This was another piece I wrote around 2003 for consideration to be published in an aviation magazine. My literary genius again went unheralded ( :) ), but it noted the start of a habit I’ve continued with every flight since then. And I’m glad I have; in sometimes just a couple of words per entry, these remarks have logged a life in aviation.
I’ve been writing in my logbook more often lately. It hasn’t been because I’ve been flying more; I’ve been adding more to each flight.
I’m a helicopter pilot for a 14 CFR Part 135 (air taxi) operation. Mostly what my company does is provide offshore support: we ferry workers and supplies from coastal bases in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi to oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.
Until recently, my logbook entries have been boringly professional: though it doesn’t seem to happen as much in the helicopter (as opposed to the airline/airplane) side of the industry, there’s always the chance that a prospective employer will want to see my logbook. For that reason I had kept my entries as succinct as possible: date, aircraft type and registration, departure and destination, and the various flight times. The Remarks section was mostly left blank, or given the most basic of attention (“Powerline Patrol”, “Photo Flight”, “R44 Checkout”).
But like most pilots, I’ve found myself looking back through my logbook. Though I can remember highlights from flights I’ve made multiple times (“Traffic Watch”) or single flights that were more memorable than usual (“Private Pilot Checkride Passed”), there are literally pages of flights I don’t remember much at all about.
So I’ve been writing in my logbook. Specifically, after each flight (or after a day’s flying when I’m flying offshore and there’s less time) I write down the most interesting thing that happened in the flight/day in the “Remarks” section. Sometimes the most interesting thing is relatively minor, or sometimes it takes a while to come up with something to write. But twenty words or so will let me remember these flights for a lifetime. Looking back, there’s some fascinating stuff:
8/27: Beautiful clouds-3 (big) waterspouts, one forming (water swirl). This day’s entry came from a single cloud, easily the biggest single cloud I’ve ever seen. It started out impressive, became worrisome, and was finally just cool. First, some Gulf-of-Mexico-specific background:
Since we fly over water, there’s no land to slow down the wind, and the (usually warmer) water is a great place for clouds and weather to form. The weather in the Gulf, then, tends to form faster, and it can pack a more powerful punch. (“If you don’t like the weather, wait 15 minutes.” is our standard weather aphorism here.)
Although we definitely give any cloud with lightning or heavy rain a large berth, most other weather we’ll often fly in: even though cloud bases usually start in the 1-3000 ft range, as Part 135 VFR helicopters we only have to have 500 foot ceilings and 3 statute miles visibility to fly offshore. (We usually fly under, as opposed to beside or above clouds, where turbulence is less.) Thunderstorms (in summer) or fog (in winter) can easily ground us, but we still fit in lots of flying time.
Another major difference: clouds over land tend to be part of larger highs, lows, and fronts, and so usually appear only in groups. In the Gulf, though, weather is often much more localized: sometimes there can be really good weather around a few square miles of absolutely rotten thunderheads.
On this particular day, I and my passengers were heading west over the Gulf one morning, and saw a tremendous cumulus cloud. The cloud itself was easily tens of square miles and thousands of feet high, and there really wasn’t much else in the way of clouds around it, which made it seem even larger. This supercloud was over our desired track, and as we got closer, we noticed that we couldn’t see anything but gray underneath it. This isn’t uncommon for huge clouds (even if they’re not making rain or worse), but we definitely couldn’t see past it to open ocean, meaning it was probably as long as it was wide.
It didn’t seem dangerous, and it would have taken quite a bit of time to divert around it, so I flew underneath it. We were in it for a few miles, and as we got closer to its center, the weather went from impressive to worrisome.
Most pilots have heard of virga: they’re the sheets of precipitation (common especially in the Southwest, but also in the Gulf) that extend from the bottoms of clouds, and are thick enough that they can be seen with the naked eye from afar. We usually fly around virga in the Gulf, since the visibility can go too low and the turbulence too high to fly inside them, as well as the fact that the heavy rains of which they’re made can conceivably put out our turbine engines. There were virga (as well as some lightning) directly ahead of us, so I turned right to avoid them, but not before I witnessed the most spectacular first-hand weather show I had ever seen.
A bit about wind on water: a body of water with a steady wind blowing across it will form waves on the water, their direction of motion the same as that of the wind, and the line of the wave crests perpendicular with the wind direction. When the wind gets higher (about 15-20 kts), the wind will blow the tops of the waves over, making intermittent whitecaps along the wave peaks. When the wind gets to 30-40 kts, white streaks will form along the water, parallel to the wind direction.
