After experiencing Cape Air's C402 in November and SeaPort's PC-12 in May I think I developed an addiction to EAS carriers. Working in Atlanta, I had occasionally seen Georgia Skies' Cessna 208s buzzing around, but the thought of flying with them had never crossed my mind. Day after day I watched their 7:45 departure to Macon buzz overhead as I walked into work. Finally something snapped and decided that I had to fly on that Cessna 208!
Georgia Skies is a subsidiary of Hawaii based Pacific Wings, operating a fleet of two Cessna 208B Grand Caravans. Currently the airline only operates two routes from its Atlanta hub: twice daily to Athens, GA (KAHN), and four times daily to Macon, GA. Athens is about 70 miles to the Northeast of Atlanta, while Macon is about 80 miles South. Both flights are scheduled for a block time slightly less than an hour.
Browsing the airline's sparse website for fares, I quickly decided that I wanted to take a trip to Athens rather than Macon. Round trip fares to Athens start at only $130, all taxes and fees included. Macon's lowest fares start at more than $400 r/t. Macon's expanded daily schedule would have allowed me to make an easier day trip, but the easier schedule certainly wasn't worth the $270 difference in fares. I eventually settled on a July 3rd evening departure from Atlanta, returning mid-day on July 4th (making good use of the middle-of-the-week holiday)...or so I thought.
With my flights booked and hotel in Athens all set I was ready to go...until June 29th when I found a message on my telephone. "Hi Mr, umm, Mr...Porter, this is Pacific Wings Airlines...I mean, this is Georgia Skies airlines calling. Your flight this week has been cancelled due to mechanical issues with the plane. Please call back if you would like to arrange for a refund. Bye."
...I was quite surprised by that less-than-professional telephone message. I was even more surprised by the fact that the airline was able to predict a mechanical problem with the plane a full five days from departure. Checking the Georgia Skies website I noticed that all flights to Athens had been cancelled until July 5th. I was slightly curious what catastrophe had beset the airline's C208 to cause its grounding for a full week, but regardless I called back to see what I could do.
Calling the airline, I reached the same representative who had left a message on my phone. She got the airline name right this time, but had a little trouble re-booking me. She quickly switched the dates, but I later realized she had placed me on an AHN-ATL-AHN itinerary, rather than the desired ATL-AHN-ATL. A few minutes later I was booked on my original routing, two days later than intended. I never received a confirmation Email for the new flights, so I was really hoping that the reservations agent had done her job correctly on the second try...
I should probably point out that Georgia Skies (and its Pacific Wings parent company) has quite a history of doing very strange things. In 2010 the airline was bidding to continue its service to Athens, competing against SeaPort. When an airport official went to the press stating his preference of SeaPort, the airline threw what amounted to a hissy fit, spamming the papers with retaliatory remarks, slicing service at AHN down to the bare minimum allowed by its EAS contract, and firing most of its staff. The airline operated for a short time as Tennessee Skies and Kentucky Skies, but ended service altogether with those subsidiaries in 2011 after similar "fights" with airport authorities. On top of all this, Pacific Wings' staff in Hawaii apparently has an ongoing feud with airport security, resulting in physical confrontations between the company's president and airport security officials... I found out all of this after I booked my ticket; it looked like I was getting myself into a couple of interesting flights...
While trying to change my hotel reservation I found myself on hold, listening to the Allman Brothers song Jessica. Much like I had YYZ stuck in my head for my Toronto trip, Jessica became the theme song for this adventure...
Tonight on Top Gear, I get lost in an airport, I get in a fight with the TSA, and I fly on a Cessna 208!
Flight # LW 139
Equipment:Cessna 208B Grand Caravan (N307PW)
Scheduled Departure: 18:30 Actual Departure: 18:45
Scheduled Arrival: 19:25 Actual Arrival: 19:18
I arrived at the airport with absolutely no confirmation that my flight was still operating, I was only hoping the airline would have bothered to call if plans changed again. In order to check in I first had to find the Georgia Skies ticket counter...a task far more difficult than I imagined it would be. After two laps around the terminal, I eventually found the single counter, buried between the Vision Airlines and American Airlines desks.The two airport employees I asked were of no help; they didn't even know that "Georgia Skies" was a real airline. This statement was soon to become a recurring trend on this trip.
