Thursday, May 14, 2009

Flying through Lightning

I know it doesn't sound safe but radar technologies allow planes to fly adjacent to electrical storms without really entering the danger zone. In my opinion, doing so affords a viewing opportunity that is difficult to beat in terms of sheer grandeur.

Last night, I sat on the runway in a 767 at O'Hare in a driving rainstorm awaiting a break in the weather so we could take off for Los Angeles. When the tower gave the word, the pilots maxed the thrusters, got us airborne almost instantly, and then banked a hard right turn up through a seam in the storm. As we climbed through a wall of black clouds, the view outside of my window was one that will stay with me.

I was sitting just ahead of the wing so, from my vantage point, the forward-facing spotlight on the wingtip illuminated the rain spectacularly. At 700 MPH or so, it looked like we were flying through a river. When we emerged through the roof of the lower cloud bank, I could see that we had entered a lateral chamber between the lower cloud bank and another one thousands of feet above. Inside this chamber, we appeared to be completely surrounded by jagged bolts of electricity flashing at a rate of about once per second. Each white-hot bolt, one more brilliant than the next, turned the night sky into a purple backdrop hovering over a rumpled terrain of white and yellow clouds and beneath a ceiling of black and blue clouds.

I know how distances are distorted in the sky when there is no object of known size to help you gain perspective so I am sure the closest bolts were not likely within 50 miles of the plane. Nonetheless, it felt like we were in the center of the storm and the visual effect was mesmerizing.

1 comment:

  1. While not as grand as your experience, I too had a new experience with lightning last Saturday. I was standing in the living room watching ESPN at about 5:00 PM. It was raining out, but not dark by any means. I had heard several rumbles of thunder and had seen a flash or two. All of the sudden, a bright flash and simultaneous BOOM of thunder caused me to jump like never before. Not sure where it hit, but it shook the windows in the house. I have to believe it was within a few hundred feet.