I have no world-changing point to make, but the scene below, this weekend, was quite amazing. Here is the back story:
Yesterday afternoon, my wife and I came back to DC after a productive initial visit to Greenville and its environs in "the upstate" of South Carolina. We'll go there again, with a lot more to report.
As always, I'd been obsessively studying the aviation weather forecasts to figure out the right time to make a shortish (two-hour) flight. We couldn't start too late in the day, to avoid worries about racing sunset. We wouldn't go at all if there was a prospect of icing.* I was looking for surface winds within the comfort zone, and so on.
The result was that early afternoon yesterday looked like the sweet spot. The same jet-stream "clipper" pattern that has brought yet another polar freeze to the eastern United States had pushed away most of the clouds -- both the low-level clouds that complicate the process of landing, and the ones that, at altitude, would make you worry about airframe icing. The winds would be strong but would diminish through the day, and were lined up directly with the runway at our destination. And if, as we were traveling, they turned out to be worse than expected, we could land somewhere else with bigger runways, better aligned with the wind, and wait them out.
It was cold enough yesterday morning in Greenville to ice up a fountain in front of the landmark Poinsett Hotel.** After taking off we encountered, as foreseen, very cold and fairly bumpy conditions. At 7,000 feet, the winds aloft were blowing at 50 to 60 knots, or almost 70 miles per hour -- similar to when I flew with the Marketplace crew into Eastport, Maine. This makes for a kind of jostling that isn't dangerous but can be unpleasant. Through most of this flight it wasn't bad at all.***
Here is the FlightAware track of the journey, more accurate than Flight Aware sometimes is. The dotted blue shows the Victor-airways based initially cleared route; the green, the route we actually flew, including shortcuts we were given along the way.
As we made the fishhook turn toward Montgomery County airport, in Gaithersburg outside Washington, the reported surface winds were strong -- 16 knots, gusting to 23 -- but still directly down the runway. Recall that in the jet crash in Aspen early this month, the wind was even stronger -- but was a tailwind, which makes it difficult and dangerous to land. A gusty headwind requires concentration on landing, because the plane can speed up and slow down unexpectedly. But a strong down-the-runway headwind can add a slow-mo effect to the landing process, which gives extra time for landing adjustments.****
So we landed; and got out of the plane; and were instantly blown halfway over by the strong Arctic wind. I was wearing a sweater and quickly pulled on a leather jacket, and still I felt within five seconds as if all the heat had left my body and my ears and fingers were crystallizing. The temperature was in the low 20s, and so was the wind, with a resulting wind chill in the Green Bay-like single digits.
Then -- we saw the models! A debonair young guy wearing a light shirt and a tuxedo jacket draped over his shoulder, a beautiful young woman in a shoulderless white gown. And they were standing there, calm and smiling and, far from shivering uncontrollably, not even displaying goose flesh, in conditions that made me want to cry or run for shelter.
Through chilblains I finally asked them a version of, What the hell? It turns out that this was a photo shoot for a high-end bridal magazine, which when it comes out in a few months will look like some springtime idyll. We had unloaded bags from our plane while shivering and moaning, and the photo crew asked if we'd leave them there as background for a serendipitous white car / white gown / white shirt / white airplane look. You can see the bags underneath the plane in the shot at top. So we stood and watched while, with incredible stoicism, the young couple gave an impeccable impression of people enjoying a clement early-summer day.
What's the uplifting moral?
Lots of things have gotten way bigger during my time as an American. People themselves. Houses. Everything about pro football, which for some reason is on my mind today. And of course the wedding industry. Usually I mock or marvel at it. For now, I offer it my respect.
* The danger you must avoid in the summer: thunderstorms. In the winter: being inside a cloud in below-freezing temperatures, which can cover the wings with ice and turn an airplane into a non-flying brick.
** The Poinsett's transformation from a lawless crack house to a local-landmark status is a featured part of the downtown-renaissance saga in Greenville. And, yes, it is that Poinsett -- Joel Robert Poinsett, for whom the famous seasonal plant is named. That's the the hotel at right, also conveying an idea of the gelid-blue skies. Below we see Mr. Poinsett commemorated in front of his hotel -> crack house -> hotel.
*** The blue line in the Flight Aware graph below shows speed across the ground, in the second half of the flight. Until the big slowdown at the end in preparation for landing, the plane's airspeed through this whole journey was constant. The fluctuations up and down in groundspeed were all about shifts in the wind's speed and direction. (The tan line is altitude; the spike on the left side is some anomaly.)
**** Why am I going into such detail? If you read the journalism of the 1920s and 1930s, you see that the practicalities of aviation were a part of normal discourse, they way descriptions of computer or smart phone use is today. So, ever a traditionalist, I am reaching back to the finest part of our heritage.
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