Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Wx Forecast: Winter Wonder Skies

What a sobering sight with so much Fall left to use: Snow...snow in Pittsburgh Sunday during the Steelers game; snow falling Monday and Tuesday -- and in the northern part of my native state, Indiana...

Guess my instinct comes down to, "Don't complain...you suspected this was coming..." Well, yeah -- we've had our suspicions...for weeks.

For weeks, the neighborhood squirrels have been packing away acorns and walnuts like shoppers grabbing deals at a Going Out of Business sale. Migratory birds filled the park next door, gorging themselves on seeds and berries -- a collection that delighted the resident daylight predators, a Cooper's Hawk and a Broadwinged Hawk...their hunting has been great. And overhead, the southbound retreat of Canada Geese, ducks and other waterfowl at times resembled the Eighth Air Force assaults on Germany during World War II. With flight after flight, in long wedged-shaped patterns, stretching back to the north, these endless waves of long-distance travelers often resembled the lines of airliners stretching out from DFW, when the bursts of strobes and flashes of beacons illuminated the aerial highway through dusk and well into the dark.

Combined, the urgent actions of squirrels and birds seem to hint at a whopper of a Winter ahead -- possibly one as snow-storm intense as the last, when waves of storms taxed road and runway crews alike, tapped salt supplies to near exhaustion, and gave even well-equipped, seasoned and experienced aviators purposeful pauses in the flying plans.

This is the time of year when pre-flight inspections often require us to unwillingly abandon gloves to handle cold-soaked metal, try to coax from their reluctant reels the temperature-stiffened air hoses we need to replenish our tires; when we resurrect in our vocabulary undesirable words like "pre-heat," "known" and "forecast icing," and when we become aware that "braking conditions good" isn't merely an adjective for a China shop. Not when those conditions can so often be the opposite.

But these harsh Winter conditions always -- remember, always -- give way to more hospitable conditions.

And there are some major appeals to flying after Winter storms pass. Usually, we get the kind of winds that east-bound pilots dream of, that they dread later, when west-bound. So there's a 50 percent benefit potential right there.

The airplanes themselves, when warmed and coaxed to life with proper TLC, in fact love Winter conditions; engines perform better, climb rates improve -- heck, you can see density altitudes actually well below field elevation. What's not to like about that?

But the greatest appeal for me is the view from aloft, post-snow-storm.

Above, the sky never appears bluer or cleaner than on the backside of a Winter front. It's a blue so bright and clear that it blatantly begs to be cruised.

And when we accept that invitation into the Winter Blue, we are treated to a view below unavailable from a naked Earth. Below us, the Winter landscape takes on a snowy softness, with rounded features and diaphanous shadows in the early and late hours of the day. The wind often sculpts the snow around, over and behind objects as diverse as rolls of bailed hay -- watch for the wedge-shaped shadows on the leaward side of those huge wheels -- fences, treelines, buildings and roads.

Snow-cloaked mountains and hills may shield their contours -- but they never better show off their leafless trees and rock faces. And mountains take on an altogether different look when powder coated in white.

And there can be as much to see on a night flight as during the day. A moonless Winter night reveals a sky so black that it sucks light like a sponge, reflecting nothing -- but revealing the leaking light of billions of celestial bodies with such clarity that you feel tempted to climb forever just to see them more closely.

But it's the Moon-lit nights that appeal most to me. Cruising in a darkened sky, that otherwise cold-hearted orb rules the night landscape, reflecting its silver light to our sight with details that twinkle back a quick wave, a flash of light that's gone in an instant -- but repeated with our passage over every river and pond and lake. Moon lights the snow-sheathed landscape which shimmers with the sheen of our natural satellite, with shadows softly sculpted that undulate with the rise and fall of Terra.

The darker the cockpit, the more our eyes reveal; the more our eyes reveal, the more entrancing and enchanting the whole experience -- and the less willing we may be to end the experience.

While numb fingers, chilled ears and chapped noses may be a painful price to pay for the proscribed pre-flight proceeding Winter flight, only Winter flight itself can balance that discomfort with a scenic feast that can live on in our minds long after the chill has gone.

Be smart; be careful; most of all, be prepared. Don't fear the Winter. What you stand to gain is a reward unparalleled. Personally, I'm looking forward to an open runway surrounded by snow for just that reason.

-- Dave Higdon


Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of my early influences that sparked by interest in aviation were the words of Gordon Baxter. He had the magic potion to bring me into a trance and in love with aviation. You’ve got that same magic, Dave.



5:49 PM  
Blogger Dave Higdon said...

Bill, though I'm not sure the comparison is valid, as a fellow fan of Gordon and a long-time acquaintance of his, yours is by far and away the nicest complement I've ever received. Thanks.

11:29 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home