Can you spot the check-in counter? No, I couldn't either...
Manning the check-in counter was a very bored looking agent wearing a Georgia Skies polo and a "Pinnacle Airlines" SIDA badge. Apart from the Georgia Skies polo, the only other mention of the airline was on a 8.5x11" piece of paper which stated that "The Georgia Skies / Pacific Wings / New Mexico Air / Tennessee Skies / Kentucky Skies representative is not available at this time, please come again later." The same sign was permanently displayed at the gate as well, certainly an odd way of advertising your airline, especially when the Georgia Skies / Pacific Wings / New Mexico Air / Tennessee Skies / Kentucky Skies representative was sitting at the desk.
The check-in agent handed me a raggedy looking boarding pass, speckled with errant ink marks and featuring no Georgia Skies branding whatsoever. It later turned out that the TSA has a problem with that.
I made the mistake of heading straight from check-in to the North security checkpoint. As soon as I walked through the doors I found myself behind a snaking line of Allegiant, Spirit, and Vision Airlines passengers, each taking a painfully long time to proceed through screening. By the time I made my way to the ID-check podium I had everything ready to go, prepared to breeze through security and show everyone how it was done. I handed over my boarding pass and ID, gave the screener a polite "I'm doing pretty good, how are you?" and held out my hand to re-claim my boarding pass. The TSA ID checker was about to hand it back and wish me a good day when he noticed something.
"Whoa, hey, hold on, there's no airline name on this boarding pass! What airline are you flying on?? Georgia Skies? What's Georgia Skies? I've never heard of that before!"
I attempted to explain the Georgia Skies / Pacific Wings EAS service in Atlanta, I pointed out that the flight number was listed on the boarding pass as "LW 0139", where "LW" is the IATA code for Pacific Wings / Georgia Skies. The TSA agent only said "I wish I could take your word for it. Wait over here." I had the exact same conversation with two more ID-Checkers, until the third one decided it wasn't worth the effort to elevate the situation further and let me through...
Even after ten minutes of ID-checking there was still a clump of Spirit Airlines passengers in front of me. A number of them had decided that they didn't "want any extra screening stuff, just a *regular* pat down" and were holding up the line, refusing to even go through the metal detector. At this point I had already been in the airport for over 45 minutes and was a little fed up with the trend of general incompetence I'd encountered so far.
After my mandatory nudie-scope scan and pat-down (turns out that sweat sets off the TSA's scanners, they've been doing a lot of pat-downs in Atlanta's 100+ degree heat) I made my way to a TSA supervisor and recommended that her screeners undergo a little more training on which airlines fly out of Atlanta. In the most rational statement of the day, she responded "Yeah, most of those guys don't fly very often, sometimes we're lucky if they know Delta and AirTran...."
Athens? Georgia Skies? Nope, not listed here either.
From the TSA checkpoint I made my way downstairs to the inter-terminal tram (now branded as the "Plane Train") to get to the gate in concourse E. Half way down the escalator I heard an odd noise behind me. *clunk, thud...ClunK, ThuD...CLUNK, THUD, CLUNK...* "hey! hey!! look out!"
Turning around I saw a large roll-aboard suitcase tumbling end over end down the escalator. I stopped, put out a foot and stopped the bag as its very flustered owner came running down the escalator after it. At this point I only had 20 minutes until departure and didn't pause to wait for another obstacle to get in my way; I was going to get on this Cessna 208!
Big concourse for a small plane...
Georgia Skies makes use of the only bus-gate in Atlanta. E37 is at the far North end of the E-concourse, surrounded by Delta's international operations. Since the opening of the new Concourse F, E has been much emptier than it used to be. Most of the 777s and 767s have moved over to F, leaving E to handle primarily Caribbean and South American destinations. Still, an MD-88 looks pretty huge juxtaposed against a Cessna 208.
