Following my return home from my trip to St. Kitts (see report here) I found myself in a very unfamiliar situation. For the first time in what must have been years I had absolutely no flights booked or even planned. While this felt calming and therapeutic to some degree (the anticipation of a trip often makes me feel antsy) it was also obviously unsettling. After talking to Alex (dc9northwest) he suggested that I join him to one of his planned daytrips to the East Coast in February (I'm sure you'll hear more about this from him). Unfortunately my heavy February schedule could not allow me to join him so I had to come up with an alternative plan. Some of you may recall a report I wrote last year about a daytrip I took to DEC (Decatur, Illinois) with Air Choice One (3E) on a Cessna 208 Grand Caravan out of ORD: (see report here). Back then I had mentioned that I would have liked to fly with 3E to their other ex-ORD destination, namely BRL, perhaps as a stopover on the way to St. Louis, a city that I really wanted to visit at some point. I started working on this plan until I realized that due to budgetary and scheduling reasons I had to abandon the BRL idea and settle instead with a routing through DEC (namely fly ORD-DEC-STL, for $69). Once this was taken care of I had to find a way to return to Chicago. Both UA and AA offered very competitive fares on the STL-ORD route (also $69 one-way). While tempting, I preferred to fly to MDW since it is somewhat easier to get home from there. Interestingly enough WN was offering a late-night one-way STL-MDW fare for exactly the same price of $69. For $11 more WN offered an evening STL-MSP-MDW route but a) I had been to MSP before (see report here) and even though I loved it I was not as tempted to visit it again at this point and b) the layover at MSP was dangerously short and, this being January, I didn't want to risk spending the night in the frozen tundra. I went ahead and booked the direct route. After informing Alex of my plans he decided to join me too. So all in all, I was going to register one new airport (STL), 2 new routes (DEC-STL & STL-MDW), a new state (Missouri) and also my first joint trip with a fellow a.netter.
Blue lines represent flights with Air Choice One and the red line represents the flight with Southwest.
Air Choice One (3E) is a St. Louis-based airline that flies out of STL to JBR (Jonesboro, Arkansas), DEC (Decatur, Illinois) and BRL (Burlington, Iowa); and also from the latter two airports to ORD. These routes are funded by the federal government's Essential Air Service program (EAS), a program that aims to help small communities in maintaining links to the national air transportation network. 3E uses a fleet of single-prop Cessna 208 Grand Caravans configured to fit 8 passengers (9 if there is no co-pilot), on plush leather seats with extra leg room.
Carrier: Air Choice One (3E)
Aircraft: Cessna 208B Grand Caravan
Given that Alex and I live in different parts of town we decided to meet at the airport. I got up early, jumped on a train and arrived at ORD with more than 3.5 hours to spare. I wasn’t sure if I could check in this early but to my surprise the two friendly ladies at the 3E counter informed me that I could. Once they found out I was an aviation enthusiast and that I was flying down to St. Louis just for the sake of flying the Cessna 208B they got intrigued and started chatting with me (I’m sure they were bored out of their mind and they were looking for ways to entertain themselves). After giving me my boarding passes (proper ones this time, not the "receipt-like" ones I got last time) they told me that this was meant to be an almost full flight (7 people were on the pax list) and that 2 days ago this flight took off for DEC with no pax at all. Too bad I didn't book that flight. After chatting with them for a little while I made my way to security which thankfully was not busy. Once done with that I made my way to the gate. What I love about the L concourse at ORD is that if you walk to the end of it you can enjoy magnificent views of the International Terminal 5 (with all its heavies) and also of runways 9R-27L and 10-28. I just sat there and enjoyed the views while waiting for Alex.
ORD's metro station. Not too busy at this time
This must be where I go
And here's the 3E desk. First Class for all!
A VX A320, namely the "Midnight Ride"
The rather cozy jetBlue gate area
And here's one of their birds
Spirit (NK) also departs from this neck of the woods
My carry-on tagged and ready for the trip.
Looking toward the International Terminal 5 and all its heavies.
The part of Concourse L where I decided to camp in order to do some spotting.
Lots of heavies arriving this morning
A Chautauqua Embraer-145
An interesting cargo 747 of Evergreen Intl in the basic colors of Saudia
A freshly arrived Korean Air B777
A Spirit A319 in the old livery
And as if the old livery did not scream of "LCC" enough they changed it to...this. I must say I prefer the old one.
