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 Sojourner’s Dilemma; You Have to Go Home Sometime

There are sports, there are professions, then there are sojourns.

Astronauts are sojourners, as are pilots and mountain climbers and underwater divers. While the sojourner may have carefully planned his sojourn, warding off potential trouble by using good equipment and training, it is the return to normalcy that oftentimes presents the greatest and most unexpected danger.

Mt. McKinley, or Denali.

Mountain climbers who reach the top of their mountain, don’t always make it safely back down. Astronauts reentering the atmosphere understand the risk of return all too well.

For scuba divers, return to the surface can be accompanied by decompression sickness and air embolism. When diving in cold water, the very act of rising towards the surface can induce a scuba regulator to free flow, spilling a precious gas supply.

For pilots the sojourn can end badly on landing. This fact has been in the news lately, where seemingly inexplicable crashes occurred in large transport aircraft. I shake my head and wonder why, knowing full well that once you take a sojourn for granted, it can devour you. I also know full well that I am not immune.

I was recently reminded of that during a short 34-mile flight returning a retractable gear aircraft from maintenance back to my home base, Panama City, FL. Most pilots know that, ironically, aircraft maintenance can be risky. While maintenance on diving equipment or airplanes is certainly a critical part of safe operation, at the same time it is an opportunity for a mechanic to inadvertently damage a critical component.

Snapshot gear light
Gear lights: one light is not glowing.

I have seen a maintenance-related failure of a scuba regulator, and I was about to see it with my aircraft as I followed a business jet towards a landing at our local airport. To keep traffic flowing smoothly I kept my speed up on approach until close to the runway. When I finally slowed enough to drop the landing gear I saw two green “gear safe” lights rather than the expected three. My main gear seemed to be down and locked, but the nose wheel lock indication was not glowing that reassuring green.

“Tower, I have a problem with my gear. I need to leave the area and sort out the problem.”

I left the airport airspace and spent a full hour burning fuel, running through all emergency checklist items, pulling G’s to help the gear lock down and waiting for a Southwest Airlines flight to arrive. The local airport, which receives quite a bit of commercial jet traffic (Delta and Southwest) only has one runway. If my gear collapsed on touch-down, that single runway would have been shut down for an hour or more, and arriving flights would have to land elsewhere. There are not a lot of good alternate airports near Panama City.

The sun was getting low, and I did not want to make that landing at night. Besides, my wife was below, waiting anxiously for whatever was going to happen. She was due to pick me up at the hangar, but she and I both knew the aircraft might not make it far past the touchdown point on the runway.

After flying past the tower twice and having them inspect the gear with binoculars, the tower controller said the gear looked down, but I knew there was no way to tell if it was down and locked. If the nose gear was not locked, it would collapse on landing.

Fortunately I was alone in the cockpit so I could  come to grips with what I was about to do without the distraction of worried passengers. I announced my intentions to land, and on my last circuit of the field I saw the crash rescue truck and fire truck pulling into position along the runway. That was a sight no pilot ever wants to see.

As I turned towards the runway I reviewed the landing checklist one last time, and then I was ready. As I turned final it was time to get it over with. Whatever would happen would happen, and there was nothing more I could do about it.

Approaching the runway and ready to land, my mind was focused on only one thing — making the landing as smooth as possible.

The main wheels squeaked as they touched the concrete, ever so gently, and with steady back pressure on the yoke I kept the nose high, sparing the nose gear as long as possible as the plane slowed.


When gravity overcame the aerodynamic lift on the nose, the wheel settled to the runway — and  rolled.

My first word to the tower was, “Thank God!”

“Indeed”, they replied. They had been holding their breath as well, as they later told me.

The next day when the mechanics drove in, it only took them five minutes to adjust a tab on the nose gear down-lock switch. Such a simple fix for such a lot of drama.

The offending nose gear.

Now that I’ve had time to reflect on the incident,  I’ve come to appreciate the valor of the silver-suited firefighters who approached me after the landing, the firefighters who are prepared to thrust themselves into the flames to rescue those whose sojourns have gone awry. I was also appreciative of the calm-voiced air field controller whose only weapon against calamity was the calm tone of his voice.

Calm is a good thing when you’re trying to land a plane with all the tenderness of putting a candle on a birthday cake.


GoPro, YouTube, and the Need for Speed

Have you ever watched a local sailboat race from the shore?