Not a bad view though, TechOps, the control tower, and some Delta action.
My very unofficial looking boarding pass, with TSA scribbles all over.
E37 was manned by a single Georgia Skies employee wearing a bright orange high-visibility vest. The gate was equipped with only a single row of four seats (all of which were already claimed), so I hung out at the adjacent Delta gate. While standing at the window I encountered the first airport employee of the day who actually knew of Georgia Skies existence. One of the Delta gate agents came over to the window and called out to her co-worker that "I think Georgia Skies is coming in, I see their little rinky-dink plane out there!" When I commented that not many people seem to know what Georgia Skies is, she responded "Yeah, Georgia Skies, Pacific Wings, Tennessee Skies, all the same thing...I'm surprised that *they* know who they are sometimes."
The Caravan's hardly a small plane, but it almost looks like a toy on the ramp at ATL...
Not branded as Georgia Skies, or Pacific Wings, it's "Eco Jet."
I wasn't quite sure where the Cessna would park. There weren't any jet bridge gates available in the area (certainly not necessary either) and there wasn't any space to the North of the concourse. It turns out that Georgia Skies parks in an empty spot at the Northeast corner of the E-concourse ramp. When the plane pulled into the ramp, the sole gate agent ran downstairs, hopped on a bus, and met the plane about 100 yards from the concourse, marshaling it in to its spot. Upon shut-down, the pilots hopped out and unloaded the checked baggage into a waiting pickup truck while the gate agent and the inbound passengers returned on the bus to the terminal.
Ground crew marshaling the Cessna into its remote stand.
Parking at a seemingly random stand in the middle of the ramp.
Georgia Skies' ground support equipment: a pickup truck.
About ten minutes after the plane arrived (maybe five minutes past scheduled departure) the pilot beckoned the passengers forward to the doorway. The gate agent had already collected boarding passes, so everyone just followed the pilot downstairs and to the waiting bus. No official boarding announcement was made, everyone was already in the gate area and ready to go.
Walking to the bus to the aircraft.
More flights should board at ground level, I like this view much better than a jetway.
As far as I know, this is the only bus gate at ATL.
Pulling up to the aircraft.
Looks significantly bigger from this angle.
Even though the aircraft had arrived with two pilots aboard, only one returned to the plane (I think the other went home for the night). The sole pilot stood at the doorway with the flight manifest, asking each passenger for their name. As he checked off each passenger he read off their seat assignment; "3A, that's the second row from the door, left side."
The single pilot, standing at the doorway to check off names and assign seats.
I was the second person to board the aircraft. My first impression of the Grand Caravan was surprise at how much empty space there was in the aircraft. The Cessna 208B was originally built to seat 14 passengers, but due to certification issues it typically only carries nine seats for revenue passenger service. At the aft boarding door there was plenty of extra room. The passenger seats were arranged in four rows, the aft three rows were a 1-1 configuration with ample room on all sides. The front row behind the pilots' seats had a single seat on the left and a two-seat bench seat on the right. Today's load was only six passengers, so the forward row of three remained unoccupied.
The view forward from seat 3A.
One more benefit of small, unpressurized aircraft: plenty of big windows.
The six passengers boarded quickly, the pilot closed up the rear door, shoved the last of the bags (and the aircraft tail-stand) into the belly cargo pod, and climbed up to the cockpit through the forward door. The pilot made a quick but thorough safety briefing, pointing out the usual things (no-smoking, exit usage, turn off cell phones, etc), with a few added notes like proper usage of the fire extinguisher, and asking that passengers "aim well" if they need to use the sick-sacks.
Safety card cover.
Rather simple safety card instructions.
