It was just another morning in Paradise. I arose from the recliner chair, grabbed a cardboard cup of vending machine coffee and checked the weather for the return trip to Elmira. The forecast had promised clearing skies, but even before reaching the computer terminal, a look out the window suggested a different reality.
The computer quantified the observation that I had made from the window, showing the ceiling to be 800 feet with 3 miles visibility in light snow. Wilkes- Barre, the midpoint of my flight was reported to have an overcast at 1600 feet, and Binghamton had cloud layers at 1500 and 5000 feet, and an overcast of 9500 feet. Elmira also reported clouds at 9500 feet, but they were breaking up, and there was only one layer in between, at 6500 feet. 50 miles west of Elmira, Wellsville was reporting clear skies.
All stations showed good visibility under the clouds, and the sequence of radar images showed that the snow showers had been steadily diminishing all night. A check of the winds and temperatures aloft suggested that I would face lighter headwinds than usual, and that the temperatures were low enough that the clouds would not contain an abundance of moisture. My main concern with winter flying is to avoid prolonged flight in clouds because of the layer of ice that their moisture leaves on the airplane's leading edges.
I went out to the airplane with the general feeling that the flight would not be a problem, and I had a "seen this before" suspicion that the flight would be downright easy. So often it seems that when the weather is generally improving, that there is a big improvement between the observations made at 3AM and the weather that I pass through at 5AM. The flight home on this particular morning was indeed easy, but there is always a bit of suspense until after takeoff and the weather's full picture can be seen.
Night time is not the best time to see things though. People are scared of the dark, not because of the darkness, its just that they can't see what's out there. It is easy to be apprehensive about the unseen, and as I entered this job, I had wondered how do I stay out of clouds when it is dark? It would seem to be as awkward as groping your way through a strange room in the middle of the night, not knowing what or where or when you would stumble into something.
There are several saving graces to night flight. First and most foremost, is the fact that weather is good a whole lot more frequently than it is bad. The bad weather conditions often exist on just a part of a flight, and even then, often at only particular altitudes. Another factor is that night is not always dark. For half of every month there is moonlight on either the evening or morning flights. At the full of the moon both flights are illuminated, and even if the moon is in its first or fourth quarters, its light can still be helpful.
Even without moonlight to help see where the clouds lay, there are other ways to tell what is ahead. When flying on top of a cloud layer with clear sky above, the presence of stars near the horizon assures that there will be no clouds in the way for the next ten or fifteen minutes. Cruising in between layers, with clouds obscuring both the sky and ground, usually the lights of cities and large villages will filter up through the undercast. Passing over these areas it is easy to guess how far below the cloud tops are, and also how thick they are. If these islands of diffuse light can be seen at a distance, it is a guarantee that there are no intervening clouds. The sky is quiet in the early morning, but it is not empty. Often the lights of distant planes can be seen, and this too assures that even though there are clouds above and below, there are none that will be in the way soon
In a month or so, the dark spell of winter will be broken and my return flights to Elmira will be done in the brightening light of the dawn. As the weather turns fully into summer, even the evening flight to Newark will be done in daylight for a month or two. I look forward to the daylight, but in the meantime the dark is not so fearsome.