It’s not exactly an adrenaline-pumping spectator sport. On the boats of course there is plenty of excitement — shouting, sometimes cursing. But from shore, all the on-boat drama is missing.

GoPro cameras have ushered in a new era of taking the viewer into the action. And based on the action that I commonly see on the Internet, that action is not of local sailboat races. It is instead full of speed and thrills. The penultimate example of testosterone-driven thrill-seeking, in my opinion, is the dangerous sport of wingsuit flying, always perilously close to terrain.

The visual rush is not subtle. You are left with the impression that any second you’ll witness a fatal crash. You leave the video thinking that the flyer is one very brave, very skilled, and very lucky person. Or else you just think they’re CRAZY!

But honestly, I’d love to be that crazy— just once anyway.

When I watch such videos on YouTube I get the sense that I am a spectator at a blood sport event. There is beauty and grace which I admire, but ultimately I know there is a risk to the participant, as evidenced occasionally by the literally rib-splitting, pink mist endings to some of those flights. We enter into the action, but comfortably in front of our TV or computer screens with no personal risk to ourselves.

Arguably we are really not so different from the crowds at the Gladiator games, or for a more modern though fictional example, the Hunger Games.

What I like about the new class of miniature, high-definition video cameras is that they allow us to video what we love doing and then share it with the world. That’s nice, but unless what you do is high speed, endearingly cute, or down-right funny, it may be difficult to attract viewers.

I’ve uploaded flying videos, including the high-definition video below, but they are not exciting. Instead, they appeal, I think, to those who simply love flight: the visual sensations of landing, of entering clouds or skimming cloud tops. That type of flight is the way the FAA expects pilots to fly — safely. Yet safe flight is also capable of generating visual sensations that secretly thrill even highly experienced pilots, and keep them in love with their profession.

On the other hand, the adrenalin-packed videos that high-definition cameras provide can entice some pilots to fly unsafely, simply to titillate the cameraman and the viewer. I suspect the pilot in the following video got a high viewer count but I also suspect his wings are about to be clipped by the FAA.

I am very unlikely to engage in risky flying simply because it looks thrilling when posted on the Internet. I want to keep my license; it is a treasured privilege to be able to fly. But also because I’ve lived long enough to know it is quite a different thing to watch a Miss Universe pageant, and quite another to entertain a pageant contestant when she shows up unexpectedly at your door. The thrill may be more intense in the latter case, but the personal risk may be far greater; especially if your significant other meets her at the door.

Sailboat race photo by Lewis Westwood Flood on Unsplash

My Respiratory System is So Embarrassed

Royalty free image from

“Respiratory embarrassment” is an uncommon phrase most likely spoken by physicians and physiologists.

This week I found myself telling an engineer that “respiratory embarrassment can lead to an untoward event”. It quickly became apparent from the puzzled stare I received that I was not communicating.

Scientists and some medical personnel tend to do that; fail to communicate. In fact, they do it a lot.

What I was really saying is that in the right circumstances a person could have difficulty breathing, and that difficulty could cause something bad to happen; an “untoward” event. That bad thing would not necessarily be an aircraft crash, or in the case of a diver, a drowning, but it would mean that the pilot’s or diver’s performance would be impaired.

Why didn’t I just say so?

Laziness I suppose. I was using the language clinicians and physiologists are taught in graduate or medical school, and it flows out of our mouths naturally, without effort. Translating those same words into laymen’s terms takes time and effort.

I next started talking about respiratory impedance, a term understood by some but not all engineers, and rarely if ever by laymen. So once again I was not communicating well with all of my audience which was composed mostly of engineers, but not entirely.

That was the case until I used pictures to explain the otherwise difficult concepts of respiratory impedance and physiological embarrassment. The images below seemed to work, so I thought it worthwhile to share those images with you.

For you engineers, respiratory impedance is proportional to the sum of respiratory flow resistance and pulmonary and chest wall elastance.

From Shulman photoblog.

So what is that?

Well, for elastance, at least chest wall elastance, think of being buried to your neck in sand. Breathing difficulty comes from the difficulty of moving your chest wall in and out with the weight of sand pressing in on all sides. The pressure of sand impedes your breathing, hence elasticity (the inverse of compliance) is a major component of respiratory impedance.

Based on the photo of the young man pictured on the right, being partly buried for supposedly therapeutic reasons is not a pleasant experience.