A lovely ANA arriving from NRT
What do we have here? Foam cups and some blankets for AA.
I love those tiny Embraers...
The "Midnight Ride" departing for no doubt somewhere in California
And here's "Grizwald the Grizzly Bear"
This guy has had so much de-icing juice that it turned pink
JAL ready for its return to NRT
Following pushback a member of the ground crew had to inspect the nosegear (perhaps a routine procedure?). Here you can see him walking away.
About an hour prior to departure Alex made his appearance and so did our Cessna, arriving from DEC. To my disappointment this was the same Cessna that took me to DEC a year ago. Oh well. I don't care too much about new registrations but it would have been nice to try a different aircraft in this case. While waiting for boarding to be called I mentioned to Alex how lucky we were that despite the heavy snowfall forecast for this morning we did not get a single flake. Literally 2 minutes later a mini-snowstorm made it appearance out of nowhere. I should have kept my mouth shut…
It's a bit chilly out there
The remnants of last night's snowfall
Here's our little fella
Getting ready to park
Time to get ready for boarding I guess...
And here comes the snow...
Boarding started about 5 minutes before our scheduled departure time. The gate agent showed us the way to the tiny staircase door that would lead us to the tarmac. From there we followed the two pilots to the aircraft. Once inside Alex and I claimed the two seats behind the pilots so we could spy on them. After a short briefing by the head pilot we started the engine and before we knew it we were taxing next to a couple of giants on our way to the runway. While taxiing we passed by the LOT 787 that got stranded at ORD following the grounding of all Dreamliners. It was nice to see my first 787 up and close but it was sad to see it left by itself at the end of a taxiway exposed to the elements. Hopefully those guys will be flying again very soon.
Our gate. More like a door leading to some stairs really.
Walking to the aircraft
No "under the wing" photo in this report I'm afraid. How about an "under the jetbridge" one?
Ready for boarding
The seats were really comfy. The 3-point seatbelts not so much.
Excellent legroom. It helped that the pilot was rather short so he had to pull his seat forward by a lot.
A view of the cabin
The furry copilot seat and the safety instructions
Here's "Freedom the Bald Eagle"
And here's the stranded LOT 787
On the runway ready to go
Once we aligned on runway 28 we took off like a bat out of hell. This must have been the fastest take-off I’ve ever experienced. I didn’t even have time to switch my camera to video mode so I had to settle with a couple of still photos. Fortunately the snow had stopped by this point. In fact the skies were relatively clear which allowed us to see the ground for most of our cruising down to DEC. Even though all you could see was farms, it was still better than only seeing clouds, like the last time I flew down to DEC. It’s great fun to look at the views from 8.000ft. Compared to more traditional cruising altitudes you can see so many more details of the landscape around you.
Soon after taking off
Over the west Chicago suburbs
Detail of the pilot's side window
And over some rail tracks
The Chicago Skyline through the clouds
A hazy view of MDW
A WN 737 heading no doubt for MDW
Cruising at 8.000ft
Over the frozen Kankakee river. In the late 90's the town named after the river (located further down east) was repeatedly voted as the worse place to live in the USA and Canada.
Our copilot appears to be an Oklahoma State University alumnus
A wind farm in central Illinois. We saw a few of those on the way south.
After about an hour of flying we arrived at the Decatur area and looped around the airport to land on runway 6 from a southwesterly direction. Once on the ground the pilot asked those continuing to STL whether they wanted to stay on the aircraft or get out to stretch their legs in the terminal. Given that getting out would have involved passing through security again Alex and I decided to stay put. What’s more we didn't want to risk losing our special seats.
How do you say "pollution" in Decaturian?
Here's were we'd be in a few minutes
A nice view of DEC as we looped around
Going around the frozen lake before aligning for landing
A clear view of the runway
Arriving at the terminal
Decatur Airport sign
Carrier: Air Choice One (3E)
Aircraft: Cessna 208B Grand Caravan
The only other aircraft we saw while in DEC was this Cessna 750 Citation X
Peeking at the controls while the copilot was away
After about 20 minutes on the ground we were joined by 4 more passengers (which replaced the 4 that got off at DEC) and headed for runway 12 for another quick take-off. The skies continued to be clear, even though we came across some clouds once we got near the Illinois-Missouri border.
