The Gear Monkey

Musings from up there... and other places

Equatorial Polar Ice

N28°4.32′ W136°0.12′
0345 ZULU

Daylight is slowly sliding over the horizon somewhere behind our tail, and even though there is still a slight glare in the view out our front windows, the world has started to take on the bluish tinge that heralds the coming darkness. I reflexively shiver and reach to adjust the air vent by my right knee. The cold air exiting the vent momentarily makes a rushing noise as it blows past my hand and floods into the open space of the cockpit. I rotate the vent closed. The noise—and my shivering—stops.

Ahead, high above us, a thin layer of translucent clouds hazily fills the arc of the visible sky, marred only by a single gray smudge in the distance. The contrail—denoting westbound traffic heading in the opposite direction—slowly reaches out towards us, growing bigger and more defined the closer it gets. The plane at its tip, at first no more than a speck of shiny metal, materializes as the distance closes. As the heavy Boeing 777 passes by, it surfs on the leading edge of the water vapor trail it is creating through the sky. 

Far below us a solid layer of pure white clouds stretches into the distance, the northern edge of the layer ending abruptly in an undulating curve that makes the cloud deck look like an arctic ice shelf. We are approaching the midpoint of our oceanic crossing, and while the outside temperature up here at 39,000 feet is close to negative 60 degrees Fahrenheit, I know on the ocean surface it is much, much warmer. The next nearest ice beyond that sitting in the galley cart on the other side of the cockpit door is several thousand miles away.

The coming night will get to us about an hour before the coastline does—and about 90 minutes before we reach our destination for the evening. As the blue-tinted world slowly fades towards blackness, I dim down my various display screens and check that all the miscellaneous things I’ve taken out of my bag over the past few hours are put away. The overhead lights in the plane are bright, but there are many shadowed areas and like a B-grade horror film, the nighttime cockpit has a penchant for eating items. On the other side of the center pedestal, the captain performs a similar ritual.

I pull up the latest weather report for landing, which shows clear skies and light winds out of the north. I find the appropriate landing chart and study the important bits. We are flying a charter into an unfamiliar airfield, but despite that the chart doesn’t seem to show anything out of the ordinary. Below us, the ice shelf layer of clouds has melted away to reveal a darkening ocean beneath it. A single white splotch marks the position of a large ship, all but invisible from our perch. Minutes later the splotch disappears below our nose and the ocean ahead is unblemished save for a deepening haze on the horizon marking the day/night terminator line. We fly onward into the night.

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