April 17, 2002

Business travel. Conferences. Mandated training. Call it what you want, it is difficult to put a positive spin on a Saturday spent in conscription. Sure it is fun to drink free coffee with the boss, who we never see otherwise, and interesting to visit with fellow employees that we seldom see anytime else. Generally though, I set higher standards for enjoyable weekend activities.

Every April and October all the pilots from the Company's western realm are gathered to a central Pennsylvania airport for the recurrent training that is required by the FAA. Every fall we are told of the hazards of ice, and every spring we are told of the hazards of thunderstorms. We get a fresh dose of federal regulations, various aeronautical procedures, and Haz Mat precautions. It is a real thrill, and most of us have to hold onto the table to keep from falling right out of our chairs.

It rained a lot last Saturday, and that was the last of the positive spin for a day spent indoors; we didn't waste a pretty day in a meeting. The flights down and back however were pleasant surprises amidst a tumultuous sky that held few challenges. I arrived just ahead of the approaching rain, and thanks to a few particularly long- winded orations, I was ready to depart just as patches of blue were opening the western sky

The flight down was pretty enough that I would have been satisfied with it as an entire day's cloudscapes. There was a layer of broken clouds well above me and I was easily on top of another broken layer. Sun splashed down through the clouds above to light the clouds below, and sometimes the rays passed through the breaks in both layers to reach the western Pennsylvania's sharply folded ridges. It was a warm springtime morning, and it felt good to have the overhead air vents open for the first time in months. Things felt easy.

The flight home was forecast to be pretty dull, in a warm rain and with low ceilings for takeoff and landing, but by departure time the sky was clearing. Once airborne, it was obvious that the northeast course to Elmira was exactly paralleling the retreating edge of the weather. To the left there was blue sky and cumulus clouds strung together in lines and layers, but to the right the sky was darker and more complex. There were thin rafts of gray stratus clouds that floated against a backdrop of indistinct white. Occasionally these clouds would part enough to reveal the billowed profiles of the rain clouds.

Listening ahead, Elmira's transcribed weather broadcast advised low clouds and marginal visibility in light rain, but it turned out that the weather had improved since the recording had been made. From fifteen miles away, just past the Hammond Dam, I was able to see the airport peeking from under the back edge of a cloud deck. Rain laid just beyond the airport, and clouds started at the ground and went all the way up. The sky ahead was a riot of grays and white, all swirled together. The weather was just moving out, but it had seemingly left shards of its clouds snagged in the tree branches of the hillsides and abandoned in the many small valleys and ravines below me.

Once again, the sting of extra work hours was softened by a beautiful flight. A stationary front laid all the way from the Texas Panhandle to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and a low pressure area was centered near Syracuse. Light and moderate rain covered most of New York State, and a tail of precipitation stretched from the low to the southwest, along the front and just to the east of the course I had flown.

Timing is everything. The best cloudscapes are caught when the weather is changing, for only then do you have the unique combinations of stratus and cumulus clouds and the contrasts of bright sunlight and dark storm clouds. For a hundred miles I had flown along the seam of good and bad weather, continuously enjoying the visual symphony of the weather at work.

Dumb luck had provided me with yet another unforgettable sightseeing ride even though the weatherman had assured a dreary day.

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