Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Sea and Sky

I think this is the first time I have ever posted without a leading photo. I have a few "photos" in my head, but yeah, they're in my head. What I mean by that will become clear as we move along.

Saturday last, (the 27th of December) The Missus Herself and I awakened long before the crack of dawn in order to motor on over to our local airport for to board an aircraft bound for Reagan National. It was still dark when the aircraft pushed back from the terminal.

The weather outside (no, it was not "frightful") was a relatively pleasant 40-something, but I gathered that the conditions aloft were conducive to icing. Why did I think that? Perhaps because after we were pushed back from the terminal a truck came out and started spraying deicing solution on the aircraft.

I notice these little things.

After deicing (which kind of annoyed me as it smudged up my window) we finally proceeded to engine start and began the long taxi from terminal to runway. I do believe we took off from Runway 23 and looking at a map seems to confirm that.

Public Domain

As you can see in the airport diagram, the terminal is on the left side of the diagram, Runway 23 on the right. (For those of you taking notes, we left from Gate 4.) As we taxied I noticed that the eastern horizon was just starting to get light. Just a faint redness off to the east, but dawn wasn't that far away.

Eventually we got onto the runway, the pilot advanced the throttles and within seconds we had lifted into the sky. The joy of flight was upon me as I looked out the window and cast my gaze over the beauty of Narragansett Bay and its environs. Off the port side I could see the lights of Mount Hope Bridge. On the ground it was still fairly dark, in the air the eastern horizon was painted red, with the reddest portion being where the Sun would soon arise.

(Yes, yes, I know. "Red sky at morning, sailors take warning." It did rain later. I was paying attention. Really.)

The pilot announced to us that due to various things, we would not be flying down over land but would be out over the Atlantic. Not much to see, I thought at the time. I was so wrong.

As we left the coast behind I began to notice lights on the surface of the sea. I really wished I had brought my binoculars, even though that would no doubt increase my geek factor, I didn't care. What were those lights? Had to be fishing boats I figured. What must that be like? Out there on the surface of the deep, attempting to pull a living from the sea. I'm guessing it's a tough life. Not a lot of money, bur perhaps a lot of freedom. I can see why people do it.

As we made our way down the coast, I noticed way out to sea, at about our altitude, a thin layer of cloud. Wispy and inconsequential though those clouds appeared, they were the backdrop for the show about to begin. To the left of the aircraft and well to the north, the Sun was just beginning to kiss the far horizon. I couldn't see the disk just yet, but sunrise was in the offing.

Then, creeping over the surface of the sea, I could see a low layer of thin cloud which seemed to be advancing towards us. Of course that was an illusion, it was the aircraft that was moving. But it looked pretty spectacular.

So we now have a cloud layer below us and another, out to sea, at our altitude. I couldn't see the surface, nor could I see the sunrise as the cloud layer out to sea was blocking that view.

It was then that I noticed what appeared to be an opening in the lower cloud layer which looked very odd from my position. Only after staring at it for some time did it become clear what I was seeing. There was a gap in the lower layer and a gap in the upper layer, it was like a window to the far horizon which was blood red and also revealed yet another cloud layer a long ways out.

That layer had a group of puffy cumulus clouds beneath it which looked dark gray against that red background. I almost broke the camera out but didn't want to tear myself from the spectacle laid out before me. It was too beautiful for words, ethereal and fleeting as we were moving south and the sun was headed up into the sky by now.

The hole in the lower layer framed the surface of the sea, the dark gray cumulus seemed to be rocks out on some far shore. The effect was that of a lake in the sky. Breathtaking.

I noticed now that the lower layer of cloud was rising to meet us. We were sailing along just above that layer. The feeling of motion, the feeling of flight was intoxicating. 'Twas then I noticed there was another layer of cloud lower down. What happened next was stunning. The sun was now above the horizon. I couldn't see it as it was between the two cloud layers. What I did see was amazing.

Hanging down from the upper cloud layer was virga,* curtains hanging in the sky.

Nimbostratus virga grey with hills by Simon A. Eugster
Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.
Because the sun was shining between the layers, the virga was tinted varying shades of red, it seemed like the sky was on fire between the layers.

Again I was tempted to dig the camera out of the back pack (under the seat mind you) but once again, I could not tear my eyes off the scene outside the aircraft. There are times when you'd like a photo to show others, but doing so would perhaps cause you to miss something. (Too many events in my children's youth I saw through a view finder. While I do have the pictures, I have no feeling for the actual event. I don't know how serious photographers do it.)

