February 6, 2002

Experience is the best teacher, and the best lessons are learned at the very brink of disaster. After surviving many experiences, one is said to have become wise. Since wisdom is acquired by surviving experience, the best strategy is to make the best use of somebody else's misadventures and incorporate the lessons that they learned into your own thought process.

As you might suspect, my new embrace of wisdom comes after a bout of unusually poor winter weather. Through the middle of last week, the weatherman's equivalent of a stalemated trench war took place above us. To our north laid the very cold air that finally blew in Friday afternoon, and to the south laid the delightfully warm air we had been enjoying for the previous week. For several days, the boundary was unable to move north or south, and a hundred- mile wide river of moisture flowed over western New York.

On the surface this moisture showed up as snow, sleet, freezing rain or as plain rain, depending on where you were and when it was. The boundary of warm and cold air masses is not vertical as if a wall marked the demarcation, it is very diagonal. For example, at one point during the week, the weather map showed the frontal boundary to be in northern Pennsylvania on the surface, but overhead Syracuse, the sloping boundary between these air masses was found about a mile up, where the air temperature abruptly rose above freezing. Cold air is heavier than warm air, and when the two meet, the colder air tends to slide under the warm air.

Icy precipitation requires this unusual set of circumstances to be in place, which is a good thing, because a rapid accumulation of ice is absolutely incompatible with all forms of transportation. At the surface, the precipitation may be falling as sleet, but an airplane flying over that same spot will encounter rain at one altitude, freezing rain a bit lower, and the sleet below that. Fortunately, icy precipitation is usually confined to narrow bands of altitude and small geographic areas for short times. Last week's problem was that the conditions lingered because the progress of the frontal movement was stalemated.

On a more personal level, my problem was that the airplane that I fly does not have the power to punch through very much freezing rain. Although some are better than others, no airplane can sustain flight in freezing rain, and the only defense is to limit the time of exposure. Thursday found several of us stranded in Syracuse by the weather. There was a short period when the freezing rain had changed to rain at the destination, and the snow at Syracuse had changed to sleet. Think of it as a loophole; We are not permitted to fly our particular planes to or from airports that are reporting freezing rain but sleet is OK, even though there is a guarantee that we will encounter freezing rain en route. Therein lays the crux of the adventure.

We sat around all day, watching an unencouraging forecast play out, trying to anticipate when conditions might open just long enough and wide enough for us to leave. We set several deadlines and made several plans, but revised all of them in turn. Around noon we made all the arrangements to leave, but were chased back inside by a sudden increase in the stinging sleetfall and a roll of thunder overhead. Two hours later we again attempted to leave after deciding that the sleet had abated, but again had to retreat.

On this second attempt, I got all the way to the end of the runway before acknowledging to myself that the sleet had turned to freezing rain. I later learned that a plane that departed a few minutes ahead of me had to climb almost a mile up before reaching the warmer air aloft. The rain wrapped around the windows as it froze, obscuring all forward and lateral visibility. It even ran under the "hot plate", the small panel of heated glass in front of the windshield which otherwise keeps a peep hole open for landing. Had I departed, I would have climbed into heavier icing than the previous plane had, and would not have made it to the safety of the warmer air. I would have had no view of the world outside for landing either.

I had looked a dumb idea in right in the eye and almost refused to blink. I almost departed into weather that I knew was dangerous, discounting the possibility that it could be disastrous. Through our long wait, I had digested each new danger that popped up, apparently making room to accept the next dose of bad news. I had tried to negotiate with nature, which is as senseless as whispering to the dice or calling to the roulette wheel.

The three of us have since shared our thoughts of that day, and reached several conclusions. Besides the usual resolutions, it was noted that we had made several plans during the wait and seen them all get washed away. We decided that if at first you don't succeed, try again, but if that doesn't work out, get in the car and leave the airport. Until and unless the weather makes a profound turn for the better, it is unhealthy to hang around and look for a loophole that might actually be a noose.

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