In my free time over the summer I was trawling that "other" aviation photo site for planes I had never seen before. In my search, I stumbled upon this picture of what looked to be a Pitts S-2. Out of curiosity, I plugged the N-Number into the FAA database and found it to be registered to the "Mid America Air Museum." I had never heard of this museum before, but soon found that it is the fourth largest air museum in the United States. I had also never heard of the town where it was located: Liberal, Kansas.
Liberal, KS is located quite literally in the middle of nowhere. About a four hour drive from Wichita, five hours from Amarillo, and even further from anywhere else, Liberal is the exact stereotype of a small Kansas town. I briefly considered flying into Wichita and making a road trip to the air museum, but set the idea aside. Road trips through Kansas are far from fun.
My plans to visit the Mid America Air Museum did not resurface until later in the week when I decided to read up on the history of the Liberal airport. As I reached the bottom of the Wikipedia page I noticed a section for "Airlines and Destinations". "Wait, what? Airlines and destinations? At this tiny little airport??". Yes, it was true, it turns out that Great Lakes Airlines serves Liberal twice a day on its Beechcraft 1900Ds from Denver, via Dodge City and Clovis.
I had never flown on Great Lakes before, and I had never flown the Beech 1900D before. I decided that I had to make this trip happen. After a bit of searching on ITA, I settled on an itinerary in early September, flying ATL-DEN-DDC-LBL and back again, on United Express E-170s and Great Lakes' Beech 1900Ds!
Early on Saturday, September 14th I made my way to the Atlanta airport and bypassed my usual Delta check-in kiosk, instead making my way to the nearly deserted United check-in in the North end of the terminal. United's kiosk promptly spat out my boarding passes and I was on my way.
KATL-KDEN Flight # UA 3538 (Operated by Shuttle America)
Equipment:Embraer EMB-170 (N656RW)
Scheduled Departure: 07:39 Actual Departure: 07:30
Scheduled Arrival: 09:16 Actual Arrival: 09:10
I begin this trip report with a Lockheed Tristar. (I wish...) An interesting mural on the wall in the T-Concourse.
United's operations in Atlanta are rather diminutive compared to the massive Delta and South/Tran presence. United operates primarily Express service to Hartsfield, running only three daily flights between Atlanta and Denver on E-170s and CRJ-700s. For comparison, Delta runs the same route 8x daily on a mix of MD-90s and 757s, Frontier runs twice daily A319s, and AirTran runs twice daily on 737s. Needless to say, there's lots of competition. I was satisfied with my E-170 though; I've never done a "long range" RJ flight before.
United's operations for the day in Atlanta.
My flight to Denver was operating from the far end of the "T" concourse, a very quick walk from the North security checkpoint. Unfortunately, United's gates do not have any windows installed; I would have to wait until Denver to catch a glimpse of my plane. The small gate area never really filled up, there were more than enough seats available for the 76 passengers headed to Denver. Boarding was quick, called by zones; I made my way aboard with Zone 3 (of five).
The Embraer was just as comfortable as I remembered from past E-170 and E-190 flights. The seats were wide, the windows huge, and the overhead bin accepted my backpack without any problems (most roll aboard bags fit too, although a couple people struggled). My only complaint was with the window placement. While the windows themselves were huge, the gap between them was equally large. With United's configuration, the windows almost exclusively lined up just behind the seat-backs, making viewing less than comfortable. Once reclined I had a better view out over the wing.
Push-back commenced on time (perhaps a couple minutes early). From T16, taxiing to Runway 8R took no more than a minute. The engines spooled up and we made a rather sluggish departure out to the East, slowly turning North and then on our way to the West. The E-170 was loaded down with a full load of passengers, and fuel for the 1100 mile (3.5 hour) flight. Regardless, we climbed straight up to 36,000ft and remained there until just outside of Denver.
Onboard, looking out the massive windows of the E-170.
Taxiing out of Delta-land.
