The large cluster of thunder cells to our northwest is punching up out of the Troposphere, their tops towering well over our 39,000 foot cruise altitude. The middle of the storm is sitting directly over Houston, and the airport is reporting 45 mile an hour wind gusts and heavy rain. Despite that, the voice of the high sector controller sounds calm as he hands out weather-based deviations to the multitude of aircraft transiting his airspace. In a moment of radio silence, as I stare out the window at the angry gray mass of clouds in the distance, I realize that his colleagues working the lower level airspace filled with aircraft tiptoeing around the monster storm and actually trying to land in Houston are probably sounding considerably less calm every time they transmit.
Fortunately for us, we don’t require a deviation today. The view out in front of our plane’s nose, which has been pointed directly at Corpus Christi since we left cloud-covered Florida behind and headed over the Gulf an hour ago, is clear of weather. After taking off with fuel to cover just under 4300 air miles, and an almost full load of passengers and cargo, we climbed slowly through the humid Florida morning air, still 15,000 feet short of our cruise altitude when we crossed the shoreline heading west. Because of the busier than normal flow of traffic on the offshore routes due to the weather in eastern Texas and our slow climb, we were forced to level off several times due to conflicting traffic, leaving us bumping through layers of clouds for the first 45 minutes of the flight.
Now, in the smooth air, with the weather safely off our route to the north, I watch as a series of planes work their way eastward between us and the thunderstorms—small dots trailing gray contrails that look like small rips in the fabric of the clouds. With Houston invisible underneath layers of clouds and rain somewhere off our right wing, and the barrier islands just east of Corpus Christi starting to come into view in the hazy distance, we are given a shortcut downline, direct to Fort Stockton. I punch it into the flight computer for the Captain and he confirms it. The plane thinks about things for a second and then rolls to the right and then level, with the weather still comfortably out of our way and being blown more so with each passing minute.
The haze in the air below us clears more and more the farther west we go, so that by the time we pass over the top of San Antonio, the sprawl of the city is plainly visible in the mid-morning sunlight, and we can clearly see the dusty browns and tans of that land below that have replaced the blues and grays of the cloud-covered Gulf of Mexico now several hundred miles behind our tail. Past the city, we pick up Interstate 10, as it weaves its way through the energy producing hill country of central Texas, around solar installations, wind farms, and oil wells, and like us, is rolling westward into the lengthening day.
Fort Stockton appears as a smudge on the horizon, with El Paso somewhere unseen in the distance beyond it. Years ago, I drove this stretch of road, from one side of Texas to the other in a single long day, completely shrouded in fog and low clouds, never seeing more than a mile ahead or on either side of me at a time. Today, the sun is high above the Captain’s window, and my side of the cockpit is in shade, but I still feel my mind starting to drift in the warm air that swirls around me. Our van this morning left the hotel 30 minutes before the sun rose, but to my non time zone acclimated mind, it felt like just after midnight. Fortunately, my rest break is coming up within an hour, just after we pass by El Paso, and I’ll have the opportunity to shut my eyes for a bit as the Captain and RO continue to fly us westward, to a place far beyond where the land-anchored highway ends at the sparkling waters of the Pacific.