Winter Flying: Faith and Defiance.


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I can’t decide if winter flying is is one long act of defiance, or shorter acts of combined faith. On a cold January day with an icy, raggedy ceiling and needle-like freezing rain rasping against the fuselage on taxi-out, on board it’s a steady 75 degrees. People aboard reflect the destination, not our departure point–and act of faith on their part requiring an act of defiance on mine.

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It’s actually a worthy challenge, bringing all of the details to a successful conclusion: flight planning, routing, de-icing, preflight, taxi-out and pre-take-off de-icing. There’s a puzzle to assemble, jagged pieces of holdover times for de-icing fluid, precip rates and types–you know what’s reported, but you deal with what’s actually happening–and it’s up to you to account for the difference. Take-off performance degrades; weight limits based on the restrictions of leaving, but with due diligence to the weather conditions 1,200 miles south.

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Boeing has given us a marvelous machine that will wake up encased in ice, but in a matter of minutes will operate from the ice box to the tropics. Not magic–just a lot of grunt work by a lot of people.

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It’s a lot slower, but more than the temperature is involved: there are more requirements, plus people and machines work slower in the cold. As they should be expected to do, but which often results in frustration for those whose involvement is limited to riding the jet rather than trying to fly it safely. Sorry.

But eventually, we get to this:

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Again, that’s going to be slow, too, by necessity. But be patient: the destination must be worth the trip, right? But inevitably, the factors a passenger plans to escape by air don’t make that escape easy.

Half the battle is getting into the air–where the other half is usually just as challenging. Again, the same crud that you want to escape packs a punch from the surface to the stratosphere. We’ll deal with that, too, at 300 knots, or maybe 280 if it’s bumpy. Already told the cabin crew to remain seated till I call them, when I’m sure we’re in safe, stable air. More griping from passengers, I know, but they’re not responsible for not putting a crewmember through a ceiling panel.

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This is how it might look if anyone checked ahead (I did) so it wasn’t surprising face to face, really. Which looks more like this, and nobody’s getting to paradise till they work their way through this frontal line.

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Eventually, we win: the further south we go, the more miles we put behind us, the weather–and the escape–become reality. You begin to get a glimpse of paradise with your 320 mile digital vision. The 20-20 eyeballs show the passage from land to water, a sure sign of warmer days for 160 souls on board, patient or not.

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Soon it’s all blue, with ghostly outlines below that carve the indigo into brown and green, lush islands poking above the mild, warm seas.

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Nassau, the Bahamas, straight ahead. Power back, begin the slow, gentle glide from seven miles high to sea level. More islands slide silently below the nose. Never tire of seeing the parade of blues, browns, greens; paradise.

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Where’s the snow now? The icy grip of winter? Escape–by the lucky hundred and sixty aboard, each with their own getaway plan, winter runaways we eagerly aid and abet: someone has to break free, to teach winter a lesson.

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A world away, if only but the blink of an eye in a lifetime, it’s nonetheless an eyeful. I’m happy for those who’ll stay, at least for a while.

IMG_1390Welcome to Nassau. For me, it’s a few moments of sunshine and sea air on the ramp while ground crews unload cargo, reload, refuel and get us turned around and ready for launch back to the north. Too soon, in a way, but not soon enough in another: this isn’t my escape–it’s my job.  From which, for the vagabond pilot, home is the escape. Will be back here, back and forth, all winter.

IMG_1388He’s headed home, too, a longer way back, but with a couple hundred aboard not facing the cold quite yet. But likely missing the scenery shrinking below as we climb and arc away to the north.

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So long to paradise, hello radar scan; fuel burn, overwater navigation, peaceful cruise until you face the enemy line you already slipped through once today. Still there, waiting. The sun gives up, slips into the muck and so do you, both promising another trip around the globe another day.

IMG_1391There’s the final act of defiance, or maybe faith: through the choppy, sleet-streaked darkness, at 200 knots, toward the runway you better know is below the 200 foot ceiling.