"Fly Delta Jets", not today at least!
Airborne, just past the Delta TechOps center.
Making a turn slowly to the Northwest.
Climbing out over the Marietta Dobbins Air Reserve Base.
In-flight service heading to Denver was...well, it was typical domestic United service. The drink cart came by after 20 minutes and offered thimble-sized cups of soda. United does not offer any complimentary food on domestic flights of any length. Buy-on-board items were available, but only the non-perishable snack boxes. The flight attendants were polite and efficient, but after the initial drink offerings they did not re-appear for any follow up services.
Forming some ice crystals on the window. It got surprisingly cold next to the window after two or so hours of flight.
Descending over the plains of Kansas. More on them to come...
Airport in sight.
Descent into Denver was uneventful (no sign of the storms which had been flooding Boulder throughout the week). We lined up for a long final on Runway 34R, one of Denver's shorter runways (I use the term "short" liberally, it's still 12,000ft long). Denver's runways are so spread out that we cruised past the terminal still 500' above the ground, eventually finding the tarmac and making a mile-long taxi back to the gate.
After pulling up to a jetway in the "B" concourse (United's own concourse in DEN), the plane emptied very quickly (one perk of such a small aircraft). Just outside the gate I was met with a large wall of flight information screens, so I determined my connecting gate and started the long walk in the right direction.
Making some condensation on final.
Still on final... Denver's airport is absolutely massive, I felt like we were flying by the terminal half way to cruising altitude...
Pulling into the gate. Looks like we're in the land of United here.
Oh cool, apparently I was flying aboard and old Tulip livery (UA's best livery, IMHO).
The Denver airport is massive. While set up in the same general layout as Atlanta, everything in Denver is scaled up by a factor of two or three. The gaps between concourses are wide enough to taxi four or five aircraft abreast; the terminals are longer, wider, and quite a bit nicer. I've always enjoyed flying into and out of Denver, the terminals have a definite open and airy feel to them. The trains between concourses, on the other hand, are quite annoying. There's no way to walk between concourses, the trains run at a 3-5 minute interval, and they just feel slow. The "Rock N Roll" theme public address announcements always seem weird to me too. Regardless, I made it to the far end of the A concourse with plenty of time to spare to catch my flight to Liberal on Great Lakes.
Massive multi-story atrium at the center of the concourse.
Checking out Frontier's operation from the famous over-the-taxiway bridge.
Now that's what I came for... Amsterdam has its Fokker Farm, Denver has a...Great Lakes Gaggle?
KDEN-KLBL (via KDDC) Flight # GLA 7185
Equipment:Beechcraft B1900D (N211GL)
Scheduled Departure: 11:15 Actual Departure: 11:25
Scheduled Arrival: 14:18 Actual Arrival: 14:10
Arriving at my gate, I was quite surprised by the sheer number of Great Lakes aircraft on the ramp. A handful of Embraer Brasilias and more than a dozen Beechcraft 1900Ds were scattered around the end of the A Concourse. The concourse itself was relatively quiet, oweing mostly to the light Saturday morning schedule. I checked in with the gate agent, who took down my weight and scribbled something on my UA-printed boarding pass.
One of Great Lakes bigger Brasilias out on the ramp.
That's more like it; the bloated King Air, the airplane of many appendages, the Beech 1900D. This one's having some maintenance work done on the engines.
Some of the Great Lakes Beeches have branded tails, this one for "Dodge City, the Cowboy Capital of the West", my intermediate stop for the day's flight.
Great Lakes operates from a ground-level addition at the end of the A concourse. The architecture of the terminal reminds me of an old elementary school building: painted cinder block walls, scattered wire-reinforced windows, and a slightly musty and dim ambiance (quite the opposite of the rest of DEN's brightly lit concourses). Luckily the concourse was nearly empty and therefore very quiet.
Looking through the safety glass at a busy ramp.
The end-of-concourse waiting area.