Control tower at DEC. I wonder how busy they are up there
A cool chopper at DEC
Arriving at the runway and getting ready for take off
Not sure why but this time we cruised at 6,000ft and later at 4.000ft for most of the flight, which lasted a total of 42 minutes. I was hoping for an easterly approach that would have allowed me a glimpse of the Gateway Arch in downtown St. Louis but instead we arrived from the west landing on runway 12L.
The town of Gillespie in southern Illinois
Following the highway south
Once we crossed the Mississippi River into Missouri we came across this. It looks rather nasty
Approaching STL. You can see the St.Louis skyline in the distance
Aligning for touchdown
A partial look of the control tower. Not my brightest photography moment but that's all I got,.
Another F9 aircraft. This time it's "Sherman the Sea Lion".
Taxiing next to Terminal 2. We'd be heading there a few hours later
Air Choice One is based in Terminal 1 at STL. Once we arrived at our gate we were met by their entire fleet of Cessna Grand Caravans. It was also nice to see a couple of Cape Air’s Cessna 402s. After getting off the aircraft I saw a minibus with Air Choice One’s colors park next to us and for a moment I thought that we would be bused to the terminal. Instead an agent asked us to follow her to the terminal on foot. A few yards of walking and an elevator later we were in the lovely Terminal 1 building. I don’t know why but I did not expect STL to look so good. It was bright, spacious, sparkling clean and a world apart from both ORD and MDW. For a moment I felt jealous. Alex and I walked to the Metrolink station, bought our tickets and jumped on a train heading to downtown St. Louis, our home for the next 6 hours.
Getting off the Cessna
The bus I mentioned earlier
I'd love to ride one of those some day...
Air Choice One's entire fleet parked at STL.
A look at the concourse
Nice big FIDS
Leaving the Terminal 1 Metrolink station
Interesting building as seen from inside the train on the way to downtown.
Scottrade Center. Home of the St.Louis Blues NHL team
8th and Pine Metrolink station
The main reason I always wanted to visit St. Louis is my fascination with the Gateway Arch. I’ve always been intrigued by it and wanted to see it up and close. I knew that this was not the best time of the year to enjoy great views from its top but at least on a freezing January Thursday I wouldn’t have to fight any long lines of tourists. Once downtown, Alex and I walked around the Old Courthouse and the park area near the Arch before entering the underground segment of the monument. We bought tickets for those tiny tram capsules that take you up the arch and a few minutes later we were enjoying the views through the tiny windows at the top.
A nice welcoming sight once we got off the train. The Old Courthouse and the Gateway Arch in the background
The nice and shiny KPMG building
A closer look at the old courthouse building
And here it is in all its glory
Eero Saarinen was a hell of a cool architect
You gotta love this thing
It looks cool no matter the angle
I was literally drooling by this point
Waiting in line for the lift up. Each little arch represented a capsule door.
And here's the interior of the capsules that take you up to the top. Rather futuristic. And claustrophobic.
This is how it looks at the top.
Downtown St.Louis as seen from atop the Gateway Arch
Looking toward the Illinois side. Not much to see there.
The windows up there are tiny. They had to be or they couldn't withstand the pressure exerted by each leg of the arch.
The St.Louis Cardinals baseball team ballpark (Busch Stadium)
You can either take the capsule down or simply slide down this on your butt
The Old Courthouse as seen from the top
During the non-winter months you can enjoy a 3-minute helicopter ride around the Arch for $35
The bridges that connect Missouri with Illinois over the Mississippi River: Martin Luther King Jr Bridge and Eads Bridge
Those little ferries offer tours around the Mississippi but not this time of the year
The sun slowly setting behind the horizon
I was hoping to stay up there until it got dark but we soon realized that if we did so we would have ran out of time. My plan for some nice night shots of the Arch had to be abandoned. Maybe next time. We made our way down and headed to the Union Station to grab some food.
It was rather freezing out there but I didn't wanna leave yet
If you look closely you can see the tiny windows in the top
The Old Ct.Louis Cathedral and the Arch
Playing with reflections
This squirrel probably missed the memo that hibernation season started 2 months ago
After accomplishing mission "Gateway Arch" and after a quick late lunch/dinner at the Union Station we made our way back to the airport.
[Edited 2013-01-26 20:37:26]