MOSES LAKE, Wash.--The last thing you expect to see while driving down a two-lane highway in the middle of rural Washington state is a JAL 747 flying low overhead, circling, landing and then taking off again.
But I can report that that's exactly what I saw as I drove south from Grand Coulee Dam toward Pasco, Wash., on my Road Trip 2006 around the Pacific Northwest.
I am not an aviation buff, but I was pretty sure there are no airports in this farming region hours east of Seattle big enough to support JAL flights. So I was puzzled.
And since I'm a journalist in search of stories on the road, I did a quick U-turn and went back to the airport to try to suss out what was going on.
And here's the story: The Grant County International Airport here is home to the second-longest runway in the United States, as well as relatively inexpensive fuel costs and low landing fees.
As a result, for 38 years, JAL has maintained a pilot's training center here, as does FedEx.
Thus, the 747 I saw flying around--as well as a small fleet of Air Force C-17s and a FedEx 727--was in the middle of a training exercise.
It really surprised when Mako Oshima, the administrative director for the JAL training facility, told me that the pilots learning to fly the 747 were first-timers.
That made me a little uneasy, as I've always been under the impression that commercial pilots have to work their way up, from small jets to larger ones and then, finally, after long and distinguished careers, to 747s.
But Oshima told me that JAL pilots with no previous flying experience can be certified to captain their 747s in as little as three years. Gulp.
A marketing brochure someone at the airport gave me informed me that the facility is so large it could fit two entire Seattle-Tacoma International Airports in its interior and still have room left over for planes to land. The runway itself is 13,500 feet long. That's well over two miles.
In any case, I am sad to report that the JAL folks would not let me onto their 747. Seems they have procedures. And they were too busy. Imagine. Not dropping everything when some unknown reporter from San Francisco turns up unannounced at your facility in south-central Washington.