The Gear Monkey

Musings from up there... and other places

Contrails

A maintenance issue that kept us at the gate for an hour past our scheduled departure time has moved the location at which we will lose the daylight along our route several hundred miles to the west of where it would have occurred if we had left when we were supposed to. From 39,000 feet, the clouds and waves below look about the same at both spots, but now we won’t be seeing the particular waves or clouds at the farther east location as they will slide by us in the darkness. The more material effect of our delay however is that even with a faster cruise speed programed into the flight computer, we still will be arriving at our destination of Seattle almost an hour late. I glance down at the crisp white letters glowing against the black background of the FMS display screen that shows the current weather there and realize I’m okay with not being on time.

Two days ago, Seattle saw a huge winter storm dump snow well west of the Cascades that effectively shut down the airport for most of the day. Yesterday was apparently better, but now the precipitation is back, this time in the form of rain and fog, and the visibility has dropped down to half a mile. We can land with that, but like most pilots I am a fan of days—and nights—with clear skies, light winds, and easy landings. I do some quick math to convert from Celsius—a scale that doesn’t immediately trigger a “how cold is it” feeling in me but is the standard of the aviation world—to Fahrenheit, and realize that waiting for the hotel van is going to be particularly miserable in the 38 degree wet air outside the airport.

We have over three hours of flight time to spend looking forward to that particular joy, so I push it from my mind and watch the sky begin to darken as the sun drifts away towards tomorrow. A combination of a slightly less than normal routing, our late departure, and reduced schedules due to Covid has kept our slice of the sky mostly empty of other traffic once we coasted out of tropical waters.  Over the past hour only two planes have passed by, both of them miles off our left wingtip, heading west, chasing the daylight and better weather, no more than small smudges against the blue sky. Now, as the clouds below take on a golden hue and start to fade into the visual depths of the ocean, a single target appears on our traffic display, 1000 feet above us and headed directly towards us, racing westward on the same track we are following to the east.

Our sunshades have long since been put away for the day and our screens dimmed for nighttime operations, leaving me with an unrestricted view out the front window. I split my attention between watching the target approach us, pixel by pixel on the map display, and staring at the graying void ahead that is still tinted reddish-pink by the last few rays of daylight, looking for the telltale gray smudge of an approaching contrail. When the target shows 12 miles away, I finally make it out with my eyes, a gray slash arcing through the darkening sky, rapidly growing in the cockpit window.

Less than a minute passes and at six miles separation, I can see the plane at the tip of the contrail, its nose glowing as it catches rays of sunlight that have long since vanished at the surface some eight miles below. With no reference to anything except the approaching plane, I feel like we are stationary in the fading blue sky, as the blob of metal, trailing clouds of condensation behind it, rapidly approaches. It grows more and more defined with each passing second and I grab the camera from my bag and take off the lens cover. Our combined closure speed is over 1000 miles per hour, and knowing I’ll have just seconds to take a picture, I point the camera forward, hold the shutter button down, and hope for the best.

The shutter opens and closes repeatedly, in a rapid staccato that is surprisingly loud in the still of the cockpit. The other airplane glides over us and disappears out of view at the top of the front windshield, the cotton candy-like contrail swelling from its wings, spiraling into the approaching dusk behind it, and fading from white to pink to gray to gone. My eyes are dry from staring into the emptiness, so I put down the camera and blink rapidly. Tears form, and the world blurs momentarily. When they clear, darkness fills the view looking forward. Day has left, and the night has arrived.

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