|By Ralph R. Olson|
April 15, 2002
In his first article for Airliners.net, well-known aviation commentator Ralph Olson spins a colourful tale about Western Pacific's logojets.
The magazine ad looked too good to be true. A two-day seminar in Colorado Springs, Colorado and just the one I needed to qualify for my promotion at work. A quick check of the calendar and my vacation schedule and the entire plan was playing out in my head. There are so few win-win situations in life, but as I examined this one, I could clearly imagine a deck of cards full of just aces! And it was dealt to me!Click here to see more great photos of Western Pacific!
This plan had several motives. First and foremost, attend the seminar, hang on every word, absorb every chart and bring back what I learn to do my job better and smarter. Second, as with most of my travels, this trip involved the spotting and photography of the airlines and the aircraft that they fly. What made this trip so special was the location, Colorado Springs (COS), and the new start-up airline that had established a hub there; none other than Western Pacific.
Clearly one of the most colorful airlines of its time, Western Pacific modeled much of its operation on successful low-fare airlines like Southwest. It flew only one type of aircraft in its fleet, the Boeing 737-300, served no meals and ran a ticketless system with rock bottom fares. There were no reserved seats; passengers received boarding cards with numbers on them and those arriving early got the choice seats.
The airline's route structure was set up so that all flights originated and returned to Colorado Springs. The COS hub was part of the reason for Westpac's initial success, but in reality, it was the new Denver International Airport (DIA) that made a really big difference. Competition at DIA was almost non-existent with United Airlines operating a major hub there. In addition, a surcharge was added to the price of every ticket out of DIA to pay for the airport. This created an average 20% increase to the price of every ticket since the new airport opened. DIA is also located a solid 40 miles north of the city center and the traveling public soon noticed a better deal to the south.
Most of the residents living south of Denver discovered the airport at Colorado Springs to be much more convenient and affordable and the new Western Pacific Airlines was ready to meet their travel needs in a unique way.
Although airlines had used airliners to market certain products and organizations in the past, Western Pacific launched a program totally new to conventional advertising; using the skin of an airliner as an advertising billboard! Called the "Air Logo" program, Western Pacific solicited sponsors to buy advertising space covering an entire B-737-300. The result was a wide variety of eye-catching advertising images, such as cartoon characters, mountain scenes, a stunning Las Vegas showgirl and magnificent wildlife, all spanning the fuselages and tails of the airline's B-737 fleet. With no two of its aircraft painted the same, this concept caught instant public attention and, together with its low, fares, made Western Pacific a big success. The "Air Logo" program attracted some big names and, before long, the airline had the most colorful fleet flying anywhere in the world.
It was with visions of "Logo Jets" in my mind that I called Western Pacific and booked myself on the Monday morning flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to COS. The airline had four connections to and from LAX to COS so I decided to go up a day early and grab the first flight of the day, a 7:40am departure. The Westpac agent on the phone was very friendly and helpful and I soon had my reservation. My plan was to get to COS early enough to spend the better part of the daylight hours in the terminal taking pictures of the daily comings and goings of those beautiful Westpac logo jets.
So with enough film in my camera bag to shoot a major motion picture, I set out on that late February morning to catch my Westpac flight to Colorado Springs. I was up well before dawn and managed to beat the stop-and-go commuter traffic that flowed out of the high desert and into the Los Angles basin every working day of the year. As I approached LAX, I could see the landing lights of the remaining over-ocean arrivals from early-hours operations, mostly cargo airliners returning from a long and busy night. I parked in one of the remote lots and took the bus to terminal 3. It was 6:15am and the early morning fog was beginning its daily contest with the sun. I could tell on this day that the sun would prevail, but it would be a slow process, maybe a clear and hazy day would show itself by 10am, but by then I would be long gone.
The agent at the Western Pacific ticket counter had only a small line of passengers waiting and I soon slipped my small suitcase onto the bag check platform. I was greeted with a smile and plastic boarding card with a large number 14 printed on it. I would be number 14 to board the aircraft; a window seat would be a piece of cake! As I watched my bag disappear through the door behind the agent, my curiosity was beginning to show as I rushed past the slower walking passengers and headed to the security checkpoint. After a fresh x-ray of my camera bag and the rest of me, the next stop was the gate where I could not wait to see which logo jet of the Westpac fleet was waiting to take me off into the wild blue yonder.
With the fog now lifting, I could see the airliners taking off and landing on runways 24L and 24R on the north complex of LAX as I neared the far end windows of terminal 3. Soon my question would be answered as I approached the only gate occupied by a Westpac plane. To my delight, it was one of the logo jets I had only read about but had not yet seen in any magazine. The tail was now visible with Santa Claus on his sleigh loaded with Christmas presents being pulled by the Westpac cartoon plane mascot called "Westpac Willie," complete with reindeer horns! The B-737 had the words "Winter Wonder Plane" as its title above the passenger windows, and to make its message clear, the nose was painted a bright shade of red. I could not have been more delighted to be flying on this particular aircraft, one of the company’s newer acquisitions.