Approaching the scheduled boarding time, an announcement was made stating a delay of "about 20 minutes for maintenance." I sat back down, but was pleasantly surprised two minutes later when general boarding for the flight was called. As we lined up at the door, a very concerned looking gate agent returned to the counter muttering to no one in particular "No, no, no! Turn around, we're not boarding yet!" As I walked away I overheard her chastise the other gate agent, asking "Do you ever listen?!"
Luckily the maintenance delay was just as quick as promised, and we were soon headed out onto the ramp. As I stepped outside the door, a Beech 1900 came flying down the taxiway and onto the ramp, coming to a stop right in front of the door. A gate agent collected everyone's gate checked bags while waiting for the propellers to come to a stop. I was the second person to board, climbing up the aircraft stairs and picking myself a seat towards the back.
Waiting on the ramp for my ride to Liberal. N211GL, titled for the city of Laramie, Wyoming.
My United boarding pass had printed a seat assignment of "1A", but hadn't given me an option to select a seat. I wasn't sure whether seating was actually assigned or not, so I just picked one with a good view. Seat 1A had no window, so I ended up in 6A. The load on the day's flight was very light (7 passengers total) so my seat choice wasn't a problem.
The distinct view from the inside of a Beech 1900. Note the odd colors; all the windows are heavily tinted and polarized.
Surprisingly spacious cabin. I had never really believed Beechcraft when they called this a "stand-up cabin." At 5'10" it was fine for me.
The Flight Attendant duties were performed by the first officer, a very charismatic young man. He had welcomed the passengers on board, making sure that passengers didn't come near the wing or propeller. Once on board, he took a count of passengers and asked that "anyone headed all the way to Liberal, please raise your hand." I raised my hand, looked around, and noticed that I was the only one. All six other passengers would be disembarking at Dodge City. The F/O came back to each exit seat (seats 1A, 5C, and 6A and C) and gave a personal exit seat briefing (including demonstrating opening the main cabin door).
After a standard safety briefing (all the usual seat belt and flotation points covered) the F/O disappeared into the cockpit and began the start-up checklist. Before the engines started it was easy to listen in on the checklist items. The two in the cockpit had obviously done this routine before; they rattled through the checklist items with auctioneer like speed. "ParkingBrakeSetLandingGearLeverCheckedDownBatterySwitchOnConditionLeverCheckedCutoff etc, etc." After the engines were started it wasn't possible to hear any conversation up front, but the door to the cockpit remained open and I was still able to view the pilots' hands moving cartoonishly fast across the various controls.
Taxiing out from a busy ramp.
We made a very long trek down to Runway 8 for takeoff. One of the passengers behind me leaned over to his travel companion and remarked "I didn't know we were just going to drive to Dodge City!" The cockpit door remained open throughout the taxi and takeoff. It was no surprise when the throttles were advanced for takeoff; I was able to watch as the pilots ran through their checklist!
Lining up on Runway 8.
Making a quick turn to the Southeast, heading towards Dodge.
Slowly making our way up to cruising altitude.
Great Lakes doesn't provide a flight attendant on their Beechcraft flights. With no snack to look forward to, I settled in to do some reading and enjoy the view. We climbed surprisingly high (23,000ft); high enough that my window quickly iced over. The exhaust from the engine seemed to be hitting my window just right to form a thin layer of frozen condensation. As far as I could tell, every other window on the plane was perfectly fine. Luckily there wasn't all that much to see outside; lots and lots of flat fields and plains.
Checking out the seat-back contents. A rather generic safety card.
That girl looks eerily content bobbing there with a seat cushion...
Mandatory leg room shot. About the same as a CRJ, but with a much bigger windown and direct aisle access.
Shortly after reaching cruising altitude the pilots slid closed their small privacy doors. I wonder what they were doing up there that they didn't want observed? Taking a nap maybe?
Droning along at 23,000ft.
