Tag Archives: sunrise

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.

Saturn Rising

We are 50 miles east of Columbus when Saturn breaks the horizon line, minutes ahead of the rising sun. The darkened sky off our nose to the east has been changing in color from dark black to deep blue and then lighter blue. I glance up from the flight paperwork I’ve been studying, wondering just how accurate our fuel burn numbers are and see a spot of light embedded in the rich gradient of blue stretching upward from the blackness at the edge of our visible world. For a brief second I wonder if it’s a plane with its landing lights on heading towards us, but after a moment realize I’m looking at a planet, lit by the rising sun, still well below our line of sight.

The FO looks up from his breakfast of a granola bar and after staring out into the darkness at the speck of white light agrees with me. As we watch the light starts to flicker and pulse in color from white to red and back as its lightwaves bounce through the turbulence of our atmosphere and are split slightly. Digging back into the distant past my mind offers up the term “scintillation” which at this early hour I accept as the correct one. Hours later during a long sit between flights I’ll look it up and be mildly surprised that I had the right word.

As we slide eastward in the freezing cold dawn air, driven by almost 16,000 pounds of thrust and 150 miles per hour of jetstream winds, Saturn continues to rise, as if chased higher by the slowly brightening horizon line. The earth rolls forward towards the coming day and the FO and I engage in a brief discussion of orbital mechanics which is really too complex for the hour. We push through it and posit that Saturn is beginning its long journey away from the sun and as the season progresses will rise closer and closer to the sun until won’t be visible in the bright daylight sky at all. Eventually it will peak out around the back of the sun and appear in the evening sky again. I reward my mental skills by eating the cranberry muffin I picked up in the airport before heading to the plane.

By the time I am done eating Saturn has all but disappeared into the lightning sky. A hint of orange and pink forms at the horizon line and minutes later the top edge of the sun appears, a shimmering globe of fiery red and yellow, set against the pale blue sky. The cockpit warms slightly in the increased light and I turn to dig my sunglasses out of my flight case. Another day has arrived.

House Of The Rising Sun

There isn’t even a hint of daylight on the eastern horizon as we blast out of Gulfport. It’s the FO’s leg and as we head out over the Gulf before turning towards the East and Charlotte some 600 miles away, I look straight down out of my window at the brightly lit casinos on the beach below us. The flight deck clock, linked to the GPS system and precise to some ridiculous fraction of a second reads 6:03am. I glance again at the horizon visible as only a black line between the star splashed darkness above and the ground lighting speckled darkness below and contemplate the change of season.

12 hours from now, halfway around the world, a crew will rotate off of a strip somewhere in Australia or southern Africa and comment on how light it is for the early hour. Meanwhile pilots in the Northern Hemisphere begin to deal with mornings that feel even earlier due to the lingering darkness and evenings that seem to start right after lunch. Soon, not only will the last flight of the night be flown in complete darkness, but the flight into the hub before it will as well. At the peak of winter we will often times fly three legs without seeing the sun.

The plus side to all of this is there are many fewer thunderstorms. Of course, the trade off is ice and snow and cold and wind, but I’d rather deal with all of those than an afternoon spent dodging convective weather. This morning the TV in the hotel lobby was showing a few green rain bands on the Pacific Coast, but nothing east of the Sierra Nevada. A hurricane that spun up the east coast last week (which resulting in me doing two go arounds into Greenville, NC) has disappeared into the North Atlantic leaving behind high pressure and mild weather.

Off our right wing, dozens of lights on oil platforms dot the darkness of the Gulf, finally clear of oil, at least on the surface. A scattered layer of clouds on the horizon slowly becomes visible in the starlight and, as we continue eastward towards Meridian, Mississippi, takes on a faint blue hue. Somewhere, probably still out over the Atlantic, the first rays of the morning sun are rushing towards us at just over 670 million miles per hour.

