Tag Archives: stars

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.

Going Home (or not)

It’s 1:30am on day 6 and I’m still about 2000 miles from where I want to be. Below us, visible through a broken layer of clouds the dark, hilly countryside of rural Kentucky slides by, scattered splotches of light the only signs of civilization. Above us the night sky looks like somebody thrown handfuls of white glitter against it resulting in thousands and thousands of points of light. My FO dims his screen lighting so it’s just barely visible and presses his face to the side window, lost in thought. I match the brightness on my screens to his and then move my seat all the way back and stare at the lightshow out the window.

To the west, just visible on the distant horizon a lone thunder head works its way across the countryside spitting out bolts of lightning at the sleeping population below. I turn my focus back inside and adjust the radar to its maximum useful range of 160 miles. 130 miles out and well to the left of our route a red splotch appears on the screen as the radar dish in the nose sweeps back and forth across the cold, empty night sky. To be showing up that clearly this far away it’s got to be a big cell, which judging from the amount of electricity it’s throwing out it appears to be.

The rest of the scope is clear and I go back to watching the stars outside and the distance to go number on my multi function display slowly roll back towards zero. I’d expected to maybe still be in a plane at this time of night (or morning) but I’d been hoping I’d be in a seat in the back or maybe the jumpseat upfront heading west and home. Instead, due to a plane breaking down in Daytona Beach I got tapped for an extra round trip and then flying the last flight of the night back to Dayton. Within seconds I went from walking towards freedom to the reality that I wouldn’t get home until at least the next morning. Such is life on reserve at the bottom of the pile.

The “quick” turn I’d been assigned to Knoxville turned into a nightmare in its own right as the next 5 hours entailed waiting for a Flight Attendant, trying to cool a way to hot airplane, weaving our way through scattered storms, sitting out a 2 hour ground stop to get back to Charlotte, weaving through more scattered storms and then trying to find a gate in the pouring rain in Charlotte. It only got worse from there as I waited another 45 minutes for the inbound plane I was taking back to Dayton to arrive and then for another FO as the one assigned timed out while waiting. Finally, at 12:15am we had a plane, a full crew and 70 passengers.

Airborne finally, ATC wastes no time in turning us north. There is almost no traffic at this hour and before we even pass through 10,000 feet we are cleared direct to our destination. Despite a full load of passengers the engines have the cooler night time air on their side and get us up to our cruise altitude quickly. Once level with the power pulled back the engine noise is barely audible from the cockpit and the only sound is the slipstream washing by in the darkness. Above us millions of stars cover the night sky…

I pull my seat forward again and tune in the weather for Dayton. The next 5 hours or so have become a series of checkboxes in my mind. Get the weather. Land the plane. Walk to my car. Sleep in my car for 2 hours. Wake up (if I ever fall asleep). Go back inside the airport. Get on a plane to finally travel that 2000 miles to home. It’s not glamorous but at the end of the day it’s all worth it to get home.

Stars and Rain

By the time we get to the runway the rain is coming down hard enough to be heard over the engine noise as it strikes the windshield and fuselage. The airplane in front of us, an old Mainline 737, flips on its landing light as it is cleared for takeoff and starts rolling forward. The light beams cut a path through the heavy rain and the engines, set low to the ground under the wing, kick up a huge spray of water vapor. As the blinking strobe light of the 737 disappears into the murk and clouds we are cleared on to the runway and released for takeoff as well.

It’s my leg, and the 4th flight of a day that began 12 hours ago and has yet to show any sunshine. I gave up on that hope hours ago as it is rapidly approaching 11pm and the likelihood of seeing any sun now before we get back to Dayton is slim to none. With the landing lights on and the thrust levers up we start moving forward down the runway into the clouds of vapor left by the recently departed 737.

The FO calls out rotate and we are in the air. Before I can even call for the gear up we enter the clouds and the ride gets bad. I trying to remember when we dropped into the clouds on the descent into Charlotte earlier in the evening, but the day has been too long and I can’t remember. With that happy thought I tighten by grip on the yoke and watch our airspeed and climb rate yoyo back and forth. Due to the late hour and lack of other traffic the departure controller immediately climbs us to 14,000 feet and gives us a turn to the north and towards home.

Through 10,000 I turn off the exterior lights and am debating about calling back to our two Flight Attendants to tell them to stay seated when we break through the top of the cloud layer. The ride instantly smoothes out and I flip the Electronic Device sign off which is the cue for the FAs to get out of their jumpseats.

Overhead, now unobstructed by the clouds, a blanket of stars come into view. As we climb higher they seem to grow in numbers so that as we level off at 30,000 feet the entire dome of the sky is filled with splashes of white. Overhead a meteor flashes by, visible for only seconds as it skips off the Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrates in a burst of light. It is followed by another and then another and soon every 30 seconds the sky is torn by a streak of light that fades as rapidly as it appears. My FO and I stare, transfixed at the display as the darkened Kentucky and West Virginia countryside rolls by under the solid layer of clouds below.

Eventually ATC gives us a descent to 24,000 feet but I put off starting down as long as I can. Finally, when I can wait no longer and still keep the ride somewhat comfortable in the back, I roll the nose downward and pull back on the power. We slowly sink towards the clouds below where 100 miles ahead of us the Dayton Airport sits under a low overcast and rain showers. Above us the lightshow continues as the Geminid Meteor Shower passes over the darkened earth.