The Aesthetics of Flying in Clouds

When it comes to vocations and avocations, I know of none more aesthetically pleasing than flying and diving. I’m sure there are many others, but I simply don’t know them.

My vocation is diving, and flying is my avocation. I also know commercial pilots who dive in caves simply for the joy of diving. Those two activities, flying and diving, are fairly similar, as I’ve noted before.

There are experiences in flying and diving that make them more than enjoyable. They are actually breathtaking, when one takes the time to appreciate them.

For me, the breath taking part is flying into and out of clouds; what is called instrument flying. It’s called that because when you’re in clouds you can’t see the horizon, and you can’t trust bodily sensations, so you are entirely dependent upon your aircraft instruments to make sure you, your passengers, and the aircraft, do not come to harm.

Granted, there are times during an instrument flight when you see absolutely nothing outside the aircraft. Some have compared it to flying inside a milk bottle, which is in my opinion an apt analogy. If it happens to be smooth flight, then there is no sensation of flight at all. The electronic equipment counts down the miles, but as far as you can tell you are in aerial limbo, seemingly suspended in time and space, encroaching on the edges of the twilight zone. 

But when you eventually break out of those clouds, you instantaneously switch from sensory deprivation to sensory overload. The view can be spectacular. 


When I was an instrument student, long before GPS navigation, instrument flying was hard work, especially when training. It still is in many ways, but technology has made flight in the clouds more precise, and frankly easier over all than it used to be.

But in the clouds a pilot is still too busy “aviating, navigating, and communicating”, to catch more than a brief glance outside, to enjoy the ever shifting textures of white clouds, blue sky and a multitude of grays in between. Occasionally you spy greens and browns of the ground, seen fleetingly through breaks in the cloud cover.

It is a grand theater in the sky not visible from the ground. For that reason, it is special, and to be seen in that moment and that place by no one else in the world except you and your passengers.

The video below gives a sample of such variable flows of scenery, with visibility ranging from zero to miles. The entire flight looped around my home airport in Panama City, FL, as I was radar vectored along a large rectangle, eventually joining a course bringing the aircraft back to a straight-in approach for landing.

This particular flight was a currentcy flight, so the departure and approach to landing was repeated several times. The video, however, ends just after I set up the navigation devices for the next approach. (I suggest you watch the video full screen at the highest resolution possible – 1440p HD.)

The only way I can hope to describe the beauty of such a flight is through the music which accompanies it. The quietness, the excitement, is all there. And from one who has experienced all those emotions during the flight, I can attest to the relevance of that music.






The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face

The birth of our first child was a moving experience. Sometimes I forget just how moving it was until I hear a song my wife and I used to sing to our infant son.

He’s grownup now, with a child who will soon herself be grown up. So much has happened in our lives and my children’s lives that it is easy to forget how young parents feel about the creation of life. But something as simple as a song can bring it back, almost as powerfully as if we were reliving it anew.

In college I picked up the guitar and probably spent more time playing it than I should have. But it was an exciting time to learn guitar music, thanks to the popularity and talent of folk singing groups like Peter, Paul and Mary. I bought and played as much of their music as I could, and well remember a live concert in Atlanta, Georgia. I was enthralled.

As it turned out, my guitar playing helped attract the attention of the girl who eventually became my wife. When our son was born, and we first laid eyes upon that child, that song, The First Time, seemed so appropriate. In fact, for us, it still does.

I’ve never heard it played for an infant, or a young child, but it is entirely fitting with the exception of one word. (We sang, “Kissed your face” instead of “kissed your mouth”).

By the time our son was born, there were two popular versions, the Peter, Paul and Mary version of the Scottish original, and the fabulous Roberta Flack version. Both of those versions are made available here.

If you have a baby on the way, or a young child at home, listen to the lyrics and the melody and see if you don’t agree with us that this music evokes an emotion difficult to express in any other way.





If Whales Could Fly

When Ottorini Respighi wrote his symphonic poem Pines of Rome, he was not imagining flying whales. Instead, the last movement of his work invokes the imagery of a Roman Legion marching along the Via Appia Antica.  When I would listen to the drumming and droning of the orchestra I never imagined whales flying either, at least prior to the year 2000.

But somebody at Disney Studios did, as evidenced by Fantasia 2000. The flying whales animation, accompanied by Respighi’s score, is now one of my favorite segments of the Fantasia 2000 DVD.

