Tag Archives: darkness

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.

Early

It’s 5:45 in the morning and we are hurtling through the clouds, pushed eastward by 80 knots of wind and the thrust of our engines. The FO is flying and I’m trying to remember if I’ve done everything to get us set for landing, while still blinking the sleep out of my eyes. Ahead of us, illuminated by the beam of the landing light, gray clouds whip into view and disappear seconds later as we rock back and forth in light turbulence. I start to feel slightly dizzy and not sure if it’s the early hour, the lack of breakfast or the view out the window I hedge my bets and flip off the exterior lighting. The outside world goes dark and I immediately begin to feel better.

Charlotte Approach turns us on to the downwind for the ILS and I clean up the FMS so it displays the approach. Across the cockpit the FO switches from GSP navigation to short range, ground based navigation to get ready for the approach. The cloud ceiling is at 5000 feet, but we may need the ILS to get below the clouds, and it is nice to have for the autopilot to follow down to the runway. I follow suit on my side and after several seconds the navigation computer correctly identifies the radio beacon by the morse code transmission that piggy backs on the navigation frequency.

In the darkness my mind begins to wander and I realize that my last four Facebook updates have contained the word “early” in them. In my present state I can’t decide if that’s funny or sad. Approach descends us to 3000 feet and turns us on a base leg. On the multi function display a single TCAS target slides along the white line depicting the approach.

We break out of the clouds and the darkened ground comes into view, lit by the millions of scattered lights of Urban America. Out the left window, 6 miles away is the runway and airport, a splotch of darkness across the landscape. Closer in the flashing strobes of the traffic we are follow slides across the ground below. Approach asks if we see the airport and out of the corner of my eye I see the FO nod his head. We get a clearance for the visual approach and are told to switch over to tower.

This is the second morning in a row that we’ve flown this flight. Yesterday it looked liked we’d land before 6am but due to a strong headwind on final touched down at 6:02am. As we turn in towards the runway, still 5 miles away the GPS synced clock is showing 5:51am. The FO points this out as he calls for the landing gear and flaps and points the nose over towards the runway. I have no idea if he is happy or sad about this fact but decide that 1500 feet above the ground and 3 minutes from touchdown is not the time or place to find out. Below us the splatter of ground lighting sliding by slows to a crawl as our airspeed rolls back and the wind swings around from the right side to the nose. Ahead the airplane we are following passes over the runway approach lighting system, momentarily blotting it out.

We are passing through 500 feet when the plane clears the runway. Runway 5 slopes uphill for the first 2/3rds and then drops back down. Beyond the runway, against the dark horizon, the lights of downtown Charlotte burn brightly. As we descend towards the ground the far end of the runway disappears from view behind its crest, making the lighted pavement look like some sort of yellow brick road, leading towards the Emerald City. I shake my head and blink my eyes rapidly, dispelling any such random thoughts and focus on the quickly approaching asphalt.

The GPS clock says 5:58 as our main wheels touchdown and spin up. The wing spoilers pop up automatically and the FO cracks open the thrust reversers. Due to our light load and the up sloping runway, we quickly slow to a taxi speed. I take control from the FO and with the tiller turn off to the right and towards the still mostly empty gates. The fleet is scattered all across the east coast, most planes already airborn and heading this way, while some still sit at gates waiting to get going while several hundred miles to the east the Sun is coming over a slowly lightening horizon, flecking the windswept waters of the Atlantic with gold.

Fire On The Mountain

It’s 11:30 at night and we are 8000 feet over the dark West Virginia landscape when I am starting to wonder if my eyes are playing tricks on me. Ahead in the darkness, just on the horizon line an orange light is flickering. I blink several times and after the light seems to increase in intensity I ask me FO if he sees it as well. He turns his attention from copying down the latest weather report for our destination (now just 60 miles away) and stares out the window into the night.

Spread out below us are the rippling peaks of the West Virginia Hills. I spent an enjoyable 4 years of my life going to College just north of here and roamed the hillsides of the Monongahela National Forest we are currently flying over. My FO tilts his head slightly, looking forward at the light which is now starting to move towards us, or us towards it as at night sometimes it is hard to tell relative motion. “I think it’s a fire” he says and after a moments contemplation I agree with him.

At night there are fewer light sources, namely the sun, to reflect off the particles in the air and hence visibility goes up. On a clear night, it’s not unusual to be able to see splotches of ground lighting hundreds of miles away, just dropping over the edge of the curvature of the Earth. However, just because you can see forever doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll know what you are looking at.

While teaching in Phoenix I would take students on night flights out of the Valley of the Sun to Yuma, 150 miles away, where what is left of the Colorado River, most of its water long since shuttled off into various irrigation canals, passes into Mexico. We’d leave just after dark and slip out underneath the Phoenix Class Bravo airspace towards the West and the darkness of the Sierra Estrella Mountains and then pick up the line of car taillights creeping westward along Interstate 8. Besides the lights on the highway and the periodic scattered ground lighting as the small towns of Gila Bend, Welton and Fortuna passed by, the trip was made in darkness.

I normally instructed from the right seat, with my student in the left seat. Often times on the return trip eastward, I’d press my face against the glass of the side window and stare off into the blackness to the south. Passing by, just a few miles off our right wing was Restricted Area 2301, one of the few military training areas in the contiguous United States that still allows life fire training missions. Defined on one side by Interstate 8 and on the other by the Mexican border, several of my students who flew F16s out of Luke AFB or Davis Monthan down in Tucson had told me stories about flying out there. Most of them involved the wording, almost part of the pilot credo, “so there I was…”

Winging eastbound towards the bright lights of the Phoenix Valley, I’d normally see nothing to the south, but every once in a while I’d be rewarded with a some strange light show that I could only assume was flares or tracer fire or missile trails or who know what. Phoenix has a almost yearly tradition of UFO reporting (just google “phoenix lights” if you don’t believe me) and while I certainly wouldn’t ever classify anything I saw as a UFO in the little green man sense, I certainly can say there were unidentified flying objects out to the south.

All of this is in the back of my mind as we cruise across the dark West Virginia hills. As Washington hands us over to Cleveland Center the fire on the mountain gets closer and closer until the whole sky is filled with a flickering orange light. We drop down to 5000 feet as the flaming pyre passes along the left side of the aircraft, just out my window. At almost 300 miles per hour, the specter quickly slides back into the darkness but as we pass abeam it I see what I think is a clearing on a hill top, lit by what looks like bright white stadium lighting. In the center of the clearing huge orange flames or rising skyward, clearly visible even from almost a mile up. I see no flashing red lights of emergency vehicles and before I have a chance to classify what I am seeing it slides back underneath the wing. I look over at my FO and shrug. He shrugs back and we start looking forward trying to find out destination, hidden among the hills ahead.

An hour later we are airborn again, this time heading south back towards to Charlotte. It’s after midnight and somewhere to the east, hundreds of miles out over the Atlantic Ocean, the rising sun is rushing towards us. Much closer, low on the eastern horizon a flickering blob of orange light is still dancing in the darkness.