructions: Keep your seat belt and shoulder harness fastened until a crew member signals you can get up, then fasten them again when instructed; don’t play with the plane’s mounted, inert guns; don’t stick anything out the porthole on the right side of the plane; if you have to exit quickly after a landing, use the yellow handles before touching the red ones; if no emergency exits open, take the crash axe to a window.

Boarding required climbing nearly-vertical stairs dropped out of the belly of this B-25 and not bonking my head on any metal surfaces. Then I–enough of an avgeek to own a messenger bag that includes a recycled airplane seatbelt buckle–needed coaching on how to strap myself into 1940s-era lap and shoulder harnesses.

Panchito came to visceral life as her two 14-cylinder piston engines spun up, shaking the cabin around me as the scent of gasoline wafted in. They rumbled as we taxied to the end of the runway and held several minutes for a takeoff slot, then roared to pull us down the runway and pitch us into the air after a surprisingly short takeoff roll.

(Seeing this plane jump like that reminded me of the Doolittle Raid, in which American pilots flew 16 B-25s, loaded much more heavily than ours, off the aircraft carrier USS Hornet and bombed Japanese cities less than six months after Pearl Harbor.)

No other airplane I’ve boarded has felt as alive as this 76-year-old airframe. Beyond the deafening racket of her Wright R-2600 Twin Cyclones–ear protection was mandatory and hearing anybody else on board was hopeless outside of the intercom–I could literally see Panchito’s nervous system at work, in the form of the cables linking cockpit controls to flight surfaces that slid back and forth and bounced against pulleys.

Once we were free to move about the cabin, I realized how little that meant in the cramped confines of a WWII medium bomber. I could wriggle my way to the tail-gun position by crawling down a tunnel, but only after the occupant of that spot had returned to a position by the waist guns.

The sights awaiting from that perch–a perspective I’ve never had on any aircraft before–were worth the exertion. That miniature glass greenhouse provided almost a 360-degree view of the B-25’s twin tails and the rest of the plane as well as such surrounding scenery as local skiing favorite Whitetail, the Potomac River, and a green-and-brown quilt of farm fields.

Worming my way back to the waist-gun spot allowed me to soak in the feeling of a cold 175-mph wind blasting through the porthole. I kept thinking: This plane is a beast.

I could peek somewhat enviously at the cockpit through a passageway running over the bomb bay, but that cramped tunnel was not open for people to go through in flight. The bomb bay appeared completely inaccessible, in case any Dr. Strangelove fans are wondering about that.

Soon enough, a crew member flashed the buckle-up sign, two thumbs pointed towards each other, and it was time to strap in. The pilots extended flaps, deployed the landing gear, and landed smoothly after 22 minutes in the air. Back at the ramp, a crowd of spectators awaited us–another thing you don’t get in a 737 or an A320. I lingered around Panchito, poking my head around the cockpit and the bombardier’s station; that, too, is no part of the standard airline experience.

Unlike most commercial aviation, this flight earned me zero frequent-flyer miles and did zero to help me retain any elite status. My concern over those things: also zero.

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Farewell to a well-traveled passport

The passport I’ve carried for almost 10 years is officially retired now that I’ve put it in the mail with my renewal form, a check, and a photo of me showing a lot more gray hair than the January 2011 shot in my about-to-expire travel document.

The stamps in that worn passport tell an incomplete story of travel on an unprecedented scale for me–something I had no idea would become part of my life when I had no idea that my travel-light job at the Washington Post was in its closing months. Flipping through that passport over the last 11, mostly-grounded months has been one of my ways to remember what Conference Life was like in the Before Times and to think about what it can be like once again as novel-coronavirus vaccination marches on.

Photo of old passport held open to show stamps, with a United Airlines route map in the background

Those stamps show my most frequent arrival and departure airports were Frankfurt and Shanghai (six each), followed by Brussels (five) and Berlin, Munich, and Lisbon (four each), with others from Barcelona, Dublin, Fukuoka, London, Narita, Paris, San Jose del Cabo, Shenzhen, and Zurich.

