Nov 28, 2006

JAX is not my home...

Log Entry 1995 - A320 Capt. - Northern Florida - Cruise at FL350

The world is dim and disjointed tonight as I sit bathed in the light of instrument displays, punctuated by distant flashes of lightning outside the windshield. The first officer hunches over the radar screen, right arm propped up on the dash panel, left arm reaching towards the center console where he deftly tweaks the antenna controls, coaxing out a clearer message. Analyzing weather radar can sometimes feel like the electronic version of scanning chicken innards for omens.

I too should be consulting these flaring and fading oracles of colored electrons phosphoresing in that picture. And I will. But not now. I'm tired and the day's already been too long. For now I have time to gaze out my left side window, mesmerized. We're tracking along the eastern shore of Florida heading home from Miami to Montreal. The entire length of the sunshine state is billowing with thunderstorms. Global heat exchangers thrust stifling tropical air upwards towards frigid stratosphere. And two hundred miles ahead the coastline of the Carolinas sweeps eastward dragging another ephemeral curtain of flashing storms across our path.

I gaze through my reflection in the night-darkened glass panel. Lightning erupts in the swelling tops of a nearby storm that towers twenty-thousand feet above us. We're at 35,000 feet and I smile, recalling how experts back in the 1950s apparently thought that when jet liners came into service we'd be cruising consistently above the weather. Naive. How could the meteorologists of the day not have known the full height of these storms? WWII aircraft had already flown up to the edges of our sky, exploring the phenomenon of the jet stream and other mysteries. But perhaps they hadn't explored these heights regularly enough to understand yet? And wx radar was still being developed.

Then something catches my eye -- an airport close below us through a break in the undercast. It appears as a serene dark pool, in the midst of a noisy swarm of city lights. And within that darkness, tiny festive patterns of amber and green and blue lights outline runways and taxi-ways and ramps. A white beacon strobes briefly from the tower roof. It's a little like a mirage. An invitation to a rest and a warm bed and an end to the jorney. I recall the story of a senior colleague, who one night, finding himself hopelessly surrounded by two closing lines of thunderstorms, and with too little altitude and too little fuel, diverted into Swift Current, Saskatchewan. Which was a surprise for everyone because the airport at Swift Current had no services for a DC9. Yet, everyone lived to tell the tale. And I imagine briefly what it would be like tonight to heed the siren call of JAX, for I can see by the small magenta codes on my navigation screen, that this is Jacksonville, in northern Florida. I picture us circling gently downward into that peaceful pool to find safe harbor.

But JAX is not my home. It is not our destination. As much as I might long to avoid the strain and perhaps even fear that lies ahead tonight, as we challenge fifty thousand foot Goliaths of turbulence and hail and lightning, I know that that's exactly what we need to do - want to do. I'm confident from previous trips up and down this route that like so many pebbles in a slingshot, the aircraft and crew and fuel quantity will be sufficient. Once more we will safely cross over sea and foreign soil to regain the comforts of home. My own bed in my own room in my house on the outskirts of Montreal, with my family. That's where all that is most dear to me resides.

And I won't be satisfied with any diversion or other destination, no matter how much the rest might be welcome. When home looms on the horizon, nothing else will suffice. This urgency has even been named in the vocabulary of aviation accident investigators - "get-home-itis: the pilot presses on into deteriorating conditions..."

And maybe it's that cautionary thought that snaps me back from my reverie. I return my attention into the shadowy flight deck, and join the first officer in scanning ghostly radar images. By painstakingly coordinating them with the distant flashes out the front window, we begin to plot our way between the hazardous roiling clouds that separate us from home.

1 comment:

moe darbandi said...

Another brilliantly written post. wow.