I last saw this jet on approach to Oakland. I blogged about that event here. On that day, it was pouring with rain. I got the shot but it was rather dreary. This time I saw the jet parked up at Boeing Field in Seattle. Ironically, the sun was out on a lovely day – not Seattle’s reputation. Sadly, it wasn’t moving while I was there. I don’t know why it was in town but I heard there was a big software conference underway so maybe it was a fun trip for some big cheeses in the software business.
Flipping through various shoots looking for something else, I happened to come across a few shots of aircraft from the FedEx fleet. It occurred to me that I could drag together a post that was focused purely on the FedEx aircraft types. FedEx has an extensive fleet of aircraft these days. Their early days of using Falcon 20s to move their packages around are long gone. Now they have a variety of aircraft types of different sizes and range to meet all of their needs.
The fleet is constantly in a state of regeneration. The types that have long been a part of FedEx operations are now going or gone and being replaced with something more up to date. The 727 fleet has gone. The A300s and A310s are still in use but the number in the fleet is gradually going down. The interesting thing about the FedEx fleet is the way the economics are changing. For a long time, second hand jets that had been retired from airline service made a lot of sense. The operating model involves a lot of jets flying from their home base to Memphis in the middle of the night to deliver packages to the hub. Then, after a quick turnaround of all of the sorted packages, the planes fly back to base. Then they sit on the ground for most of the day.
This model means that utilization for the aircraft is low. Having a less efficient jet is not a problem when it only flies a few hours each day. If it is cheap to buy, you can use it efficiently. Having a bunch of inefficient 727s works very well. Similarly, the smaller aircraft that feed into hubs also can be operated relatively cheaply. A fleet of Cessna Caravans that sit on the ground or a bunch of ATR42s is effective.
The 727s are gone now. They have been replaced with 757s which have all been retired by airline operators (a lot of them from British Airways).The big change is that new jets are being acquired. The operating economics for FedEx have changed. The DC-10s (which got upgraded to MD-10s) are gradually being replaced by new 767s. Meanwhile, the MD-11s which had previously been the kings of the long haul flights are now being relegated to domestic service while the 777F takes over the long haul missions. Direct from Memphis to China is now the norm for the 777F. You don’t see MD-11s crossing the Pacific as much any more. I think the Europe runs are limited too. The 777 can go direct with a decent payload and doesn’t need to stop for fuel in Anchorage.
The MD-11 will survive for a while yet. Its less efficient operate will mean it can be pushed onto shorter segments with lower utilization. The high utilization missions will be the preserve of the newer jets. The older jets will be fine on the flights that only involve a couple of trips a day. For these their low capital costs will offset any operational cost penalty. The migration of the fleet will continue though. Soon it will be a fleet with a few less types and things will be a bit less interesting. There will still be a bunch of 727s scattered around airports that had them donated though so keep an eye out for them.
If the weather is really crap, my first thought is not to go photographing aircraft. I have experimented with going out on bad days to see if you can get an unusual view of something but when the forecast is for heavy and constant rain, that isn’t too appealing. So, what do you do when you get a notification that the Zero G Boeing 727 is coming in to Oakland. (Zero G operates flights that provide multiple short exposures to weightlessness as the plane flies a parabolic arc.) A type that is not too common any more, an unusual operator, your local large airport and it is on a Sunday morning so you aren’t at work. Everything is saying go.
Oakland is not a great place to shoot when operations are in the normal direction. You are also on the wrong side of the runway for good light. However, the storm meant that the approaches were coming down from the north and they pass by some locations that give good views of the runway. All of these things were suggesting I need to take a chance. I headed off equipped with wet weather gear. I chose to get there a little early to get some practice in.
Oakland is a pretty busy airport during the week but the weekend schedules are a lot lighter. I figured I wanted to shot a couple of approaches before my plane came in to view to get things set up right. The light was crap so I had to ramp up the ISO. Also, while the sky is dark, a lot of exposure compensation helped to get detail on the fuselage itself. Having found a combination I was happy with, a heavy belt of rain came in and the visibility rapidly diminished. By now the 727 was not far out so I figured I might just have blown it.
Fortunately, the rain came in fast but eased off just as quickly and soon I could just make out the outline of San Francisco in the murk which told me I should be able to get my picture. They checked in with the tower for landing clearance so I knew it was time to get out and get wet. Initially, everything looked really grey as the plane came in to view. Fortunately, as it ran down the approach, it was in the clear all of the way and I was able to get off a burst of shots. Once it was down, the weather was not going to get better and there were not many movements scheduled anyway so I decided I was happy with the catch and preferred to warm and dry indoors.
Seeing the 727 at Oklahoma City that was transporting horses reminded me of a trip to Van Nuys a few years ago with my buddy Paul. We were there towards the end of the day and were getting ready to bale when a 727 started up and taxied out. It was a freighter conversion being used for horse transportation. It was pretty much devoid of any external markings with a plane white (at some point in the past) paint job. It also had winglets retrofitted.
By the time it was ready for departure, the light was really beginning to fade so it was a case of slower shutter speeds and higher ISO. However, it is better to get the shot, even if it is a bit noisy. The jet rotated a little bit away from us which meant we had a really good view of it is it climbed out and away. A white(ish) jet against a grey sky in fading light is not ideal for photography but you take what you can get. The roar of a 727 is a little more muted as a result of hushkitting but they are still a jet that it is hard to ignore!
It’s not often that you see a Boeing 727 in service any more. There was a time when FedEx were still using them in substantial numbers. Now you are most likely to see a FedEx machine parked up since most airports seem to have acquired one of them somehow! Finding one actually in use is a far less common occurrence. However, they are still out there and every once in a while, you will get lucky.
I was in Oklahoma City heading home after some meetings when I glanced out of the window and saw a 727 taxiing past the terminal. It caught me out and it took a moment to get a camera out by which time it was a bit further away than was ideal but I did manage to grab a couple of shots. I was hoping that it was taxiing for departure so I would have a second opportunity as it took off but I guess it had just arrived and was heading to the ramp to park. It had text on the side suggesting it was for transporting horses. I had previously seen a similar jet at Van Nuys a few years ago. This time I only got some rough ground shots but any active 727 is worth noting these days.
The Museum of Flight in Seattle is currently in the process of building a new facility. While the work is underway, a number of airframes have been moved from their previous location to alternative spots until they can be moved to their new home. Most of them are still near the museum itself. However, the 727 seems to have drawn the short straw and it was parked up on Clay Lacy’s FBO ramp while I was visiting. It was near Joe Clark’s Learjet as well. Some cool stuff to look at for any visiting jets at the FBO!
Paul and I had a day of exploring and part of this took us up to Sacramento. We checked out things at Mather to see what was going on. Often the interesting things are not what is flying but what is parked up and this proved to be the case with a Boeing 727. It was parked alone at one end of the field. The area it was parked in was kind of interesting as we stopped the car on what had clearly once been a hangar which was now demolished. We were trying to work out how big the hangar was and what the USAF might have kept in it when Mather was an active base. However, the 727 was our primary focus. It was in Kingfisher colors and carried the registration N727VJ. The boss of Kingfisher is Vijay Mallya so this was obviously once his personal jet. It has winglets fitted but the paint looked a bit faded so it might have been out of use for some time. I suspect he has something a bit newer these days.