Friday, December 23, 2005

The Year's Last Flying Post

It's a rare treat for me to fly in daylight. In my past life of flying, naturally, I flew in daylight all the time. Day and night both. But in the cargo world about 90% of domestic flying is done at night, and on my airplane it's about 99% (we have only a single daylight trip on the DC-8). During the peak shipping season, though--roughly Turkey Day thru the new year--it's another matter. All regular schedules are out the window and airplanes go every which way, at all times of the day & night, and to destinations normally not part of our repertoire.

So this week I've been flying to Reno and back, and the trip out there has been in daylight, the return in darkness. I've blogged before about the view from 35,000 feet, and I have little new to add to that post. But I will say that having expressed myself does not make the wonder of what you see go away (and since it's my damn blog, I can be repetitive if I want!).

On the ground we see things from a human perspective, we see the ruggedness or flatness of the land relative to our bodies and our cars and our lives: what is involved in putting in a road over this stretch? Is this a good place for a house? Is this a good river for fishing? But from six miles up most of that stuff disappears and what you see is from an entirely different perspective. (I think of how the same world looks from an ant's perspective, and how different it would seem if they could see things from six feet up as we do. This is the same thing.)

The overwhelming impression is of stuff that isn't even visible from the ground. Whereas we see a river on the ground, from aloft it appears as the bottom of a drain field which encompasses a much, much larger area, a single feature of a much larger and more complicated occurrence; and the evidence of the runoff that feeds the river, and its concomitant sculpting of the terrain, now take over as the dominant things. Likewise mountains. And again, like looking into a formicary, if you squint you can see evidence of human habitation--the stuff that might have occupied almost all of our attention had we been down there on the ground--and we can see how we have just laid our presence onto the existing features, features impossibly old.

As the sun sets, the natural features that dominate in daylight fade away, and the faint traces of human habitation take prevalence in our view. This is a weird transformation, especially when it's the mountains below and ahead of you that are disappearing. You know there is rugged terrain all around below you (admittedly, four miles below) but all you can see are faint lines of roadways and the occasional cluster of the lights of a small town (which you can imagine is nestled in a now-invisible ravine). On flatter terrain, the vast patterns of lights show details of human presence invisible during the day, like one of those grotesque schematics in an anatomy book, where eveything but the circulatory system is removed, showing an unmistakable human form but as though built of wire mesh.

It's all so fascinating that I have to tear myself away to tend to my job duties. (It wasn't all daylight and clear, of course, and it's another whole matter to blast off into the clouds at night, where not a single thing is visible out your windows as you hurl through the abyss at 300 knots. That's common stuff for an airline pilot, and it's what that whole instrument flying post a couple weeks back was about. But still, climbing out of a mountainous airport without visual reference is kinda spooky when you think about it. You look at your charts quite carefully then!)

Speaking of mountains (this is the part of the movie where the flying-wary slunk down in their seats and peek furtively at the screen thru cracks in their fingers), we had a lovely little encounter with severe turbulence & windshear last night as we passed the Easternmost part of the Rockies to the North of Denver. The controller, who had warned us of occasional reports of moderate turbulence (the terms light, moderate, severe and extreme have specific meanings in this context), had only a minute before asked us how our ride had been. "Only occasional light chop," we cheerily replied. Almost immediately upon unkeying the mic, we suddenly and without warning hit some really nasty bumps (my precious Diet Coke went flying!) and had an almost instantaneous increase of about 40 knots of airspeed (from M.82 to M.88 in a heartbeat). This overpowered the autopilot elevator servo and kicked the autopilot off, with its honking warning horn sounding the alert. It being my flying leg, I chopped the throttles about 50% and then all the way as we continued to gain speed, and fought to keep the airplane at something like its assigned altitude. Things smoothed out a bit, and then came the other side of the shear, with our airspeed dropping the 40 we gained and another 40 or so to boot. Power back up to cruise and above, to max climb. It took us about 2-3 minutes to get our airspeed back and the incident was over.

It's one of the great things about the DC-8, it's built like a brick shithouse. Nobody ever had structural concerns about a DC-8, and with four engines it's just a pretty damn safe place to be in a pinch. I think passengers always wonder about structural integrity when they are in bumpy conditions, but of course situations like the seaplane in Miami last week that lost a wing are statistically pretty much unheard of. But my time as an Engineer on the DC-8 (the engineer does the preflight walk-around) acquainted me with the nooks and crannies of this fabulously heavy machine. And one walks away from the encounter with a profound respect for Donald Douglas's way of doing things. It's a shame that the company is now gone, but luckily we still have the fruits of his labors.


Anonymous said...

Hello Mr. Wunelle:
I am also mystified by the view from above. After five years of flying internationally, I had become a bit of a foreign snob, somehow believing the myth that flying overseas was more glamorous. After a month of flying back in the States, I realize my gross error. Landing at unfamiliar airports in a familiar land has opened my eyes to all the places I have yet to see, here in the good old U.S. The land contours, housing establishments, waterways, and airports with unusually complicated departure procedures are all part of the charm of the American airspace. Being domestic and enjoying the local view from above has been absolutely delightful, thus far!

And speaking of the mountain waves, crossing the Rockies is always an adventure, providing the challenge of time management--- finding the exact right time is to eat your meal and enjoy a Diet Coke in the smooth.

See you on the Cheri2.

wunelle said...

A woman who reads the aviation posts! (I might have figured out who you were even before the sign-off!)

Glad you're back here in the domestic system. What's next? Will we see you back on the 8? (Hahaha!)

We're overdue for some Wick's!