But those stamps (and the array of security-sticker travel barnacles on the back) only reveal part of my travel timeline because Hong Kong and Israel stamp separate pieces of paper, while Canada no longer stamps U.S. passports at entry ports with electronic kiosks. There are also no stamps from anywhere in Europe since early 2017, when I began using my Irish passport for EU travel; that’s gotten processed electronically every time instead of collecting a little ink.

This collection of travel souvenirs still doesn’t touch what I can see in one of my dad’s passports from the 1960s and 1970s (or those of some of my avgeek friends), but it still represents an enormous leap for me. One of several hundred thousand miles.

Now I get to wait for my new passport to arrive in the mail with strangely-pristine pages–along with the expired passport that I may not be able to consign permanently to a drawer. The Chinese visa in it runs through 2026, so if any future travel will have me going to the People’s Republic, that document will once again come along for the ride.

An unlikely return to the skies

Weeks spent wondering when I might next get on a plane turned into months–and then that wait ended a little after 7 a.m. Friday, when I boarded a flight from National Airport to Newark.

I had no personal or business appointment near EWR. I just had my habit developed over the last nine years of flying on Sept. 11–plus a stash of future flight credit on United with no imminent use, a growing despondency over my grounded status, an empty schedule Friday, and enough research to establish that I could take a day trip then on largely-empty planes for a reasonable fare.

Commercial aviation’s pandemic-wracked status made this short-notice jaunt possible, in that I didn’t book Friday’s itinerary until Wednesday. The price of procrastination was a little complexity: The cheapest itinerary that would let me leave my city and altitude and arrive home in time for dinner without brittle connections had me flying from National to Newark to Columbus back to Newark and then home to Dulles.

That’s a bit ridiculous, but as a card-carrying avgeek I could not turn it down.

The flights themselves were fine and seemed safe. I spent more time near more random people making my grocery-store visits this week than I did up in the air, and airplanes have much better air ventilation and filtration. It helped that my frequent-flyer status on United allowed my upgrades to clear on all four legs–but note that a seat up front doesn’t get you much more in these pandemic days than extra personal space. I kept my mask on except to have a beverage or a snack on each flight, and everybody near me did the same.

But the real reward consisted of the chances to appreciate the memorial United employees once again set up at EWR to commemorate the crews of UA 93 and UA 175, soak in the post-departure perspective of a Manhattan skyline that doesn’t match the one I knew up to Sept. 11, 2001, and treasure returning safely to one of my two home airports.

Planespotting with purpose: Arlington flyovers

If you live or work within a few miles west of Arlington National Cemetery, you can expect to hear a sound that suggests you’ll on the receiving end of an airstrike: a crescendo of jet-engine noise that rapidly escalates past the volume of a departure from National Airport until a formation of military jets booms overhead.

Flyovers in support of military funerals are a regular ritual at Arlington, but the schedule at the cemetery’s site doesn’t indicate which one will feature an aerial accompaniment. Instead, follow the @ArlingtonNatl Twitter account, which usually tweets out an advisory or two about flyovers in advance under the hashtag #flyover.

You can’t count on a flyover happening exactly on schedule–I’ve seen them happen more than half an hour after the forecast time–but at least you’ll know roughly when to expect the noise.

And, if you’re any sort of avgeek, that will also be your cue to step outside with a camera or binoculars. (Read after the jump for a quick aircraft-recognition tutorial.) The sight of four planes in a missing-man formation is always impressive–and a good opportunity to contemplate the service of the man or woman being laid to rest at Arlington.

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2017 in review: This has not been easy

This year has been lousy in a variety of ways.

On a national level, the Trump administration luxuriated in lies, cruelty, bigotry, and incompetence. We learned that even more men in power had spent decades inflicting or tolerating vile sexual harassment. And widely-distributed firearms ownership left us with another year of American carnage that featured a few mass shootings so horrifying that Congress did nothing.

On a personal level, the worst part of 2017 was the day in March when I learned of just one of those tens of thousands of gun deaths: the suicide of my old Post friend Mike Musgrove. I think about that almost every day and still don’t have good answers.

But I have had meaningful, paying work, and for that I’m grateful.