With a name like Fantasia, we should fully expect fantasy, fantasy being defined as an art form devoid of any requirements for plausible scientific foundations.  And Fantasia has always delivered that art form in abundance.

In contrast, science fiction may have fantastic elements in it, but there is an expectation that the writers’ creations be somewhat defensible on the basis of known scientific principles. So, what if whales could fly? What would be the real world consequences of such an improbable occurrence? What does science have to say about it?

For one thing, flying whale babies would not have to worry about being eaten by Orcas, as mentioned in my last posting. So whale populations would increase, unless the inexperienced calves flew into wind farms and airplanes.

As a pilot and airline passenger, my first concern would be whether airborne whales could be detected on radar. Is the whale’s smoothly rounded shape, it’s tough but flexible skin and potentially radar absorbing blubber stealthy in the same way that stealth bombers elude detection by radar?  If so, the air traffic control system would have real problems. Sure, flying whales would be easy to see in day light, but can you imagine encountering them at night or in clouds without benefit of radar? I shudder to think.

And yes, whales migrate continuously, night and day, so they would be a gargantuan risk to air traffic in low visibility conditions. Compared to a whale strike, bird strikes would be a minor affair.

What if flying whales blunder into restricted air space, like over the White House? There are missiles there, I hear, capable of shooting down intruders. But would I want to be the one to pull a trigger that blows a whale to blubbery bits all over Washington D.C.?

Perhaps whales would be granted an exempt status, like migrating geese. But what if terrorists took advantage of that and managed to bring down an intact whale in the middle of the White House Rose Garden? I haven’t calculated the kinetic energy of a full grown falling Gray Whale, but at a weight of 40 tons or so, I doubt anything trapped under the  whale would survive the impact.

Unfortunately, a science fiction writer envisioning flying whales can’t avoid the inevitability of whale poop. While bird poop is an inconvenience, falling whale products of digestion would likely prove lethal. What a lousy way to die. (OK, I admit I was thinking of using a different adjective.)

The Achilles’ heel of any flying whale story would have to be buoyancy. It has been estimated that approximately half of a grown whale’s weight is derived from blubber. What if a whale replaced all of its blubber with hydrogen? [While I could choose helium as a buoyant gas, helium is not produced biologically, whereas hydrogen is, as a product of flatulence.]

Hydrogen has a specific buoyancy of approximately 71 lbs per 1000 cubic ft, so a 20,000 lb whale (stripped of all blubber) would need about 282,000 cubic feet of hydrogen to be neutrally buoyant (to float in air). To put that into perspective, the Goodyear Blimp weights 12,840 lbs, and has a volume of 202,7oo cubic feet. So a flying whale would have to be roughly 50% larger than the Goodyear blimp. [I leave a more exact calculation to high school physics students looking for an imaginative problem to solve.]

From a science fiction standpoint, that is entirely conceivable. Buoyant whales would be much larger than modern whales.

As for a means of propulsion, I don’t think whale fins would suffice; they don’t look enough like wings.  But with a little imagination, I bet most school kids could think of a means of propulsion that would be akin to, dare I say, jet propulsion.

I think I now have the makings of a science fiction novel. I’ve got the science figured out: all I need now is a plot and some interesting human characters.

To be continued, perhaps …

How Musicians and Pilots Are Alike – It’s in the Chords

I’ve suffered from chord envy for years.

No, I’m not talking about the chord of aircraft wings and some etymological, coincidental semblance to musical chords.

No, the problem is much more serious.

You see, I’m a woodwind player, a clarinetist to be exact, and like brass players, I can’t play chords.

A chord is a musical element with more than one note played at a time. In fact, my most loved musical elements are chords. They can be beautiful, or powerful, but I can’t play them.

Music for Bb clarinet.

With my instrument, I’m stuck with playing one note at a time. And due to years of training to do that one function well, my brain will not allow me to diversify. I can only read and interpret one note at a time. If I was to write a simple chord for woodwinds, I’d have to hire three musicians to play it. But give a chord to a pianist, or guitarist, and they’re quite at home. 

I can in fact play a wide variety of chords on a piano, organ, or guitar, and I have often done just that. And of course I can read the keyboard notes. I just can’t read them and play at the same time. My brain’s not wired to do that.

Music for pipe organ

I’ve watched my wife play organ chords on the treble cleft, bass cleft, and pedals. That is, both hands and feet are playing, at the same time!