Some might disagree. The man on the left is an actor in the 2008 French short film Le Tonneau des Danaïdes by David Guiraud, who seems quite at ease impeding his breathing for the sake of art. I’m guessing he’s either very dedicated, or very well paid.


In diving, respiratory elastance can be elevated by tight fitting wet suits; in aviators by tight fitting chest pressure garments, and in patients, by pulmonary fibrosis brought about by, for example, asbestos exposure.

Another key component of respiratory impedance, that thing that causes respiratory embarrassment, is flow resistance. Sticking your head in the sand would certainly be one way of generating

This image is found randomly throughout the web without attribution. The original source is unknown.

severe respiratory resistance, with its attendant embarrassment.


Clinically, there are far more common sources of respiratory resistance, for example the narrowing of air passages in the lung caused by asthma. (Sticking your head in sand is probably a reasonable analogy to the sensations experienced during an asthma attack.) Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can also lead to a significant increase in respiratory resistance.


When you focus on the human respiratory system, the body parts shown in pink below, keep in mind that breathing can be impaired by things occurring inside the body (like asthma, COPD, fibrosis) or outside the body. Any life support system used for aviation, diving, mining, or firefighting imposes an impedance on breathing. That impedance in turn can lead to breathing difficulty, which can result in a failure to complete assigned duties.

Perhaps that’s where the “embarrassment” part comes in.

Created on ©2012.

In Search of Glories

Recently my inner child took notice of a circle of light racing across the cloud tops as I cruised at 7000 feet and 180 mph with the prevailing westerlies at my back. I was headed east above the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and the Florida Panhandle, and the late afternoon sun crept ever lower behind my right wing. Like a fighter in loose formation, the ring of colored light was keeping pace with the aircraft, just in front of my left wing.

My adult self realized that the spot contained a shadow of the airplane, but the bright halos around the dark shadow puzzled me. When my inner child asked me what it was, I had no ready answer.

I’d seen those halos before without really understanding them, but now I had a chance to photograph them. I grabbed cameras and recorded the beautiful phenomenon while the autopilot kept the aircraft on course.

One of the advantages of general aviation aircraft is that we often fly at the altitudes of the DC3s, the early airliners. Which meant that at 7000 feet I could open a small window beside me without depressurizing the cabin and give the camera a clear view of what I was experiencing.

An understanding of what I was seeing would have to wait.

[youtube id=”sV90o44sCE8″ w=”700″ h=”600″]


With few exceptions, Glories remain in the realm of pilots and Angels. By association, many pilots feel privileged to see a glory. I know I do.

Without knowing the science behind glories, pilots may even interpret them as signs of the divine. After all, they do look suspiciously like halos seen in medieval religious art. Indeed, “glory” is another name for those iconic halos.

Science is only able to partly demystify the subject of glories. The best technical explanation is that glories are the result of reflections (back-scattering) of sunlight coming from directly behind the observer. The tiny spherical water drops in clouds are the objects that scatter the sun light. Oddly enough, the size of the water droplets determines the size of the glory, which by the way may contain multiple rings as seen on the videos in this posting.

MiePlot simulation of scattering of sunlight from r = 4.8 µm water drops superimposed on a digital image of a glory taken from a commercial aircraft. From

This process of ring formation from water droplets is called Mie Scattering, and is described mathematically by Mie Theory. Phillip Laven’s website,, provides an ample resource for the curious.

Glories have proven to be such an elusive quarry, that I, like many pilots, have developed a fascination with them. Therefore I could not resist making a brief video, with music, of the glories encountered on that one eastward flight. In it you see a classical glory, followed by a fleeting and hard to photograph glory on the side of a cloud, followed by apparent flight into an ever moving cloudbow.


[youtube id=”CKtkzOpmSUM” w=”700″ h=”600″]








Making Fuel

Buffalo Airways C-46 Commando.

While watching an “Ice Pilots” episode on the Weather Channel I heard a pilot of a Curtiss C-46 Commando talking to his inexperienced copilot during a flight. At one point he said they were “making fuel.”

I have enough common sense and experience as a pilot to know that could not be literally true. But I had no idea what the Ice Pilot’s comment  really meant until recently returning home during a non-stop flight from Dallas, Texas to the Florida Panhandle.

