We seemingly hang in a deep azure blue sky, swimming slowly upstream against a river of wind that continually circles the globe in meandering arcs. This Jetstream wanders, sometimes to the north, then south, then north again, but is always moving eastward, driven by the complex mechanics of planetary rotation. I close my eyes, the bright sun warm on my face, and try to build a mental visualization of the airflow around our blue marble, but quickly realize that I can’t hold the complexity in my head. I open my eyes and look at our projected arrival time, displayed on the bottom of the FMS, and then compare it with the current time—over six hours to go.
It’s my leg, so I make a quick visual sweep of the flight instruments and see nothing abnormal. We are trucking westward at a good rate of speed, although due to the aforementioned winds, our actual progress over the ground is considerably slower. Out my side window, the sprawling developments of Palm Springs slowly—ever so slowly—move backwards across the glass. Out the front windshield, the multi-faceted sides of Mount San Jacinto, the peak on the southern side of Banning Pass, rear upward out of the flat desert landscape below. To the north, San Gorgonio Mountain pushing skywards to just over 10,000 feet, separates itself from the smaller mountains forming the northern edge of the pass some 8000 feet below. Despite the large amount of vertical geometry taking place down there, the ground looks mostly flat from our perch at 40,000 feet.
The first time I transitioned through the pass was in a small single engine airplane, and with the peaks passing by at eye level the world out the windows seemed far from flat. Surrounded on both sides by sharp-edged mountains driven upwards millions of years ago by the collision of the Pacific and North American plates, it felt like we were passing through a doorway from the dry desert climate to the east into the coastal LA basin to the west. As we fought the strong winds that poured through the pass I watched a Union Pacific train, its bright yellowish-orange locomotives clearly visible from our low altitude, pull away from us into the distance, moving westward along a railbed originally laid over 100 years ago.
Today, despite the Jetstream on our nose, we are making much better progress westward, driven by two engines that combined, create over 80 times the amount of thrust (in pounds) than the little trainer aircraft I used to fly weighed fully loaded. Today, we are far too high up for me to see anything as small as a train or car, but I know that we will be miles and miles out to sea, heading westward and home, by the time even the fastest of the vehicles below reaches the California coast. I lean back and rub my sore shoulders against the sheepskin of the seat cover. At least the people in those cars can pull over so they can get out and stretch when they want to.