Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Into the Terminator

There’s hardly a more profound time in any pilot’s cockpit than those rare moments just before sunrise or just after sunset while in a high cruise and he/she sees…the “terminator.” No, it’s not a giant scary specter of Arnold Schwarzenegger. But it is awe-inspiring.

To astronauts in orbit the terminator is simply the dividing line between daylight and darkness on the Earth’s surface. Awesome as that must look, the terminator appears quite different to the airline pilot, or passenger who watches for it and knows what to expect.

For us the terminator is the shadow of the Earth’s horizon as it is projected against a morning or evening skyscape. The part of the sky still bathed in daylight is blue, the rest black. 

Flying toward the terminator you watch it climb high in your windshield until you are suddenly in darkness. But here’s the real treat: if you are high enough and the sky is clear enough, you can see the Earth’s curvature in the terminator’s shape. It’s a sight that will still the tongue if it happens to be wagging, and will mesmerize the eyes and heart.

I once called a flight attendant up to see it. She came into the cockpit prattling about meaningless minutiae and suddenly froze when she looked ahead and saw it. As I explained what it was, I saw the woman had lost her ability to speak. She just stared with her jaw hanging low.

Here’s a pic of the terminator last Thursday night over Kansas as we flew west. The camera didn’t catch the curvature. But you can, if you’ll watch for it on your rides through the high stratosphere.

The next day a long delay in the holding pad in Denver drove me to open the flight deck door and invite people up to the front office. We can do that with the engines shut down, captain’s discretion. 

Two young sisters frolicked up and began asking questions so advanced I thought I was in an oral examination. I left the cockpit so that Randy, my F/O, could answer them. 

Randy is a retired Navy Hornet driver. He also flew A-7s, so we got along great.

Randy and I earned our pay that day. The weather in Philadelphia was forecast to be lousy. The airline had planned for plenty of extra fuel to account for various possibilities, but Randy advised me to add an extra thousand pounds (150 gallons or so). I asked why. The flight plan seemed to provide for enough. Randy winked and said, “It’s Philly.” I said sure. I crossed out the fuel load on the flight plan and wrote in a new load, 1,000 pounds higher. The total may have been 49,000 pounds, if I remember.

Randy was right on. We held for almost an hour outside Philly and when they finally let us go in the winds at the field picked up to over 50 knots. I broke off the approach and we held again. We told Philly Approach Control if the winds didn’t lessen to below 40 knots in 10 minutes we were bolting for Baltimore. They came down to 35 and we slipped in without a problem. If Randy hadn’t suggested that extra thousand back on the ground in Denver we would have surely diverted.

Randy ain’t bad…for a Navy puke.

AC out.

Give me a break!
Isn't it obvious that my
window is open?!

No that isn't a missile we just launched. It's a 737 1,000 feet under us, which we are overtaking.


bradcockrell said...

I wish someone would make way for a cockpit cam that a person could put on his desktop. I bet you guys see some incredible sights every trip! Is the name Terminator understood among pilots? Perhaps you could write sometime about the flipside of the Terminator and describe it for us. Glasses raised to the swab aviator... "I rode with him... I got no complaints." ~ Josey Wales

scockrell76 said...

In your head was there a overwhelming temptation as you were overtaking that 737 that you wanted roll the big cat over, flash his underbelly to the gods, drop in on the guppy's six, key the mike, and slowly mouth the words "GUNS, GUNS, GUNS" in celebration of yet another victorious YakPilot kill?

Good write dad. Thank you for sharing.

Alan Cockrell said...

I get that idea in my head every time somebody pulls a con across my bow, especially if it's Southwest.