The Liberty Gazette
January 20, 2015Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: I have a picture in my mind about what it will look like out there. I’m betting there will be swirls of clouds coming off the peaks and shafts of sunlight streaming down through the dark clouds above. I think the ceiling will be high enough for me to safely scoot underneath and make it at least to my first airport. The true test will be "the squeeze", an area where both walls of the canyon are within a mile or two of each other. It’s going to be a bumpy ride, but as always I have another plan in mind if the weather is not as predicted.
When I started flying freight in the early 1980’s, we went to some rather remote places, both on the map and in terms of weather forecasting. Survival could depend on how well one read the weather and translated that into an image in one’s head. Time and experience taught some valuable lessons. I learned that sometimes what looks benign can hold some pretty nasty potholes. However, the opposite is rarely true. If the sky was black, I stayed back.
Basic meteorology is a part of early flight training. Aviators learn how to have a general idea of what to expect yet are not too surprised by changes – as we all know, nature can be unpredictable.
Back in the early days of my professional flying a pilot could walk in to any flight service station and be greeted by a real live person who would assist with analyzing weather charts and all the compiled information available for making decisions about a flight. When a personal meeting was not possible we could call the same helpful person, the phone number of the station being plastered on the wall at most airport terminals, or via a dedicated phone line installed. Times have changed, and while we don’t talk face-to-face with a weather advisor, the tools we use today are a big help.
Clearly the best way to know what weather lies ahead is for someone ahead to report back. Pilot Reports or PIREPs are available as part of the pre-flight weather briefing obtained electronically or by phone. We did that in the remote canyons of the Owens Valley, where our company planes were the first up the valley every morning and the last ones through at night; we gave PIREPs to Fresno Flight Service via radio calls to a remotely located antenna in the southern part of the valley. Our reports, and one ground observer at the northern end, offered the only weather advisories available to those who wished to trek the 200-mile long route.
Pilots quickly learn that mountains make different weather than flatlands. Coastal conditions change constantly, and in a matter of minutes. Deserts make different weather than tropical regions. We learn what to expect in certain seasons. The Arizona desert is bone dry most of the year but during monsoon season it is prone to high humidity and flash thunderstorms bringing torrential rains and flooding.
Because of the ever-changing nature of weather, we are privy to views of a wonderful, though sometimes dangerous kaleidoscope of colors and textures. Pilots should be made honorary members of the Cloud Appreciation Society as these views certainly make our lives much less mundane. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but there is no camera or device in the world that can capture what is in the pilot’s eye.