I had purposefully climbed to 11,000 feet to catch good tailwinds heading east. The winds were even stronger at higher altitudes, but if I’d climbed to the next allowed altitude, 13,000 feet, my passenger and I would have needed to wear an oxygen mask. And I’d left the oxygen system at home.

During flight planning before departure, it looked as if going high would give us enough of a tailwind that we would be able to make the trip without a time consuming fuel stop.

Modern aircraft often have fuel computers communicating with the aircraft GPS navigation system. Fuel computers track every ounce of fuel burned during taxi and flight. The pilot programs the total fuel available and then the fuel computer checks with the GPS to see how many miles remain to the destination, and the ground speed. Every few seconds the pilot sees an update of the fuel burned, gallons remaining, predicted flight time available, the fuel required to reach the destination, and the bottom line, the predicted fuel reserve at the destination.

Typically, I want to land with no less than 10 usable gallons remaining, which is enough to remain aloft for an additional hour at the normal fuel consumption rate. If the weather is bad at the destination, then the required fuel reserve is considerably larger.

On the first phase of my flight to Dallas, once I had reached cruising altitude the fuel computer calculated that if the current ground speed and fuel burn were to continue to the end of the trip, I would have five gallons of fuel left at the destination. That is not enough for safe flight, so a refueling stop was looking inevitable. As the flight continued, the estimation of reserve fuel barely budged from its first estimate. In other words, nothing was changing, and the decision to refuel was firmly made.

East Texas from 11,000 ft. Click to enlarge.

On the return flight, however, flying relatively high where the prevailing westerlies were strong,  the computed reserves (RES) were changing. They were growing. As the flight progressed I watched the estimated fuel reserve rise slowly from 8 gallons to 9, then 10, and finally 11.4 gallons. By the time we landed we had 12 gallons of fuel remaining in the two fuel tanks.

It truly looked like we were making fuel.

We weren’t, of course. The reality of it was that the tailwind was increasing in our favor for the east-bound trip. But the fuel computer gave every impression that for every gallon of fuel we burned, we were getting a little bit back.

I finally understand what the Ice Pilot meant; I think. If I ever meet him, I’ll ask.




Margin of Safety

A diver’s breathing equipment, helmet, gas bottle, umbilicals and buoyancy compensator lie stretched out on the grey concrete floor.  The diving gear has a look of sadness about it. Perhaps that equipment will tell a story of why its owner is dead, but usually it does not.

Storm clouds from 30,000 ft. Photo by Wendell Hull.

In another part of the world the NTSB catalogs the fragments of an airplane shredded by the elements and thrown in a heap back to earth. The only good thing to come from an aircraft accident is that usually there are enough clues from wreckage, radio recordings, radar returns and weather reports to piece together a story of the end of life for pilot and passengers.

It’s always the question of “Why?” that drives any investigation.

Perhaps it is the knowing of how death comes, so unexpectedly to surprised souls, that makes it just a little bit easier to make the mental and emotional connection between an interesting moment and a deadly moment. If that is true, and I believe it is, then the telling of such macabre stories can be justified. It is not a telling through morbid interest, but a sincere belief that by examining death closely enough we can somehow force it to keep its distance.

That may be foolish thinking, but humankind seems to have a hunger for it, that esoteric knowledge, so perhaps it is a truism. Perhaps we sense instinctively that the knowing of something makes it less fearsome.

Being a student of diving and diving accidents, I know full well how unexpected events can make you question what is real and what is not, what is normal and what is abnormal. Without practiced calm and reasoning, unexpected events can induce panic, and underwater, panic often leads to death. That is also true for aviation.

The best preventative for panic is a realistic assessment of risk. Risks are additive. For instance, flying in the clouds is accompanied by a slight degree of risk, but with a properly maintained airplane, with a judicious use of backup instruments and power supplies, and with recent and effective training, that risk can be managed. In fact, I delight in flying in clouds; it is never boring, and I know that I am far safer than if I had been driving on two lane roads where the potential for death passes scant feet away every few seconds.

Flying at night is another risk. If something were to go terribly wrong, finding a safe place to land becomes a gamble. On the other hand, seeing and avoiding aircraft at night is simple because of the brilliant strobe lighting which festoons most aircraft. For me, the beauty, peace and calm air of night flight makes it well worth the slight risk.

Garmin NEXRAD Weather display.

