Thursday, September 25, 2014

Memories from the road: Square dance in the sky

Back in the 80's I used to make a trip from Houston up to Oklahoma City once or twice a month for work, often by road so I could carry supplies and parts. I would go up there to check on and repair the three mainframe computers the company had in what we called a regional data center, designed for processing seismic data for local oil & gas exploration. (You'd think after over 30 years in the business I could type 'seismic' without spellchecker going nuts, but noooo!)

It was dark by the time I headed south out of OKC one particular trip, which wasn't unusual because getting three mainframes and all their peripherals in top-notch shape was often an all day affair. Yet by choosing to put in 7 more hours on the road instead spending them staring at the walls in yet another anonymous hotel room I could get home in time for a few hours sleep before heading to the Houston office in the morning, saving an extra day which meant I just might be able to have some weekend time of my own.

I don't remember for sure but it must have been winter because it was one of those cloudless, crystal clear nights that only seem to come with cold, still weather. There was no moon, just the stars, lots of stars, but when I crested the pass through the Arbuckle mountains north of Ardmore an amazing sight was revealed. (Ok, about now there are some of you out there saying 'mountains in Oklahoma?? This guy must be flying on pharmaceuticals!! But really, they're there! and, though not worthy of being called mountains by many standards, do warrant a truck lane on the freeway as it makes the climb up to the pass. )

Not my photo but I can't find out who to credit

The two airports in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, DFW & Dallas Love Field, were still about 100 miles away when I topped the pass but I could clearly see all the planes above them.

It was a busy flight night, maybe even a Friday, and there were three separate upside-down wedding cake stacks of circling planes spread across the sky in front of me. The stacks were wide at the top and tapering down to the bottom, and each layer was defined by the slow moving cluster of red, white and green navigation lights on each plane.

For the next hour and a half, as I piloted my own earthbound chariot southward, I watched arriving planes coming in from all different directions to join one of the three stacks at the highest level. At the same time the bottom of the stacks uncoiled into long snaking lines as planes dropped out of the holding pattern and lined up behind each other on final approach to the parallel runways at DFW or the single runway at Dallas Love. As planes dropped out the bottom, others in the stack would move down, one layer at a time, making room for new arrivals to pin-wheel into the formation like water swirling down a drain.

And weaving in and around the stacks were the upward bound departures. If they were dragging yarn behind they would have weaved complicated cable-stitch cocoons as they lifted off and threaded their way up through the arriving flights then scattering in all directions across the sky.

It was like watching living artwork, a complex, surreal, yet somehow serene dance, and it reminded me of watching from the sidelines on square dance night as my parents swirled and dipped, do-si and do'ed, chained and allemande'ed in choreographed formation with all the other couples.

The miles went by unnoticed while I watched, all wrapped up in my own little cocoon of darkness and solitary (sur)reality, accompanied by the hiss of wind, the hum of tires and the occasional flash of a passing sign; an observer of, but disconnected from, the rest of the world; until the whole thing gradually lost context and passed out of sight as I drove right under it.

It's a sight I have not, and am never likely, to see again.

Because of fuel costs and congested skies, flights no longer leave the ground until they have an arrival slot at their destination. The only time these kinds of  'stack em up' formations occur now is when fast moving weather unexpectedly slows arrivals, which means even when they do occur you can't see them from the ground because the weather is in the way!

But that's OK. I was lucky enough to see it that night and, for now anyway, I have my memories.

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