February 16, 2000

"I have only two airplanes in my whole sector, and you are both converging on the same course" announced the controller. He was referring to me and a faster plane which was overtaking me, and he continued by telling the other plane to climb an extra thousand feet so that he would pass above me. It was a clear, calm, and quiet Saturday morning, still early enough that the sun hadn't started to crack the dark horizon out over the Atlantic Ocean. Even in the New York terminal area, there are times when there is some room for a little chatter and a splash of humor.

There was time to sit back and sightsee too. Just the night before, I had been quite busy as I passed through this area, looking for an altitude where moist clouds would not leave layers of ice on the plane. A 747, descending above Wilkes- Barre reported that the cloud tops were at 13,000 feet, and that is where I ended up. I found no more ice, but as I flew along there was no guarantee that the conditions would hold, and there was also some concern about the weather for landing at Elmira. Tonight was different though; there was no weather to be found, even if you wanted some.

I looked at the islands of light on the ground, each one a settlement of some magnitude, set amidst the darkness of less- populated surroundings. Little Dundee shows up this way, but even downtown Newark can be picked out of the sea of smaller lights which surrounds it. One of the things I do on nights like this is to try to identify these cities, villages and the highways.

My cartological musings were soon interrupted by the lights of the plane which had been behind me. He slowly drifted above me, as stately and serenely as a hot air balloon, since there was probably less than 20 MPH difference in our speeds. He made the same turn at coate intersection as I did, and we both headed northwest. Ultimately, I would spend the entire flight watching him grow smaller in the distance, even as I started descending into Elmira.

I looked down the length of the Wyoming Valley, the lights of Scranton and Wilkes- Barre, filling it from side to side for many miles. I wondered what the valley looked like 250 years ago when the original settlers came to the region. Where, amidst all those lights I wondered, was the settlement that was massacred in the 1778 indian raid that was set up by English troops.

Soon, looking north, I could see the glow of Binghamton's lights in the sky, but I could also see dim spikes and curtains of light above it. I have been waiting patiently to see a display of the northern lights, and hoped that my time had come. I have seen a good number of meteors, and seen one meteor burst into several pieces as it streaked across the sky. I have seen the airplane glow with static electricity, but I have yet to see the northern lights from my sky chair.

It has been a while since I have seen the 'lights, but what I was looking at did not fit my recollection. It sort of formed a curtain, but there was no shimmering, building and fading, nor any movement. There was a disconcerting coincidence to brighter areas of ground lights and taller spires of luminosity in the sky above. It was different, pretty in its own way, but I continued on without deciding what I had been looking at.

Soon, as I neared Elmira, I learned that it was snowing lightly there. The lights of city were just visible in the distance, and they had the same curtain and spires that Binghamton had. The mystery was solved; very fine snowflakes were sublimating directly out of clear air and acting as little lenses, gathering the light into spikes. The same effect can be seen on the ground by looking towards bright lights when this type of very fine snow is falling. Even if the light itself is blocked from view, the vertical spike will remain.

The Northern Lights? I am still looking. The next year or so should produce some spectacular lights because they are fed by sunspot activity, and the 11 year sunspot cycle will be peaking soon. Statistically, the best time is near the equinoxes and in the middle of the night, but the northern lights can spring into a dance anytime. I have the best seat in the house, and you can bet I will be watching on nice nights like last Saturday.

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