Almost exactly one hour after takeoff, the first officer slid the cockpit doors open and peeked out at the cabin. Seeing everyone awake and doing well he picked up the microphone and announced our descent into Dodge City.
Great Lakes also has an automated passenger information system installed. Just after the first officer made his announcement, a disembodied voice repeated much of the same information ("seat backs up, no electronics, etc, etc") in far more vague terminology.
Spying on the flight deck on descent.
It's starting to look like Kansas out there.
Signs of civilization on final.
The approach into Dodge City was a little bumpy, but the relatively heavy Beech (relative to, say, a Cessna Skyhawk...) seemed to handle the thermals well. I didn't observe any of the white knuckles which are commonly latched to the seat backs on Cape Air or other small-small plane flights flights.
On the ground in Dodge, pulling off of Runway 14.
Coming to a stop in "The Cowboy Capital of the West."
The stop in Dodge City was brief. The #2 engine was left running while ramp agents grabbed some baggage from the back and then escorted all of the other passengers to the terminal. I stayed onboard, but decided to move up a few rows for a nice view of the propellers on the next short leg to Liberal.
One passenger got on in Dodge, heading to Denver. I was hoping to have a truly private flight to Liberal, but I suppose a 1:1 pilot to passenger ratio isn't all that bad either.
The first officer once again came back and greeted each of us personally. After his safety briefing, he paused and asked "How was the temperature back here for the last leg?" when I responded "a little chilly" he grinned and said "that's what I thought, but I kept checking with the guy in row one and he just kept giving me a thumbs up!"
Nice little Western-themed terminal. I'll have to check it out sometime in the future.
Big prop attached to a PT6A-67D turbine.
Better view of the flight deck from up here too.
Once the other passenger was buckled in the first officer shut the door (taking care to check the door latches with a flashlight, the King Air series doors have a bad habit of falling off in flight...). The left engine was started quickly and we taxied back down to Runway 14; total time on the ground was around ten minutes.
Cool reflection in the prop.
Full power. Very sporty acceleration from the nearly empty plane.
Up to a fairly low cruising altitude, over the ubiquitous "crop circles" of the American West.
Making pretty good speed, just over 180 knots indicated.
The first officer poked his head out of the cockpit about mid-flight and tried to mime something to the extend of "are you cold?" It was a little chilly, but not terribly so. Not knowing how else to respond over the drone of the engines I just gave him a thumbs up. He looked a little confused, shrugged, and retreated back to the cockpit.
Not long afterwards, the automated descent announcement began playing, informing us that we would be on the ground very shortly.
Making a slow left turn onto final approach for Runway 17.
Already pretty low, lining up with the runway.
The small town of Liberal coming into view in the distance.
Just about to touch down.
Oh hey, the air museum, that's what I'm here for!
The unique profile of the Pratt and Whitney PT-6.
Lots of cool planes out on the ramp.
Some interesting airworthy planes on the ramp too.
Coming to a stop at the Glen L Martin Air Terminal in Liberal.
The stop in Liberal was a quick turn as well. The #2 engine remained turned on while the ramp agents scrambled to the back to grab my bag. The F/O opened the door and directed me towards the terminal, where a ramp agent was already waiting for me at the door. The terminal door was shut behind me, leaving me standing (my ears still ringing slightly from the flight) inside the nearly deserted terminal.
Knowing that I would return to the terminal early the next morning, I made a bee-line to the door and turned right, walking down the fence line towards the Liberal Mid-America Air Museum.
The Liberal Mid-America Regional Airport was first constructed in the early 1940's as a heavy bomber crew training base and manufacturing facility. The airport was originally quite large, featuring three sets of parallel runways and a large Beechcraft manufacturing facility. In 2013, four of the six runways are crumbling (one is now a drag racing strip), but luckily the Beechcraft facility is still standing, now filled with unique airplanes as the Mid-America Air Museum.
