Science and sugar are two sides of the same coin - Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

Science and sugar are two sides of the same coin – Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

Recently, I shared some background on NASA’s airborne telescope; the 747SP called SOFIA- the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. The background is interesting enough, but getting to fly on it was taking this to the next level.

One thing I was not expecting was a bunch of sugar onboard. On top of it recently being the Mission Director’s birthday; myself, the public affairs officer for the program, and the outreach director all brought bags and boxes of empty calories. Delicious, empty calories. Science is hard work, and sugar is a necessity. Doubly so when the Mission Director insists that she is not taking any of the cake home with her.

This is where SOFIA is normally parked, from this angle you can better see the telescope fairing. Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

This is where SOFIA is normally parked; from this angle you can better see the telescope fairing – Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

Okay, beyond being a pirate ship full of candy, then? How about a lot of familiar bits and pieces from a number of different airlines?

Nose-to-nose with a Volga-Dnepr Il-76. The windows at the forward navigator’s station are a distinctive feature of the aircraft.

With Boeing in our backyard, unusual aircraft are not an uncommon sight at any of metro Seattle’s airports. Antonov An-124s are regular visitors, usually delivering engines to Boeing’s Everett factory. I was recently at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) when a rare bird was there to pick up some cargo.

A crane and flatbed trailer were used to load large crates of specialized welding equipment that was to be delivered to Australia

This particular Ilyushin-76-TD-90-VD is owned by Russia-based Volga-Dnepr Airlines, which operates five of these aircraft. Part of the Volga-Dnepr group, the parent company also owns Airbridge Cargo Airlines and Atran Airlines.

This is N747NA, better known as SOFIA. The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy Photo - Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

This is N747NA, better known as SOFIA- the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy – Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

You know, despite being a carbon-based life form and therefore largely composed of water molecules – that doesn’t mean I have to like water vapor.

It’s annoying. Think about it? You come in from outside into a warm room and your glasses fog up. Water vapor condenses and produces fog, which keeps me from flying. Sometimes, water vapor even contains annoying minerals resting in solution that can damage precision electronics. If you think I am annoyed by water vapor, talk to an astronomer! It’s worse for them.

Imagine being on the only habitable planet you know of, but having the atmosphere that keeps you alive act like a giant opaque blanket. Gross, right? That’s Earth!

With the sliding door over its 17-ton infrared telescope wide open, NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy – or SOFIA – soars over California's snow-covered Southern Sierras on a test flight in 2010 - Photo: NASA

With the sliding door over its 17-ton infrared telescope wide open, NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy – or SOFIA – soars over California’s snow-covered Southern Sierras on a test flight in 2010 – Photo: NASA

Now imagine that you want to look into the vast reaches of the cosmos, at wavelengths below what the human eye can see, which also happen to be even more affected by the water vapor that resides within the lower atmosphere.  A recipe for despair.

The best way to get above the earth’s vapor-barrier would be to build a satellite. I think everyone agrees on that.

If, long after your natural life ends, the billions of dollars in funding you requested to build a satellite is approved – they might name it after you and your grad student’s grandchildren may be able to profit from the data. That doesn’t seem like the best idea for continuing research at a regular tempo does it? What do you do? Well, beyond actually funding scientific endeavors more, there is a second choice.

Photo: Manu Venkat | AirlineReporter

“Inspiration of Japan” – Photo: Manu Venkat | AirlineReporter

Air travel is a unifying force that brings people together. At the same time, it can be a great way to experience the differences between countries or cultures. I got to do just that during a trip to Japan, which had long been at the top of my destination list. My time on the ground exploring Japan’s teeming cities was amazing, but I also enjoyed experiencing Japan’s aviation world and how – in many ways – it differed from what I was used to in the U.S.

Read on for my two cents – or, rather, two Yen – on flying around Japan with one of its two flagship airlines: All Nippon Airways (ANA).