Most of that has taken place at Yahoo Finance, where I easily wrote 8,000 words on net neutrality alone.

I continue to appreciate having a widely-read place at which I can call out government and industry nonsense, and I wish I’d taken more advantage of that opportunity–the second half of the year saw me let too many weeks go by without any posts there. But 2017 also saw some overdue client diversification beyond my usual top three of Yahoo, USA Today and Wirecutter.

I’ve done more wonky writing for trade publications, which tend to offer better rates (even if they sometimes pay slower) and often wind up compensating me for the kind of research I’d need to do anyway to write knowledgeably for a consumer-focused site. This year has also brought about the reappearance of my byline in the Washington Post and the resulting, thoroughly enjoyable confusion of readers who hadn’t seen me there since 2011.

Once again, I did more than my share to prop up the travel industry. Conferences, speaking opportunities and story research took me to Las Vegas, Barcelona, Austin, New York (only once, which should have led Amtrak to e-mail to ask if I’m okay), Lisbon (twice), the Bay Area (three times), Shanghai, Paris, Berlin, Cleveland (being driven most of the way there by a semi-autonomous Cadillac was one of those “I can’t believe I’m being paid to do this” moments) and Boston.

(See after the jump for a map of all these flights.)

Tearing myself away from my family each time has not gotten any easier, but at least all of last year’s travel put me in a position to make myself more comfortable on more of these flights. As an avgeek, the upgrade I most appreciated is the one that cleared 36 hours before my trip to Shanghai in June to put me in the last seat available on the upper deck of a United 747–barely five months before the the Queen of the Skies exited United’s fleet.

Almost all of these international trips involved concerned queries from citizens of our countries about the leadership of my own. I understand where they came from but wish they weren’t necessary. Someday, that will happen–but not in 2018.

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An avgeek treat: experiencing a takeoff from the cockpit jumpseat

I’ve flown out of Newark International Airport dozens of times, but Tuesday’s departure wasn’t like any of the others. Instead of flying United (or, years ago, Continental), I was on Gogo’s 737-500 testbed with other journalists to try out the company’s latest inflight WiFi system.

And instead of occupying one of the 58 generously-spaced seats on that 1982-vintage airframe, I took the jumpseat up front, just behind the pilot and co-pilot.

That was all Zach Honig’s fault. When I was on another Gogo WiFi flight last March, the editor of The Points Guy travel blog thought to ask if he could take the jumpseat for landing–allowable because FAA air-carrier rules didn’t apply to this private flight. That sent me into an immediate fit of jealousy.

So Tuesday afternoon, I had to ask–politely, while acknowledging the pilot’s discretion. He considered it for a moment and then said okay, and I promised to keep my mouth shut and not touch anything. A flight attendant unfolded the jumpseat, and of course I needed help buckling myself into the five-point harness.

My eyes got a little wider as the pilot explained that if we had to get out of the plane in a hurry, we’d bail out the side window, using the rope stashed above it. Then he and the co-pilot busied themselves with their checklists as I gawked at the switches, knobs and gauges covering most of the available surfaces.

I’ve had the privilege of flying up front a couple of times before–a biplane ride out of College Park’s tiny airport in 1996, and a floatplane tour of Seattle out of Lake Union in 2010. This involved a lot more metal.

EWR being EWR, we had to wait an extra 10 minutes or so to get our clearance. We taxied to the runway–it felt like we took each turn too late, on account of my sitting forward of the nose landing gear–and lined up. The pilot pushed the thrust levers forward, the engines roared, and after a very short takeoff roll our lightly loaded Boeing cranked into the sky.

I had to resist the impulse to yell “holy shit! holy shit!” as we banked left and then right, the altimeter spiraled upward, the trim wheels on each side of the throttles spun, and Manhattan’s skyline unfolded across all three of the windows on the right side. Flying is a more visceral experience when you can watch the pilot turn the yoke, then see the plane respond a moment later–and when sitting at the front of the jet lets you feel it shake more than you would seated by the wing.

Then we popped through a layer of clouds to see them spread out before us, an impossible sight from any seat in the back. Looking at that office view, it became much clearer why people do this for a living.