Technology has made weather flying safer and, I have to admit, more enjoyable. The combination of GPS driven maps and NEXRAD weather has made it almost impossible to blunder into truly bad weather. During the daytime, my so-called eyeball radar helps to confirm visually what NEXRAD is painting in front of me. If it looks threatening, it probably is.

Unlike aircraft weather radar, virtually every pilot can afford to have NEXRAD weather in the cockpit. And unlike aviation radar, NEXRAD can see behind storms to show the view 100 miles downrange, or more. Having often flown in stormy weather without benefit of NEXRAD,  I truly rejoice in the benefits of that technology.

WX 900 Stormscope

I routinely fly with not only NEXRAD, but also a “Storm Scope” that shows me in real time where lightning is ionizing the sky. Those ozone-laced areas are off-limits to wise aviators. But sometimes even a Storm Scope is not enough to keep the willies, or as some call it, your spidey sense, from striking. (Presumably spiders are not particularly cerebral, but they are pretty adept at surviving, at least as a genus and species.)

I was recently flying around stormy weather, carefully avoiding the worst of it, and maneuvered into a position that would provide a straight shot home with yellow tints showing on the weather screen, suggesting at most light to moderate precipitation. I had flown that sort of weather many times; it usually held just enough rain to wet the windshield.

However, my internal risk computer made note of the following factors: we were in the clouds so if weather worsened I wouldn’t see it. Night was approaching which markedly darkened the wet skies we were beginning to enter.  The clouds and darkness conspired to make useless my eyeball radar. In addition, the Storm Scope was unusually ambiguous at that moment. I thought it was confirming a safe passage home, but I could not be 100% certain.

On top of that, the FAA recently warned that NEXRAD signals can be considerably more delayed than indicated on the weather display. The device might say the data is 2 min old, but the actual delay could be 10 minutes or more. In other words, the displayed image could be hiding the truth.

Aircraft weather radar.

Planes have been lost because of untimely NEXRAD data. For that reason there is a philosophical difference between NEXRAD and true radar. On board weather radar is said to be a tactical weather penetration aid, and NEXRAD is a strategic avoidance asset. My gut told me that at that moment in airspace and time the boundaries between those two uses, tactical and strategic, were getting fuzzy.

It is times like that when an awareness of the slim margin between a safe flight or dive, and a deadly flight or dive, becomes a survival tool. In this case, I and many other experienced pilots have made the call to turn around and land. Unfortunately, the record and the landscape is littered with the wreckage of those who chose otherwise.

They forgot just how thin the margin of safety can be.

The flight (green line) from Cobb County Regional (KRYY) to Panama City (KECP) was interrupted by a stop at Montgomery AL.









The Lady Captain for Delta Airlines

Delta Pilots, from the Delta Airlines Web Site

Some people command your attention, without effort or intention on their part. For the few seconds that it took for her to walk past me, the lady pilot was one of those people.

She was an attractive blond, and tall, and her posture in no way diminished her height. She walked with poise and purpose, chatting and smiling to another pilot in those Navy Blue Delta Airlines Uniforms. The fact that she had four stripes on her shoulder, indicating her Captain’s rank, immediately explained part of her purposefulness. The fact that she was, or appeared, young, in her early to mid-thirties, spelled out her competence, which I sensed immediately. It was doubtful she could have risen so quickly through the ranks unless she excelled at her job.

The fact that she was attractive is not what separated her from the other women in the Atlanta concourse at that same moment. There were lots of pretty girls there. Her bearing was as if she was in Command of a U. S. Navy heavy Cruiser; that’s what separated her from the rest.

As I later sat in a window seat of our Boeing 757 being readied for departure to Pittsburgh, I saw that the blond Captain was indeed in charge of a heavy cruiser; a 757-200 (FAA registered as N604DL) parked beside us. I watched her as she climbed down the steps of the boarding platform and performed her inspection walk around the aircraft she would be commanding. If she is like most pilots, she would also be admiring the beautiful machine she had the good fortune to fly, while thinking about her responsibility for the lives of the passengers who would soon be boarding.

N604DL on departure, from the Flight Aware web site.

She must have made that walk thousands of time in her career, but every little part of the aircraft visible to her was examined. The fact that most of those parts loomed far above her attested  to the size of the aircraft, and made her job more difficult. But she took her time, being fully devoted to her work.

I once asked a Captain and First Officer pair how it was decided who would make the walk around the aircraft. The wise-old Captain said it depended on the weather; and the experienced first officer agreed, smiling broadly. That day in Atlanta the weather was fair, and not too hot, but I got the feeling that lady pilot would do that job regardless of the weather.