As I watched the ramp workers load the B-737 with bags and mail, I sensed an increased presence of hustle and bustle in the terminal. The boarding area for my flight was now full to capacity with every seat occupied. Soon the boarding process began and I was in the first group to walk into the still empty aircraft. I selected a window seat just forward of the left engine so I could view the LAX terminals during our takeoff roll. The flight was completely full and as soon as the three flight attendants had everyone seated and the carry-on bags stowed, I could feel the push back from the gate begin. It was now 7:40 am on the dot! I could feel the first vibrations of engine start. The "Winter Wonder Plane" was coming to life!
As the three flight attendants completed their final checks I did the same with my camera equipment. Film...loaded! Camera Settings...as required! Lens cap...removed and stowed! Film supply...checked! Camera position...quick grab! Camera bag...half zipped, ready for action!
So, with the camera bag stowed completely under the seat in front of me, my seat in the upright and locked position, my tray table stowed, and my seat belt firmly fastened about my waist, I was ready to take to the skies! We soon completed the push back from the gate and were now taxiing eastward to the end of runway 24L. An one-time departure is critical at this time of day at LAX, and the Westpac cockpit crew obviously knew this and wasted no time getting to the runway. The reason for the quick departure from the gate soon became apparent as we taxied past LAX's terminal one. The second wave of morning departures for USAir, America West, and Southwest had just completed their own push backs and at least a dozen B-757s, A-320s, and B-737s were slowly advancing towards the runway, looking like a determined and curiously painted army tank division.
We never even slowed down and were number two for takeoff behind a Skywest Brasilia commuter flight. The Brasilia rolled past runway 25L and was assigned 25R for its takeoff; so we were now number one for takeoff on 25L and the Winter Wonder Plane with Santa waving happily on the tail, turned onto the runway and began its takeoff roll. The B-737 lifted off effortlessly, and we were immediately climbing over the Pacific Ocean. It was a beautiful morning in southern California, with patchy fog over some coastal areas, but I could see north all the way to Point Sal on the central coast.
As we turned left and looped back over LAX, I could see the massive urban sprawl of the Los Angeles area; its freeways busy with morning commuters. Soon we reached our cruising altitude and I was served a snack and beverage of excellent quality. The flight attendants were friendly and a team spirit was quite evident. The first officer gave us a position report and our arrival time at COS of 11:10am Mountain Standard Time. What really concerned me was the weather at COS, since I had most of the remaining daylight hours to devote to spotting and picture taking from the terminal.
As we left the desert behind and cruised over the first peaks of the western Rocky Mountains, I could see the clouds building and soon only some of the highest peaks were visible, the rest covered with thick white clouds. Snow was plentiful on the higher peaks and it was clear that a big storm was blanketing the lower slopes with a fresh supply. However, as we began our decent the weather seemed to clear and the plains east of the mountains were clearly visible. My spirits soared as the crew announced that COS had sunny skies with fifty miles visibility! What a day for shooting airliners! What they didn't tell me was, a winter storm was moving in from the west and the snow would soon be flying at COS.
The landing at COS was as smooth as the entire flight had been. As the B-737 taxied to the gate, my eyes were glued to the window to see the logo jets I knew would be waiting for me. I was soon rewarded as the solid blue Thrifty Rent A Car logo jet came into view sitting on the ramp far from the terminal. As we turned again I could now see that the entire Rocky Mountain front had vanished as the snow raced eastward over the plains. The fifty miles of visibility would soon be cancelled, along with my plans for the day.
The storm had arrived so quickly, that most of the passengers raced to the rental car counters so they could get on the road as soon as possible before the roads became impassable. I had a relatively short trip to my hotel, so I took a slow tour of the terminal building. The facility was virtually new and very modern and attractive. Huge windows allowed for great views to the east, north and west. I could see several of Westpac's generic 737's, those in company colors, parked at gates and preparing for departure.
The terminal was just beginning to fill up for the noon bank of departures for Western Pacific, United, Delta, Continental and American Airlines. The snow was beginning to arrive as I looked to the north to see Western Pacific's most popular logo jet taxiing in on a flight from Seattle. Also called the "Electric Banana," the Simpsons logo jet carried the faces of America's most irreverent family, with Marge's blue hairdo sweeping up the tail. Even with the snow flying and the sun virtually gone, I could not help but take several shots of the most incredible paint job on any aircraft I had ever seen. As the "Electric Banana" arrived at the gate, I watched as the snow began to blow on the ramp, whipped by strong winds from the west. It was time to pack it in for the day and find a good book.