The engine was started without a hitch. The PT6A-114A spooled up with a satisfying hum, and the much-needed air conditioning was switched on soon after (it was about 98 degrees outside at this point). We wasted no time getting moving and joined the conga-line for 26R. We fell into place behind a half dozen jets. The jet-wash from the planes ahead constantly rocked and buffeted the small Cessna, filling the cabin with the intoxicating smell of jet exhaust.
Taxiing out, lined up behind five or six Delta jets.
PSU. The air conditioning is starting to feel very good about now...
One of the very few views where a CRJ-200 looks big.
As soon as the CRJ ahead of us applied power we crossed the hold short line and took position on the runway. I'm pretty sure that our pilot waived any wake turbulence delays, because we barely paused for ten seconds. Power was applied and we accelerated gently down the runway. Despite having a 675shp turbine in the nose, the takeoff roll felt very much the same as a takeoff in a Cessna 172.
Accelerating down the runway.
Rotate! In the air well before the Renaissance hotel.
Airborne, back to where we started at the E-concourse.
F-Concourse and the control tower. Even with the quick rotation we're still below the control tower cab.
Fly Delta Jets? Not today!
With such a short takeoff roll we were able to turn on course before even reaching the end of the runway. We banked North over the air cargo ramp and continued climbing, following along the I-75/I-85 corridor towards downtown Atlanta.
Getting out of the way of much quicker traffic behind us, turning Northbound.
Great view of the airport, clearing to the North.
Not quite the same view as seat "0B" on Cape Air, but not bad.
Climbing right up the I75 corridor past Atlanta.
Most of my flights recently have been on 757s or MD-88s which climb away from the ground like rocket ships. Down low it felt as if we were on a sightseeing tour of Atlanta, slowly climbing up to only 5000'.
Feels good to be escaping the tangle of highways below.
Mid way through the flight I pulled out my 55-250mm lens so that I could "spy" on the flight deck instruments. Even though this C208 only has the old style "steam gauge" flight deck, the avionics (including a moving map GPS and autopilot, and weather radar) would make any Cessna 172 driver jealous.
Pulling out the 55-250mm lens to spy on the instruments. Climbing through ~3000' at 135kts.
A few returns showing up on the weather radar, but nothing between us and Athens.
Leg room for all of the seats was excellent, although there was no under-seat storage available. Unlike on Cape Air (where all carry-ons were stuffed into the wing lockers), everyone was permitted to board with their luggage and wedge it into whatever space was available. My backpack fit in front of my knees with a decent amount of room left over. My camera case fit beside me, as there was a significant gap between the side of the seat and the wall.
Obligatory leg-room shot. Not bad leg room, but no space for carry-on luggage.
Cruising altitue, 5000 ft.
Mid-way through the flight I noticed another passenger pick up the safety card and point at the word "CESSNA" while raising her eyebrows, as if to say "See, I told you this was a small plane, it's a Cessna!"
The rest of the flight was uneventful, cruising over the bland Georgia suburban landscape. We were only at our cruising altitude for about 15 minutes, slowly descending into Athens.
Athens, GA in sight.
Downtown Athens and some of the UGA campus.
Not a bad looking city, from a long final for Runway 9.
We made a straight-in approach to Runway 9, although the nose remained crabbed significantly for much of the approach due to a 5-10kt crosswind. Another passenger commented after landing "Was it just me, or was the plane not pointed at the runway?
The landing was softer than most CRJ landings I've experienced, using proper crosswind technique to hold the downwind wheel off a bit longer than the other. As I've seen with many Caravans, the nose was held up at a full-stall attitude throughout the landing roll out, using aerodynamic braking to slow down before applying the wheel brakes.
After touchdown, slowing down with aerodynamic braking.
Small GA terminal and control tower.
Athens' GA terminal and FBO is located in a classy looking brick building. Unfortunately Georgia Skies doesn't use the FBO building. We taxied up to a generic cinder-block terminal building which housed Georgia Skies, a car rental agency, and the Civil Air Patrol offices. After the pilot re-attached the tail stand and unloaded the luggage the back door was popped open and everyone disembarked onto the ramp.
Stepping off the plane, looking towards the airline terminal.