Another bit about waterspouts: waterspouts are tornadoes over water: if the circular air funnel touches down over land, it’s a tornado, and if over water, it’s a waterspout. Waterspouts are generally weaker than tornadoes (though still nothing to get close to in an aircraft), and like tornadoes can only be seen if they suck up something visible (in the case of tornadoes, dirt, mobile homes, little dog Totos, etc., and for waterspouts, water).
Out of our left windows were two very large, very visible waterspouts. They were dark gray from all the water in them, approximately 800 feet tall, and easily 50 feet wide; ominous fingers of air and water stretching to the ground. They hung there, seemingly motionless, though it didn’t take any imagination to realize that they were in fact rotating and transitioning quite speedily. As soon as I saw them, I turned even more to get out of their way, and that’s when we saw something more fascinating: a waterspout about to form.
In a mature storm, there’s often no specific direction the winds will take, at least as evidenced by their effect on the waves. Near the two waterspouts, though, rotating air above had actually blown the water, with clearly visibly whitecaps and streaks, into a rotating circle hundreds of feet wide. I checked with my passengers, and they confirmed my hunch: I was actually watching a waterspout being born. Had we stayed, the rotating column of air would have contracted and increased in speed, and we would have seen it force water up through its funnel and become visible.
That was the worst of the storm, and we safely exited the other side, but I wouldn’t have traded it for a flight with clear skies that day: From a safe distance, and with a TV nowhere in sight, I got to see not only the biggest single cloud I’ve ever seen, but also the most concentrated weather (as well as what it looked like as it was forming) I’ll probably ever see. That definitely was a logbook keeper.
10/6: Flew through the side of a circular rainbow: I and a passenger were on the way back from offshore, and conditions were perfect for seeing a rainbow: we were flying northeast, the sun was low in the west-southwest (and so behind us), and there was a lot of water in the air, as it was raining intermittently.
About rainbows: rainbows result from the same effect one sees in a prism: when a light is shined into a properly shaped transparent object, the object refracts the light, splitting it up into its component colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. In a rainbow, then, the sun (the light source) shines onto the refracting objects (suspended water droplets in the air), and is reflected back through the droplets to the viewer. A rainbow’s shape comes from the angle the viewer makes with the sun and the raindrops: for a given orientation of sun and viewer, only the water droplets arranged in an arc as seen from the viewer’s orientation will refract visible light. Rainbows can also change in width: larger water droplets will produce rainbows with colors closer together. And although often invisible, rainbows have secondary bows and alternating bands: outside the normally seen portion of the rainbow (the primary bow), a secondary bow, with the same colors (though dimmer) can sometimes be seen. Inside the bow, one can sometimes also see alternating bands of red and green.
Rainbows can also appear to move: the angle between the sun, the water droplets (the refraction point), and the viewer must satisfy a certain relationship to be visible. As the viewer moves forward toward the rainbow, the refraction point (the apparent position of the rainbow) must move forward as well, so a rainbow will appear to move away from the viewer as it is approached. As the viewer continues to move toward the rainbow, the refraction point will eventually move into a parcel of air that has too few water droplets to refract light, and the rainbow will disappear.
As my passenger and I approached an area where it had just rained, a rainbow appeared at our one-o-clock position. As we got closer, it intensified both in brightness and contrast, and we decided to fly through the closest (left) side of it.
We turned toward it, and as we closed the distance the rainbow receded, but not as quickly as we moved toward it. As we approached the refraction point, the rainbow intensified even more, and it lifted off the ground: instead of a semicircle, we saw a complete rainbow circle. (This is only possible to see from the air, as there aren’t any suspended water droplets on the ground to reflect and refract light.) About this time, the secondary bow also appeared; even though its diameter was too wide to make a complete circle, It was easily the brightest and sharpest I’d ever seen. Eventually, we reached the edge of the saturated air, and the rainbow gradually disappeared, but for thirty seconds or so, we flew in a rainbow, surrounded by color and light and the soft patter of rain against the windscreen.
I don’t fly through kaleidoscopes of brilliant circular color every day, so that definitely make the “Remarks” section.
The amazing part about “Remark”ing is that I’ve only been doing it for about four months: these two entries came from flights within six weeks of each other. I could have easily filled many more paragraphs with clouds and sunsets and aircraft and friends met along the way. It’s so easy for pilots to get into a rut: we all look at the same water (or land) and sky and platforms (or towns) every day. For me, though, all it took was a few seconds at the end of each flight, and flying was suddenly a lot less boring, and a lot more like one of the reasons I first jumped into a cockpit six years ago: I can get better memories flying than I can get doing just about anything else.