Maritime Air

In all its atmospheric forms, water is the enemy of flight.  Liquid droplets obscure vision. Icy moisture strangles an engine. On taxiways and ramps, rippling puddles seek any passing plane to splash on, later to freeze aloft. Crystallized ornaments drag the plane to the ground.  In the sky, water is a vandal.  The softest cloud becomes a frozen sledge that pummels the airfoil.  Even water vapor -- transparent and pure -- holds primacy as an invisible threat. I learned that in Sedona.

During a visit to our home in California, a young astronomer named Eric invited us to view Mars through the very telescope Percival Lowell had used in his historic studies of the Red Planet. A unique opportunity for the children. Flagstaff was a three-hour trip in Two-Four Fox and my first Arizona flying experience.

In July, 1967, the southwest was invaded by 'maritime air'. That is what weather people call a great atmospheric mass filled to capacity with evaporated ocean.

Victoria, my ten-year-old daughter played flight attendant, serving refreshments aloft and pointing out the sights to our hosts, Eric and his wife Marta, on a sightseeing flight one morning during our visit.

Over Meteor Crater National Park, I put Two-Four Fox into a spiralling climb. At 15,000 feet, Eric shot some pictures straight down. Victoria, a precocious romantic, engaged Marta in the art of space-age make-believe.

"We are astronauts," she said wistfully, presaging a real-life drama only two years away. "That's the moon up close."

The advantages afforded by private aircraft for observing the natural wonders of the West are beyond my poor powers to describe. Fly through the Grand Canyon and your eyes receive a dynamic, wide-angle view of its immense beauty -- more visual events in minutes than most mortals experience in a lifetime. The same can be said of Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon, Lake Powell, and Sedona.

We flew to Sedona for lunch.

Sedona Airport is located atop a mesa surrounded by Oak Creek Canyon and some of the most colorful natural formations Arizona has to offer. The runway is nearly a mile long, but, like much of Arizona, it is also a mile high.

Aviation's three H's were all operative: High, Hot, and -- thanks to maritime air -- Humid. That added up to 'high density-altitude' -- a perilously poor term. It really means 'low-density air.' Engines gasp, propellers flail inefficiently, and wings find scant support. To stay aloft in this rarefied stuff, you must fly over the ground faster than normal, though your airspeed indicator, which is thrown out of calibration by maritime air, reads the same. In summary, the three H's signal the need for lots of runway.

"Wind-sock!" exclaimed my daughter, pointing down as we flew low over the airport.

"Sharp eyes," I said. The wind was light and variable but generally out of the southwest, favoring Runway Two-One.

As a low-time pilot, I was not unmindful of my limitations and that I would have to catch the very beginning of the runway. I pulled Two-Four Fox around into a left-hand pattern. I powered back and pinned the indicated airspeed at 75 knots. I could feel my heart pounding. If it does not look perfect, I told myself, pull the hell up. We shall return to Flagstaff for lunch. Full flaps on final. Looks fine.

Uh-oh. Up close, I see that the runway is coated with gravel!

We touched down in the first quarter of the runway. For me, that's right on the button. Flaps up and brakes. The plane commenced to skid. Easy on the brakes, but the ground is whizzing by. The main wheels barely touch the ground. Brake again -- and skid again. Too late for a go-around. Only gradually did Two-Four Fox shudder to a halt.

Immediately beyond the idling propeller blinked an unobstructed view of Oak Creek Canyon. There was barely room before the precipice to turn the plane around.

"Well," shrugged Victoria, cheerfully borrowing one of my lines, "they put the whole runway there for us to use, didn't they?"

If Eric and Marta were frightened by the landing, they did not let on. You cannot ask for better passengers than that. We taxied to the fuel pit. I opened my side window and sat trembling for a moment. My passengers deplaned and made for the restrooms.

An old-timer ramp tramp positioned his stepladder under the wing and dragged up the fuel hose. "Not a bad landing there, sonny," he said with a toothless grin. I was in no mood for a compliment, patronizing or sincere. "'Cept most of us 'round here don't pay no mind to the wind."

I stepped out of the plane and stood on shaky legs. "What about the wind?"

"Don't matter," answered the old-timer. "We always land up-hill." He cocked his head toward the runway and cackled.

I turned around and saw for myself. That damned runway sloped off toward the southwest -- I mean sloped!

The total drop is nearly 100 feet -- 94, to be exact -- from one end to the other. Nine stories, people. I reached back into the plane and grabbed the chart.

In 1967, aeronautical charts carried no indication of runway gradient. Nevertheless, the experience for which that day would be remembered was yet to come.

Less than two percent of the earth's water is in the atmosphere. What's there is put there by the sun evaporating the seas and oceans. Solar energy, mighty and abundant, is absorbed and carried aloft by water vapor. Physicists call it latent heat of vaporization. Moist air holds invisible, explosive energy in amounts that put to shame the world's military arsenals.

