FLYING THE OMEGA
As I peer out at sturdy fan palms and frilly guasimas thrashing in the desert winds, their branches hanging onto trunks for dear life, I’m plenty glad to be on the ground. A few minutes ago a fierce gust blew a mess of doves right out of where they were roosting. Ugly surprise. Yep, I’ll bet it’s rougher’n a cob, up there – an old cliché for bad turbulence.
Another old saying goes like this:
“It’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than in the air wishing you were on the ground.”
It’s a saying I can confirm, looking back on fifty years of piloting. There are times of blood-racing happiness, like peering out over the panel into the vastness of the air around from several thousand feet up. I sit and remember more these days than I actually get exercising the privileges of my license. Such great memories can be as good as being there. Let me tell you about flying in the jet stream.
As you probably know, jet streams are the mighty steering currents for the world’s frontal systems – those bulging air masses of warmth or cold that flood our continents with interesting weather, making for interesting flying. They stream the upper altitudes a bit like the sinuous rivers in the oceans – the Humboldt current, the Gulf Stream, and so forth. But jet streams shift around coyly, operating on physics that keep meteorologists busy with their better-than-educated guesses. They diligently study rapidly shifting techie graphics, trying not to embarrass themselves with bad forecasts. If a G A pilot gets lucky, when one of those streams sinks to a lower altitude, he can snag onto the flow and get himself some phenomenal tailwinds. It doesn’t happen often in a comparatively slow single engine aircraft, but the big “heavies” glom onto them all the time, right up there in the upper flight levels. Their coast to coast-to-coast ETAS count heavily on those head- or tail-winds.
So one day, heading eastward out of San Antonio for Orlando, usually a two-day trip for our mama bird, we planned an overnight at Lake Charles, LA. But soon, at cruising altitude, we found ourselves already clipping swiftly over the coastal southland. Checking our ground speed, pop-eyed with amazement as we screamed along ever faster, faster, we suddenly realized something wonderful. At a mere 17,500’, we had incredibly snagged the jet stream. The 1,500 mile trip would finish in a scant 4.8 hours. No need for either a rest or fuel stop. Our daughter would find us on her doorstep a day earlier than expected. Navaids were whizzing by almost faster than we could identify them.
The far misty horizon sped towards us, then passed under us, in a splendid 180 degree geography lesson, the blue Gulf of Mexico stretching out to our south, Corpus Christi and Houston sliding by to the north, that megalopolis growing to include Galveston passing by on our left. As the sun changed its angle on our route, the coastal plains flashed silver lace edges and threads of rivers tracing watery routes inland. The Gulf itself shone as a plate of gold.
The interesting thing about this particular jet stream was that it looped down from its usual tropospheric altitudes in an omega pattern, like the Greek letter. That is, it swung down southward from western Canada like a jump rope, and then after looping west to east, snaked its way back north in a most accommodating way. We were going on to New England after a couple of days, and if the Omega held, not only would get we get the push towards the east, but we’d still have that tailwind to boost us northward all the way home. It rarely gets as lucky as that. We could hardly believe it, and crossed our fingers.
It worked out. We’ve talked about it ever since, bragging of course.
We got into it another time, clocking a groundspeed of 326 knots from west of Columbus OH to home base Fitchburg MA. The mid-continent controller came up on the frequency and asked: “Did you say you’re a Centurion?” We allowed as how that was right. He came back with “Good thing you’re not going west.”
We had 150 knot tailwinds from that dipping Jetstream. The plane’s airspeed was a reliable 180 knots. Going the other way? Traffic on the ground would have beat us by half again.
We joked about it with ATC….he’d had us pegged as a fancy high-speed Citation. We said we’d take that upgrade if he was giving it out. Smiles all around. I think he was bored. Not much traffic that day. Folks who didn’t have the equipment stayed on the ground.
We had a new tale for our logbooks.