We plod onwards at a much more sedate 500 miles per hour. The Gulf fades into the distance off our left wing as the eastern sky changes from dark blue to light blue to soft yellow to bright orange and then with a sudden flash that never ceases to amaze me, the top edge of the rising sun breaks the horizon line. The temperature in the cockpit warms slightly and I realize we are essentially sitting in a giant microwave oven. I quickly write the thought off to the early hour. Minutes later the bottom edge of the sun’s orb breaks free from the horizon in a ripple of yellow light. I pull my sunglasses out of my flight case and check the flight displays through there darkening view. One more hour to go.

Sun Across the Land

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Airborn again, we are heading east into the brightening dawn. Sunrise is still 25 minutes away on the ground below us, but as we climb and close the distance to the pale horizon we’ll meet the sun 15 minutes from now just east of Columbus. The air is so still that there is no sense of motion other than the slight vibration from the plane’s engines. As we pass through 10,000 feet the FO lowers the nose slightly to pick up airspeed and for the first time since we rotated off the ground it feels like we are actually moving.

High overhead contrails stretch from the darkness above us off into the rapidly brightening sky ahead. Despite the traffic out there the radio is quiet. It’s before 7am on a Saturday morning and everybody, both pilots and ATC, are enjoying the last few hours of calm before the weekend traffic picks up and the frequency gets busy. Indy Center hands off to a high sector controller who clears us up to 32,000 feet.

The top edge of the rising sun, molten gold in color breaks through the horizon as we climb through 25,000 feet. The rolling Ohio landscape below us begins to take on definition as the sunlight hits it. In the distance the wandering curves of the Ohio River, reflect the golden yellow sky. As we pass 30,000 feet the outside air temperature drops to -51 degrees Celsius. Five miles in front of us an AirTran 737 passes across the face of the fully risen sun, heading south for lower latitudes and higher temperatures.

The sun is fully up and starting its trek towards the southwest by the time we start our decent into Washington. Below us the Maryland hills are a dark bluish green in the early light. The ski areas still with snow clinging to slopes, stand out like hardened hot chocolate on an ice cream sundae. Pleased with my analogy I take a minute from setting up out arrival to enjoy the warmth of the sun shining into the cockpit.
Washington National is landing to the North and as we fly by the airport on the downwind, I watch the early morning Alaska Airlines 737, literally a flying gas can, heave itself into the air for the long flight to Seattle.

It’s still quiet and the Approach Controller wastes no time in descending us to 2500 feet and turning us out of the Potomac River towards the airport. My FO calls for the gear and final flaps as we pass over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the north span finally completed after what seems like years of construction, and the plane settles into its landing attitude.

The sun is well on its way southward as we taxi clear of the runway towards parking. The shadows of the other planes on the ground are beginning to stretch northward and our day is already ¼ of the way done.

Into The Sunlight

We are blasting our way eastward through the still morning air with the FO driving. I am splitting my attention between watching the slowly shrinking pattern of ground lighting below us and the healthy climb rate the instrumentation is showing. I’m also working the radios but at this early hour there isn’t much happening on that front. Razorback Departure hands us over to Memphis Center and after a brief conversation with the controller sitting in a room a hundred miles away, a room about as dark as the cockpit I’m currently in, I go back to looking out the window.

Our 5:35am departure out of Fayetteville, Arkansas made us the first flight to call the tower ready to go. FedEx and UPS had long since headed off to Memphis and Louisville and at the gates other Express aircraft for United, Delta and American were starting to load up to go but we had the taxiway and runway to ourselves. The plane, lightly loaded, was straining skyward by 130 knots and at 145 knots the FO pulled her off the ground and into the dark sky.

The lights of Fayetteville have disappeared behind the wing. To the north Memphis is clearly illuminated despite the early hour. 200 miles off our nose, just over the horizon Nashville is waking up to another day. 25 minutes from now, when we pass over at 33,000 feet the roads will be filled with the start of the morning commute and the first bank of departures will have already taken off from the airport. As we level off, almost 5 miles above the earth, the eastern skyline starts to turn from deep black to dark blue.

