Monthly Archives: December 2012

Aliens in the dark

The radio finally starts to quiet down about 50 miles west of Nashville. For the last hour it’s been a constant squawk of airplanes looking for smoother altitudes and controllers telling them there aren’t any. A massive line of weather, stretching from the Florida Panhandle up to the Canadian border has been dumping rain and high winds on the surface and causing bumpy rides up high. Climbing out of Charlotte we hit the clouds at 1000 feet and since then have been riding the winds, alternating between light and moderate turbulence. On my orders both flight attendants stayed strapped in their seats in the back. Finally, just as we crossed the Nashville VOR and started our turn to the southwest, we popped out the backside of the weather and into clear, smooth air.

Despite the lack of clouds, we are still facing an almost 170 mile per hour headwind, driven by a southern jetstream. The mileage to go number on the display in front of me barely moves at all as we claw our way westward. What ground lighting that can be seen between the ragged gaps in the lower layer of clouds seems to stay fixed in place, only moving when I force myself to look away for a while and then turn my head back to check again. Overhead in the clear, dark skies, thousands of stars are visible. I quickly pick out the few constellations I am familiar with and then, pressing my face against the warm glass of the side window, stare into the void and ponder the infinite.

As the FO happily munches on a late dinner across the cockpit from me, I wonder how many other crews in other planes over the years have looked out at a view like this. High overhead a shooting star streaks across the sky, and before I can even utter a word, disappears back into the darkness. As I continue to scan for more stars the radio sputters to life as the Memphis Center controller advises us of opposite direction traffic; a United 737, 1000 feet below us. I swivel forward in my seat as the FO puts down his sandwich and sits up. We both quickly find the rapidly approach plane, visible as only red and green position lights and a single red strobe on the top. As it closes in I reach up and quickly flip on and off our landing light, a sort of wave of hello in the darkness. Seconds later their landing lights briefly illuminate and then go dark as they disappear under our nose. The FO finds it all hilariously funny and giggles for several minutes.

I press my face back to the side glass and go back to staring upwards. High overhead a dark shape passes by, momentarily blotting out stars as it moves. I see no lights on it and as it is so far away and a dark shape against a dark sky I have no idea what it is; A UFO in the truest sense of the words. As it disappears out of view I shrug it off. I’ve seen lots of strange looking things up here and yet feel very strongly that every single one of them is explainable as a normal aircraft, just viewed from an abnormal prospective. Not that I don’t think there could be aliens out there, just that I’ve never seen anything along those lines. I slide back around in my seat and see that the FO is done with dinner and has the voice boom back down on his headset. Figuring this is as a good time as any to tell ghost stories I ask him if he’s heard about America West Flight 564. He says no.

In the spring of 1995, AWA 564, a Boeing 757 flying from Tampa to Phoenix, was somewhere over west Texas at 39,000 feet when they encountered what the crew called a band of strobing lights. They were flying near a large line of weather and the lights were between them and the storm. Eventually, when the object with the lights was backlit by the lightning in the clouds, they were able to make out a large “cigar like” object that was upwards of 500 feet long. The queried Air Traffic Control about this object and were told there was nothing there on radar. ATC checked with the local area military controller as well as NORAD who also had nothing on their scopes. No other airplanes along the route saw anything.

There are plenty of stories out there like this. Crews or single pilots see something in dark of the night or in the light of the sun or in the shadows of the terrain. Nothing can explain it and nobody else sees it. Does it mean it never existed and that their eyes were just playing tricks on them? Maybe. Maybe not. As pilots we tend to try to justify whatever we see as normal as reporting the abnormal may bring our sanity into question. A pilot who has mental issues can’t be a pilot, so in the name of self preservation I’d guess these events are under reported. I lean towards the conclusion that 99.9999% of the time there is a perfectly logical explanation for everything anybody has seen in flight. The other .0001% I leave for people far brighter than myself to figure out.

I’m brought back from my story by the destination weather coming up on screen. Little Rock was forecasted to be clear when we got there but fog has formed on the banks of the Arkansas River and the field is reporting 1 mile visibility and low overcast skies. I grumble about the useless weather forecast we got when we left Charlotte but am quickly comforted by the fact that we have lots of extra gas tonight; More than enough to try a few approaches and then slink back to Memphis where I know the weather is nice because I can see the city out the window 10 miles ahead of us. As ATC clears us to a lower altitude I turn my focus from the other worldly to the more pressing issue of finding the right approach plate and setting us up to land.