I will admit that the seat itself–with no recline and vanishingly little legroom–was among the least comfortable I’ve sat in on any airplane. That did not matter Tuesday afternoon.

For more pictures (plus a shaky, poorly exposed video of the takeoff), see this Flickr album.

Weekly output: Gogo 2Ku, online harassment, Twitter filtering, SXSW

I still haven’t caught up on the sleep deficit and food surplus accumulated at SXSW.

Yahoo Tech Gogo 2Ku post3/15/2016: Taking off soon: Gogo promises in-flight Wi-Fi that you won’t hate, Yahoo Tech

This was the most avgeek-ish post I’ve written since my recap of texting and calling from Gogo’s private jet at SXSW two years ago. For more details about this test of Gogo’s new “2Ku” satellite-based WiFi on that company’s Boeing 737-500, I’ll point you to the writers who sat one row behind me, Gary Leff and Zach Honig.

3/16/2016: At SXSW, talking about online harassment — but is anyone listening?, Yahoo Tech

I found SXSW’s Online Harassment Summit to be a little less depressing, slightly more hopeful and a lot less crowded than I expected.

3/18/2016: Hate it when social networks tinker with your timeline? You’d hate it more if they didn’t, Yahoo Tech

As I type this, the post on my Facebook page linking to this story has been seen by all of 29 people, or barely over 1 percent of the people following my page. So, yeah, I am fully aware that algorithmic filtering of social-media timelines has consequences. Or maybe I just wrote a boring post?

3/20/2016: SXSW 2016: A look back at the highlights, USA Today

After a lot of mental back and forth about how I could so some sort of SXSW recap that wouldn’t duplicate all of USAT’s earlier coverage out of Austin, I realized that I could contrast each highlight of the festival with whatever event I had to skip to attend that panel, Q&A or demo.

Yet another airline prepares to pull into the hangar in the sky

With yesterday’s announcement of a planned merger between US Airways and American Airlines, one more airline I’ve flown will vanish from the skies. Well, not its planes or people, but its name, livery and two-character code, and hopefully its call sign too: It would be tasteless to ditch AA’s “AMERICAN” for US’s America West-derived “CACTUS.”

Pan Am boarding passThe list of defunct U.S. and foreign airlines–excluding regional carriers and those from childhood that I don’t remember–that have transported me from one place to another is longer than I’d thought. I’m not sure if that demonstrates the crummy economics of the airline business or merely my own advancing age.

  • Aloha: My wife and I flew them to and from Maui for a friend’s wedding several years ago. Maui is an excellent place to go to a friend’s wedding.
  • America West: My chosen conveyance to and from CES for a year or two. I don’t miss their hideous livery at all.
  • ATA: We took this discount carrier to Chicago and San Francisco a couple of times.
  • Braniff International: I was on them a few years with my parents in the ’70s or ’80s. Their colorful paint jobs are still missed.
  • China Southwest: Flew me from Chengdu to Lhasa, Tibet and back on a memorable, two-and-a-half-week-long vacation in 1998.
  • Continental: The first airline I reached elite frequent-flyer status on; some of those miles went towards upgrading our honeymoon flights (they took great care of us), and some are still in my United account.
  • Eastern: Flew them up and down the East Coast a few times growing up.
  • National: This short-lived airline got me from San Francisco to Las Vegas–horribly late–for one Macworld-plus-CES trip.
  • Northwest: They got me to Tokyo and Hong Kong on that 1998 trip but couldn’t get me home, courtesy of a strike that resulted in my getting rebooked on United a day later. Did I complain about having to spend an extra day in Hong Kong? No.
  • Pan Am: The one I miss most of all, as do all self-respecting aviation dorks.
  • PeoplExpress: Not “People’s Express,” damnit. I learned years later that their dense, single-class configurations had earned them the nickname “PeopleCompress.”
  • TWA: I think this was the first airfare the Post paid on my behalf, courtesy of the paper sending me to cover the first E3 video-game trade show in L.A. in 1995.

If you have anything you’d like to say about the departed, the comments are all yours.

8/23/2015: minor copyediting to fix mistakes I should have caught long ago.