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Then it’s all about home, after appeasing the winter gods (“We brought at least as many back from paradise–you can ruin the rest of their season, plus make them wistful for the tropics the rest of the year!”) yet again. A healthy respect goes both ways; careful defiance, faithful flight. Starts again tomorrow.

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19 Responses to “Winter Flying: Faith and Defiance.”

  1. Donuthead Says:

    Yeah I guess they fly out of the hostile weather, but why not just live in California?

  2. This is beautiful. I know you’re a pilot, Chris, but your appreciation (awe?) of our atmosphere is something I don’t think necessarily goes with the job. I dub you “Honorary Meteorologist and Knight of the Troposphere”. So be it.

  3. Another excellent post Chris! It’s very impressive that after many years “up front”,you’re still able to appreciate the world, and your place in it. Or is reflecting quite easy when the person in the right seat is doing all the work? :-)

    • I really wish he were. But I actually had him fly us down to the Bahamas where it was sunny with light winds, saving the nighttime icy crap approach to the 200′ ceiling for myself. Not that he couldn’t fly it–he sure could have. But it’s easier to fly it myself than monitoring his progress. And no matter who does the flying, there’s only one person who is responsible for the results.

  4. Fantastic!!! I tried to make my escape but I was captured and returned to the winter gods. They can’t break me!!! Ha ha…

    Thank you, Chris. As always, I love your posts…and the photos are surreal to me. Uh, except that snow covered runway one…yup, I recognize that. :)

    All the best to you and the family. Hopefully you (and Darling Bride) will make your brief escape to paradise soon.

    • Thanks! Best to you and Mike as well. Our winter “getaway” this year will be to Chicago soon–kind of shaking things up, love the downtown Gold Coast!

      Envious of your beach pics! Must have been a blast–

  5. roberthenryfischat Says:

    Reblogged this on robert's space and commented:
    remember it’s panic that kills.

  6. Once again you have brought the “behind the scenes” things into a well written and fun post. Well done.

  7. Lego Spaceman Says:

    Not magic–just a lot of grunt work by a lot of people.

    Awww, you noticed. It’s enough to melt and engineer’s heart.

    • Engineers get the big shout out in the assertion that “Boeing has given us an amazing jet:” I appreciate the Boeing design and manufacturing engineers, plus the amazing engine designers, every single flight.

  8. The magic of flight – a visit to summer and back in a day.

  9. Great post, as usual! I will be fortunate enough to be heading to FLL for a cruise in 12 days so this is very timely! Hmmm, I should print it and give to the onboard crew!
    Regards,
    Loni

    • Good luck and smooth sailing–we’ve gone out of FLL several times and last time was a nailbiter: we were scheduled in at 1:05, but maintenance delays made the actual arrival 3:05. Our Princess cruise (Emerald of the Seas) departed at 5pm and we had a rush to get through embarkation; several folks on the plane were leaving out of the Port of Miami at the same time and I doubt they made it in time for their sailing.

      I hate to go a day early, but sometimes it’s a good idea, especially if weather delays are brewing . . . bon voyage!

  10. Cedarglen Says:

    Thanks, Chris; another great one. I think your reply to @Joe_T, above, covers it quite well. A well-written blog and a genuine pleasure to read. Happy Landings for 2013 and beyond, -C.

  11. I love this post and I love the way you see the world. Just excellent work by a very gifted individual who loves what he does. As a surgeon, I know a little something about that too. Please, please keep writing and keep flying us around too.

  12. Very interesting post. As I work towards my PPL I am happy to feel so much more connected to the weather than before. I’m also in awe of the kinds of weather the pros like yourself are expected to fly in. When flying commercially we all generally expect to get where we want to go at about the time stated on our tickets–and exactly that happens most of the time. Whereas, if I were flying myself, there have been a few instances I can remember when I wouldn’t have departed in the same week as I initially planned.

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