The ride is smooth and I turn off the seatbelt sign. I’m guessing most of our 20 odd passengers are sleeping but this way they can get up and move about it they want. With my seat pushed all the way back I stretch my legs out but my toes bump the rudder pedals. The CRJ cockpit was not designed for comfort or calisthenics, although apparently it is much better than some other airplanes flying around out there.

My abbreviated stretching session completed I go back to watching the horizon which is now a light blue with a line of pale yellow starting to show at the bottom. I take a second to dig around in my flight case to find my sunglasses. When the sun comes up, it tends to come up quickly and it helps to have things in place ready to go. The horizon is still uniform in color so it’s hard to tell where exactly the sun will pop up but I take an educated case and place the tinted sun visor on the overhead rail and slide it to where I think the curving disk of the sun will rise in a few minutes.

The horizon is now a pale gold color which stretches upwards 15 or 20 degrees. There is a perceptible switch in the intensity of the light and within the space of a minute the bottom edge of the horizon line goes from gold to orange to red and then the top of the sun, glowing brightly, clears the curve of the earth and daybreak comes as we cross over the top of Nashville. 400 miles away the sun is high in the sky over Charlotte where another day has already started.

Burning Gas

The departure end of 6L in Dayton is rapidly dropping behind us. The jet loaded up with just two pilots, a mechanic and 6500 pounds of fuel is rocketing skyward in the cold predawn air. At 400 feet I roll the wings left and then, a few seconds later roll them level on a northern heading. Tower hands us off to departure who rapidly clears us up to 10,000 feet before handing us off to Indy Center.

With a clearance to 23,000 and the Findley VOR in hand I decide I’ve had enough fun for the morning, turn on the autopilot and get down to the business at hand… sitting and watching the clock tick by. This morning we are on an OCF or “Operational Check Flight”. Basically, Maintenance has some problem which they can’t replicate on the ground and require a test flight to verify they actually fixed the issue. In this case a gauge that shows the core speed of the engine on the left side was randomly dropping about 5% during high altitude descents.

Maintenance was pretty sure they had fixed the problem by cleaning a cannon plug (basically a thing that attaches one thing to another thing) but the only way to know for sure was to run the plane up to 31,000 feet and see if the problem still happened.

So here we were climbing northward into the rapidly lighting sky. With our light load we reached 31,000 quickly and then settled down to sit out 25 minutes of “cold soaking” the airplane. At altitude the outside air temperature was -43 degrees C. At that low temp parts tend to function differently or not at all. In order to fully duplicate the situation that had been written up we had to let the airframe cool off from the relatively balmy 35 degrees it had been sitting in on the ground. After 25 minutes of making a large clockwise circle across Lake Erie (and watching the sun come up over the eastern edge of the lake we deemed the plane cold enough and let ATC know we were ready to start down.

After a slight wait while some westbound traffic crossed underneath us heading up to Chicago we were cleared down to 24,000 feet. I set up a 1000 foot per minute descent and all three of us watched the N1 gauges for any fluctuations as the power slowly came back. There were none and several minutes later we had leveled off at 24,000. To be doubly sure we climbed back up to 31,000 and repeated the experiment again. Once again the gauges for both engines held steady and with the concurrence of the mechanic sitting quietly in our jump seat we turned south towards Dayton.

15 minutes later the airport was in sight and ATC cleared us for a visual approach to 6L. Out of 6000 feet I turned off the autopilot and rolled the airplane towards the runway. Because we were so light our approach speed was very slow (slow being a relative term as we were still bombing down final at close to 130mph) and in the still air it felt like we were barely moving. Even at the slow airspeed we eventually made it to the runway were I managed a rather nice landing. 5 minutes later we were parked and shut down at the hangar.

Time spent: 1 hour and 18 minutes
Fuel burned: 2600 pounds (about 385 gallons)

Watching the sun come up over an iced over Lake Erie: Priceless

Some days it’s worth it to get up at 4am.