A Boeing 757 cockpit. Click to enlarge.

As I watched this Delta Captain make her rounds and return up the stairs to her office,  the 757 cockpit, I thought that I had just witnessed a nascent cinematic moment. But this pilot was no movie star, in all probability, although I’m sure she could have been, if that had been her ambition.

And then in a three-second flash of irony, I saw her on the video screen no more than 12 inches away from my face. Our 757 crew was playing a video safety brief, and in the closing frames that blond pilot looked back from her left seat in the cockpit of a Delta jet and said with her easy smile, “Welcome to Delta.”

As I later reached my hotel room in Pittsburg, I opened up Flight Aware on my iPad and found that N604DL was nearing its destination of Las Vegas. I smiled, thinking that Delta’s passengers on that flight were willing to gamble on the slots and card tables, but they didn’t have to gamble on their flight. They had an ace in the cockpit.

If you are interested in a career in commercial aviation, you might find a blog posting on the Delta Airlines web site of interest. It’s written by an African-American female who was a copilot for Delta at the time of the writing. It describes how she ended up in the right seat of a major commercial carrier.

Furry Aviators – Bats

Not every animal that flies is an aviator. June bugs and mosquitoes fly without any particular destination in mind; they just seem to flit around, hoping to detect a random meal. In my way of thinking, to be called an aviator you have to navigate, to use the air as a travel medium with a destination in mind, either consciously or subconsciously. By definition, navigation is not random; it is purposeful. Migrating Monarch Butterflies qualify as navigators and aviators, and so do migratory Bats.

While visiting Austin, Texas, I searched the front pages of the Austin Telephone directory for points of interest. No. 1 on their list was the nightly bat show at the downtown Congress Ave. Bridge.

I was just one of hundreds (maybe thousands) of tourists waiting on and around the bridge to see the show that night. Once downtown I was told that about half of the 1.5 million strong Mexican free-tailed bat colony had already migrated to Mexico for the winter, but the remaining bats might put on a good show at sundown. They did.

Bats exiting the Congress Ave. Bridge, Austin, TX. From:

Once the skies had fully darkened, I saw what looked like a soundless horizontal waterfall of bats erupt from underneath the crevices of the bridge structure. Can you imagine 1000 planes a second leaving a major airport at the same time, using all available runways, with no controllers and no collisions? That’s how it seemed.

I watched with morbid fascination as a very fat bug made the biggest mistake of its short life by blundering near the bat departure pattern. At least five bats peeled out of the pattern and within milliseconds honed in on the hapless target. The first bat to the target must have gotten a meal because the squishy bug disappeared out of the traffic pattern with nary a puff of smoke. No NTSB investigation needed.

Walking up on the bridge for a different view I saw an even more incredible sight. Every once and awhile a bat jetting up the departure pathway would make a high speed 180° turn and head straight back into the torrent, without getting hit, best I could tell in the midst of the furiously flinging wings. It made the head-to-head passes of the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels look like child’s play. Why they did that I don’t know; maybe just for the adrenaline rush.

On the other hand, even the best aviators can screw up. I saw evidence of this back in Panama City while looking out at my pool one evening. In the dim light I could see ripples in the usually glass smooth surface of the pool.  On investigating, I found a Little Brown Bat in the pool, spreading its wings to support itself by the surface tension of the water. They really were — dare I say it — water wings. But it was clearly tired and in danger of drowning.

Had his bat radar gone on the fritz? Or did he just mess up like the occasional seaplane pilot who becomes disoriented by a glassy water surface. On the one hand, bats can maneuver safely through a storm of oncoming high velocity fellow bats, but could be foiled by something as innocuous as a still water surface. Strange.

I guess even great human pilots have messed up for lesser reasons.

A frightened Little Brown Bat.

I scooped up the bat in a net and laid the wet furball on the ground to recuperate. Oddly, after a minute’s rest, the bat started crawling forward towards my foot using the hooks on its wings to pull himself along. Then he climbed onto my shoe. My Granddaughter who was watching the whole scene thought that was very strange. I did too.

