May 17, 2000

The week before last, it seemed that the good weather wouldn't ever leave us. Last week, it stormed each day. It took a long time for the good weather to decay into storms, and then it took a long time for the storms to clear out. Change is life's only constant.

Two weeks ago Monday I had to climb to 12,000 feet to get on top of a layer of icy clouds. It was a cool morning on the ground, but the colder air at cruising altitudes was choked with wet clouds. Ice was slowly forming on the airplane, so I climbed higher but the ice only got worse. In two more tentative steps, I reached an altitude that put me on top of the clouds. The air was crisp clean and smooth, at peace with itself and the coming dawn.

By the end of the week spring had arrived. Leaves were unfolding, flowers were blossoming and the full complement of summer songbirds were accounted for. Each day was warmer and more humid, and by the time that the weather turned, the air was almost torpid.

It was thunderstorm weather. I have dodged around isolated thunderstorms for years, flying locally, but picking my way through organized systems with airborne radar is new to me. The radar pictures we see on the TV provide an excellent view of exactly where the weather is, where it came from, how it is growing, and where it is going. Airborne radar, especially the smaller units, cannot hope to provide this sort of detail.

In many ways, the difference is like driving in traffic and seeing the same traffic from a helicopter. From the drivers seat, you can see a few cars ahead, or the next bend, or ahead to the next rise. All you have is the view through the windshield, whereas the overhead view shows whether things will get better or worse, and readily shows the practicality of different strategies or alternate routes.

With the airplane's radar, it is difficult to pick weather echoes from ground clutter, and storms that are located behind other storms may not be shown with accuracy. If the radome is wet, the sensitivity of the unit can be degraded severely, and heavy storms can absorb the entire strength of the radar beam at their periphery, making them look like narrow crescents rather than big red festers. Since the radar can only look at a "pie slice" of sky straight ahead, the airplane must be turned to examine the weather off to either side.

One night last week, I had to pick my way through the weather as I crossed through Pennsylvania. It was rainy and bumpy wherever I was, and I was using the radar to avoid the worst of the areas. Things were going well; the plane's bumping had developed a sensibility, if not a cadence, and the thunderstorm cells were not closely spaced. As things became more relaxed, I realized that the music playing on the ADF was "Night Fever", by the BeeGees.

I never liked the BeeGees, or anything that they sang, but the flight was made memorable by that song. The plane danced in the fevered air, as frenzied as the music, but all the while sweeping gracefully across the shiny floor. The song didn't last long, but the melody kept a smile on my face until I was past the storms. Lapsing into my usual reverie, I thought of other songs for a "Music for Flying Through Thunderstorms" CD. Eye of the Tiger? Thunder and lightning by Chi Coltrane? Rock Around the Clock ? There must be a hundred of them.

Soon it was all over. The plane was tied in its parking spot, and the nightly paperwork was completed. I marveled at the air that the storms had left at Elmira after they had passed. They weren't the storms that mark a change in the weather, they were the lesser storms that ignite in hot humid air. There would be no relief from the heat and humidity yet.

The air was still and dripped with the early morning humidity. Sounds and smells seemed to be amplified, and slight wisps of fog tantalized the eye. Lilacs across the road smelled like they were planted all around the airplane. Robins sang and clucked, a catbird was babbling in the distance but was easily outshone by a Mockingbird. A pair of geese appeared from nowhere and landed on a nearby pond.

So many different kinds of air, I mused as I walked slowly to my car.

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