No baggage claim - checked luggage was picked up plane-side.
Nice little airside courtyard area. Other passengers are pausing to take pictures too...
After everyone claimed their luggage on the ramp there was still an extra suitcase left over. The pilot checked with everyone before he shrugged and loaded the bag back into the belly cargo pod. I'm guessing someone in Atlanta was stuck without their suitcase for the night...
The pilot had to walk around the terminal building to a side entrance to unlock the terminal for everyone to walk landside. The terminal was completely deserted, except for a single car rental agency employee who looked quite bored. There was no assistance provided to find ground transportation, but luckily I had written down a list of local taxi companies and their phone numbers. When my taxi showed up with a 9-passenger van, we (all six passengers) decided to share the cab and save some money getting downtown. It turns out we didn't save any money, as the cab charged per person, but it was an interesting ride at least.
Curbside, looking back at the terminal.
The cab driver was...shall we say...Southern. He encouraged me to head downtown and check out the bars, but that I shouldn't stay out past midnight because past midnight everyone around will be "sickos, wackos, wine-o's and bozos." His parting words were a string of racial slurs directed at various minorities before he dropped me at my hotel, a Days Inn which I had managed to book for only $42/night.
"American Sized" hotel room, plenty of space for $42/night.
After dropping my bags at the room I decided to head downtown, take a look around, and find some dinner.
Looking up Broad Street, the city's main thoroughfare.
I barely made it downtown before it started raining. Luckily I happened to be standing next to a Five Guys burger joint, so I stepped in and enjoyed a tasty burger while the rain passed.
mmmm, Five Guys. Escaped the rain and stumbled into a heart attack...
Downtown was quite busy, full of college students and locals patronizing the many, many bars and restaurants.
I knew there had to be some Southern-style architecture around here somewhere.
More lights came on as the sun went down. Walking past the "Georgia Theatre", a building that doesn't look like it's changed much since the 1950's.
Athens' downtown was small, but very nice. The number of bars and small restaurants was stunning, although to be expected for a big college town. I walked about, seeing the sights until the sun began to set. While walking back I realized that a new episode of "Flying Wild Alaska" would be airing soon, so I found the Discovery Channel and watched that for the evening. There were less C208s in the episode than I would have liked, but it was a good ending to my small-plane filled day.
The next type to cross off of my aircraft list? I wish. Watching "Flying Wild Alaska" back at the hotel.
The next morning I slept in, had a leisurely breakfast, and called a cab to head back to the airport. Continuing with the trend of "What's Georgia Skies?" neither the hotel clerk nor the taxi driver were aware that there was any scheduled service at the Athens airport. The hotel clerk didn't realize that the airport was even open for planes to land at, while the taxi driver thought I was going to be flying my own plane back to Atlanta. Again, I wish...
Flight # LW 129
Equipment:Cessna 208B Grand Caravan (N307PW)
Scheduled Departure: 10:55 Actual Departure: 10:45
Scheduled Arrival: 11:40 Actual Arrival: 11:16
I arrived at the airport almost two hours before scheduled departure. I poked my head into the terminal, but found only the same tired rental car agent inside. Instead of waiting around I decided to walk around the airport and see what interesting planes I could find.
The sun rising over AHN's mixed ramp of GA aircraft.
What's this? A Beechcraft H18? Sweet!
hmm. I'm a pilot, but I probably also count as "suspicious activity." Should I report myself?
The Athens airport is named after "Georgia's First Aviator", Ben Epps. Epps designed and built a series of experimental aircraft between 1907 and 1930, none of which ever gained much success. Epps was killed in an aircraft accident in 1937 and the Athens airport (his home airport) was named in his honor.
Historical marker proudly describing Ben Epps as "Georgia's First Aviator."
One of many UGA Bulldog statues scattered around town, this one dressed up as an aviator at the airport's small viewing area.
A humble Cessna 150 on the ramp. Not much separates this from the C208, apart from size (and a turbine engine) of course.