But then the little water-soaked bat started climbing up my slightly nervous leg. I assure you the sensation of having a bat crawl up your leg can be discomforting, but my sense of curiosity was far more compelling. I was trusting he wasn’t looking for a place to bite me. However, as he got closer to my most sensitive region, that thought began to really concern me.  Fortunately all he wanted to do was climb, to safety from predators I assume. At least he didn’t consider me a predator. Maybe he thought I was a tree: I was, after all, standing oh so still.

As he approached my neck I began to wonder whether he was a werebat, looking for a succulent neck. Then it occurred to me that fleshy earlobes might be ripe for biting — like fat bugs perhaps, in a bat’s mind. Yet strangely I didn’t feel threatened, even when I could feel his hooked wings gently grab a “handhold” on my neck.

I then realized that once he reached the top of my head he had nowhere to go. And the thought of a bat sitting on my head for a while was not all that appealing. I wasn’t about to pick him off my head without a thickly-gloved hand. They do have teeth.

So I choose a non-confrontational course of action. I leaned my head into a tall pine tree trunk, and sure enough the soaking wet little bat kept on going. The photo below taken from behind him shows him (or her) continuing the ever-so-slow climb.

Water-logged Little Brown Bat climbing up a pine tree.

I have mixed emotions about the fact that my granddaughter did not take a picture of me leaning my head against the tree — with a bat on my head.

Moral of the story for human aviators? The little guys are absolutely awesome fliers, with unbelievably fast reflexes, unerring navigation, and the best possible terrain avoidance equipment. But even they can screw up. And when they do, their survival depends on the help of others; others willing to take a risk to help the fallen air-critters.

I was pleased to share this Nature moment with my Granddaughter. After all, it’s not every day you get to watch a bat climb your Grandfather, from his toes to his head.

Below is one of the most endearing videos I’ve found of a Little Brown Bat. The teenager in the video is clearly enthusiastic about one of nature’s smallest aviators.  (Video borrowed from

[youtube id=”E4Kxcr7kq14″ w=”525″ h=”439″]










The Littlest Aviators: Monarch Butterflies

Every fall I look forward to the current of Monarch Butterflies coursing their way across our local roads and beaches in Panama City Beach, FL, searching for one last refueling stop before heading out across the Gulf of Mexico to overseas destinations. They know where they are going en masse, so casually it seems, not in the least concerned about the doubtful safety of single engine flight over vast stretches of unforgiving water.

While over land, most fly low, at human shoulder height, perhaps looking for food. It makes for an almost magical walk outside — continuously being passed by little animated flying machines. When crossing roads, most of the migrating butterflies, but not all, climb to safer altitudes, and increase their speed.  I like to think that strategy is deliberate, but it could in fact be nothing more than the effects of buffeting by the wake of passing cars. Nevertheless, their success rate at crossing roads seems to be better than that of squirrels, which are arguably larger-brained animals. But then squirrels are dare-devils, not aviators.

I have walked to the water’s edge, watching how the little aviators behave as they approach the beginning of their long leg over water. They do not hesitate, but fling themselves forward into whatever awaits them.

Whenever I witness this sight I want to cheer them on, like Americans must have cheered Lindbergh as he set off across the Atlantic for the first time. It seems like folly for them to attempt such a journey, but amazingly, millions of them make that transit every year.

Image Credit Flickr User Texas Eagle

The scene during their return in the spring is even more emotional. Walking on the beach at that time, you see the surf washing in the numerous bodies of those aviators who almost made it, reminiscent of the beaches at Normandy. And like the scenes of war, dragonflies lie in wait at the water’s edge attacking the weakened Monarchs soon as they cross over the relative safety of land.

I have been so infuriated at the sight of such wanton attacks that once I chased a heavily laden dragonfly with a Monarch in its grasp, and caused the little Messerschmitt to release its prey.

The Monarch I saved did not thank-me by landing on my shoulder to take a breather. It was too dangerous to stop, and it had places to go, places far away from the sea, driven by a genetic memory of fields of milkweed.

Oddly enough, experts seem unsure as to whether there is actually a migratory flyway from the Panama City area to Mexico, the over-wintering grounds for most Monarchs. To me the answer is obvious; even though the flight of roughly 800 miles over water with no place to feed is almost unimaginable. The little aviators make that trip, spring and fall, as proven by the millions of orange and black-rayed butterflies crossing the white sand shores of the Gulf of Mexico, and by the surf-washed bodies of those brave aviators who died in the attempt.

Migration map from Queen's University Dept of Psychology