Top to Bottom Visibility
Location: Chicago (KORD) — Nashville (KBNA)
Time: 1930 central time
It’s the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, day three of a four-day trip for my crew and I. We’re pushing back from the gate five minutes early, hoping to take off before the weather moves through. We started the day in Fargo, North Dakota, where the mid-day temperature was a cool 61 degrees Fahrenheit. I heard a few locals talking about the change in the weather; I guess fall comes early in the northern latitudes.
Chicago is firing on all cylinders tonight as pleasure travelers make their way to and from their holiday destinations. It’s been a relatively quiet weather day, but thunderstorms west of the airport are threatening to change that. In Chicago it doesn’t take much to disrupt the delicate flow and cause massive delays. The ATIS is reporting winds 260 at 13 knots, ceiling 3,000 feet broken with thunderstorms in the vicinity. I can see the dark clouds moving our way as we taxi. The sun has just set somewhere behind those clouds and dusk is well underway.
At 1938 local time we are cleared for takeoff on runway 22L, and at V1, rotate, the bustle of Chicago is receding behind us at the rate of 287 miles per hour. Turning toward the south we break through the layer of cumulus clouds and can clearly see the threatening weather now off to our right. It’s really just one large cell, maybe it will even rain itself out before reaching the airport.
Turning further south on course to Nashville the air is crisp and smooth now — somehow, subtly it does feel a little like fall. The sun, now well below the horizon, has left a beautiful orange ring that hugs the Earth in the western sky. Above, orange fades to light blue and then to black as night takes over. Venus is glowing bright and clearly visible above the colorful sky.
As we level off at FL330, all clouds have disappeared and we are suspended in the top to bottom visibility of the atmosphere. Now on a due south course, flying along the Illinois-Indiana border, the lights of Terre-Haute, Indiana pass below us. The constellations of the southern sky are bright now ahead and the horizon line between the Earth and stars is becoming blurred.
I imagine, as I often do, how we look to the people in those towns far below — a small, silent dot moving across the sky. Fifty-two of us living, breathing humans in a small metal tube, each of us with our own separate lives. We are minuscule and insignificant in a vast, boundless universe.
Over PXV — Pocket City we make a left turn to a 150 heading, straight for Music City 240nm off our nose. The captain takes a handoff to Memphis center and it’s already time to start a descent. Reluctantly I look over at the arrival procedure chart for Nashville, leaving the peaceful world of contemplation behind.
Originally published at thefirstfirstofficer.wordpress.com on September 2, 2013.