The storm raged for the night and all of the first day of the seminar. The snow piled up on the balcony of my hotel room and completely covered the summer lounge chair that would not see an occupant for some time to come. The skies began to clear around noon on the second day, accompanied by crystal clear deep blue skies and a breathtaking postcard view of snow covered Pikes Peak and the entire Rocky Mountain front. The instructor gave us a two-hour lunch on that last day, so I took my camera with me to visit an area of huge rock pillars and outcroppings called Garden of the Gods. I had learned of this area, located west of town, from reading about Western Pacific's Colorado Springs logo jet, which illustrates the area along with Pikes Peak on both sides of its fuselage. The snow was like powder and didn't even slow me down, as I walked the trails among the giant granite and sandstone pillars. The incredibly blue skies contrasting with the colors of the rock and snow made for one of those days when the postcard photographers come out of hibernation. With an entire roll of film shot, I headed back to the classroom for the last few hours of the seminar. I was scheduled to fly back on Westpac late on the next day with the hope, once again, of getting shots of the logo jet fleet from the airport terminal.
I watched the evening weather report from my hotel room that night with more than passing interest. A high-pressure area was dominating the area, and the forecast was for a carbon copy of today. Tomorrow would be March 1st and she was coming in like lamb!
The popularity of the Colorado Springs airport was immediately evident as the rent-a-car van approached the terminal on this bright and clear Saturday morning. The primary parking area was full and a new, not yet paved, dirt area was being used to handle the overflow of passengers parking their cars and taking to the air on Westpac and other carriers serving the airport.
I arrived and immediately checked my bag to avoid having to lug it around with me like a ball and chain as I raced from window to window like a crazed shutterbug. The terminal was even busier than the ones I left behind at LAX. The gates were full with Westpac's planes as the noon bank of departures approached. This was the moment I had waited for! As the pushbacks started the camera was clicking. The Colorado Springs logo jet with Pikes Peak and Garden of the Gods painted on the fuselage was about to commence engine start and was perfectly positioned with the real Pikes Peak directly behind its tail. It was the shot for which you never have enough film.
As I clicked off over 20 shots in succession, I readied for the next film change, hoping the B-737 would stay put for just a few more seconds. By the time the camera was ready to go again the jet was on the move, but some good side views with the Rocky Mountain backdrop made for some more postcard shots. The next few hours were pure airliner photography heaven.
I was all over that terminal and am sure I got some stares, but I just didn't care. Then I noticed some commotion near the windows on the north side and made my way through the crowd to see what was up. Sure enough, the youngsters in the crowd and even the adults were all pointing to the Simpsons logo jet just arriving from Phoenix. And on this bright sunny day, Marge's smile seemed as big as her blue hairdo! I had to camp out at the gate where the "Electric Banana" had parked and about one hour later got the shots I wanted as it pushed back for another Western Pacific departure. I was nearly exhausted as the sun slowly set behind the mountains and the photo session had to end.
But my objective was met, and with twelve rolls of exposed film stored safely in my camera bag, I proceeded to the gate to catch my Westpac flight home. I chuckled as I saw Santa Claus's smiling face. The "Winter Wonder Plane" would once again be my airplane for my flight back to LAX.
As we started our long decent into LAX, dusk was just beginning to cast its glow on the southern California area. The lights of the downtown Los Angeles skyscrapers were gorgeous and soon runway 24R slid underneath to greet the tires of the B-737. As I deplaned I took a long look back at that logo jet and reflected on a day I shall not soon forget. Pulling into the driveway and parking in the garage, my oldest son waved from the neighbor's house and yelled "Hey Dad, did you take any pictures?" "Oh, just a few," I smiled.
(Western Pacific ceased operations in February, 1998 due to financial hardships. It began operations in April, 1995, and operated a total of 18 B-737-300s. The company also operated a commuter subsidiary called Mountain Air Express using four Dornier 328s. A new management team was brought in to try to turn the company around. Plans were made to terminate the logo jet program and the entire Westpac operation was moved to Denver International where the little company was thrust into competition with the mighty United Airlines. On February 4th 1998, the sun set on Westpac forever. All of its 1,500 employees were paid in full before they were terminated and its fleet of B-737-300 logo jets are now re-painted and are still flying with airlines throughout the world.)
Ralph R. Olson
Ralph Olson is a feature writer and photographer for "Airliners" and a frequent contributing writer/photographer for "Airliner World" magazine. He is also a commercial pilot and a retired United States Air Force Officer. Ralph lives in Southern California with his wife and two sons.