Note: I wrote this while I was still flying EMS, thus the odd tense changes and rough prose.
I haven’t flown with Steve on the med crew since I’d made captain. Like many of our nurses and EMTs, he works at a couple of other hospitals when he isn’t be-bopping about in our King Air, and our schedules missed each other. So when he flops into the right seat that early morning out of Denver, I don’t know what to expect. (Steve will say he didn’t “flop.” After being on the run since one in the morning, everyone flops, author included.)
Anyway, we depart Denver at five something, heading eastbound. The sturdy turboprop slides into the clouds at twelve thousand feet, and stays in them. And stays. Puzzled, I look for stars and try to figure out how the layer has gotten so thick in the ninety minutes since we’ve landed. Then I see the morning star and catch myself. The paling sky blends into the clouds so well that it masks the horizon we’d crossed fifteen hundred feet after entering the deck. As the plane chugs up to nineteen thousand feet, we can see dying thunderheads silhouetted purple against the northern skyline. “How high are they?” Steve asks.
“Well, the airliners at thirty-five thousand feet were going around them, and the Briefer talked about tops of forty-five thousand near North Platte, so I’d guess forty-five.”
He shakes his head. “Are those what Two couldn’t get around?”
“I don’t think so. That stuff was east and moving east, or so the radar showed.”
As the sun draws closer to rising, the rippled clouds below our belly darken to lavender. The wisps of cloud north and east of the plane turn pink and gold, while a solitary tower south of us presents an ivory base and peachy top to the morning. I lean back, relishing the beauty of sunrise. “And people wonder why I fly.” Steve states, half puzzled, half in awe.
I nod, “Yeah.” We sit; enjoying the sunrise colors shifting purple to gold as a yellow sun eases up over the rolling white below. The dawn air slides smoothly around the plane, the silky ride belying the bounces and jouncing four hours earlier when a passing cold front churned the air. Only the low clouds hint of a change, that and the cooler air. Denver had been a delicious forty-five degrees!
A week and a day later, the King Air again heads east from Denver, this time a twitch before sunset. The weather pattern has shifted to summer normal – isolated thunderstorms and hot air up to fifteen thousand feet. We came under and around a few cells earlier, but everything seems to be weakening as the sun’s power fades. Steve and Lori nap in the back of the plane, leaving me to my thoughts as once again we climb to nineteen thousand feet. Blazing white thunderheads top out around twenty-eight thousand feet with (mostly) clear air surrounding them. I look at the cells, then the radar, and shrug. As the plane pushes east, I see that the closest cloud tower still has a little life in it. Crisp, hard edges on the back of the cell reveal a growing shower, and with Center’s blessing I ease north. The flight path would barely have cleared the cell, but the thin white streamers blowing out the top could easily hold hail, and since Lori isn’t feeling good I want a smooth ride. A few tatters of cloud skim past at my altitude, but the skies above and ahead remain clear, so I hold my height and course.
As the sun sets, the colors begin changing. Purple-blue rises from the eastern horizon, darkening the world ahead. Beside the speeding turbo-prop, the pillars of cloud begin shifting shade. Pure white tops deepen into ivory, then rose and a pewter gray. Behind us, the high spindrift of mountain storms stripes the sky in gold on blue. Pink grows richer, and the storms turn crimson and gold in the sunset. After making sure the radio transmitter is off and the two in back are still sound asleep, I start quietly singing the anthem “For the Beauty of the Earth.” It seems appropriate. I’m tempted to tell the controller what he’s missing, but common sense restrains the impulse.
Ahead of us, a thin layer of mist starts growing a round rainbow, and I whisper “Please, please give me a glory.” The sun seems to be at the right angle, and I cross my fingers, hoping. Sure enough, as the King Air charges for the cloud veil, a shadow King Air grows ahead of the nose, angled as if flying slightly north of west on a collision course with our plane. Foomp! We pop through the gauzy barrier, to find another. A second glory, weaker than the first, meets us, followed by a faint third scant seconds later.
About this time, Steve wakes up and comes forward, settling into the right seat. “You missed a great sunset.” I comment. He shrugs, looking out at another storm appearing south of the one I’d skirted. While the northern storm holds to white and ivory, the southern tower looks like a pillar of fiery ruby with a garnet base. Ahead of us, fingers of deep-blue shadow reached up into the still-bright sky. We can barely see the evening star starting to appear, a lonely gleam high to the southeast. As the plane passes the storms, talk turns to weather, harvest (Steve farms), and other assorted topics. Then a call comes in for another flight. The plane desperately needs fuel and I almost as desperately need to make a pit stop, so Steve advises Dispatch that we’ll stop at base get the night-shift nurses before heading out.
Nine hours later, a much tireder King Air and crew depart Denver as the eastern sky turns pale and the stars and quarter moon begin fading. The night’s storms have advanced to pretty much the same place as the last batch and I opt to go back high and direct, dealing with whatever I find (which probably won’t be much.) Our other company plane decides to divert north and then east, which suits me fine. I won’t have to stay below him, and can go direct more easily without conflicting traffic. Once again we climb to nineteen thousand, the med crew asleep in their seats. I munch on a chocolate bar and enjoy the view. This early in the day, we have the sky pretty much to ourselves. A few red-eye airliners check on north of our course and one last cargo plane darts below us, but the lower flight levels remain quiet.
As I’d guessed, the night’s storms have for the most part fizzled out. Growing light reveals the soft, wispy curves and fuzzy edges of showers long ended, although I see one last rainmaker forty miles to our north. Soon, the red-orange sun-disk begins rising through the horizon, coming up in stripes as it passes through the dust and water below. In a reverse of the evening before, the cloud tops whiten while their rain turns red and purple. Streamers of color trail over the dry ground far below, and the last star vanishes. Center sends the plane down from nineteen to twelve thousand, dipping us through a juicy cloud layer. Ice traces up the windshield as we descend and I chuckle at ice in late June. The air stays smooth, even during the fast descent. We’ve caught the other plane and are passing him, so Center speeds me down to get below him for landing. As the King Air glides through eight thousand feet, we dip into moist, hazy air. Everything ahead turns pale and soft, the morning mist muting the gold of ripe wheat and green of the river bottom.
Still a bit high, I swing the plane over the airport to land to the south, waking the med crew only when the wheels extend. A bright yellow spray plane takes off before we land, winging north to do his work. We touch down smoothly (for a change!) but a bit fast and I just let the heavy plane roll to the cross runway. There I turn off and go until I’ve cleared everything. I stop, raise the flaps and turn off the lights as the Tower announces that it’s open for business.
We’re bone weary, about to perish of hunger (candy bar notwithstanding. That was supper and breakfast) and I’m basically flat as a fritter. But the cool of morning helps revive us as we unload the plane and go our separate ways. This is just the beginning of my week, because I’m on twenty-four hour call until David comes back next Tuesday evening. As I straggle towards my car, still grinning, I agree with Steve’s words. “And people wonder why I fly!”