Wednesday, July 12, 2006

A Perfect Storm

A couple weeks back I was assigned a few days' flying from Chicago down to Dallas-Fort Worth and back and had one evening that was especially noteworthy. I want to say that it was one of those spectacular flying nights, except that in a way every night is spectacular when flying. That sounds silly, I suppose, but there's a certain macho pilot detachment that refuses to regularly acknowledge the extraordinary nature of what we do for a living (my tendency to look at all this with wide eyes is either a gift or a character flaw, depending on your perspective). I used to think that if my memory were just a little better I could remember every single day's and night's flying. There are so many variables that each flying leg bears its own identity marks like a fingerprint--a particular conversation with a controller; some trivial mechanical issue; weather-related diversion; some telltale delay at the airport or enroute to it; a zillion things like this. My memory is not good enough for the task, but it would take a minimum of notes, I think, to jog the memory sufficiently.

This flight in question was smooth and clear (things far from guaranteed with summer flying) and was made memorable for our having to detour slightly around thunderstorms sitting over St. Louis. Thunderstorms are certainly not extraordinary, but nonetheless they're something that get a pilot's attention. They have the potential, if grossly mishandled, to do very bad things to an airplane (and to us inside that airplane), and in general they bring many of the worst things involved with weather--windshear, lightning, hail, tornadoes, icing--all things that warrant quality time from a pilot. So we begin with the idea that thunderstorms are evil things and must be given clear berth aloft. But on the other hand, especially at my previous jobs where I might need to work around a line of thunderstorms back and forth six or eight times in a single day, they become something that can be studied and understood, something that must be lived with if air travel is to be viable. So I don't mean to be flip about so potentially dangerous a thing, but when you've been at this for a while you come to know what you can get away with safely. One gains the skill of determining, within the boundaries of one's comfort level, what can be safely penetrated and what must be yielded to Mother Nature.

On this night, the sky was literally cloudless the entire way down to DFW except for this 50 or 80 mile-wide blob extending East from over St. Louis, and we needed to divert just a bit to the West to get safely around it. Nothing to it, even for the most skittish pilot. What was a big deal was how it looked as we approached, and as we navigated past. We could see the whole business coming on our radar many miles before we were actually there, and in fact our deviation around the storm was based on ranging and imaging from our onboard radar and not from what we could see out the windows (this is typical: radar is what makes flying around weather safe, and it is a required piece of equipment in these situations. Air Traffic Control can see the storms as well for a backup to our onboard equipment, but not with the kind of detail that we can generate). But being able to see the inner workings of the storm was an unusual treat. During daylight hours, thunderstorms appear as towering, roiling clouds, usually arrayed in a line or complex, with ominously dark centers. (If a storm is embedded in a larger cloud formation it will be invisible except to radar.) But at night, the shades of light and dark are invisible, and the lightning that accompanies every thunderstorm may now be visible for miles like a fireworks display. These lightning strikes serve not only to illuminate the clouds that are producing them, and thus show the storm's boundaries, but they make the dimensions and strength of the storm cell visible, often from 50 or more miles away. This is kind of like a visual confirmation of radar data, but much, much cooler and more awesome to look at.

There are a couple aspects of this. On a very simple level, it's not that often in life that we get to witness something of this power and magnificence up close, especially from this perspective. All we pilots being students of weather to varying degrees, it is the more amazing to see the "inner workings" of the storm; having the lights off, as it were, makes the inner workings much more visible to us, or at least as much of it as the lightning can indicate. Flying around at night is to hurl most of the time through pitch darkness; and here we are flying next to a spectacular buzillion-watt show of lights. The cockpit always becomes quiet in these situations. The lightning strikes may be at our altitude or far below or above us. On this night it seemed to be everywhere within the cell--so, miles above and below us.

But one other thing that is striking is that we almost never get to operate an airplane of this size and at these speeds nearby any relatively fixed object. For years I've noted, even before I was piloting the craft, that an airplane in cruise flight seems to be going very slowly. There's just no sense of speed as we sit in our passenger seats (well, except for the fact that we manage to cover 1,000 miles in just a couple of hours). Looking out the window it seems like we're not even moving! And this is, of course, because we're not next to anything to give our speed some frame of reference--no tarmac, no highway signs, no other cars, trees, etc. The exception to this rule is, of course, clouds. But even then, clouds never come in conveniently-gas-station- or bagel-shop-sized chunks, so that even flying along at 500 mph next to clouds can be deceiving. Stratus clouds may have no identifiable features, so apart from passing thru a layer we may have little sense of movement here either. Well, flying past a seven mile high thunderstorm at night does not answer every issue. But it DOES give you a sense of your speed through the otherwise featureless atmosphere. And that in turn gives a sense of how huge and powerful these storms can be.

And so that combination--passing a relatively fixed object for speed reference, and that object being one of profound visual wonder--makes for an experience that leaves a mark. And it's one of those things that, like trying to photograph a mountain, you know you would be unable to capture on film were you even to try. So you'll have to live with my description.

But it was cool.


Diane said...

Clouds in gas-station- or bagel-shop-sized chunks?
That’s great. We do write about what we … at least like a whole lot.
Could that be a photo you took with your phone?

wunelle said...

Alas, this is another loving web ripoff (a Google image search for "thunderstorm"). I keep thinking about taking camera phone photos of what I see in the airplane, but at night it's just not gonna work out.

Bagel shops. Yeah, notice I didn't say bicycle-shop-sized or fruit-smoothie-shop-sized? The truth is in the little details ;-)

Esbee said...

You get to see some amazing things with your job.

Sorry so absent; my father's still very, very ill.