As we got further south we began losing altitude. I then began noticing ships. The first one looked almost like a flattop, like an old World War II carrier. As we drifted in and out of the cloud layer, I understood the feeling those PBY crews had searching for the Japanese fleet at Midway. I also realized that, as close as we were to that ship, had it been 1942, odds are the Combat Air Patrol of Zeroes would have been all over us at some point. It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck to think of it.

I remembered an old trick while looking for ships, look for the wake, it will lead you to the ship itself. We were fairly low at this point so the ships themselves were easy to spot. Off in the near distance I saw what I thought was yet another ship, but it looked different from the merchant ships I'd been seeing.

Then I realized that to our south was the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. Hhmm, could that be a warship? I knew it was a ship and that it was moving, due to the presence of a wake.

As we got closer to the mystery ship we began to bank to the right, we were setting a course for thw approach to Reagan. While I couldn't be sure, I'm convinced that the mystery ship was indeed a warship. The superstructure looked right (from what I could see, where were my binoculars?) but it was far away and rapidly receding in the distance. So who knows?

Quickly we began to let down, heading into Reagan. Off our wing and perhaps a couple of hundred feet lower, I saw a seagull flying on a reciprocal course. Then another, and another. Cool, I thought. Then I remembered a program I had watched a few nights ago. Something to do with firing chicken carcasses into a jet engine.

Hhmm, bird strike.

Not cool, not fun at all.

As we came into Runway 1, I could see the tidal flats below. The tide was out, there were hundreds of seagulls sitting around, chilling. My thought?

Stay there guys, stay in the mud until our gear is on the runway.

Stay they did. Land we did.

A beautiful flight. Unforgettable.

Next time I bring my binoculars. And keep the camera handy.

* In meteorology, virga is an observable streak or shaft of precipitation that falls from a cloud but evaporates or sublimes before reaching the ground. (W)


  1. Having flown more than many (My Dad was an airline employee for most of my childhood and adolescence, and we took advantage of the perks regularly) I saw many a spectacular sight such as you describe. There were, of course, no cell phones or other easy photos in those days, so we hardly ever took shots of them. As you said, however, when looking at them live the urge to just keep on looking and not take your eyes off them is strong.

    I always wonder about those who chronicle every waking moment of their children's lives via photography. Sure, the memories are captured, but do they become true memories only after viewing the films? I can't imagine that those parents really are living the moments the first time around and that's a shame. Oh, well. To each his (or her) own, I suppose, but I tend to think living the moment is more exciting and wonderful than taking photos of it.

    1. Your last sentence says it all Suldog. I think that the photos are nice for those who weren't there.

    2. I remember going to Little Juvat's soccer games on Kadena and thinking it looked like a Media event with all the shoulder mounted VCRs. I had one and even sometimes used it, but preferred watching the games in real time. So, I'm with Suldog on this one.

    3. We seem to be all in agreement on this one.

  2. It never occurred to me to bring binoculars on the plane.
    Mostly they just sit in the rear passenger door side-pocket.
    OTOH, my camera is almost always in standby mode on the plane.
    The best photo ops usually occur when it isn't handy.

    I agree that memories are better than pictures.

    1. The binoculars were an idea looking for a brain to land in. It found mine.

      I need a photographer on staff. Memories and pictures both.

      Of course I would need a much enhanced income for that.

  3. Your plane probably had frost that was removed. If it was sprayed twice, the second coat shears off around 120-140 knots. Airborne, the aircraft deicing systems provide protection.

    One of my fun jobs since retiring was deicing at Denver International. Lots of fun in an enclosed cab. Not so much in an open bucket.

    1. I hadn't thought of that WSF. This was the first flight of the day for that bird and I did have frost on my car before we left for the airport.

      It's nice having readers who know these things. Improves the discourse around here and enlightens Yours Truly.

      Thank you!

  4. I saw an article recently which reported a study "proving" that stopping to photograph a scene blocks much of the memory of the event. They may be onto something, there. Either way, thank you for the word picture.

  5. A picture is worth a thousand words, they say, but a thousand pictures can never capture the essence of experience.

  6. I had to look up "sublimes". ;-)

  7. Nice, and you can see something 'new' every day up there!

  8. You write a military/history/aviation-centric blog, you were on a plane, and you didn't think to have the camera at the ready? 5 lashes with wet paracord!

  9. I fly a lot these days, in the cattle car aka Southwest. Your post makes me want to go back to sea. although, I've always, and still, wanted to have a window seat for the flight into the Washington National, I hear the river route is quite something.

    1. The river route is excellent. Especially at or around dawn.


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