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

Yea, Though I Fly Through the Valley of Death…

Photo credit: Bob Hammitt

It is true; sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.

At a time before virtually all light aircraft had GPS navigation and on-board weather, an instrument-rated pilot would spend lots of time studying the printed station weather reports and forecasts across his route of flight, and then, if things looked reasonably good, pilots would launch into the unknown, with fingers crossed. However, even with the best planning, a pilot can find that weather has changed dramatically in flight.

One of my most memorable flights was from Waycross, Georgia to Gainesville, FL. The flight was in N3879T, a Piper Arrow not too different from the Arrow I’m flying now.  The 94 nautical mile flight would take roughly 45 minutes.

I was lucky since Waycross had a weather radar station on the field; I visited the station to study the radar screens to see what weather systems were active that Sunday afternoon. I had to be back to work on Monday, and it looked like there would be nothing to prevent that.

When I became airborne the weather was ideal; not a cloud in the sky and at least ten miles visibility. The aircraft did not have an autopilot, but I was proficient flying by instruments so I wasn’t concerned when I started entering summer puffy clouds. Eventually the clouds grew closer together, and I was spending more time in the clouds than out.

And then the rain started. Without on-board weather radar, I was very much flying blind.

Flying through rain in Florida is not unusual, but after awhile the rain became more intense, and the diffuse light in front of the airplane became darker.

When I say the rain became more intense, let me put “intense” into perspective. Most airplanes are made of thin sheets of aluminum suspended on aluminum spars. So rain hitting it sounds like banging on metal drums. The resulting din reverberated through every space in the aircraft.

Funny, I thought. None of this was showing on radar when I took off, and there was no forecast of it.  Fortunately, the air was smooth, and I had no problem controlling the aircraft even in spite of seeing nothing out of the windscreen. But I did wonder at one point how the engine could deal with so much water. I don’t know if it did well because of fuel injection or not, but the engine never hiccuped.

At one point, the view out front looked menacingly dark, but off to the left side the light seemed a little brighter. Instinctively I wanted to head where it was lighter. I keyed the microphone to call Air Traffic Control (ATC) and requested a 20 degree deviation to the east, and that was approved. Unfortunately, at that time ground radar which was used to control aircraft was not as good as it is now for showing weather, in particular rainfall intensity. Thus, ATC could not offer a preferred direction for me to fly to escape the worst weather, but at least they assured me that I wouldn’t run into other aircraft. Thank-goodness for that at least.

And then it occurred to me — am I the only idiot flying in this weather?

But even after the course change, the crescendo of rain and noise became almost deafening. After a few minutes of unrelenting watery pounding of the aircraft, ATC called back, but due to the ambient noise level I had a hard time understanding them.

“Say again please?” I asked.

“How’s the ride?”

I reflected for just a moment on the important information before responding, then in as professional a tone as I could muster, “Wet but smooth.”  What I felt like saying was, “It’s like freaking Niagra Falls up here!”

Considering the three words I actually said, the word  “smooth” was what was critical. Severe turbulence can cause a pilot to lose control in the clouds. If you’re flying by instruments alone, and the instruments start varying wildly because the aircraft is being bounced to and fro, then it takes a very skillful pilot to maintain safe flight. Unskilled pilots have pulled the wings off their aircraft by over-controlling in responce to a turbulence-induced upset.

Nexrad image of a squall line. How bad it looks from the cockpit before entry depends on which way you’re flying – from right to left or left to right.

Then it stopped. I flew from deafening, pounding rain, into perfectly clear air. The transition occured literally in a split second. Before me lay only a few small summer cumulus clouds. Out of curiosity I looked behind me — and almost lost my cool. What I saw was a solid wall of black clouds and rain reaching from the ground to far above me. It looked like a cliff, like the smooth edge of a giant black skyscraper, except it was one that stretched in a perfect line from as far as I could see to the east and west.

It was a frightening looking squall line, and had I been flying in the opposite direction there was no way I would have penetrated that wall of certain death. But approaching it from the benign-looking side of the squall line, lulled by innocent looking summer clouds, I had stumbled unawares into a potentially lethal trap.

But somehow it had not claimed me; it had been smooth during the entire flight. I had encountered no hail, no lightning, and no severe up and down drafts. Assuredly, the odds against that outcome were extremely small. Had I not made a 20° turn toward the light, so to speak, the outcome might have been much different. Of course I’ll never know for sure what would have happened, but the statistics say it would not have turned out well. I was lucky.

Yes, I’ll take good luck any day, but as the title of this post suggests, it may have been much more than luck that directed me safely to the other side of the squall line. I had, after all, been praying.