The natural beauty of Oak Creek Canyon filled the windows of our restaurant. Eric told my daughter about his work. He explained that the Lowell observatory, under a contract with JPL, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was chartered to analyze the best photographs of Mars to select a landing site for unmanned probes still in the future.

"I saw several last night," said Victoria, unsmiling.

The 'seeing' conditions had been less than ideal for our first session at the observatory the previous night. Clouds blocked our view of Mars. During one brief opening, my daughter had the eye-piece. Who could challenge her alleged discoveries?

"Landing sites?" asked Eric.

"I should draw them for you," said she. From infancy, Victoria had refined her natural gift for spoofing adults. Eric put up no resistance.

My view was toward the south. Cumulonimbus appeared in the distance. I commented that there might be thunderstorms again this afternoon.

"Papa November, do you remember the 'lightning game'?" Victoria asked. To this day, she often addresses me by my phonetic initials.

She explained to Eric and Marta how I had taught the children to estimate our distance from a lightning bolt by measuring the time between its flash and the arrival of the thunder clap. At the speed of sound, each mile adds five seconds to the trip.

"We were very young," she concluded. "It helped us not to worry."

"That was the original intent," I said, joining my daughter in a fond recollection. "However, Victoria astonished us all by creating a game out of the exercise. She asked me to darken the room and flash the light on and off. After an arbitrary time, I was supposed to clap my hands --"

"And I would tell the distance," Victoria exulted. "It was easy."

cumulo nimbusAt that moment I became distracted by what I saw out the window.

Between the time we place our luncheon order and the soup was served, I watched through the window as a dozen white columns grew in the distance. Their bases, standing above parched mesas, turned dark. 

"Easy, yes -- uh, the counting part was easy enough," I said.

"But the computation requires a division by five," said Marta. "How old were you, Victoria?"

"No more than five," I answered for her. "You know, we should get a move on. Maritime air, you know. Could be trouble."

"Division is not a common skill for a five-year-old," Marta mused.

"I counted on my fingers," Victoria said, covering her face in mock embarrassment.

"Maybe so," said I, wresting myself back into the conversation. "But once, I made it tough. I waited thirteen seconds, and you -- " I paused to press Victoria's nose like a doorbell, "you immediately gave the answer: 'two and a half miles.'"

"How did you do it?" asked Eric.

Victoria shrugged.

"You told me exactly how you worked it out, Vicki. Don't you remember?"

She shook her head, face aglow.

" 'First I counted five,' " I said, speaking in a high voice. " 'And that was one mile. Then I counted another five, that made two. I used up all my fingers so I put those two miles on the shelf.' "

"On the shelf?" Victoria wondered.

"Those were your exact words," I said.

"I enjoy learning how kids think." said Marta. "Piaget was my favorite subject."

"What about the 'half'?" asked Eric.

I grinned at my daughter. "That was the best part. Victoria counted for another three seconds before I clapped my hands. 'Three is the middle number in five,' she said. 'That makes half -- to go with the two miles on the shelf -- oh, I forgot. Five is not a fair number.' "

Victoria burst out laughing, " 'Fair numbers' -- I was so dumb." Eric looked puzzled.

"According to Vicki, two is a fair number. So is four. Then six, eight..."

Eric nodded. "Even numbers."

"No -- fair numbers," said Marta. "In a family with two children, it would be the even numbers that are 'fair'."

I reached for the check and stood up. "We don't have time for dessert."

In the ambience of a bustling restaurant, one might not imagine the atmospheric felonies being committed above the forests of Arizona. Since becoming a pilot, I see the sky with new eyes. The suddenness of those cloud formations astounded me. What must primitive people have thought of such wonders?

Ground transportation is seldom a problem for people who fly light aircraft, particularly at remote airports. The FBO -- fixed base operator -- usually keeps a couple of dilapidated sedans on the field for pilots to borrow -- often at no charge. An offer to pay is declined uncomfortably. Protocol in the sixties had it that you brought the car back to the airport full of gas and absent-mindedly left a few dollars on the counter. The FBO would not chase you to your plane to refund such a gratuity.

The return trip from the restaurant to Sedona Airport was mostly uphill. Our old Ford loaner smoked and pinged. Three out of four in our party were amused. I could not take my eyes off the gathering storms in the south. Fortunately, I thought to myself, we will be flying north.

Up on the mesa, the wind was gusting. Two-Four Fox rocked its wings and bobbed its tail as we climbed aboard. I waved at the old timer and started the engine. We would take off toward the south -- down-hill. Turning 180 degrees will put us on a downwind departure, heading for Flagstaff. While taxiing to the runway. I saw something I did not like.

Towering columns were forming in the north -- toward Flagstaff. I tried to take comfort in the fact that distances in the desert are deceiving. Mountains or clouds always seem close until you set out on the journey to approach them. Still, we faced what meteorologists call unstable air. Rising currents and a rough ride.

"Seatbelts tight, everyone."

The trip was only twenty miles. We could have left the plane and returned for it in the morning. I have driven airport clunkers farther than that just to find a hamburger joint. That alternative occurred to me immediately after take-off.