How does she do that?

If I’d started playing piano at the same time I’d started playing the clarinet, 3rd grade, I’d have no problem. My brain would have wired itself to, as we are fond of saying, multitask. I suppose if I’d started reading two or three books at the same time, in my early childhood, I could do that now. But I didn’t, and so I can’t.

So you see where the chord envy comes from?

But the other day I had an epiphany. Right out of high school I started flying very simple aircraft; a Piper 140 and a Cessna 150. In some sense they’re like the clarinet. But a long time ago I transitioned to so-called complex aircraft; Bonanza’s, Mooney’s and my beloved Arrows. They’re sort of like pianos, in complexity.

And then came the instrument rating – complexity added to complexity, and with it, a heavy responsibility. The combination of complex aircraft and instrument rating is in some ways like an organ – lots of button, pedal and key pushing, all at the right time, and in harmony with the air traffic control system.

An aircraft instrument trainee (gee, there’s another musical parallel) works hard to develop a scan of the instruments to maintain situational awareness and control the aircraft without outside visual reference. It’s tough in the beginning.

But now, with experience, I don’t even think of a scan. I simply take in the entire panel, with all its separate instruments and subconsciously perform the required control inputs to keep the aircraft headed in the correct direction, right-side up.

My epiphany is, that is exactly what a keyboardist does when they are playing six or more notes at the same time. I can’t play musical chords, but my brain has wired itself with repetitive practice to do essentially the same thing with my aircraft.

So now, when I push in the throttle and start the takeoff roll in my Arrow, it’s like the beginning of  the Fan Fare for Also Sprach Zarathustra. The engine powers up from idle (middle C, 261 Hz, C4) to higher RPM’s (G4, 392 Hz) and then full power (C5, 523 Hz). And as my bird lifts into the sky, that famous two chord sequence strikes at an even higher pitch (C major and a sixteenth note later, C minor.)

[Want to know how the frequencies of those notes roughly relate to engine RPM? Multiply by 4.]

As the chord begins dying away I’m simultaneously pulling up the gear, turning as directed, watching the engine instruments, and heading off into the skies with the reassuring droning note of the engine vibrating through our bodies. It’s that same note that reprises the quiet beginning of Strauss’s ASZ.

I can do it! No more chord envy.

As you already know, the same principle, complexity mastered through training, applies to any complex endeavor where situational awareness is vital, be it soccer field or battlefield.

[Update, I don’t know that musicians necessarily make better pilots, or vice versa, but at least they have their own association (Flying Musicians Association) and web site:]

Tex Ritter and Recovered Songs of Youth

It was a day of contrasts when I discovered that my vinyl 45 rpm records saved since my childhood were inexplicably lost. Imagine my joy, however, when a few hours later I discovered that the much beloved songs of that era were available for downloading from the internet!

I’m dating myself of course, but songs from Tex Ritter, the singing cowboy, were the ones which meant the most to me; songs like Red Rooster, Froggy Goes Courtin, the Theme from High Noon.

And of course, worthy of enduring admiration were songs my mother used to sing to me when I was little; like the somewhat zany 1944 hit, MaresEatOats. And songs my older brother would play, like the unforgettable mystery song, The Thing. I downloaded as many of the free, and legal, mp3s as I could find from one or two sources. The source for all of the Tex Ritter songs was, a music recovery project that is well deserving of donations.

I started thinking about songs like MaresEatOats and Red Rooster when I found myself spending more and more time entertaining a 3 and a half-year old. What better way to entertain her than singing and playing songs that meant so much to me as a child?

Magically, as if time knew no boundary, the preschooler responded to those songs just as I had many decades before. What a thrill it was to share that simple but engaging music, and to watch her bouncing with seemingly endless enthusiasm in perfect synchrony with the beat.

One of the oddest songs written and sung by Tex Ritter is Blood on the Saddle. Although the title and words sound ghoulish, the fact that it is featured on the animatronics show, Country Bear Jamboree at Disney’s Magic Kingdom Theme Park near Orlando, FL clearly illustrates that it is comical and child-like.

Country Bear Jamboree, Magic Kingdom

Here, for your benefit, is a link to Tex Ritter’s recording of  Blood On the Saddle.

I won’t be playing this one for little preschooler; the tempo is way too slow to keep her entertained. And besides, how would I explain a song about “blood all around” to a three-year old?