I realize that my post yesterday was about flying in bad weather, not really about flying at night. But trust me, if we’d taken off after dark the flight would have been more suspenseful, and I probably would not have been able to complete it.
Recently I was down in Destin, Florida, a little beach resort town on the coast, waiting for the Boss to get done with a meeting. Day turned into night. The Boss went to dinner. I waited and waited.
And that is simply the nature of this business. You own a helicopter to have it at your disposal, so you can get things done and get home and sleep in your own bed at night. You employ a pilot and you pay him very well to sit at little dinky airports and wait for you without complaining. If I had the money I would do the same thing.
The Boss showed up around ten p.m. and we launched for Home Base. It can take between 30 and 45 minutes, depending on the wind and which way I go around the huge Eglin Air Force Base property which is usually a big, impenetrable barrier.
It was the middle of "winter": a clear, cold, and windy night, with no forecast of any inclement weather. The northwest wind made our progress slow. The higher we got, the slower we went. Needless to say, I stayed down low to minimize the effect of the wind.
As soon as Eglin Approach Control had me in radar contact, they cleared me to go directly to our destination. Sometimes, when they are not using their airspace they will do this. But it doesn’t happen often. I’ll tell you something about Eglin Air Force Base: It is DARK at night. If I’m being honest, I probably should’ve turned down the “direct” clearance and stayed over more lighted areas, just to be on the safe side.
Just as we crossed I-10, the Boss looked out to his left. “Is that fog out there?” he asked.
“Oy vey,” I thought to myself with a sigh. I’ve had way too many run-ins with fog in my life. It is the bane of my existence. I hate it. The Boss had to be mistaken. But I looked anyway, and sure enough there were pools of fog forming in the river bottoms and swampy areas. “Goddammit! How is that even possible, as cold as it is?! Here we friggin' go again.” These things I said to myself, rather than out loud. I like the Boss to think I'm a happy pilot.
As we continued northwestbound, the fog was confined to small pools, nothing widespread. But I wondered how it would be at Home Base, which sits right next to the Conecuh River. I could clearly see the bright lights of the paper plant three miles northwest of the airport, but the airport's green/white rotating beacon, which should have been visible between the plant and me, was not. Hmm. (I had plenty of fuel, and there were numerous alternate places to land, so I was more angry at the inconvenience the fog might cause than anything else.)
Closing in on the airport, I was shocked at what I saw. The entire north half of the field was covered in an even white blanket. The only thing clear was most of runway 30 (the southeast end of it, anyway), which coincidentally happens to be the only runway with lights. I made an approach to the very threshold of runway 30, then hovered up to the ramp. To do so I had to enter the fog. It was eerie, and more than a little strange. One second I was hovering on a severe-clear night, and the next second I was immersed in fog so thick I could barely see well enough to taxi. But I followed the little blue taxiway lights to the ramp, where I’d left the platform on which I land the helicopter.
As I went through the shutdown procedures, wishing I'd pursued some other line of work, the Boss hopped out and immediately almost fell on his ass. The wooden platform was covered with a slick layer of ice. So was his truck. Ice fog: something I’ve only rarely seen, and never down here in the south. Oddly, the wind on the surface was dead calm. And I guess the temperature and dew point on that clear night must have both been around 30 or 31 degrees. Whatever - the fog formed and then froze. (My Jeep was in the hangar, so HAH! I didn't have to thaw it out.)
I’ve been flying for a long time. It’s been a pretty uneventful career in some respects. Unlike some pilots, I do not have a collection of hair-raising, “There I Was…!” stories to tell about emergencies I’ve been in. However, the few that I do have are mostly centered around flying at night. And fog.
A long time ago, in the early 1970’s before I was even a pilot, I used to hang around at a heliport on the East River in New York City. There I met an incredible assortment of pilots with amazing backgrounds who taught me tons of stuff, very little of which I absorbed. But I do remember that one day, one of them was talking about weather.
“Bob,” he said, “my license is printed on baby blue paper. And it’s got a little hole right in the center. I hold it up to the sky, and look through the hole. And if the color of the sky doesn’t match the color of my license, I DON’T FLY.”
And I thought, “Pansy. What a wimp!” You see, back then I thought that “real pilots” flew in any weather, that they relished and were up to the challenge. Heh. Well, Bill Winstanley, wherever you are, I now know what you meant. I finally get it. I wish I had one of those baby blue licenses today.