I cannot believe it has been a year since my They Will Fly Again project debuted. I also cannot believe that the pandemic is still here.
A year ago today, I debuted the culmination of a month’s work on the roads and in the skies of the southern and central United States. I was so nervous to click Publish. I did not know if what I had made would help or if it would hurt.
I had a feeling the project would resonate and go fairly viral, and it did. Hundreds of thousands of people saw the project on this blog and even more saw it via articles on PetaPixel, Business Insider, and the Dallas Morning News.
What I never expected was the emails from those in the industry. So many emails. Almost all of them started with the same two words: “Thank you…”
That’s what blew me away. What could they possibly be thanking me for? I was documenting the collapse of their industry!
“Thanks for showing the world the true scale of what’s happening.”
“Thank you for posting something I can send to all those well-meaning people asking if I’m worried about my job, I’m tired of saying yes and explaining why.”
“I’ve witnessed this virus happen from inside a cockpit, thank you for showing me the true perspective.”
The most haunting one…”I landed one of those JetBlue jets at Pinal just a few days ago.”
What has happened in the year since They Will Fly Again?
Well, the pandemic is still here. Countless lives have been lost. Largely, though, we’ve adjusted to pandemic life and many are getting back on the road and in the air. Airlines are seeing full domestic flights again (for better or worse). Vaccination numbers are quickly climbing in the USA.
Let’s take a look at some of the airports I visited.
Alliance Airport – Fort Worth, Texas
Alliance Airport is a cargo airport a bit west from DFW in Fort Worth, Texas. It was actually the first airport I visited for the project and was my proof-of-concept flight, to see if this was actually worth doing (or if I was good enough to make it worth the investment I would have to make). My planespotting buddy Ben joined me in the helicopter.
There are no longer Spirit Airlines jets at Alliance. As best I can tell, all of these jets are back in the air, including N918NK, which landed in Atlantic City just a few minutes ago.
Pinal Airpark – Marana, Arizona
Pinal Airpark is located northwest of Tucson, Arizona. My brother and I drove through the night (stopping at Prada Marfa for an epic Milky Way shot) to get to Tucson in time. When I made the call to my brother, saying “pack a bag, we’re driving to Tucson, I’ll pick you up in 15 minutes” I knew there was no going back. This project was going to happen. When I got to Tucson, I reached out to a dear friend of mine in Tucson named Hilary and she was able to go up in the copter with me.
There are still all manner of jets out at Pinal. It’s an aircraft storage facility. Many of these jets are back in the air, though, like N934JB, a JetBlue A321 that will take passengers from Boston to Los Angeles this afternoon.
Tulsa International Airport – Tulsa, Oklahoma
Tulsa is a significant airport for American Airlines. The TechOps facility there is the largest aircraft maintenance facility in the world. It made sense for them to park aircraft there. Man were they crammed in! I tried to take a friend and American employee in Tulsa up in the helicopter with me but she had a meeting and couldn’t come. She’s now moved on from American, part of the brain drain taking place in the industries hardest hit by the pandemic.
Almost all of these jets are flying again. Even the 737 MAX aircraft have since been recertified and entered service. N753AN, a Boeing 777-200, just took off from Frankfurt on its way to Chicago on a cargo flight.
DFW International Airport – DFW Airport, Texas
This is my home airport. It is also American’s home airport. When I heard American was parking jets at DFW I knew things were bad. Nobody wanted to park jets at their home airports, but they ran out of space elsewhere. One of my favorite photographers, a great guy named Andy Hancock, joined me on the flight.
Most of these jets are back in the air (some have since been parked at Roswell). N978UY will take passengers from Charlotte to Boston tomorrow evening.
Kansas City International Airport – Kansas City, Missouri
This was my favorite flight of the trip. After an all-night drive up to a town just east of the airport, I woke up to an absolutely perfect spring morning at the FBO from which the helicopter flew. The morning light reflected off the dew of the grass and it was just serene. As we flew to the airport, I saw the beautiful rolling hills of western Missouri, just a great scene. A dear friend, Ryan Patterson, was supposed to come with me for this trip but came down with food poisoning and was unable to join.
Almost every jet in the foreground of the image is flying again, like N348DN, an A321 about to board in Miami for the quick flight up to Atlanta. Sadly, some of the jets in the center background, Boeing 767s belonging to Air Canada’s Rouge subsidiary, were retired shortly after They Will Fly Again went live.
George Bush Intercontinental Airport – Houston, Texas
I lived in Houston when I was a young child and my first ever international trip left from IAH so I have a fondness for Continental Airlines and Intercontinental Airport (now Bush Intercontinental). When I heard United had begun parking jets here, I had to do one last flight. My mom and I went down to Houston and stayed with relatives the night before this flight and I was honored to have my uncle join me on my final flight of the project.
Some of these jets have been retired, but most are flying again, like N675UA, a Boeing 767 flying from Washington Dulles to San Francisco this afternoon.
A long overdue thank you
Out of the countless people who encouraged me during the project (while I was trying to figure out what was happening with my full-time job), there are three people I’d like to specifically thank.
Ryan Patterson was a constant source of encouragement and excitement, and I’m so proud that he’s now making quite the career for himself as an aerial planespotter. Check out his Instagram account for some truly wonderful images from airports around the USA and the world. A great photographer and better friend.
Meagan Thomas was one of the first people I got to know when my blog was brought into the BoardingArea network. She was my primary contact to the network and helped get everything going on the new platform. Her guidance and, well, bluntness, was part of what kept me going through some rough spots in 2014 and 2015 when I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep the blog going. She helped me edit the narrative for They Will Fly Again. Her valuable critique and quick turnaround time ensured that I was able to debut the project at the right time.
Most of all, thank you to my dear friend Mike Kelley for guiding me through my first big personal project. He had to endure countless hours of back and forth conversations with me, helping me hone the theme behind the project (one of my favorite lines from him: “the story can’t just be ‘Middle Management Guy Flies in Helicopters over Airports'”). As iron sharpens iron, he helped me refine the story. I know he rolled his eyes when I included 43 images in the final story, but it’s better than the 78 I originally had in the rough draft I guess. His reaction from one of the Alliance Airport shots (“whoa”) is what really made me feel like this project had some legs.
What if it was all a metaphor?
I said these jets would fly again. I wonder if I should’ve titled the project We Will Fly Again. Many of us have taken back to the skies at least once since the pandemic began. My first flight was to Denver in late October, after which I flew to Tulsa with American Airlines as part of the relaunch of the 737 MAX in December. This year, as many of you know, I went to Iceland in March when Americans were allowed back in.
There are some who will never fly again but most of us probably will fly again. Just like the jets in the 7500 pictures I took as part of They Will Fly Again, we all were forced to park for a spell. Hopefully, we all did some maintenance, replaced some of our tires, took precautions, and will be ready to get back out into the world soon. Hope needs endurance, and my hope is we’ve all learned that over the past year.
We will fly again.