Breadcrumbs in the Jetstream.
Used to be that in your first few hours of acrobatic flying that you had to consider how a meal would taste not only going down–but also coming back up later. Never, ever forget or underestimate the return trip.
Just like scout camp: on the way out, remember that tree, the rock formation–picture how it’s going to look coming back on your way home. So flying eastbound, you keep in mind everything germane to your westbound return.
Isobars in the back of your head as you’re outbound. Big kink in the jet stream over Arkansas, and you know what that means: lesser wave to surf eastbound, but lesser tide to buck flying west. But you can already tell what’s going on after about thirty minutes of flight. As you expected, the big dip pivots over Arkansas where it’s mixing Gulf moisture gathered from the south with the coldest air from the north.
Messy. But no worries eastbound–we’ll top it, for now. Other eastbounders won’t and it doesn’t hurt to pass the word back: looking better toward Walnut Ridge outbound to the northeast. The moisture’s making its stand here in southern Arkansas and looks to be planning to stick around. The kink in the jetstream isn’t going to sheer off the tops because it’s weaker–100 knots versus 150-160–when it courses straight out of the west.
Which means, for our return leg, bet we’ll need the southern arrival while this troubled air mass beats up the northeastern cornerpost into DFW. And since we can see that the jetstream velocity is less, no real problem coming back high in the 40,000 foot range instead of ducking under.
Air Traffic Control relays the National Weather Service warning that already rolled off the datalink printer in hard copy: level 3 thunderstorms with hail and possible tornadoes over Texarkana. Which is right below us. And no kidding–our radar shows the hook-like purple edge that I’m sure we’ll read about in the morning paper: somebody seven miles below is looking at a wall of towering cumulus and likely, a twister screwing itself into the earth west to east.
But it’s all quiet up here. Ground stuff, groundling speed and flying dirt mean nothing at altitude–but the whole ugly mess gets stored away for future reference westbound. Which starts on the ground in the east.
The old trusty Farmer’s Almanac of the sky thinking, the intangible notion my friend and the ultimate aviator Randy Sohn like to call “salt,” and I hope is “air sense:” no delays outbound, no crimp in the airway from planes deviating south. We’ll approach from the south, but will plan for at least one big reroute within the last 200 miles because the mess over Arkansas isn’t dissipating no matter what the National Weather Service predicts. So here’s the fuel load that will work–ain’t what the system planned, but it’s what I want. And what we’ll get.
Hours later, at 38,000 feet, the change comes: “Fly direct Little Rock for the arrival.” What? Could the ugly mess be moving south, and that fast?
Here’s the direct Little Rock view: is it really moving south fast enough to justify the extra mile to double back to the north? If not, we’re throwing ourselves into it with fuel we don’t want to waste. If so, who’s not glad we have extra fuel on board? Thank you Farmer’s Air Almanac brain and Randy’s salt, we have the burn available–because the thunderbumper gang is moving like a freight train. Here’s a picture five minutes later and the storm has raked itself ten miles south:
Remember, we’re just looking at the tops, radar auto-tilting down, and the ridge of thunderstorms is thundering like the mounted cavalry across central Arkansas, slashing and burning like Sherman on the march. We have plenty of cruise fuel and again, a silent, smooth ride high above the fistfight of Gulf moisture and the northern jetstream. Ringside seats. Quiet, smooth ride. Follow the breadcumbs, leavened with salt. Amen.
That didn’t end well at the surface. But, that’s why we try to pass so quietly above. And why no one on board is any worse for the wear or wiser for the passage. Which is why we fly jets in the first place, right?