Solstice

It’s the longest day of the year, but as we drag our bags across the ramp towards the darkened plane, there is no sign of the sun. Above, through a broken layer of clouds, the black night sky is awash with a million points of light. It is quiet still as all the planes scattered around the ramp are sitting silently waiting for their crews and passengers to arrive and start the day. I realize we are the first plane out and wonder for about the hundredth time why our mainline carrier who schedules the actual flights insists on such early starts. I push the thought out of my head and drag my bags up the aircraft stairs into the dark cabin.

The process of bringing a cold, dark airplane to life before 5am occurs mostly via autopilot. The switches get thrown, the built in tests run and the frequencies set. I cringe momentarily as the APU spins up, shattering the silence with its dull roar. Across the ramp I see a Colgan crew walking out to their SAAB and opening the door and I feel better that at least we aren’t the only ones out here at this ridiculous hour.

Charleston, West Virginia’s Yeager Field, named after the abrasive aviation hero, sits on top of two hilltops that were flatted and used to fill in the valley between them in a form of mountain top removal. Because it sits slightly lower than the surrounding hills and overlooks the Kanawha River Valley the airport is very prone to fogging in. Our books allow us to take off when the visibility is as low as 500 feet, but some mornings it is less than that and planes are stuck waiting for the visibility to come up.

Today the sky is clear below a high broken layer of clouds, but as look out across the taxiway and the runway I can see a swirl of fog breaking against the far edge of the field. Like a distant ocean wave on a rising tide, it approaches and then recedes; leaving more ground covered each time. I am scheduled for 6 legs of flying today with minimal turn times between each flight. The last thing I want is to have to sit on the ground for several hours waiting on the visibility to come up. I turn in my seat and tell the flight attendant to hurry up the boarding process.

Ten minutes later we are boarded, the jetway is pulled back and both engines are running. I glance over at the incoming fog bank as I release the parking brake. It has moved over the approach end of the runway, covering about 2/3rds of the first 2000 feet of pavement in a thick blanket of grey mist. The runway lighting is visible shining through it, but their glow is muted and dull. As we start to taxi, the ground controller tells us the runway visibility is down to 2200 feet and dropping. I push up the power and taxi faster.

The lone taxiway that goes to the runway runs parallel to it running along the edge of the ridgeline that drops into the valley below. In the winter when the surfaces are slick I tend to creep along here. Today I’m rolling along at the FAA sanctioned “brisk walk” pace. As the FO runs the taxi and before takeoff checklists, I glance out my left window at the solid wall of fog sitting fifty feet away. The taxiway is clear and overhead the night sky is turning a deep, dark shade of blue but to the left nothing is visible except a gray swirl, light by the haloed lights of the runway lighting system.

We roll on to the runway with the visibility sitting at 1800 feet. It’s my leg and as I push up the power and the plane starts accelerating forward I switch my focus to the runway centerline lighting as each one slides towards us and then disappears underneath the nose. At 100 knots of airspeed we break out of the fog bank into the clear air. The whole darkened panoramic of the airport ramp to the left, the dark hills beyond the runway and the clear night sky above the broken high clouds comes into view. Thirty knots later we hit Vr and I lift the nose skyward. There is a slight bump as the main wheels come off the ground, and we are flying.

The ground drops away quickly in the darkness and after checking in with departure we are cleared to a fix down the line and up to 22,000 feet. We blast through a thin layer of clouds and into clear air. Overhead the sky is a deep shade of blue while out on the eastern horizon the first hints of yellow and gold are starting to appear as the first sun of the summer heads towards the northern most point it will touch on its yearly trajectory. The cockpit warms slightly as the first rays of light hit the three layers of glass and another day starts.

One thought on “Solstice

  1. Joanne

    Like this post. It’s awful getting up in the middle of the night, but very cool to witness those pre dawn and on moments.

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