The Mid-America Air Museum is supposedly the fourth largest air museum in the United States (behind the Smithsonian, US Air Force Museum at Wright-Pat, and the Pima Air & Space I believe). For being in the middle of nowhere, there's a surprisingly diverse collection of aircraft on display, from modern General Aviation to rare experimentals and military warbirds.
Unfortunately, the air museum has a few more airplanes than it knows what to do with. The planes are packed in so densely that some are hard to view, let alone photograph. Nonetheless, there was plenty of cool stuff to see.
Lot of unique homebuilt aircraft and other modern GA.
Classic GA and some WWII Liaison aircraft.
Beech 2000 Starship, wedged in the back of the hangar.
Interesting paint scheme on this Mooney M-18 Mite. Throwback to the early Culver drones which Al Mooney designed during WWII.
Very rare Luscobe type buried behind some planes, the T8F Observer, a tandem two-seater designed for military observation work.
Quite an angry looking plane, a Call-Air A-9 agricultural plane.
One of only three Part-23 certified auto-gyro types, the McCulloch J-2.
My favorite catch of the day, a highly modified Globe GC-1 Swift. Fitted with tip-tanks, a larger engine, and modified tail.
The town of Liberal itself wasn't much to write about. Aside from the air museum, the town's claims to fame include an annual pancake festival and "Dorothy's House Museum", a museum devoted to the Wizard of Oz. My cab took a scenic route through town on the way to the hotel, but I didn't see much (aside from a surprising number of Mexican restaurants and trucks with Haliburton logos on the sides.)
I ordered out some sub-par Chinese food and slept decently well (the Days Inn Liberal, not terrible for $54/night) before getting up early and heading back to the airport for a 7:45am flight.
KLBL-KDEN (via KDDC) Flight # GLA 7281
Equipment:Beechcraft B1900D (N192GL)
Scheduled Departure: 07:49 Actual Departure: 07:50
Scheduled Arrival: 08:48 Actual Arrival: 08:45
Not wanting to risk being stranded in Liberal, I arrived at the airport very early, about 1:45 before the scheduled departure time. I found the terminal to be entirely deserted, except for a skunk which was digging for grubs and keeping me from getting very close to the fence...
I found a small plaza across from the terminal and played around with my camera while I waited.
Today's airplane, N192GL, waiting out the night on the ramp.
How low (an ISO) can you go without a tripod?
The Glenn L Martin Air Terminal still closed up for the night.
Eventually, about one hour prior to departure, the airport staff and other passengers began to arrive. When I walked in to the airport I was the third in line to check in for the flight. The terminal eventually became relatively busy, with a whole seven passengers embarking from Liberal.
Among those passengers were a pair of school children connecting to a Frontier flight, apparently as part of a school sponsored program. There was quite a bit of confusion about their baggage, since Frontier had recently enacted its ever-popular $100 carry-on rule. Frontier still allows free carry-on baggage if the flight is booked via Frontier's own website, but these children (and dozens of others from the same school district) had been booked through a travel agent.
The Great Lakes check-in agents were very apologetic, and offered to call the school district to work something out in the future, but for this day's flight the parents forked over cash to check the bags through instead.
I was connecting through to United and had no trouble checking in (although the check-in agent recommended I trade my boarding pass for a "real" one when I get to Denver, since theirs don't always scan properly with United's machines).
Liberal's terminal is decorated with Glenn Martin memorabilia. According to a plaque at the airport, Martin lived in Liberal as a child. Wikipedia says he lived in Salina, though...
T-20 Minutes to departure. Still no pilots, but the sun is coming up!
Now we have some pilots.
The TSA eventually showed up (3 TSA "officers" and a local cop all for seven passengers) and opened the checkpoint. No nude-o-scope here, but as I've noticed with other small airports everyone received an explosives screening swab and bag search instead. Past the TSA checkpoint there was a small room, barely 10'x10', and a door to the ramp. It wasn't long before we were ushered out to the plane.
Bag handed off to the ramp agent, climbing abo