King Winter

The latest weather report pops up on the small screen of the FMS head and I grumble to myself. Across the cockpit my FO is starting out the window at the undercast layer, trying to match the cities on his map display with the splotches of light shining through the clouds 20,000 feet below us. I glance out to the north west and quickly pick out the lights of Newark, New Jersey, which are all but dwarfed by the massive glow generated by New York City, just across the invisible waters of the Hudson River. Off to the east is nothing but black sky and ocean, punctuated by points of light which, depending on the speed of their motion are either stars, airplanes or boats.
I force my attention back to the weather report. Hartford hadn’t been forecast to by anything worse than 4 miles and 1000 foot ceilings. As I copy down the latest report of 2 miles, a 400 foot overcast and freezing drizzle, I’m reminded of a joke about meteorologists I heard the day before. I briefly think of trying to explain it to the FO, who know has his nose pressed up against the glass watching the arrival stream into JFK pass by us, but decide to let him enjoy the moment. He’s new and everything, including the possibility of shooting an approach to minimums on a slick runway is exciting. I try to remember that feeling and as I discover I can’t, realize I’ve been doing this for a while now.
Boston Center descends us to 11,000 feet as we cross over the Long Island Sound and go feet dry somewhere just west of New Haven, Connecticut. The coastline is visible as a bright blur of lights below the cloud layer, formed by traffic and buildings on the Interstate 95 corridor, leading towards the bright glow of New York to our west. As the bright coastline passes back beneath our wings I brief the approach, highlighting the possibilities of slick runways and reduced visibilities as well as the probably somewhat convoluted taxi instructions we’ll get once clearing the runway. The FO’s face lights up in anticipation.
A new weather report pops up just as the Boston Center controller hands us over to Bradley Approach. The good news is the visibility has held at 2 miles. The bad news is that the ceiling has dropped and the light freezing rain is now freezing rain. I take one more look at our fuel and satisfied with the number move on to double checking the minimums and radio frequencies for the procedure. The Approach Controller gives us a heading to fly and clears us down to 2500 feet. I slow to 250 knots, turn on the wing and engine anti ice and start down into the clouds.
It’s a smooth ride for the most part. At 4000 feet the airplane says we are picking up ice. I show the FO the attachment bolt in the windshield wiper that general collects ice first and sure enough there is a thin crust of milky white rime ice coating it. He tries to take a picture of it with his phone but in the darkness is unable to. I flip on the wing inspection lights and crank around in my seat to check the winglets and wing. The wings, warmed by the engine bleed air piped to their leading edge are clear, however the winglets are pretty well coated. He manages a picture of that. We keep descending.
At 2500 feet we are 10 miles out and the controller clears us for the approach. Frozen raindrops are visible in the landing lights now and the sound of them pinging off the windshield and metal skin above it can be clearly heard over the engines. I slow to 200 knots and call for flaps. Approach hands us over to tower who clears us to land and informs us that the runway has been treated with liquid deicer. The FO is now all but bouncing in his seat in excitement.
I call for the rest of the flaps and gear as we pass the final approach fix. The ice buildup on the wipers has diminished a bit and while the frozen rain is still blasting the fuselage, it doesn’t seem to be sticking. At 500 feet there is nothing to see in front of us except the swirling mists and horizontal lines of rain but directly below, through the ragged bottom of the clouds, ground lighting is sliding by. I orient myself to the approach path and quickly place the interstate, a small shopping complex and a car dealership as they pass through the gaps in the gray fog. At 300 feet, 100 feet above the approach minimums, we pop out the bottom and the runway lights come into view.
Visibility is still at 2 miles when we touch down. After the main wheels spin up I very slowly lower the nose gear to the runway and then deploy the thrust reversers, staying off the brakes incase the runway is slick. At 80 knots I stow the reversers and gently step on the brakes. We quickly decelerate and tower tells us to exit to the right. The plane smoothly turns to the right and then, as we pass from the treated runway surface to the untreated taxiway we start to slide. The FO’s eyes get really big and he pauses the after landing checklist he has been running. I quickly come off the brakes and adjust the power until we track straight again. Crisis averted.
The taxi directions are more straightforward than I thought they’d be and as I momentarily stop the plane to give way to a procession of snowplows, sand trucks and deicers, I glance out the front windshield, skyward. Briefly illuminated by our red anticollision light and by the rotating airport beacon, thousands and thousands of drops of frozen water are cascading out of the sky. I mentally think through the upcoming deice process and special concerns and considerations about getting out of here. Winter is here. I think about mentioning to the FO that he’s going to have to go outside in this mess in a few minutes to do his walk around but realize that will probably just excite him more. Hmph. New guys.