As our wheels came off the gravel strip, I punched the chronometer. Two-Four Fox drifted to the left, the true direction of the wind asserting itself upon our motion. Yawing to the right to keep our path aligned with the runway put us in a radical crab angle. Glad to be taking off not landing, I pulled up and out of ground effect.

Suddenly, the plane takes an upward blow and delivers it to our spines. My right hand is tossed from the throttle. The horizon blurs and slants. An atmospheric fist has administered the first of many uppercuts. By reflex, my left hand has tighted its grasp on the control wheel. Left aileron steepens the sky angle. Now the plane descends toward the valley below. Inertia flings us against our seatbelts. Pull up again.

Unstable air rises in irregular patterns. Surrounding air gets pulled along in eddies. Local swirls bigger than our plane impart downward motion. Thus, fringes of sinking air enclose the rising currents. Penetrating these unseen cells, an airplane samples downdrafts as well as up-drafts in rapid succession.

Two-Four Fox accepts the atmospheric punishment without complaint. We hit a rising parcel head-on, then catch one at an angle. A wing yanks skyward. Nobody speaks. We turn in fits and jerks toward the north and pass Sedona Airport on our left.

A quick look toward my daughter in the right seat. "A little rough, I'm sorry."  Victoria's eyes were fixed on the horizon, a proven counter-measure to nausea.

Severe turbulence is worse for passengers than for the pilot. In choppy air, the pilot can feel pending motions in the controls. Foreknowledge prevents distress, like seeing bumps ahead in the road. Passengers do not have that advantage.

In theory, the pilot can partially smooth out the bumps with rapid control pressures. There is a limit, though. The air during our climb-out over Sedona was too violent for that. To overcome some of the worst lashes would require sudden, full-scale excursions of the control wheel, a hazard to the structural integrity of Two-Four Fox.

The terrain along our route is a forested plateau, nearly level all the way to Flagstaff. To set up our course, I have to steady my hand on the omni bearing selector knob and struggle to focus on the bezel. With the needle centered, I can aim toward our destination. The horizon rocks from side to side.

A startling realization: There are two storm cells already in operation on either side of our flight path.

Thunderstorms, gigantic geysers in the sky, are the extreme handiwork of maritime air. In the upward rush, water condenses, giving off its latent heat of vaporization. The term 'latent' is deceptively benign. All hell breaks loose. Released energy drives a mighty explosion.

We face two thunderstorms, both expanding, and they are not beyond Flagstaff. The space between them gets smaller -- not larger -- as we approach. Just above the plateau lurk the cloud bases, which have turned leaden. Rain strikes the windshield in hissing rashes.

The cumulonimbus clouds stand straight above us against the blue sky. My left arm is feeling the effects of continuous corrective maneuvers. Our course has shifted. To reach Flagstaff now, we have to pass under the storm on the left. Two-Four Fox could get sucked up and demolished! I must keep aiming for the gap, steering around the storm on the left.

"Virga," announced Eric. He braced his arm on the back of my seat to point out the wisps of rain streaming from the storm on the right.

"They look like stalactites," Marta remarked.

"Virga is rain that evaporates before it reaches the ground," Eric explained to my daughter. She nodded, not quite able to smile.

What is it with these people! You would think we were attending a meteorological field trip, not fighting the most vicious weather in the sky.

A brilliant flash on the left. Victoria muffled a scream. Snapping thunder. Not basso profundo reverberations -- a whip-crack above the sound of our engine. Another flash, answering on the right from a jagged bolt stabbing the forest below. Rain drenches the windshield now and streaks along the side windows.

Rate of climb shows 1,000 feet a minute -- up! Throttle back and push down.

Flash, crack!

"No time at all!" exclaimed Victoria.

The treetops are barely visible through the driving rain. To escape the treachery from above, I force the nose to point steeply downward. I did not immediately comprehend my daughter's remark. Eric did.

"Maybe a second, Victoria," he shouted. "One-fifth of a mile is my guess."

The omni needle has gone off scale. Resetting it, I see we are passing to the east of Flagstaff. Suddenly, the rain on our windshield disappears.

Marta was first to see the airport. "There!"

On our left, half covered by that rain shower, was the Flagstaff runway. Bright sky fills our view ahead.

Released from the storm's grasp, the plane drops into an atmospheric hole. Full throttle to stop the dive. The engine coughs then comes alive. Pull up, engine laboring. Forest just below.

A quick left turn put us on a rollicking base leg. Two-Four Fox touched down on dry pavement -- dry! -- and rolled out into the driving rain. I took a deep breath, quaking.

Eleven forest fires were started by lightning that day. Eric got soaked running for the terminal building to borrow umbrellas. I installed the control lock and folded my charts.

"I'll fasten the window shades, Papa November," said Victoria cheerfully.

I logged the reading off my chronometer. It did not seem right. Our total flying time from Sedona was twelve minutes.

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