A few aircraft were out and about on this Saturday morning. A Cessna 172 was in the pattern, struggling to master landings (try reducing power before you try to flare next time...) A couple Bonanzas and a Mooney departed the field, but it was generally very quiet. With an hour before departure I decided to head back to the airline terminal. A TSA agent was loitering outside on her cell phone, and a few people were waiting in the terminal. After a short wait a Georgia Skies representative appeared from a back room and checked me in. I was originally assigned seat 4C, the last row next to the door. I asked if 1A would be a possibility and was promptly handed a new boarding pass for 1A.
Despite being the only airline in town, the Georgia Skies desk at Athens is at least clearly marked...
Nicely furnished (and a bit optimistically sized) land side waiting area in the terminal.
The TSA checkpoint wasn't open yet, but the land side waiting area was plenty large enough for the maximum potential of nine passengers. I sat and watched as the pilot (same guy as yesterday) pre-flighted the aircraft and briefly ran up the engine. There was originally a flight scheduled to depart at 6:15am, but apparently it had been cancelled for today and this was the first flight out.
Another passenger in the waiting area was having trouble connecting to the airport's free WiFi. Out of nowhere a TSA agent appeared and started providing free IT assistance to the passenger; probably the most useful thing I've ever seen the TSA do...
The TSA checkpoint didn't open until about 30 minutes prior to departure.
Big Cessna, little Cessna; Cool Cessna...not so cool Cessna.
At T-30 minutes to departure the TSA checkpoint opened up. Three agents were present to screen all five passengers. Everyone received an explosive-detection swab on their shoes, except for a US Forest Service worker who the TSA decided not to explosive-screen because they "didn't know where he may have been walking." It seems like that kind of defeats the purpose, but oh well.
More realistically sized air side waiting area (a.k.a. holding pen).
As soon as everyone was screened the pilot opened the door and welcomed everyone aboard with the same procedure as in Atlanta (minus the bus). I was the first onboard this time and made my way forward up to 1A.
Same plane, same pilot, same boarding procedure.
Climbing my way through the empty cabin up to 1A, right behind the pilot's seat this time!
No one was seated in 1B/1C, so I was able to leave my bags sitting on the bench seat beside me.
Quick shot of the flight deck before the pilot made his way around to the front of the plane.
The pilot performed the same safety briefing as on the outbound flight, although he jumbled the "welcome aboard" message, first welcoming us aboard this "New Mexico Airlines" flight. It seems like no one knows the name of the airline at this company...
Better view from up front, the window is placed at a far more ideal location, and there's less wing in the way.
Lining up for takeoff on Runway 27. Note the weather radar on the leading edge of the wing.
Once the engine was started there was no delay for takeoff - straight to Runway 27 and on our way to Atlanta. There are no overhead vents positioned over row one, so it stayed quite hot in my seat until we were airborne, but the view was worth it.
Lined up, rolling down the runway.
Just about to rotate...
Airborne with more than 3000' of the 5522' runway remaining. Not bad for a nearly-full plane on a hot and humid day.
Again we felt ridiculously low throughout the climb out. While I wouldn't have thought twice about the altitude as a pilot, as a passenger it felt weird to be so low.
Climbing out over Athens and the UGA campus.
Climbing up to our cruising altitude for this leg, 6000'.
When I first sat down in 1A, the legroom was a bit tight against the captain's seat. When the pilot climbed in, he pulled his seat far forward to the panel, giving me plenty of room. The fold-out ladder for accessing the flight deck remained slightly in the way (and its light aluminum frame made a lot of noise if I bumped it), but overall it was a great seat.
Obligatory leg room shot. Lots and lots of room with the pilot's seat all the way forward, although I kept bumping the folded entry ladder with my foot by accident.
Sipping fuel at ~350lb/hr, looks like we have about 850lbs useable onboard.
Passing over the Northeast Georgia Regional Airport (KWDR). I spent about 45 minutes holding over this airport onboard a 757 a couple days prior.
I reject your reality and substitute my own...