Weather or not?

D. Z. Church

My father, a flight instructor at the time, decided eight was the perfect age to teach his eager daughter to fly. I had a logbook, and we had a plan that I would solo as soon as I could, which was at 16. Never mind that the plan went horribly awry when my father decided to become a Meteorological Research Pilot and famously fly through hailstorms, erupting volcanoes, and hurricanes.*

When we started, I couldn’t see out of the cockpit (too short), so I learned to fly by instrument. Yes, this is the wrong way round. Usually, you start by using the actual horizon to keep your wings even, your nose up or down as the earth passes quickly below. Some would argue that nothing passes quickly below a Piper Cub. Once, in a Lake Michigan gale, my father flew a Cub halfway across the state backward.

There are very few instruments in a Cub, altimeter (how high), airspeed indicator (how fast), compass (where), oil gauge (obvious). After one lesson in a Piper Cub, with me unable to see out and fly level, Dad stepped me up to a Cessna 150 equipped with an attitude indicator. The attitude indicator provides information such as up, down, level via an artificial horizon, in short, the plane’s general relationship to the earth and air. Attitude is everything, or so Bernoulli and guidance counselors advise us.

So, I learned to trust my instruments before I trusted my eyes. One of the greatest mistakes that pilots make in bad weather, especially new ones, is mistrusting their instruments, think John F. Kennedy Jr.. Dad warned me to trust science over intuition when the horizon was obscured, meaning in the air and in life. I thank him for that and this; once you’ve navigated through bumptious clouds at the controls of a light plane reading the wind, clouds, and sun to stay up and on course, you never take the earth or the sky for granted again.*

Gust Front outside Miles City, MT (L. M. Zinser)

Or the adventures! My husband and I were shrink-wrapped in a tent by a tornado once (once was enough). I was in a one-hole tin outhouse as it was struck by lightning and watched St. Elmo’s Fire flow down the metal walls. A hurricane made landfall while I was on Assateague Island visiting the Chincoteague ponies. I outran it to safety, the rain hitting the car on the way down and back up. I’ve tried to sleep through a hundred mile an hour winds ripping shingles off the roof, watched drenching rain turn into a muddy flood, seen twin tornadoes dance, and lost a dinghy while sailing in a squall and dove in after it. And that’s not all the sky has tossed my way.

Now, when I write, the cast of the sun, the thunder of rain, and the howl of the wind sit on my shoulders, waiting a chance to cause havoc in a thriller. They know I can’t help myself. Head First, the second book in the Cooper Quartet, is set in Central California in the winter of 1972-73 during an El Nino that changed the entrance to Big Sur State Park forever. Pay Back, the third book in the Quartet, takes place during the Fall of Saigon. Late April 1975, the monsoons started early, drubbing Saigon the day before the North Vietnamese stormed the city. Perfidia is set on a Caribbean island given to sparkling sun and afternoon squalls while Saving Calypso unfolds in the Sierra Nevada’s wind and fire zone. Booth Island (just released) is in a lake in Canada given to late spring rains and rough water. Like I said, I can’t help myself.

I blame Dad; he gave me the sky. And the Navy. I ended up at a Meteorology and Oceanography Command (not much of a stretch) though I joined hoping to become one of the first female attack pilots (taller but still too short).

Postscript: It is no accident that Byron Cooper is a Navy attack pilot in the first two books of the Cooper Quartet. I may have been writing vicariously.

*If you want to know more about the adventures of a Meteorological Research Pilot, you might look into the memoir Pilot Log Book Lies and More by Lester M. Zinser. Warning, it is a bit technical.

*If you haven’t read The Cloudspotter’s Guide (Gavin Pretor-Pinney) yet, run out and get a copy. Besides being a terrific read, it is a good resource for all things cloud.

5 thoughts on “Weather or not?

  1. Fascinating stuff. I don’t have your range of adventures, but I did go through two typhoons while I was in the Navy stationed on Guam, so I can definitely write about that. In fact, there is a Guam book in my brain.

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  2. I always knew you were an extraordinary woman, Dawn, and now I see it all started with your father, who also sounds like an extraordinary person. It is an honor to know you. And I love reading your stories!

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